In another of the sporadic, soon-to-be regularly appearing Meet the Team features here on Bungie.net, we chat with Curtis Creamer, Bungie's Design Producer on what it's like to wrangle the cowpokes working on Halo 3's campaign. Meet the Cream, below.
Q: A lot of folks at Bungie have interesting stories about how they ended up either A. at Bungie or B. doing what they do at Bungie. You’re a Design Producer, what’d you start out doing, how’d you get to Bungie, is there some lovely story involving rainbows, unicorns and Hot Pockets that brought you to Bungie Studios?
Curtis Creamer: I got involved working on games at Microsoft as an entry level recon tester in 1997. The first game I tested was Outwars by Single Trac (Which, funny enough, was Hao’s first project as a programmer [Hao Chen one of the Luminous Beings who makes things look beautiful with the power of light, technology and magic. -Ed]. We just figured that out a few weeks ago!). There were a lot of problems with being able to get out of the environment, so my job was to play through the game looking for every hole and logging x,y,z coordinates to send back to Single Trac. Sounds monotonous, but I was having a good time.
When Microsoft acquired Bungie, I was just finishing up testing on Starlancer and Crimson Skies. Part of the acquisition deal was that Take2 would publish Oni, which was still in production at Bungie West in San Jose. They were looking for some testing help to finish up the game, so me and a couple other guys went down to help out. Bungie West was a dump! It was a small one room office space with about 20 desks scattered all over the place intertwined with power cables and network cables hooked up to PCs and Macs in various states of disrepair. We had to set up desks in a tiny room that I think had been used for storage. My chair was poised over some live electrical wires coming out of the floor that were “secured” with an overturned milk crate! But it was good fun, you know, looking back.
Once Oni was finished up, the Bungie West team moved up to Redmond to join the rest of the Bungie team that had moved out from Chicago. I came back as well, and at the time, the Microsoft Games group was gearing up for the launch of the Xbox. I landed the Halo test lead job, in large part, due to Jamie Evans, Bungie’s current test manager. At the time, he was going to be a test manager for Microsoft Games after being the test lead for Age of Empires 1 and 2. But then he decided to take a different position as a program manager which meant that the guy who likely would have been the Halo test lead became a test manager instead. That left the Halo position open. Most of the senior test leads had already taken positions on other Xbox launch titles. Halo was my number one choice to work on, and since I’d already worked with Bungie, I got the test lead job.
After Halo 1 had shipped, things were a bit slow at Bungie and the guys at Digital Anvil were looking for some help on Brute Force. So I moved to Austin for a year where I got some pseudo-producer experience. When I came home to Bungie we were in the middle of Halo 1 PC. I helped out on the testing of that and was getting organized for being the test lead on Halo 2 when then-studio director Pete Parsons asked me to make the move to being a producer. The beauty of the whole thing is that we brought Jamie over to be the test lead for Halo 2. It was a crazy circular kinda thing.
Q: As Design Producer, what’s your day-to-day entail?
CC: It really depends on where you are in the production cycle. Earlier on in the project, most of what I work on is making sure that we have a plan to achieve all of our goals. That means that everyone understands and agrees what those goals are, everyone understands and agrees what the plan is to achieve those goals, and what part of the plan they actually need to do and when. So, I’m doing things like getting people together to figure out design issues, technical issues, and working out schedules to make sure we can accomplish all we’re trying to achieve.
These days closer to the end, it’s more about fighting fires that come up every day. For example, today I spent a couple hours helping some of the designers figure out what was happening in some of the bugs that the test team found. Then there was a few hours spent in bug triage committee going through all of the incoming bugs and understanding what we were going to do to fix them. And I’ve got Paul Bertone and Joe Staten sequestered in a meeting room working with each designer to do a pass on dialog timing throughout the campaign. Then there’s taking care of source control after that. We’re currently in “lockdown” mode where no one can check in code or content without first reviewing their changes with a lead, and I’m one of 3 people who have the keys when they’re ready to check in.
Q: What’s the role of production on Halo 3? Is it true that Producers are the harbringers of doom, gloom and cut features?
