The creators of a seminal videogame series have made one final episode. If they’ve managed to get this one bug-free, here’s a game that may play for a lifetime.
In a sprawling industrial site, a mix of open, dust-swept killing-fields, claustrophobic hallways and obstacle-laden vehicle bays, 2,5-metretall mandibled aliens are cutting down team after team of Homo sapiens soldiers. Those aliens, called Elites, are not only larger than their opponents, they also possess force fields and advanced beam weapons that emit crackling blue and red plasma bolts. The Elites are among the toughest of the Covenant, a confederacy of alien species united under the banner of religious fanaticism and galaxy-spanning war.
But the humans who are fighting – and losing – are elite in their own right, cybernetic supersoldiers called Spartans. These commandos are decked out in their own force fields, which radiate from strength-enhancing powered armour. In the brutal calculus of this particular conflict, the aliens are stronger, but they should also catch more bullets and shrapnel from rockets and grenades. This is supposed to be a fair fight.
It’s been murder in the trenches at the offices of Bungie, the studio behind the blockbuster series of Halo games. Fortunately, the hard work they put in appears to have paid off: Microsoft are calling the Xbox 360 game Halo: Reach the biggest they’ve ever released. Within the first 24 hours on sale, Halo: Reach had passed $200 million (about R1,4 billion) in sales in the US and Europe. That’s roughly 18 per cent better than Halo 3 did back in 2007, and compares favourably with movie blockbuster releases.
Rewind to mid-May, with developers watching anxiously as thousands of Halo fights play out unequally. “We have heat maps that show, based on colour, where people are dying a lot,” says Joseph Tung, Halo’s executive producer. “We can see which weapons are being used, how many deaths are occurring with each particular weapon. We mine quite a lot of hard data.” And the numbers spilling across computer monitors in Bungie’s converted supermarket headquarters are damning. A week earlier Bungie had launched a free beta version of its upcoming. Since then, millions of players around the world have been putting the unfinished product through its paces on Microsoft’s online network, Xbox Live.
In a game mode called Invasion Slayer, in which two teams of up to six players – one side alien, the other human – face off until one team scores enough total kills, the Elites are winning 60 per cent of the time. A mere 10 per cent discrepancy, but for the most eagerly awaited game in the world, it’s a disaster. It points to the existence of an “exploit” that favours the Elites. Left unchecked, the exploit would send stat-obsessed players to blogs and online message boards until the only people left playing Spartans would be suicidal, uninformed or stubbornly loyal to the human race.
Halo: Reach is Bungie’s final instalment in a series that changed the gaming industry and barged its way into pop culture (although Microsoft, which owns the franchise, can produce more Halo games). Collectively, the Halo games have sold more than 27 million copies and have almost singlehandedly established Microsoft’s Xbox as the video-game console of choice for serious gamers. Fan dedication to the franchise is legendary. And the games have made Microsoft a fortune. Halo 3, the last full game in the series, raked in more than R1,2 billion in its first day of release. That’s more than double the highest-grossing single day for a movie – R523 million for Twilight: New Moon, in November 2009. So Bungie’s final game is understandably a big deal.
Halo’s plot has always been a bit convoluted. There’s an interstellar civil war going on between factions of the Covenant, and humans are caught in the middle. Huge galactic weapons of mass destruction called Halos threaten entire civilisations. Players inhabit the body of a messianic supersoldier named Master Chief, who fights back against the aliens to ensure the survival of humanity.
Reach is a bit of a risk, plot-wise, for Bungie. It’s a prequel, with no Master Chief as a central character. And it’s a tragedy – the team of Spartans are defending the planet Reach against a Covenant assault in the year 2552, and true to their namesakes, the Spartans are making a heroic last stand. The end of the game is clear from the beginning. Reach is going to be destroyed – and all of its human inhabitants are going with it.
The enemies in Reach have also taken a turn for the malevolent. Creative director Marcus Lehto, who has been with Bungie from the start, asked the Reach team to revamp the Covenant, replacing their bursts of English dialogue (much of it intended as comic relief) with guttural alien-speak and giving their weapons a more sinister look and feel. “We needed the Covenant to be mean and terrifying,” Lehto says. “This game is darker than the others. They needed to be the villains again.”
