Halo 2 on Windows Vista: The Inside Scoop
Our revelation that we were working with a team at Microsoft to bring Halo 2 to Windows Vista raised a ton of questions about the team handling it, so we sat down with Jo Clowes and Matt Gradwohl, who'll be responsible for making sure it's the best game it can be. They shared some illuminating information and we thought we'd share that with you. And hey, there's still a couple of spots left on the conversion team, so maybe this could be your window to a sweet new job!
Hi Matt and Jo, tell us a little about yourselves.
Matt Gradwohl, Studio Manager, TnT.
I got my start in games on the TRS80 at a friend's house, and a VIC-20 at the Kmart up the street. I soon graduated to a C64; that was 24 years ago. I earned my Computer Science degree, was hired by Microsoft in 1994, and moved to games in 1995. I started as the Test Lead of Microsoft Close Combat 1.0. I've worked quite a few games from MGS in one form or another, and I'm having the most fun now. I still play games at home on Windows and Xbox 360 (t03h3ad), still build my own gaming PCs, and still write code occasionally.
Jo Clowes, Project Lead, Halo 2 Vista
I have always played games and experimented with developing them as a kid, but I got into the games industry by accident. My first platform for development was the Commodore 64, with the ultra hi-tech tape drive. I was self taught and spent many an hour typing in programs from magazines. My favorite was a radio program in the UK that broadcast code that you would record onto tape and then load up on the C64; the first person to find the bug and call into the station with the game name won a prize (I never won, but it was fun). I went to University where I did a joint degree in Computer Science and Management Studies; upon graduation I took a job in an acceptable profession as a management consultant in London. The computer games industry was frowned upon by educational institutions back then and it was not an industry that was known for careers for women. Six months later and bored out of my tree I found a job as a programmer at a local games company writing soccer games until I figured out what it was I actually wanted to do. I guess that was what I wanted to do as I'm still here. I've moved to the dark side and am now in production; this move was fueled by my desire to fix the horrendous crunch periods that I endured at the end of projects. Managing a team effectively is something I am extremely passionate about. I have tried a number of different approaches on the many titles I have worked on, including the Might & Magic franchise and later Forza Motorsport .
Tell us a little about the team working on the Vista conversion of Halo 2.
Halo 2 Vista is being developed by a newly formed team within the Microsoft Game Studios. This team is formed from industry veterans (the leads have an average of 8 years in the industry) who have come from a background of Windows and console development. Some of the titles team members have worked on in the past include Doom 2 for Windows, Brute Force, Might & Magic and Forza Motorsport.
The team is closely tied with the Microsoft Game Studios TnT team, which provides us with some of the hottest new technologies for games.
What is TnT?
TnT is the Tools and Technology studio within the Microsoft Game Studios. They build core technology for games so that title teams can focus on their game features. TnT has about six project teams working on technology for Microsoft's first party studios. TnT maintains a close partnership with those studios to get them the tech they need so they are free to do their best work. They build tools for testers, artists, and designers; project management systems; technology to improve the Windows gaming experience; online features; engine features; art pipelines; and more. TnT also helps teams consume their tech with a team of integrators. We also have access to some pretty amazing tools from Microsoft Research, and use those tools on our games as well.
The TnT team is comprised of program managers, software developers, testers, and integrators. We've been growing over the last year as more and more game teams ask us to build tech for them.
TnT is also hiring; you can ask about their jobs at the MGS Recruiting booth#1833 in the Career Pavilion at GDC, or view their jobs online at http://www.mgsjobs.com .
What's the relationship with Bungie Studios?
Bungie team members are acting as executive producers and technology consultants. Both teams are collaborating to make sure the game meets the high standards that gamers have come to expect from Bungie games.
Why did you decide to do this version internally? The first game was a big success and it was handled by an outside studio.
We felt that by developing the title internally we could get better and closer collaboration with Bungie Studios and produce a game that we and our gamers would be very pleased with.
What are the big challenges in moving the game from a console to a next-generation PC OS like Windows Vista?
The real challenge is to use the extra power and capabilities of a next generation Windows PC to retain the amazing essence of the original Xbox game, and also give PC gamers an experience tailored to their tastes.
What kind of things do Windows gamers expect from a game that aren't currently in Halo 2?
Windows gamers have come to expect HD quality visuals. Using content of this resolution everywhere in game wasn't possible on the last generation of consoles. The next generation of PC hardware opens up exciting avenues for us in this space.
Also, user content creation is much simpler to do on PC platforms, so we are going to be working hard to bring a great content creation solution (think map editor) to Halo 2 Vista that will allow the Halo community to express their creativity.
Folks often think of a port as a simple task, but it usually has its own unique challenges. Can you describe the technical and intellectual hurdles of a project like Halo 2 Vista?