CC: In general, I usually sum up what a producer does as “makes -blam!- happen.” When it comes to making a great game, all the credit must go to the people who put their creativity and brainpower behind the ideas and systems that go into that game. But it isn’t a great game unless you finish it, and to do that, you’ve got to organize, plan, and execute. That’s where producers come in.
Part of what producers do is to provide a reality check. That can come from doing simple things like getting time estimates for all of the work that needs to be done, throwing it into a schedule, then pointing out that it doesn’t all add up. If the life boat only holds 8 people, and number 9 is trying to climb in... well... someone’s going overboard before we all go down. Or we’ve got to build a bigger boat, like right now!
Q: How does the end of Halo 3’s production compare with the end of Halo 2’s production cycle?
CC: After Halo 2, we really wanted to do a better job of being organized so that we could allow ourselves more time at the end to polish the game. Halo 2 came right down to the wire, and in the last days we were spending too much of our time making things work, rather than making things work well.
For Halo 3, we’ve done a better job organizing ourselves. One of the cool things we were able to accomplish this time around was to get the entire campaign playable, start to finish, much earlier than before. Several months ago we had our first completely playable build. This was really huge because we’ve been able to get a ton of playtesting feedback on the entire game with enough time to digest and react to it.
We’re still coming plenty hot, but it feels like a more controlled hot.
Q: What is the change the result of?
CC: I think a big part of it is experience. With every game we make, we analyze what went well and what didn’t to learn how to do it better next time. Bungie is always trying to get smarter about how we make games. One of the things we wanted to do after Halo 2 was to build the producer team into a core competency that was well understood by the team like engineering or testing is. For Halo 2, we had 2 producers, and our Studio Head, Pete Parsons, who was doing double duty running the studio and acting as Executive Producer. We were spread pretty thin. For Halo 3, we built up the producer staff. Each department now has a producer, and last year, we brought on Jonty Barnes from Lionhead who brought a lot of experience and has been doing a great job as Executive Producer.
Q: Aside from tip-toeing around the egos of manbabies, what’s the toughest part of being a Producer?
CC: Probably the toughest part for me is the constant battle to turn chaos into order. At Bungie, we have this great mix of Ph.D.s, artistic savants, mad scientists, and normal people. All with awesome ideas about how a game should work, how it should look, how it should play, what features it should have, etc. The challenge is to focus all of those chaotic energies into a single game, not have it fly apart at the seams, and have everyone involved be happy with the outcome. In the end, Bungie likes to make games that Bungie likes to play. That’s a tall order.
Q: People around here say you’re quite the Campaign player, how many times would you say you’ve played through Halo 3’s campaign? Is it still fresh?
CC: I love the campaign, it’s really fun to play. I’ve probably played through 50-60 times. It doesn’t get old because it’s changing all the time. The design of the mission changes, the environment gets tweaked, new sandbox elements get added, AI behaviors come online, the story comes alive, dialog and music get added. It’s really cool to see the evolution of a mission as it goes from basic mass out with simple encounters to fully polished. I think it’s the best campaign we’ve ever made. I’m going to play it again tomorrow.
Q: Without ruining anything surprising or too secretive, describe one of your favorite moments from Halo 3’s Campaign:
CC: My favorite moment has to be playing through one of the missions with what we call a “death blossom”. One of the cool things you can do in Halo is switch weapons with your marine allies. So, we’ve got this new version of the Warthog, the troop carrier, that can carry you and 4 other marines. As I’m playing through, I’m picking up every Fuel Rod Cannon I can, and I’m giving it to my marine buddies. Then I’m driving this warthog with 4 Fuel Rod Cannon marines on board (the “death blossom”), and we go rolling into an encounter against a bunch of Brute Choppers and Wraiths. Explosions and hilarity ensued! The capper was that mission designer Chris Opdahl had just made it so that a couple of Brute Choppers would join the fight by launching themselves off the side of a bridge and into the encounter. I didn’t know that he’d done that, and I go driving under the bridge just as one is coming down. It landed on my head blew the crap out of me and my marines. I laughed so hard, snot came out of my nose.
Oh, and the ending. OMG. I cried a little. Seriously. In a good way, not in a Halo 2 way.