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  • How Halo 3 Changed Game Development

    [01.10.08]
    - Tom Carroll
  •  The Difficulty of Difficulty
    The success of the Halo franchise has led to a need to appeal to a wider collection of gamers than just those labeled "hard core." As a result, in Halo 3 the easy and normal settings are easier than they might have been prior, and the heroic and legendary settings are likewise more difficult. Casual gamers will be overjoyed with the easy setting, but they'll miss out on numerous cool features of the game, including hidden skulls and cool enemy AI. Dedicated gamers, the ones who have invested hours mastering earlier incarnations of Halo, will want to jump in on heroic or legendary, lest they risk becoming bored from the start.

    The secret skulls were first included in Halo 2, but then they nearly always activated some challenging feature, such as not being able to see anything on your HUD. In Halo 3, the system of skulls is much more challenging (read: fun) for anyone choosing to find them and activate them. A skull might make it so you can't see your gun scope, or enable enemies to throw grenades faster. Activating a golden skull makes the game harder for the player, but by surviving you earn a lot more points.

    The skulls make a return in Halo 3, but have been re-imagined so as to be more accessible to gamers and to make replaying Halo 3 more interesting. The skulls (most of which can be found at normal, heroic, and legendary difficulty) can be activated before a level to increase the intrigue. Most skulls make things a lot tougher. The grunt party skull, for example, offers confetti celebrations for headshots, and there's no better way to say, "Olé!" than by throwing a confetti laden fiesta in the midst of a firefight. Others remove your motion sensor display, HUD or reticule. And a third empowers enemies with incredible grenade skills. Lastly, some are really just for fun.

    Most of these skulls are really in amazingly difficult locations. The fog skull, for instance, is found on the floodgate level, and you get to it by walking down from the anti-air gun you destroyed in the previous mission, encountering the checkpoint near a ramp next to a missile launcher. A nearby marine shouts, "There! Over There!" and you're supposed to look up and over to the right, directly at the roof of the building next to the missile launcher.  Kill the single flood form that is holding the skull, but before he jumps. Do so and the skull will drop where you can collect it. But your timing has to be just right. Kill him too early and the skull gets stuck on the roof; too late and the flood form will jump away with it.

    Sound like fun? Well, it is, even though skull scores really only affect your metascore. The developers of Halo 3 recognized that the average player is only going to play through the game's story mode once (if that), but that the game's difficulty settings and the skull system are the kind of features that make a game fun to play regardless of whether it's the first time or the fiftieth. Heck, the original Halo is a game that friends of mine still dredge off the shelf from time to time. So while they toyed with it, fiddled with it, screwed with it, they didn't screw it up.

    And that's perhaps the single lesson to walk away with if you're a developer looking to establish a franchise: Don't screw it up.

    Calling All Players!
    Developing three titles within one strong franchise should account for something, and for Bungie that meant having the time to perfect the game's multiplayer offerings.

    The meat of Halo 3 truly is its 11 multiplayer maps (and more via download over the run of the game). The maps are diverse. Large, open maps like Sandtrap enable snipers to lurk about scoring kills, while other maps, such as Isolation and Snowbound, provide open upper levels and constrained subterranean levels. These maps allow players to practice the widest range of skills to date, long-ranged and close-ranged combat, for instance.

    What's most exciting about this multiplayer offering is that it is possible to adjust the maps by using The Forge. It is possible to rearrange placement of power-ups, weapons, spawn points, and objectives. It's even possible to drop objects, equipment, and vehicles. To make a long story short, while you can't freshen up the geometry of the level, you can change just about everything else! Even better, you can buy and drop objects into the level while you're playing, so it's possible to buy yourself a rocket launcher and drop it into the level so your character can find it right away and begin using it to blow enemies away.

    The final thought from this section has to do with reuse of technology. It is perhaps the core of what Bungie has going for it. If you develop all these cool features for one blockbuster game, why shouldn't you be able to shove them under the hood of another game idea? And, as Bungie began to discover, the answer to that is: You should!

    Play the Game, Be the Game
    Who needs Barbie Fashion Fever when you've got Master Chief and his modifiable helmet?

     In Halo 3, customization is the name of the game. Not only can you use The Forge to modify levels, you can also change the look of your characters by modifying helmets, armor styles, colors, and symbols.

    You can also edit your camera on the fly by detaching it and recording the action so it can be enjoyed frame by frame at a later time, down to the visuals, explosive particles, sound effects, and such.

    As for the downers of the game, there are a few, but not many. Let's trip over these lightly. The campaign mode is a bit skanky. There's still too much backtracking. The companion AI is ludicrous. In the end, Master Chief saves the day, but does it really pack the punch of other epic trilogies? You be the judge.

    For fans of the series, Halo 3 measures up. If it were a feature film, well ...

    Doing the Splits
    "Sex appeal is 50 percent what you've got, and 50 percent what people think you've got." -- Sophia Loren

    As a part of Microsoft, people figured that the Halo franchise was all Bungie had going for it. However, the appeal of Bungie began to be the 50 percent that folks thought they had. And, to carry the original metaphor over the top, making Halo games under the overly watchful eyes of Microsoft must have been more taxing to Bungie than anyone ever thought. Despite the fact that Halo 3 moved off the shelves faster than Britney Spears left rehab, Bungie and Microsoft Corp. announced on October 5, 2007 that Bungie Studios was to become a privately held independent company, Bungie, LLC, one in which Microsoft will hold only a minority equity interest. The new arrangement will enable both parties to expand their partnership to include new IPs created and owned by Bungie.

    There's no first-person shooter on 360 that can equal Halo 3's blend of cinematic action, adrenaline-pumping shootouts, and male (and female?) bonding gameplay. But stretching out a story across three installments, coming up with a satisfying ending (especially for a video game franchise that must also include lots of interactive elements), and satisfying everyone who might want to play proved almost too much for Bungie. The fact that they will now be able to do other than Halo games and to take home a much larger piece of the pie shows how successful their efforts actually were.

    Stay tuned. The appeal of a liberated Bungie, free to do its own thing, might just be sexy indeed.

    Tom Carroll is a video game environment artist and freelance writer in southern California.

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