But the dirty little secret to Halo is that its characters and plot were never the main reason for its addictive appeal. Sure, the environments and art direction are stunning, but what’s given the series lasting impact is its online game engine, which allows players from around the world to battle it out in teams, play capture the flag or engage in a freefor- all slaughterfest with every virtual soldier for himself. In an industry in which online combat is the current coin of the realm (every title from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to FarmVille has some form of networked gameplay), it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t always the norm. In fact, Bungie popularised the idea in Halo 2, the first massmarket game to take full advantage of the Xbox’s Internet connectivity.
And few game developers know how to attract dedicated players like Bungie does. Tung pointed out that, since its release in 2004, Halo 2 has remained one of the top-played games on Xbox Live. That ended earlier this year, when Microsoft pulled the plug on online play for original Xbox titles. But Halo 2 players wouldn’t let go, refusing to shut their consoles down after the designated cutoff and forcing Bungie to keep its servers on for an additional 26 days. Six years and one generation of hardware after launch, Halo 2 was still an online hit.
The clock is ticking. Not audibly, but there is a clock, a wide, red, digital readout mounted on the balcony that overlooks most of the workstations in this eclectic office space. The clock displays the countdown, in days, hours, minutes and seconds, until ZBR, or Zero-Bug Release. When it hits zero, the game, while not quite ready to ship, must no longer be generating new bugs.
Battling those digital glitches is the final stage of a project that has lasted more than three years. Most of that time went into the creation of interactive environments, visuals and programming of the engine – the core framework of code that forms the foundation for nearly everything else. But the closing stages of game development are always a frenzy of bug killing.
Finding those bugs is the point of the massive public beta release. During an 18-day period, 2,7 million players logged a total of 16 million testing hours and uploaded 1,3 terabytes of screenshots and videos of moments that were glorious, bizarre, buggy or all of the above. The sheer variety of potential glitches is staggering. Textures, light sources and objects can blink in and out of existence; computer-controlled characters might blithely ignore the bullets slamming into them; or the game may simply freeze up and go black. One of the more surreal challenges for Bungie coders was a King Kongsize monster, called a Mule, whose skeleton kept inexplicably popping out of its body as it stomped after Spartans. Now consider that every new action of the millions of players opens up the possibility of yet another previously undiscovered software error, and the scale of the task explodes exponentially.
“If you’re making a movie, you can tailor the experience down to the smallest detail,” says Sage Merrill, sandbox design lead, who oversees the interaction between players in multiplayer modes. “For us, there’s no way we can test all the possible iterations of everything every player’s going to do and what’s going to happen. It becomes sort of this living entity.”
Eliminating errors is one thing, but getting the feel of gameplay right is another challenge altogether. To keep the game interesting, it must be not only polished but also fun to play – challenging without being intimidating for inexperienced players. Bungie engineers analyse a constant flow of raw data to fine-tune the engine, from larger trends to second-by-second analysis of exactly what kind of weapon a given player is using when he pulls off a streak of wins without dying.
Responding to this data requires a deft touch – each tweak can generate new bugs or trigger negative feedback. “We’ve learned through experience that, if you change the rate of fire of a particular weapon in the tiniest way, you will annoy someone,” Tung says. “There’s always someone who loved exactly how that weapon fired previously. The whole time you’re moving multiplayer forward, you’re asking, ‘How do you preserve what was great about it’?” Which is why a 10 per cent win discrepancy is such a challenge. Bungie developers can boost the abilities of the Spartans or degrade the strength of the Elites by degrees, but each change must be made with extraordinary care to keep bugs at bay and players happy.
Still, Lehto and Tung maintain that the studio’s foremost goal is to make a game that its staff wants to play. Clichéd as that may sound, Bungie is a demanding, detail-oriented tribe. To make a game worthy of the staff, the last of the bugs must be exterminated and the balance between man and alien must be resolved. So at the end of the day on a Friday, after a week that saw some developers working as many as 16 hours at a stretch, a group marches upstairs to annihilate one another in the only conference room that hasn’t been annexed as an office. This is a tradition of sorts, the Friday-night play test. They’re trying yet another custombuilt mode pitting Elites against Spartans. And after spending years working on nothing but Reach, they’re having a blast playing, of all things, Reach. A lucky grenade bounce or a one-in-a-million head shot evokes that universal Halo question: “Did you see that?”
The ZBR clock is still ticking. It reads 18 days, 7 hours and 30 minutes. That’s fewer than three weeks to turn 60 per cent into a balanced 50, and to turn Halo: Reach into the industry-redefining masterpiece that everyone wants and expects it to be. There are still dozens of artists and programmers in their cubicles, working toward that goal. But upstairs, the conference room is howling. Maybe the Elites are still winning. Maybe not.