First, we don't think of the project as a port; we think of it as the Windows Vista version of Halo 2. Technically we have to do things like upgrade the shaders to the latest version, implement content streaming from the DVD, hone the multiplayer experience, support both the Xbox 360 controller and keyboard/mouse control, and make sure the game runs on multiple hardware configurations.
Halo 2 was designed for a fixed hardware platform, and that means the game creators could optimize for that in their code and with their content, squeezing every little bit of power out of the hardware. There are many hardware-specific extensions on the Xbox console, and a game such as Halo 2 uses many of them to pack top-notch gameplay and visuals into a very small set of resources. Even though current PC hardware is much more powerful, it has many configurations, and the same optimizations are not always possible. We must take this very specific implementation and make it general without sacrificing quality or performance; that can be a difficult task. Windows Vista simplifies this for PC developers; that is one of the main reasons we have chosen to go with a Vista-only implementation. We are not willing to sacrifice quality and game play for our gamers.
Console and PC controls are obviously different; one has a standard game pad and the other has a myriad of input devices. For our gamers who enjoy the console style of play we are going to ensure that the Xbox 360 controller is available; for those hard core keyboard and mice folks we will be working hard to make sure the game feels balanced to you as well.
One of our biggest challenges is in moving the work of one of the best game studios in the world to a new arena without sacrificing any of their original vision. Being able to work hand in hand with the original creators helps us significantly. Bungie was involved with the Windows version of Halo 1; they have intimate knowledge of what worked and what didn't. We are able to directly tap that knowledge.
What games (or genres) do you guys enjoy playing?
Matt - I am an RTS guy, back to the Warcraft days. Age 1, 2 , AoM , and Age 3 . I also like first person shooters (start at Wolf 3D and Doom , and move forward to Battlefield , CoD , etc.)
Jo – I love any game that makes me think; it is amazing what a broad range of games that includes. Forza Motorsport is one of my favorites, not only because I worked as a producer on it, but because the fundamental gameplay elements appealed to my thought process. I have to admit to playing a little too much StarCraft in my time, possibly contributing to the crunch at the end of the title I was working on at that time. But old games like Frogger 64 also rank up in my top ten list. As for Halo , well I like that too.
What did you guys like / dislike about Halo 2 for Xbox?
Jo – I finished Halo 1 & 2 in coop mode playing side by side with my husband. There were some really interesting game dynamics that came out of playing that way. I remember one instance where I was driving a Scorpion and my husband was riding on the side with a sniper rifle; there were (I am really bad remembering names, so I affectionately called these guys the big elephant sized armadillo thingies) a load of hunters on the other side of the bridge. If we crossed they would kill us; the sniper rifle didn't do any damage from our side of the bridge and the targeting on the Scorpion was not precise enough to hit the beasties. A bit of teamwork targeting through the sniper rifle (left a bit, right a bit, up a bit) meant we got them all without taking damage. Overall I found Halo 2 to be an engrossing, engaging experience. The online play is outstanding, but I do tend to get my butt handed to me.
Matt - The only part I didn't like was getting my butt kicked in multiplayer. There are so many good players, it's humbling to play online sometimes.
Describe the team's atmosphere and development approach.
We are a small (relatively speaking) team of 10 to 15 people. This allows us to work together in a highly collaborative way. Everyone knows what everyone else is working on and is willing to help out where they can. This allows us to provide opportunities to new developers who may not have the breadth of knowledge of game development and give them the chance to learn under the expert tutelage of our area leads. We also get to work with the original creators of the games we convert, and this means we get to see how they approached the problems they faced, tools and technologies they used to solve these problems, and how they built their team. This unique insight helps us to learn different ways to approach the problems that face us.
After many years of trying different approaches to project management, it has become apparent that the single most important thing that keeps a team together is minimizing stress levels. The easiest way to do this is to reduce the need for crunch mode. None of us do our best work under those conditions.
Is the map editor being developed by the same team that's bringing the game to Vista?
No, we're currently partnering with a team that has experience building creation tools that gamers love. We don't want to go into details just yet, but you will hear more soon.
Will your team be represented at GDC next week to interview for your open positions? How do I set up an interview?
Jo will be at GDC; you can pop by the Microsoft Game Studios recruiting booth #1833 in the Career Pavilion and someone there will find her for you. Please bring your résumé and be ready to interview.
TnT is also hiring; you can ask about their jobs, again at the MGS Recruiting booth#1833 in the Career Pavilion at GDC, or view their jobs online at http://www.mgsjobs.com .
So you guys are still hiring for this project – which roles and responsibilities are you still trying to fill?
Yes. We have opportunities on the team for experienced programmers; these jobs are listed on Bungie.net (differentiated by the "(PC)" & "(SDET)" tags) and on http://www.mgsjobs.com . If you are interested and just can't wait you can go to the Microsoft Careers booth at GDC.