HaloNews.Com - The Nathan Bitner Interview

HaloNews is still under development; We've been plugging away at it, and it's not going to be ready for a little while (No promises! We just want it to meet a certain standard, and there's lots of time before Halo is released), but we figure that's no reason to make you guys wait for some things!

Almost all of us who watched the first broadcast of the "unofficial Halo demo" on July 21st, 1999 had to pick our jaws up off the floor. We from the Bungie fan community immediately wanted to know more about this new and fascinating game that was under development... and ever since then we've been hanging on every blurb or trickle of information we could get. In early August we at HaloNews submitted some questions to Nathan Bitner (the Producer and Creative Developer for Halo) of Bungie Software and crossed our fingers.

To say that Nathan has been a busy man is a bit of an understatement. Not only has he been working long hours on Halo, but he has had to deal with illness and other general side-effects of life. We who frequent the Halo forums have come to appreciate the fact that he still makes time in his schedule to occasionally read and respond to some of our crazier ideas. ;-)

After a couple of friendly pokes with a cattle prod we've got Nathan's responses back in our hands, and can share it with you. I hope you'll find it an interesting read.

                                                                             - Rob Swenson
                                                                               Noctavis the Insomniac

Addendum (99.09.27) - Since most of your congratulations have been directed solely at me, I think I need to clarify something... the questions herein were a collaboration mainly between Narcogen and myself. The whole crew at HaloNews should get some credit for this, though. (It probably would have helped if I'd put up more E-mail addys, right?) Here are the names of the current members/contributors to the site:
Trinity - You should be seeing a little of his handiwork here Soon. He's also the man tracking certain 3rd party developments in the Myth community for you at Myther.Com

Acrappa - He's pretty much keeping Myther.Com running while the rest of us drive ourselves nuts with HaloNews. You'll be seeing his news-sniffing talent at HaloNews when it goes up.

Narcogen - He has recently moved to a deep-Asian country and is trying to improve his Internet connection. Here's to hoping we'll see his enlarged frontal lobes online and back in the forums soon.

Fractalus - SysAdmin, good friend and mentor of mine... and the server-side genius who will help to make some things look boo-tiful!

ShockStrobe - who has left for two years after giving the contents of his page, Halo: The Dark Side to me to work with.
Toss these guys some words of encouragement for the job they're doing (even thought you haven't seen much of it yet), if you would. That said, let's get on to the interview!

                                                                                Noctavis the Insomniac
Since my editor had at them, they have stretched from 9 into a small battery... :-)

Well, fortunately for your editors, there are a lot of questions that we can’t answer in full detail anyway. :-)

I’m sure you will understand that at such an early stage, we are only prepared to release a limited amount of information about Halo, but I’ll do my best to answer as many of your questions as I can before someone puts a muzzle on me.

Everyone we've talked to who saw the Macworld demo, either in person or one of the many video versions, had his or her socks completely blown off by HALO. Now we've heard that the demonstration, in addition to being entirely created within the game engine, was made on the plane en route to New York! Is this true?

Of course. Actually, it was done before they had even crossed the Ohio border. We do our best work on planes.

Well, as tempting as it to claim that we had the tremendous Sack necessary to put together something like that in an hour and a half plane ride, the truth is that several 24-hour days of thought and hard work went into producing the in-engine movie. This wasn’t just an effort by our programmers and artists, but also from Marty and company at Total Audio, who pulled off that kick-butt soundtrack with even less notice than we had. Rumor has it that a particular member of our company actually stepped on and broke the music CD at the airport … Marty was there to rescue us. And from now on, all the CDs will be wrapped in several layers of foam padding.

Honestly, if you paid a CG company to produce a two and a half minute cutscene of that quality, it would have cost about $300,000 and taken at least two months, from storyboards to final movie. With the Halo tools, it took maybe four days and cost … well, nothing. This of course leads to the obvious … how cool woould it be to license the tools to other game companies in order to produce THEIR own cutscenes? ;)

What were the specs on the system(s) you were running the HALO engine on in order to get such a beautiful performance? And do you have any preliminary A) Minimal and/or B) Recommended requirements for Mac and PC yet?

