Friday, May 04, 2007
CJ Cowan, our cinematics director, sends me the following enigmatic message: “If you have a moment, come and see the new coolness.” I kicked myself down the stairs, Sparta-style, and rolled up to his desk to see some recent cinematics passes. I’d sort of forgotten about them, since they’ve been crunching hard and quietly, and literally in a far corner of the studio. The progress is impressive, to say the least.
With Halo 3, as with halo 2 and 1, we’re using the actual engine for cinematics. It’s a conscious decision based on a simple philosophy – don’t yank the player out of the game, and dazzle them with graphics that are alien to their gameplay experience. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite cinematics ever do exactly that, and in my opinion, successfully – Final Fantasy, DOA, Tekken even, all use high quality CG renders to display their cinematics. And the results are fantastic. They propel narrative and they’re a reward for completing gameplay tasks.
In Halo 3 though, we made a deliberate and difficult choice. Believe it or not, it would in some ways have been easier to just storyboard this and hand it off to someone like Digital Domain to render into CG. Instead, we took the harder and seemingly counterintuitive route so that our Cinematics will blend, as seamlessly as possible with our gameplay.
Now for confession time: In Halo 2, we simply didn’t have the time or resources to make the cinematics the way we wanted them to be. They were compromised by deadlines and resources and while the results were heroic and herculean achievements of hard work and talent, they simply weren’t as polished or pretty as we wanted them to be. This time, no hurdles got in our way. Cinematics has had all the lovin’ it needs.
For starters, there’s a bigger team, a team that has had the final cinematic script for much longer, and now has access to vastly more tools, resources and technology than ever before. These range from new tools for rigging facial animation, to better lighting and camera controls. Most of the improvements are a solid blend of technology and manpower this time around, and we hope the fruits of that labor end up as succulent as they look now.
Seeing Sergeant Johnson’s face in the Halo 3 cinematics (there are differences in detail and post-processing effects) is a revelation. Using tools on site, our cinematics guys are able to achieve not only proper lip-syncing, but easily rig facial expressions too. In Halo 2, some of that was actually handled by programmers, including Sgt. Johnson’s, and I quote, “Amorous” permutation in the tank delivery scene in Halo 2. Now, there’s a running gag in game development called, “Programmer Art” where a programmer puts in some placeholder art until an artist can get to it. Bur programmer emotion? Surely that’s pushing some sort of envelope?
Well this time the emotions and lighting are being handled by a team of 35 animators and cinematics guys only. And they’re not scrubs. We have folks who’ve worked on movies like Shrek, King Kong, Gollum from LOTR and more. So, no compromises. It will still look like game engine (with the aforementioned enhancements, like depth of field and higher levels of detail) but it’s just going to be better.
Dialog is all recorded and implemented, but seeing the properly modeled and animated characters speaking it is a breath of fresh air. Recent builds have had low-res, unlit heads with broken necks speaking the lines, or worse, the line being automatically recited by a robot speech synthesizer. It’s actually pretty sophisticated until it tries to parse the word, “Mmmmhmm.”
Perhaps more enticingly, I watched storyboard and cinematics cheery, chirpy, cockney -blam!-parrow, Lee Wilson lighting a familiar character who never, ever looked so good. Too good in fact. “Yeah, guv’nor,” says Lee in his jarring Pygmalionesque pidgin, “She ort to ‘ave ‘er shaders fixed, or she don’t arf look nude. I don’t mind the raspberry ripples meself, but Mrs. Wilson would ‘ave a roight fit.”
And right behind him, Dorje, one of our amazingly talented artists, was putting the finishing touches to the skybox to end all skyboxes. Let’s just say it might have something to do with the amazing space battle Kurt Nellis (a genius who we swiped from ILM) is working on. Everything is starting to look polished and pretty.
That probably goes for the story too, but we would say that. I think the way our cinematics close this chapter of the trilogy will be one of the more memorable aspects of Halo 3, and put the bookends on a Campaign game that’s becoming something special.
