Halo PC Fanstock - August 17, 2003
One of the advantages of being slow is that you can size up what's useful, and not useful, sometimes. A handful of fans were invited recently to an event known as Halo PC Fanstock on a hot weekend in August... and by the time I'm putting these words to paper (well, screen), a significant number have already written up their thoughts of the event. What you get from reading this, then, is a different viewpoint, and maybe some minor facts that others glossed over.
To start with, let's look at the basics: this event was put together by Microsoft and Gearbox, and was intended to give a fans-eye view of the development process. The following people were invited:
(7 participants? Hmm...)
Coordinating the whole shebang were Mike, Genevieve, and Jon, from Microsoft.
The event started on Friday evening, after everyone had made their way to the Dallas area. (Everyone seemed to have untroubled travel except for me; my plane was 2 hours late, so I arrived at the hotel just in time to jump in the bus headed for dinner; no time to check in.) On the way, I met my fellow participants, and we chatted a bit, finally putting faces to names. 5 of the 7 of us were associated with Halo fansites - two were not. It was nice to have a mix of viewpoints.
We arrived a short while later at the home of Randy Pitchford, president of Gearbox Software and our host for the evening. We got a tour of the house and the backyard, and then settled into the kitchen with some drinks and shot some questions at Randy. he was surprisingly candid about a number of subjects that Bungie fans have long been resigned to being kept in the dark about... even though he told us that much of it was off the record, he promised that announcements WOULD be forthcoming. Randy's wife, Kristy, was the perfect hostess, making sure everyone was comfortable, had the beverage of their choice, felt at home. (Kristy has a pretty dang good wine collection, and we sampled quite a bit of it... I've got to look for some of those around here now.)
We sat down to a spectacular dinner prepared by Kristy's brother, a caterer with some mad beef skillz. Randy proved himself to be a great storyteller, recounting his early days with 3D Realms, a startup called Rebel Boat Rocker, and finally Gearbox, and tying in the Dallas-based gaming industry along the way. Randy is a gamer at heart; one of the reasons his company makes killer products is because he LOVES what he does.
After dinner, we headed up to the PItchford's killer home theater; a 126" screen mounted in front of 12 theater-style seats, with lots and lots of drive-a-geek-crazy hardware to back it all up. 7.1 Surround Sound, every console under the sun, and on and on... great place to play Halo. Which we did. Dolbex, Shishka, and Randy (even though he hadn't played on an Xbox in quite some time) quickly proved to be the best of the bunch... but we all had a blast, regardless of skill level.
The evening wound down a bit after 11, and we headed back to the hotel. It was a fantastic way to start the event; by treating fans as friends, Gearbox showed once again that Bungie made a really compatible choice for the porting company. Tomorrow would show us how competent they were...
Morning started a bit after nine, as we all met in the lobby to check out. (I gotta tell you - it's wonderful to come down and find someone paying your bill for you... I wish that happened to me more often when I travel.) In the lobby, we got another surprise; Burnie, Geoff, and Matt, from Red vs Blue, came up and introduced themselves. They'd come up for QuakeCon the day before, and came by to check out the goodies at Gearbox. We all hopped into cars (RvB had their own car; the rest of us got into a nice stretch limo), and headed over to Gearbox.
We were ushered into the cafeteria, which had a pretty astounding snack closet, along with a stocked drink fridge, and were met by Randy and Pete Parsons, Bungie's Studio Manager. After a little more chit-chat, and a great breakfast (same chef as the night before), we were brought down to a conference room and given an enjoyable overview to Halo PC. What was needed to get Halo PC running, what's been improved, where they stand today... the whole shebang. Michel Bastien, the Bungie liason who's been working with Gearbox all along, stopped in as well. Some of the new info we learned is summarized below. We also got a good look at the console, from which cheats will be possible in single-player. Those who've stayed up on the Xbox Hacking scene will recognize the hacks... but there's never been an easier way to implement them. (You open the console, type 'cheat cheatname cheatparameters' and you're on your way.) They turned on Medusa (kills all NPCs as they see you the first time), then ran to the first covenant dropship in Halo. The close side of Covenant died sort of randomly... but the far side dropped down, turned as a line... and dropped dead. It was hilarious hearing 4 simultaneous 'Awaaaugh' cries from the line of grunts as they faceplanted. None of the cheats, of course, will work in multiplayer.
After the formal presentation, they broke us up into a couple of groups. One group headed next door, to the office of Dave Mertz, lead designer for Halo PC, while the other group sat down in front of a bunch of networked PCs and proceeded to try out the new levels. I was in the first group. Dave gave us a runthrough of what it takes to create a level in Halo PC, starting with the design in 3DSMax, then running through Sapien, the Swiss Army Knife-like tool that Gearbox (and Bungie, before them) uses to to add objects, sounds, functionality to the map... and finally Guerilla, the tag-editing tool that allows physics changes, texture choices, lighting options, and so on. It's a pretty complicated process... but a Halo PC level is a pretty complicated product. Dave was happy to answer questions about the modding possibilities; Gearbox is pretty focused on giving users the tools they'll need to expand this game. Right now, you have to build your level in discreet's max; plans include exporters for 3ds max (versions 3,4,5) and the freeware gmax, but Dave didn't rule out the possibility of future exporters for programs like Maya. Once exported to a fileformat Halo PC can read, you can add features like scenery, sound, and objects in Sapien, a tool developed at Bungie and refined at Gearbox. If all you're adding is stock stuff, you're done. If you have custom vehicles, or models, or textures, you'll need to run your creation through Guerilla. Guerilla lets you specify where your vehicle's weapon fires from, for example, or what color it is. Or whether it can fly. Or... well, pretty much anything having to do with modifying the look and feel of the items in a level will be handled by Guerilla.