At Macworld, Halo was running on a G3 400mhz machine with a Rage 128 card, and we've also shown it on a PIII 450 with a TNT2 Ultra card. The only thing we are prepared to say about the system requirements are that they will require a 3D card, and that all the major ones will be supported. We'll also be including options, such as scalability (but not limited to scalability) that will improve performance on lower-end systems. The point is this: we think Halo is going to be awesome, and we want as many people as possible to be able to enjoy it. Just take a look at some of the headlines these days … and you’ll see that we want to literally bring Halo into as many living rooms, bedrooms, offices, or kitchens (for those who don’t want to stop playing to reach for a tasty beverage) as possible.

One of the features of the demo that most impressed a lot of gamers was the real-world physics displayed - especially the behavior of the "hummer" as it jumped over hills, kicked up dirt and spun to a stop. Was the behavior we saw in all of the objects scripted or was that just real-world physics at work, in response to player input?

Actually, I coded all that myself on a plane ride to Madison. In Fortran.

Yes, that is all real world physics responding to both the actions of the player, and the evolving state of the world (environment) around the player. Halo is using what is most likely the most comprehensive, global physics model ever used in a computer game. As hard as it was to create such a detailed model, now that we have it we'll save a lot of time not having to create dozens of custom scripts for every new effect we want. Making it real is just a better way to do it. And, believe me, this stuff is real. Whether we’re talking about real-world shadows, the kickback on a pistol, or the astronomy of a solar system, the math that is going into the Halo engine is truly mind-boggling. And I swear some of the programmers read this stuff for pleasure … there are textbooks on some of their desks that I think would make University professors cringe. :-)

The last few months have shown increased specialization in the area of multiplayer gaming. Games like Half-Life: Team Fortress Classic and Starsiege: Tribes (and their upcoming sequels Team Fortress 2 and Tribes II) focus on team-based game types rather than traditional deathmatch, and upcoming shooters from id Software and Epic will forsake traditional solo gameplay altogether for a variation that mimics multiplayer gaming, using bots and other methods.

Halo makes some pretty big claims, just with the few skimpy previews and "unofficial" trailer that we've seen. Bungie is already considered a god among software developers in the Mac world, and has received serious notice in the PC world for its real-time strategy/tactics games, Myth and Myth II. In fact, quite a few game magazines and online game news/review sites have measured the new generation of real-time strategy/tactical games against the standard that Myth set.

However, Halo will be going up against solid products by well-established action game developers in the PC world now (who themselves are establishing beachheads in the Mac world). It must be intimidating to some degree, but Bungie has a strong reputation for raising the bar, doing so with style and creativity. How will Halo be different from titles that it will almost inevitably be compared to?

Alright, a long question deserves a long answer.

Well, you just mentioned a huge difference that Halo will be proudly sporting – an enticing and exciting single-player game. You have made a valid point - all of the upcoming action games that Halo might be compared to are multiplayer-only. Creating a really finely tuned single-player game is more of a challenge than multiplayer, where you don't have to worry so much about AI, balancing difficulty with different player skill levels, relating a compelling story, etc. As popular as multiplayer is, there are still many more people who play single player, so in that respect, Halo is practically guaranteed a larger audience than competing titles.

I have to add that Halo is not just “Bungie’s answer to Tribes”, as many people have commented. Halo is going to bring aspects of both multiplayer and solo gaming to the table that no other game has ever seen before. It is fair to say that both the Sierra series and Halo are going to focus on teamplay when it comes to the multiplayer environment. However, just a few of the things that will distinguish the game (and, believe me, there are many others that I can’t yet talk about) are:

  • A truly photorealistic and physically accurate environment
  • Unique aiming systems that will bridge the gap between the “jumping up and down, firing all over the place” action that so many FPS’ end up with and the difficulties inherent in third person aiming.
  • INTELLIGENT gameplay will be rewarded more than just “twitch” reflexes. The smartest players will excel at Halo; not just the people who can hit the mouse button the fastest. Though, of course, being quick that will certainly help. ;)
  • Our jeep has 4-wheel suspension! Each wheel is independent! The antenna and driver bounce around as they would in real life! Inverse kinematics have the driver gripping the steering wheel and stick shift as they would in real life! I guarantee you would want to buy Halo if it was just a racing game and there weren’t even any guns. That’s how amazing the vehicles are going to be … and how they are going to FEEL. And there will be PLENTY of vehicles and weapons to hold your attention span. I wouldn’t be surprised to find players using inferior weapons or vehicles just because they’re so much fun to use.
  • Music and sound effects that will absolutely crush the competition (at least we think so).
  • Indoor environments that are as rich and complex and compelling to investigate, attack and defend as the beautiful outdoor vistas you’ve already seen one of.
  • That was just ONE environment. Imagine fighting in the snow … in the mountains … in a forest. Imagine playing in night. I’m not making any promises, but you can bet WE’RE imagining it … and maybe doing a little bit more than imagining.

