“Oh, Lord it’s hard to be humble, but I’m doing the best I can.” – Mac Davis
It’s hard to be humble, if you’re Bungie. In just over 10 years, the company has produced over a dozen games, sold an estimated 14 million units, created one of the best-selling game franchises on any platform and single-handedly saved Microsoft’s fledgling Xbox console from an early grave.
This week Bungie releases the much-anticipated capstone to the Halo trilogy, a game that’s sold more copies before it has even hit the shelves than most titles will sell all year. Speaking to Bungie, it’s clear the voodoo they do isn’t exactly magic, per se, but a strenuous application of talent and skill to the art of making games, and not even the current kings of console gaming get it right every time.
But that’s not what plagues Bungie. Releasing a successful game would appear to be second nature to the one-time Macintosh game developer turned Microsoft in-house ace. No, what keeps the minds behind Halo up at night is the difficulty of remaining humble – and focused.
“We don’t want to get too arrogant,” Bungie Community Lead Brian Jarrard told The Escapist. “We occasionally worry that we don’t want [Halo 3] to get over-hyped. That’s not something we do. We don’t go out and say, ‘This game is the Second Coming; it will be the biggest thing ever.’ I think it very likely can and might be, but we’re just happy that this is a great piece of work that we’ve put a lot of time and effort into, and this represents the best Halo game we’ve made, and [it’s] a fitting conclusion to this trilogy.”
And “fitting conclusion” is exactly what Halo fans will be looking for when the game ships this week. The first Halo stood fairly well on its own. In fact, it could have survived quite well as the only installment of Halo, except for the niggling fact it sold millions of copies (more than all of Bungie’s previous games combined). The second game, however, did not fare so well.
“A Real, Proper Ending”
The forum at halo2boards.com tells the story:
“Everyone….How disapointing was that ending..OMG!!! I think Bungie is trying to lead us on unto false hopes to a Halo 3..i swear why..they had three years and a half to make a great campaign..and then we get this a letdown ending…please…i hope bungie burns in hell” – elite13
Are you completely insane?!? the ending was a complete waste of my time! and sequal?!? this one was disapointing enough!!
Bungie has one more chance to redeem themselves if they make another sequal it better be good or i aint buyin anything else – big chief
“Looking back on Halo 2,” Jarrard says, “the most glaring omission was a real, proper ending to the game. When that game began, it was never intended to just stop. We definitely didn’t intend to just yank the carpet out.”
But they did. Oh, did they, and the fans weren’t the only ones who noticed. According to Wired’s Lore Sjöberg, the game ends not with a bang, but with “a sad little squeak.”
“And if you try to anticipate the most disappointing, anticlimactic ending possible,” he writes, “there’s at least a 50-50 chance it won’t be as bad as you expect.”
“That was a result of us as a team going through some growing pains and not really doing a fantastic job of producing and planning properly,” Jarrard says. “And as a result we had to make some changes to the project mid-stream.”
Simply put, in spite of the fact both Myth and Marathon were wildly successful Mac games, they were still Mac games. And garnering accolades in an industry niche is as different from the blockbuster console game market as the local high school talent show is from Broadway. The difference for Bungie was night and day. Along with smashing success came a handful of problems for the once-tiny, once-independent game studio.
“We knew we could do better [on Halo 2],” says Jarrard. “The real reason that things went awry for us was a lack of really disciplined production. When Microsoft acquired Bungie, Halo 1 was sort of half-done, half-developed and at that point it was taking a really soft concept and applying it to the Xbox.” Developing a sequel guaranteed to be as successful as the original was a completely different ballgame.
It’s no secret Microsoft needed a boost from Bungie for their 2004 Holiday season (and they got it – with Halo 2‘s help, Microsoft sold over 6 million consoles in 2004), but an anxious publisher can often spell disaster for a creative studio, rushing a game into production before it’s ready. Jarrard, however, doesn’t blame Microsoft for Halo 2‘s flaws. Instead, he describes Bungie’s working relationship with Microsoft as a “best of both worlds” situation.
“There is pressure that we feel coming out of Redmond, but in a lot of ways we’re in a really good situation here,” he says. “After Halo 2 shipped, Microsoft allowed us to move out of Redmond, and we moved into a custom building. … We’re basically inside a bubble. We have our own building, our own security, our own infrastructure. We’re very much insulated from the day-to-day corporate structure of the massive Microsoft company.
“They had already come to the conclusion that [Halo 2] was going to be done when it was going to be done. Obviously, we can’t [develop] forever, but they were definitely flexible and didn’t force us to kick the game out. … They didn’t want to put a gun to our heads.”
Instead, Jarrard says, the problem was one almost every game company faces and few survive: entropy. “For Halo 2, the ideas were huge, the stuff we wanted to do was huge,” he says. “One of our initial pains was we set our sights too high for the technology. About a year and a half into the project we realized we were going to have to make some significant changes.”
