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  • How Halo 3 Changed Game Development

    [01.10.08]
    - Tom Carroll
  •  Scottish journalist William Lyon MacKenzie once said, "The promises of yesterday are the taxes of today."

    Never has this been truer than with Halo 3, the eagerly anticipated Xbox 360 game developed by Bungie Studios and published by Microsoft. The promises of yesterday, especially from the first installment of the series, came in the form of an arresting storyline, a powerful new hardware system, tremendous scope in terms of visual panoramas, and a complete set of game modes, as well as fabulous multiplayer action.

    Let's fast forward to 2007. The time for promises is over -- the taxes are due. Luckily, Halo 3 pretty much pays its dues in full. The game's scope is easily the equal of the first game's and manages to pin a great big "L" on the forehead of Halo 2, which most players agree took a step back in terms of level complexity and visual diversity. Halo 3 adds on or improves numerous features of the previous games, bringing them up to next-gen standards, including, but not limited to: replay mode, The Forge (the game's level editor), as well as multiplayer levels and various modes.

    But this isn't a consumer review, and the taxes due aren't due for just one video game franchise. Rather they reflect a changing attitude for an entire industry. Based on Halo's runaway success, the paradigm for a successful video game studio -- and its relationship to its publisher -- may never be the same again.

    Let's delve deeper into Halo 3's new features and they way they affect the playability of the game and the viability of Bungie, the developer. Hopefully you won't find that too taxing.

    To Do It Right, You Have To End It
    The test for any franchise is how it wraps things up at the end. The master, of course, was J. R. R. Tolkien, who managed to bring all the disparate threads of his The Lord of the Rings plots together in the third volume, The Return of the King. But not all authors (or developers) have been so lucky.  Philip Jose Farmer, for instance, had so much going on that he had to wrap up his Riverworld trilogy in a fourth volume, and in my humble opinion, it wasn't up to the standard of the first three books.

    In video games, epic trilogies are rare, and developers are loath to wrap things up anyway. For example, Final Fantasy is now up to XII (with the next element in the pipe for PlayStation 3), and the franchise shows no sign of slowing down.

    Let's check out Return of the King in short form to see how it holds up: Return of the King depicts Frodo and Sam's perilous journey to Mt. Doom, and the rest of the fellowship's quest in aiding Frodo and Sam in any way possible and restoring Aragorn to his rightful ascension as the King of Gondor.

    Then, compare it with Halo 3: Master Chief is on his way to Earth to stop the Prophet of Truth and his army of Brutes from taking down the universe. Cortana has been captured by Gravemind, and The Arbiter and his Elites have forged an uneasy truce with Humankind to battle against the greater evil that had arisen.

    Boiled down to a single paragraph, this Halo 3 doesn't quite pack the punch of Return of the King. It is all there, of course. Hero bent on completing his quest, but where Tolkien's story hits the ground running, Halo 3 seems to descend into Seinfeldian yada-yada-yada speak. Where Halo 3 succeeds is in getting Master Chief back to center stage; that's where he belongs and where people expect him to be. Where it fails (though "fails" is an awfully strong term when referring to a game that has generated mega-millions in income, merchandises out the wazoo, and even a feature film in pre-production) is that it isn't able to satisfactorily resolve all the elements that popped into the narrative during the middle chapter. For instance, what is the role of The Arbiter in the story? It now appears that he's some kind of E.T. lap dog at the end of Master Chief's leash. Its AI plays that way, too. He wanders around, fiddles about, and generally gets in the way.

    While its backstory may be less than engaging, the good folks at Bungie recognized that they desperately needed to wrap things up. The times, they were a-changing. The staff was getting restless and the notion of marching lockstep into another episode of the game just wasn't in the cards.

    So, regardless of how clumsy it might have been (afterall, there's an old proverb that says, "Every end is a new beginning"), Bungie ended the thing.

    Hooray for that, and stay tuned for new beginnings. Nobody really turns their back on mega-millions, do they?

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