Honestly, I could go on nearly forever with this list. Each day there are new ideas being developed and implemented into our code. We have got some of the most talented programmers, artists, and designers ever assembled to create a game. I’m sure that every company says that – but I wouldn’t say that unless I felt we could back it up. I feel honored to be part of a team that I feel is creating one of the best – if not THE best – game ever created for the computer.

And to be frank, going up against those other guys isn't really intimidating. In most cases we have more successful titles to our credit than they do, with some exceptions (e.g. Id). But, for us, it is not just about how many units we sell. It’s about how much fun we can bring to you guys – to our consumers and to our fans. Sales figures are great, but when you see the Marathon Story page still being updated every day, it makes you feel special to be part of this company – especially at a time like this.

We also understand that you have hired on a new person to handle the networking at Bungie. Do you feel up to revealing the name of the newest member of the Bungie team? (Or is he more of the pale-skin, red and bloodshot eyes, runs from loud noises and direct sunlight type?)
I think we’ll at least give him a few weeks before putting him before the glare of the public eye. I can tell you one thing though – he’s certainly got an appropriate last name.
HALO is being reported as a third-person action game. Right now the list of quality games in that subgenre is somewhat limited. We think part of the reason is because so many developers haven't been able to create an interface that allows the player to "become" or identify with the character AND control him or her well enough to handle adrenaline-pumping furballs with any proficiency. (Can you think of any other reasons?)
Well, I would say aiming has been generally poorly implemented in a lot of third-person shooters. I am very confident in some of the very original and unique methods we are using to improve upon that. I would also say that immersion is a major issue when comparing FPS to third-person. I realize some people will have to see it to believe it, but I am equally confident that we are not only creating an equally immersive environment in third-person, but an even superior one to any FPS I can think of. Our full intention is for the player to forget he is playing a video game. I think some people believe they will be staring at the main character’s butt for the whole game. They couldn’t be more wrong.
What is it about HALO's gameplay that made the third-person view the best choice? Will there be an option to display the game in a first-person perspective, as some fans have hoped? If not, why not?
I know there are gamers who claim to only play first-person games. Well, if so, they're going to miss out on a couple of excellent games when Oni and Halo come out. Halo would lose a lot in a first-person perspective. For just one tiny example, when an explosion goes off next to the player, it can char their armor, but you would miss that in first person. Gestures and posture will be important aspects of the game that would lose much of their impact in first person. I have always disliked my screen flashing (red usually) when I get hit by someone. I want more immersive visual feedback than that and I believe you can best get that in third person.

There are certain times in the game when a different perspective is appropriate and we are fully considering and/or implementing these features. There are a lot of decisions still to be made about specific perspective situations and options, but I can tell you that they will:
  • make sense,
  • be fun, and
  • be immersive.
Near the end of the demo, one of the aliens does something I don't think any game in this genre has shown us before: a character surrendering (Unreal's cowering Nali don't count). Rumor has it that Apple requested the demo be (relatively) non-violent. Was that why this happened or is surrender going to be a valid part of HALO? Will players be able to surrender to each other rather than risk death, and how are you going to motivate them to do this? (Instead of making repetitive suicide blitzes like we see in almost every other action game out there).
There's really no answer for this now – we are still developing the feasibility of the idea (and several others like it). If we find that the ability to surrender is cool and contributes to a cooler game experience, you can bet that we’ll include it. We enabled it in the demonstration as part of the story of the demo, not because of any violence restrictions.
The press release for Halo uses terms like "real-world physics" and "persistent objects," as well as focusing on the fact that Halo will not have discrete "levels" as such. That description conjures up images closer to existing RPGs than action games, and Jason Jones alluded to such in his interview at Macworld. How will this be borne out in HALO multiplayer? What is HALO's player limit expected to be?