The changes involved almost every aspect of the game, including an extensive story re-write, and in the end, there just wasn’t enough time left to actually, you know, finish the game. So they cheated a bit, polished what they could and drew a line at the furthest possible point, which wasn’t quite as far into the story as most fans would have liked. Nevertheless, in spite of bringing new meaning to “when it’s done,” the game still sold over 8 million copies, and Bungie learned a valuable lesson.
“To put it in perspective, when Halo 2 shipped, we had three full-time producers,” says Jarrard. “At last count, we have roughly 12 or so. That was one of our biggest takeaways: We need to treat production as a discipline in the same way that we treat art, engineering and design. We need to get better at it, hire some people that are excellent at it and we need to really understand how to work more efficiently as a group.”
“I Fucking Cannot Play Halo 2”
Two games into the franchise – and an entire platform saved from irrelevance – it looked to all the world as if Bungie could do no wrong. Even the much-maligned non-ending to the Halo sequel had, a year or so after its release, become merely a fleeting annoyance tolerated both by long-time fans of the series and new recruits, largely because of the game’s long legs in the multiplayer community. And then the unthinkable happened: One of Bungie’s own broke ranks.
“Even the multiplayer experience for Halo 2 is a pale shadow of what it could and should have been if we had gotten the timing of our schedule right,” Bungie’s Technical Lead, Chris Butcher, told Edge magazine in January of 2007. ” It’s astounding to me. I fucking cannot play Halo 2 multiplayer. I cannot do it.”
Butcher wasn’t the only one who was dissatisfied.
“We drove off [a cliff] Thelma & Louise style,” said writer Frank O’Connor, saying the experience of working on Halo 2 was akin to “writing by committee.”
The damage control began almost immediately, but in retrospect, Bungie has embraced the criticism. “We’ve got a group of guys here that are all extreme perfectionists and sometimes maybe to a fault,” Jarrard says. “Obviously Halo 2 was a great game, but for these guys who spent three years slaving away on it, it’s really hard for them [emotionally] to look back and see [the rough edges].
“Going into Halo 3, we wanted to right those wrongs. We’ve had the luxury of learning from our mistakes, so we’re not going to find ourselves in that position [again]. The main things we really did differently this time around was we really did a strong job of pre-production. Almost every thing we set out to accomplish is exactly what we intend to ship. I don’t believe there’s anyone in this building who’s truly unhappy with [Halo 3].”
“A Pretty Good Start”
It would seem, at first glance, that it’s 2004 all over again. Again, the holiday season approaches, again Microsoft needs a system-seller to push their new console and again all eyes are on Bungie and Halo. But with one colossal, successful failure and several years experience behind them, Bungie seems poised to redeem themselves in the eyes of their hardcore fans and finish the Halo trilogy with an actual bang; more so, perhaps, for themselves than for anyone else.
“A lot of the pressure to make Halo 3 succeed comes from within our own building,”
One thing that hasn’t changed this time around, though, is the buzz. Halo-branded soft drinks have been flying off store shelves. Halo 3 is set to release on September 25 at midnight. Almost every store that sells games has announced a midnight sale, even 7-Eleven. Whether the game is what everyone hoped or not, it’s already a hit.
“We’ve already announced that we have over a million pre-orders,” says Jarrard, “so I think we’re off to a pretty good start.”
But for Bungie, it’s all something out of some sort of dream. A really good dream, where they make videogames people love, but still, a dream. “I think the success of the franchise has taken a lot of us by surprise,” he says. “We honestly didn’t think it would take off in the way it has.
“Most of us here try to stay grounded and do what we do best – the artists want to make great art, the programmers want to create great AI and good physics. The designers want to create great gameplay experiences. As long as we feel we’ve put our best foot forward and made the best game we can possibly make, that’s going to be enough to keep us pushing forward. Luckily so far what works for us also seems to work for the mainstream public, so we’ve been able to hit on both fronts.”
“The Guys That Make Halo”
Everyone who achieves greatness must, at some time or another, face the possibility that they’ve peaked, and they are now entering a time when everything that follows will be “less great” than their masterwork. Click through the lineup of VH-1 reality shows for a few classic examples of this phenomenon.
Naturally then, Bungie, at the pinnacle of their success, must begin thinking about the future, about life after Halo, and whether or not they’ve still got it.
“We can’t continue to be a studio that cranks out one Halo game every three years,” says Jarrard. “That’s not something we’re going to be able to sustain, and it’s not going to keep our people challenged and invested in doing great work. It’s safe to assume we’re going to have some downloadable content to keep our community satisfied and keep the game fresh over time. [But] beyond that we’ve always got a group of people thinking about what the next big game is going to be, and that could be something that’s not Halo at all.”
The prospect of willingly walking away from the goose and its golden eggs must be equal parts thrilling and terrifying, and if you’re Bungie, the company who once made a name for themselves making daring, original games for the tiniest sliver of the computer gaming market, it’s a no-brainer. But then again, they do have that rich uncle to worry about.
“I don’t think Halo 3 marks the end of Halo for Bungie,” says Jarrard. “However, we do have some people on the team who have been working on the Halo franchise for over 10 years now, and as much as they love it and as far as it’s come, they’re really hungry to figure out what’s next. We don’t want to only be known as the guys that make Halo.”
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.