Maps are fully self-contained; everything you need to run the map (except for the engine, of course) is contained in the package. This is good and bad; it's good, because it means that distributing new creations is easy. It's bad because there's a LOT of redundant information. (For example, if you use the same textures and objects as are used in the stock game, you're including all that texture/object definition information with your map, rather than letting users grab it off their own disk.) Gearbox gets around this problem by having custom-made global files that ALL stock maps use... but as of now, that's not an option for end users. (This might very well change before the tools are actually released; it depends on how difficult it is to code, and how much time is available.)
Standard multiplayer maps will run in the 15-20 mb range (less, if Gearbox decides to allow the use of global cache files), and single-player maps might be as large as 120 mb. (At this point, several of us, looking toward the day when we'd be making these files available to the community via file archives, groaned.) Gearbox plans to release a series of tutorials showing how to create and populate a map, rather than write a manual. The tools will not be included at release - they'll be available as a download sometime soon after release.
Mertz didn't have any real information about the Mac side of things - he allowed that porting the tools should be possible, but didn't know how difficult it would be. (He doesn't know how different the map files are going to be, so he couldn't really say how easy it would be to bring the tools over.) If we get any information on this subject from Westlake, we'll be sure to let you know.
After we'd gotten our fill on modding tools, we headed back into the conference room, and swapped into the games. One of the beautiful things about Halo PC Multiplayer is the ability to jump into a game whenever... and change your configuration (the keys you use) on the fly. It took some time to get used to the keyboard (well, it took ME some time, at least), but before long, we were torching our neighbors with the flamethrower and trying out the new banshee tricks. (Randy showed us a stunt he says is 'pure James Bond' - the banshee flys over a pillar-mounted powerup, you jump out as you pass it, grab the powerup, and dive back into the banshee as it falls off the far side. Done right, it's a cheer-inducing trick.) I've got some work to do, getting used to that mouse... there was one point where I was sitting in a banshee on Gephyrophobia, nose-down on the bridge, getting blasted by a flamethrower, and screaming 'I'm stuck! I'm stuck!' (I wasn't stuck; I just couldn't figure out how to bring that nose back up.) Hilarious for folks watching... a little painful for the n00b.
Whoever was setting up the server was doing a good job of rotating gametypes and maps; we got a chance to play (or watch others playing) all six of the new maps, as well as classics like Blood Gulch (amazingly fun with Banshees). This went on for a couple of hours, and then Pete Parsons came back in with a special delivery; FedEx had just dropped off a copy of the E3 build of Halo 2, which Pete proceeded to run through. It was interesting to see the differences between demonstrators; I'd watched the demo several times during E3, performed by both Joe Staten and Jaime Griesemer. All three demo bee-yotches had different styles, and you got a good sense for how much leeway there actually was in the demo itself. Pete didn't waste time heading down the stairs after receiving a second SMG from Sergeant Banks, he just jumped the wall. He was pretty good with the Gauss gun, taking out one of the ghosts in the air, after it had flipped over a fallen car... but he was a tad slow killing the Brutes, and nearly missed his jump onto the ghost. Overall, it was pretty fun to watch in this new setting; a large screen, a live demo, but quite different from the theater presentation Bungie put on at E3. (Pete was also the best of the three, in my opinion, in his interaction with Sergeant Johnson in the humorous little opener... even though he didn't have the advantage of the theatrical setting to help with the setup.)
We jumped back into more multiplayer gameplay after this, and then took a break for a late lunch. Once again the food was awesome (same chef), and the conversation quite lively. Randy asked Dark Helmet to show off his Warthog bumping trick for the rest of the Gearbox crowd... and then spent 20 minutes playing with the saved game that DH brought along, trying it himself. I, for one, find it immensly satisfying when the president of a company that is in serious crunch mode finds stunts like this interesting enough to play around with 'em... as I've said, game lovers make the best gamemakers.
At this point, it was time to head to the airport, for those of us with early filghts, so we said our goodbyes and got on the road. Less than 24 hours, from touchdown to wheels up... but what an amazing time it was!
What follows is a collection of tidbits about Halo PC. Order is sort of random. These were things that struck me as interesting. I've left out information that's covered in depth in other places, except where my subjective viewpoint comes into play.
I'm sure there are other aspects I meant to hit upon, but forgot... If I don't release this now, it'll fester on my hard drive for weeks. This covers the basics of what I saw in Texas, and hopefully gives you a feel for how far along they are (and how much Gearbox, Bungie, and Microsoft rock for allowing events like this to happen). Remember - this was a collection of FANS, not press, not VIPs... fans.
On August 20, Gearbox made a passel of screenshots (32 in all) available to all participants. You'll find them in all their glory on our Fanstock Screenshots page.
Other writeups - there were several groups that were represented at Gearbox's offices on Saturday, and joined in the festivities. Most wrote their impressions up, as well: