Just how do you re-create a classic, anyway?
Now that Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is on the shelves, we thought we'd have a chat to the developers and find out some more about the challenges of re-crafting one of the most revered first-person shooter experiences on the planet.
While we had his attention, we couldn't help but ask about Halo 4 - and we slipped in a few questions from our Facebook fans, too. His answers to some of the questions around future titles, while not specifically revealing, were certainly interesting and open to a lot of speculation...
Meet Dan Ayoub, the Executive Producer at dedicated Halo developer 343 Industries...
Could you tell us a little about the team at 343 - where did you guys all come from and how many do you have on the team?
The studio as a whole right now, we’re probably pushing around 200. The team that worked on Halo Anniversary are a smaller subset of that team. We’re probably about 10 people on the development team working with a couple of partners.
This was something we were really passionate about - the 10th anniversary of Halo was coming up, and we’re all huge Halo fans, and it’s just something that gamers had been asking for for a really really long time.
We started exploring a remake, but one thing we were very passionate about was not just doing a remake like everybody else. A lot of people are doing remakes these days, and they’re just putting it in HD and calling it a day. And we didn’t want to do that with Halo, it deserves better, and the fans deserve better.
So we started thinking about what things we could do to make it even bigger. The big tent-pole for us was that the game had to play the same as it did ten years ago, because I think everyone would agree that the first Halo had such a distinctive feel, and that’s not something we could fake, we wanted to make sure it was authentic.
And the way that we did that was that we actually wove bits of the original Halo code into a new audio and graphics engine. You kind of get the best of both worlds. You get a game that plays as great as it did originally, but we can make it look and sound a more modern experience.
From that point, we just started putting additive features on top of it. We just wanted to include features that would make it a fun celebration, and a thank you to the fans. The fans are the reason that this franchise is still here ten years later, and this is really done for them.
There were rumours that the development had been kicking around for a long time. How long was it actually in development for?
I don’t think it was as long as the rumours. [laughs]. It’s one of those things that are hard to say because there was a small group of us talking about it for a long time, but I’d probably say that when we sat down and said “yes, we’re going to do this”, it was probably about an 18 month cycle.
Looking so closely at a game from a decade ago must give you a pretty unique insight into what’s happened in the ten years since then? How would you sum that period up, what’s happened to games in the last ten years?
It was almost like a history lesson. I remember the first time I saw classic mode, and we swapped the graphics back and everything was working the way we wanted it to, and I almost fell of my chair. I joke that it’s like ten years of gaming evolution at the touch of a button.
You can see how far the technology has come, but you also see how far our craft has come. Things have changed a tremendous amount. Obviously there’s the pure hardware standpoint where you have more processing power to throw at games, but what really struck me was philosophy and level design techniques.
We didn’t want to change any of the geometry and geography of the games because that was core to the game playing as we wanted it - as it played ten years ago - but we realised there are a whole bunch of new level design techniques that we could use, there are new lighting techniques, and ways to use colour to guide the player, that just didn’t exist ten years ago.
The library is a terrific example of that; we’re we are able to use some of those techniques to make it easier for the player to find their way, but not necessarily change what made that level.
The other thing that’s changed, particularly with shooters, is that Halo really influenced the modern generation of shooters. Halo came around and changed shooting history forever. Many gamers - myself included - were shooter fans, but on the PC.
Until Halo came along.
Halo was really the first game that made those controls feel right on a controller. It just felt great. It created some new techniques for shooters that shooters have been using ever since then. It’s really fantastic to do a project like this and look back to just take stock in how far we’ve grown as in industry in the past ten years.
What parts of the game remain of the game exactly as they were, and which parts have changed?
In terms of what stayed the same, it’s certainly how the controls feel, how the game reacts, the AI, the level design. All of that is identical. Where we did additions, we were strategic in what we chose so that we could add things that would detract from the gameplay experience.
The graphics were a great example, but we had to be careful because graphics can change the flow of a level, and we wanted to make sure that we were very true to what the intent was for each of those levels.
When you look at some of the other features we added, those were all meant to enhance that experience - to add to what was almost a perfect game. The terminals are a great example; that was a good way for us to tell a deeper, more enriching story than we could tell with text on the screen, by taking terminals to a new level and making them a more graphical experience.
You look at co-op over Live, achievements, even 3D and Kinect. All of these things are almost secondary to the core experience - you’ve got all of these great things that turn it into a great Halo collector’s item, but it doesn’t change the core gameplay.
Was there anything that you felt you wanted to change, but decided not to because it would too significantly change the Halo experience?
There were some temptations. Probably the biggest one, on a personal level, is bugs. We got to a point where we decided that we were going to ship the game with its original bugs. For many people that’s a big part of the core experience - you can do all kind of fun things like the Warthog jump because of those bugs.
It lead into some fun at closing time, because at closing time in development you’re closing off all your bugs and check that everything is working the way it should, and it became it tricky for us because we had to identify which were bugs from the original game and which were new bugs so that we didn’t accidentally fix a bug from 2001, that we wanted to go out in the game.
It wasn’t a problem any of us had experienced before, and it certainly wasn’t something we planned for until we caught a bug coming up that was very obvious, and was well known from the first game. And we were all like “well, that’s not a bug, we can’t fix that!”. And then it hit us that we had to find a way that we don’t fix anything by accident [laughs]. It was a very fun experience for us.
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