Is your Peter Jackson Halo project not coming together on schedule? Got a year to make something else Halo-ish? Then construct a creative plan B, spelled ODST.
During my visit to Bungie last week I got a chance to learn more about the origins of Halo 3: ODST a game that has all the makings of an enjoyable Halo experience but whose existence never made a lot of sense to me.
Why would Bungie, after concluding the construction of an epic Halo trilogy and establishing its independence from former owner Microsoft, make a spin-off that overlaps with part of the established saga?
The June announcement of Halo Reach, a new, full-sized 2010 Bungie Halo game left me even more confused about the origins and intent behind ODST.
My confusion was relieved in all of eight minutes as the game's creative director explained to me how the game came about, who the star of it could have been and what movie director Peter Jackson's shelved Halo game/project, Halo Chronicles, had to do with it.
"The core of the ODST team was the old Peter Jackson Halo Chronicles team," Staten explained as we sat in a conference room at Bungie headquarters in Kirkland, Washington. "During Halo 3 — and before I started working on ODST — I was the point man for Bungie working on Chronicles. I spent a lot of time with those guys dow in New Zealand when the movie was happening. Gradually that team built up in size. Paul Bertone, the design director of ODST, Mike Woo, our art manager, started to wind over to Chronicles."
But the Halo movie lost its financing, Jackson's involvement diminished and Chronicles was no longer a viable option for Bungie. "When that project fell apart we were left with this really experienced core team of guys, all of whom had been around since Halo 1," Staten said. "At the same time, the [Halo] Reach team was spinning up and we were left in this position where we had a team, we had a good vibe and we had this window — a very narrow window of about a year. All we needed was this spark to light a fire to begin an idea. Literally, Paul and I and [Bungie president] Harold [Ryan], the studio managers and a couple of other people sat in a room for a month — Harold wasn't there for a month — and when we came out and Harold looked at the numbers and the budget and said, 'Yeah, let's do it.'"
The Bungie guys had batted around a number of ideas for what would become ODST, confident all along that it would not star Master Chief or another Spartan super-soldier like him.
"We knew we had an engine," said Staten. "We knew we had this universe. We knew we had about a year, give or take, to do it. Who are you going to be [as a player]? We knew we didn't want to be a Spartan. We wanted a different main character. We had crazy ideas about maybe being another Covenant character like the Arbiter in Halo 2. We had a crazy special operations elite strike force story.
"But, eventually we came back to the human side of things and we tried to look at: Who are those interesting characters in our universe? We talked seriously about a game starring Sergeant Johnson, being a young Avery Johnson early in the war. We talked about just being a marine, maybe palling around with Spartans: What's it like to be on the battlefield surrounded by Spartans? But then we hit the ODSTs and, for us, they've always been really interesting. We put them in missions when we need really tough marines. They have different combat capabilities than normal marines in Halo games, but they were always kind of mysterious characters... and we knew our fans liked them a lot."
Once they had their stars for the game in the ODSTs, Bungie next needed a setting and scenario. Given that the game involves urban fighting rather than the storm-the-beaches and large open combat of the earlier Halo games I guessed that Bungie was inspired by the prominence of such close-quarters situations in the United States' active conflict in Iraq. Staten said that wasn't the case.
"We honestly didn't really think about current day things at all," he said. "What we did was look inside the Halo universe. We know the kinds of problems Master Chief solves. He goes to ancient, alien ring artifacts, fights galaxy-consuming parasitic alien monsters and destroys alien empires with their vast military industrial complexes behind them. The ODST, they maybe take small parts in that larger struggle. But the kind of fights they usually get into are usually the kind of fights they can tackle in a day. They drop into a city and try to secure a sector of it. They take out an installation,. They really are special forces guys. For us, it was trying to narrow down the scope of the larger war and pick a specific place that ODSTs felt right operating in. For us, an urban environment made a lot of sense." For a setting they picked New Mombasa, the city that is destroyed in the beginning of Halo 2.
Staten kept referring to only having a year to make the game. That puzzled me, but once he explained it, ODST's connection to Reach and Bungie's overall structure finally made sense.
"If you have a studio like ours where you don't have multiple teams working on stuff — you just have a big monolithic development group — there are waves you want to roll people on and off of projects," Staten said. "We knew the resources we were going to use for ODST [which included a] massive amount of environment artists, the designers. It was a great opportunity to give those guys real work while Reach was getting through concept and pre-production." Once Reach would be ready for them, the ODST team would need to be done. The timing worked more or less, Staten said. ODST development took 14 months and the game was pretty much finished this spring.
Looking back, that choice to make it star its breed of special ops soldiers seems appropriate to Staten: "ODST itself, the project, was. in the beginning, a skunkworks, special operations, small team, limited time frame, do the most with what you can — with what you have — sort of a battlefield-expedient project, generally speaking." It didn't take them just a day to finish. But, in scale of game-making, it was close.
Halo 3: ODST is now prepped for its September 22 launch on the Xbox 360.