We have no idea what the player limit will turn out to be. The chief determinant will not be what is technically possible, but rather what is most fun.

When we refer to "persistent objects", one thing we are referrring to is the debris of battle remaining as active parts of the game world instead of fading away – similar to the Myth world. If bodies or debris are disappearing, then there should be a plausible explanation. Nobody likes to watch a carcass just sink into the ground inexplicably. Well, okay, not all that many people like watching carcasses period. But you get my point.This applies to both the single-player and multiplayer gaming experience.

However, other objects in the world are “persistent” – take for example an enemy (Covenant) base. Say that you destroy a command and control center that disrupts communications across the Halo. You may see the effects of such an attack at a later point in the game. You will return to the base to find it still destroyed, not just magically repaired – unless of course there is a good reason. The world itself will be persistent. Dead things stay dead. There aren’t infinite “bad guys”. And when permanent objects in the world change, it will be for a reason.

However, the word "persistent" should not be interpreted as describing the entire multiplayer world (e.g. all games on the ring at the same time) - it remains to be seen how that will work and what, if any, metagame will be implemented on top of the multiplayer experience.

And what will Halo's network model look like? Peer to peer,facilitated by a chat server? One authoritative, universe-defining Halo server for everyone? Or a distributed client/server model like Quake and Unreal?
As far as this goes, it's just too early to speculate. Our network code is still in its relative infancy, and we’ll need to see how things develop to see what will give the player the best overall experience.
Although the soldiers in the MWNY demo appear to be the same (aside from the different roles they play in the mission) some press outlets have been reporting Halo will include some kind of player specialization. Is there going to be system with multiple player classes, and will you be able to customize your characters with different equipment (as in Tribes and Mechwarrior games), skin textures and/or colors?

We want to design it so that players will WANT to specialize at certain things – not so that they are forced to. It's easy to drive a jeep, but hard to drive it well. A player who has become really good at driving will be a hot commodity because of his skill set - it will be a skill the player has developed, not one that came built-in to their character. The same thing may go for a sniper or a pilot.

It's a safe assumption that players will be able to customize their characters in a variety of ways.

Fans of Bungie have come to expect deep and deliciously complex storylines from your games. Between the Cortana letters and other subtle *coughLOGOcough* hints, we're already expecting to see some ties to the Marathon universe. Are any characters from the Marathon series scheduled to make an appearance in Halo? Can you tell us anything else without spoiling the fun?

No problem! I can tell you everything – here’s a complete list of the characters in Halo and how they relate to Marathon:

First, there’s the M-

< Transfer Interrupted! >

Oh, well. I tried. You’d be surprised how much of an influence Cortana continues to have over our networks.

Half-life achieves its "level-less" feel by stutter-loading smaller areas as you pass into them. Will HALO use a similar or different approach to avoid the gargantuan level-loading sessions we deal with in other action games?
As I said earlier, the primary goal with this game is to eliminate as much as possible every element that reminds the player that they're sitting at a computer, playing a game. Having a load bar does that, having text pop up on screen telling them they've finished level X and are starting level Y does that, being unable to move through an area just because you've been through it already does that... it's our goal to purge the game of these.
Would it be possible to get a rundown on the Halo development team—names and titles-- so the community knows who they will have to thank for the universe's ultimate gaming experience? :-)
We'll get around to doing that further down the road. Right now, I’m pretty sure they all need as much privacy as possible.
And then a small question, about the "Halo" logo itself-- was that completely rendered from scratch, or was it based on an existing font? As you can imagine, a lot of sites will be interested in creating some derivative art-- as some already have-- and would be hungry for a bit of knowledge on how to stay consistent with Halo's “look”.
It's a unique design, not based on an existing font.

Well, I hope I gave you some fat to chew on for a while. Thanks for your interest and for your contributions to the Bungie community as a whole. I’m convinced our fans are the best of any game company period.

Nathan Bitner
Producer and Creative Developer – Halo
Bungie Software

Copyright © 1999 Robert T. Swenson and HaloNews.Com, All rights reserved.