The Halo franchise is one of the biggest in gaming, and is without a doubt the biggest Xbox exclusive. Taking over the Halo mantle from its creator, Bungie, would be a daunting task for any developer, but so far 343 Industries appears to be treating the franchise with loving care. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, the high-definition remastering of a now ten-year-old game, is about as faithful to the original game as a remake can possibly be. On Tuesday, the game's launch day, PC World talked to executive producer Dan Ayoub about how 343 stayed true to the game, whether we might see a remake of Halo 2, and when to expect more information on Halo 4.
You must be pretty excited today.
Yeah, it's our big day. It's still Monday here in Seattle but we've got the launch event tonight so it's been the culmination of a nice, long journey so it's nice to see the baby out in the wild.
What exactly does your position as the executive producer entail?
So I was the executive producer on the title, so that means a few things. Obviously it's coming up with the core idea for it, with the rest of the team, developing the concept, and then just you know, sheparding it through. Making sure our marketing stuff's working the way it needs to, making sure the game's moving in the right direction, and all that fun stuff. Kind of a multi-hat role.
It must have been hard, especially since you must have had to make some tough decisions yourself, to take on a remake of a game as huge as Combat Evolved.
It was, uh, it was nerve-wracking, to say the least! When we finally came down that we're gonna do this game, and you wake up and you realise, 'Wow, I'm now the executive producer of one of, if not the, most beloved games in history. Man, I better not screw this up.' You realise you have to be very, very careful so a big part of the job was just the team establishing: 'What are the core principles of this game? What does this game want to be?' and just building from there.
A big part of what we established very, very quickly was that this was all about helping people relive the nostalgia of what it was like to play the game ten years ago, so the game needs to play exactly the same as it did ten years ago. And that actually turned into a good raiser for us to make sure we didn't do anything to mess with that. Any feature ideas or gameplay ideas we had that broke that, that would have changed the gameplay or something like that, were immediately discarded. And that made it easier for us to stay on target for the game.
Were there any things that you thought about doing and then said, 'No, we can't do that -- they'll hate us forever'?
Yeah, wow, where to start? The two that pop into my head; one I talk about a lot because it's kind of a funny situation. Bugs. We got to the point where, you know, the original Halo shipped with quite a few bugs that have become legend at this point. So we went, 'Okay, what do we do about the bugs, because the instinct is to fix it -- you want it to be perfect. And as we started thinking about it and looking at it we realised the bugs are a big part of what makes that original game what it is, and if we start fixing that we're going to break the experience. So we actually make the decision, as I say it, to ship the game 'warts and all'. We made the decision, 'we're not going to fix these bugs', and it turned out to be the right decision because people have been very happy with that, but it turned into a pretty fun development process because we realised we had to be careful that we didn't fix a bug by accident. Because obviously, you know, we had our own bugs!
But we had to find a way to make sure that we don't fix a bug from ten years ago by mistake and change the experience, so it led to some pretty fun situations. You'd be doing reviews and go, 'I see a bug, is that something we need to fix? No, I think that's one from ten years ago, we better check.' It made for a lot of fun but that turned out to be a great call because that would have changed gameplay and a lot of what made Halo, Halo.
I actually noticed that some of the [optional] skulls exacerbate some of the bugs.
Yes, they do!
You've been extremely faithful to the original, but you must have made some changes that you think even diehard Halo people won't notice?
So what we actually did to keep us honest, to a degree, was we actually used a significant portion of the original Halo code. It makes sure the game feels the same, but it also makes sure the spawn points are the same, the AI reacts the same, all of that. So all of the changes or additions we made were intended to be things that wouldn't change gameplay. Like Classic Mode: it's a great mode that people have really glommed onto, but the terminals, the co-op mode, 3D Kinect -- we made all of those to be additive. So if you want to use them, great, but it's not going to change your core gameplay. The things we did to change gameplay -- things like the skulls, as you described, are completely at the user's discretion, so the notion is that if you want to, you can actually relive a 100% authentic Halo experience like it was ten years ago.
Including the graphics, if you want.
Including the graphics, if you want, yeah. I mean, a great side effect of weaving our code with the new engine was Classic Mode. It's funny, I've told this story a few times, but we were initially intending Classic Mode to be in the menu, so when you started the game you could choose which mode you wanted to play in. But before we had the menus hooked up we just had it living in the game. And very quickly, I remember playing it and I was like, 'No, no, no, no -- you need to be able to do this at any point, this is way too much fun.' And quickly it turned into our most popular feature and something that people talk about the most, and something that people have a blast with.
All of the campaign stuff is pretty faithful to the original, and it's kind of a reliving of the Combat Evolved experience, so why was it that the decision was made to put the multiplayer on the Halo: Reach engine instead of the old engine?
That's a great question. There's a couple of answers to that. One is obviously population -- we wanted people to have a lot of people to play with, and we wanted Reach players to be able to participate in this through DLC or something like that. But the other big reason, quite honestly, was the advantage of using the Reach engine was the advantage that we get all the goodies that come with it. So you get Forge, you get Theater, you get things like that, which is something that the diehard fans really enjoy.
The other benefit was that, you get all the armour abilities that completely change some of these familiar maps. As I say all the time: Beaver Creek, you may think you know it, but when people are flying overhead dropping grenades on you from their jetpacks, it completely changes that experience and makes it into a very, very different way to play. But what we've also done, of course, is Anniversary variants for every map so you can play Beaver Creek without those armour abilities if you still want that authentic experience. But when we started playing through these things, and we did have to make some adjustments to the multiplayer geometry to allow for those, these maps with armour abilities are a tremendous amount of fun.
Were you a big Halo fan before you started working on the franchise?
I absolutely was. My history goes back, ironically, to Halo [Combat Evolved], and I think that's why this is such a special title for me. Before [the original] Halo, I was your diehard pessimist PC shooter fan, which was just, you know, 'There is nothing you're going to do on a console that's going to make me want to play a shooter. It's not going to be nearly as much fun as it is to play on a PC.' And then I remember I was working at Ubisoft at the time, and [the original] Halo came out, and I went 'Well, I'll give this a try.' And I was like, 'Oh my god, just just feels fantastic.' And for me it was the first game that really felt right, and felt great on a console. It changed gaming for me, forever. It's what got me playing the console more and more and moved me away from PC and now I can't remember when I last played a shooter on only one or the other. I generally play on both because I think I'm still a bit of a PC gamer at heart. But not at the exclusion of [consoles], because it used to be I would only play on PC.
So this game just changed how I play games, and because of that when the time came to remake it I think it was a little extra special for me. I remember just sitting at my desk, and we're saying, 'Yeah, we're doing this and wow, this is really going to be special because this changed gaming for me and millions of other people as well.' It was a great opportunity.
Do you think 343 [Industries] would consider remaking Halo 2 as well?
It's something people are starting the rumble about right now and the way I answer it is, we're doing this game because it's something the fans have asked for, for a really long time. If this game comes out and people like it and the fans start saying, 'Hey Dan, we want the same thing for Halo 2, you know, I might find myself in a position where I've just got to respond again, so we shall see how the fans react.
We found out [early this week] that Halo 4 is going to be on the Xbox 360. Are you confident that the tech from Halo: Reach can still be improved upon?
Yeah. I mean, I worked on Reach as well and I think that tech was fantastic. I think tech is almost like an organism, it's constantly in evolution and there are constantly things that you can do with it. But beyond that, any particular plans with the tech and the engine and things like that, it's a little soon to be talking about.
What can you tell us about Halo 4 so far?
I can tell you it's coming next year, and we've shown a little bit of stuff. We've shown some stuff at E3, we've shown some stuff at Halo Fest. We're definitely gonna ramp up and start showing more and more and more as we get closer to launch. But not too much for the time being.
When can we except more information?
Probably I would say in the next couple of months we'll start to tease you a little more.