THE GREAT HALO 2 MAP FLAP
So, after the poor fellows at Xbox Live learned some harsh lessons about how to implement new content internationally, across two different hardware platforms, two different billing systems, two operating systems and 35 different age rating systems, they’ve finally ironed out all the kinks in the somewhat flawed rollout of the Blastacular map pack. Everyone, with scant few exceptions, should now be able to download and install Desolation and Tombstone, the two new Halo 2 maps. But there’s more positive news on that front.
After launch, players quickly discovered a couple of geometry flaws in the maps (typical of the kind found in Halo 2) that enabled superjumping and created “invisible walls.” Well the good news is that in part, due to the systems we’ve set up to implement the maps on two hardware platforms, and thanks to heroic work by Certain Affinity (the maps’ creators), we are able to repair the more glaring flaws in these maps. We intend to do this in very short order, and almost immediately thereafter, roll them into matchmaking proper.
Now the inconvenience in this is that you will have to update the maps. There are a couple of things to consider here. . Everyone who paid for them already will not be re-billed. The fixed maps are of course free to previous purchasers.
That said, a few thousand players managed through a billing system bug, to get the maps for free. Some folks actually did this on purpose, some by accident while trying everything to get the maps to install. Neither group is in any kind of trouble, and both groups are considered blameless. Unfortunately, since the billing bug is fixed – when they get the updated maps they will be successfully charged the original four bucks they evaded first time around
Again, apologies for the inconvenience. The new maps are almost ready and we’ll give you full details about the timing as soon as Monday. Both the map replacements and the Matchmaking update are likely to happen next week, but will be separated by a couple of days to give players time to get the replacements.
THE LITTLE HALO 3 MAP FLAP
In last week’s update, I inferred by omission, that a mysterious and amazing new multiplayer map was created by Steve Cotton, our shrubbery expert, (just kidding Steve) but in fact, I should have pointed out that Steve created Jub Jub (lovely and incredible map) while the ginormous vehicle apocalypse map is the work of the equally talented Justin Hayward. He probably won’t mind me pointing out that the metallic inlays in the rock structures on that map are incredible, and I have been scanning them for Easter eggs. Nothing yet.
FOG OF BORE
There’s fog in a few places in our game. But as I admired the effect (it’s volumetric and whatnot) I remembered that it’s kind of a processor hog. It used to be, back in the day, that you put fog in to save processing cycles (and RAM) because it meant you didn’t have to draw geometry that far. Now it’s used purely for atmosphere and realism. In one level, the fog is actually based on time of day and amount of visible sunshine. It’s not some simulated weather effect – just the way the artists planned it out for the level, but moving from cool fog to warm sunshine is kind of a nice feeling in a continuous level. And very appropriate to the spring feeling that has finally visited Washington State.
That fog on the first level is purely natural in origin, but there’s fog and there’s fog.
Robt McLees is filling the story bible (and bits of the game) with data about the various classes of Grunt, Brute and so on. There are a LOT. Luckily for the fiction, they all fit pretty standard military functions – infantryman, sniper and such. Gameplay is paramount, so this process is largely dictated by designers and artists. They’ll create a type of Grunt for an encounter; Robt’s job is to give them jobs, ranks and so on. Some of this will be visible; some of it tucked way in the dark recesses of the story bible.
Necessarily, because Halo 3 completes a trilogy, we’re going to be raising the curtain on more story background than ever before. That means fleshing out specifics that we simply never elaborated on before, and defining things more firmly in the universe. A lot of fan speculation will be confirmed or proven wrong in the fall.
DELTA HELTER SKELTER
It’s a little known, and ultimately pointless fact, that internally at Bungie, we refer to the Public Beta as the “Delta” since we already have an internal Beta. Confused? Don’t be. On May 16th, the veil of mystery and confusion will be lifted once and for all, and for three glorious weeks, you will be able to play the Halo 3 Multiplayer Public Beta on your own 360, in the comfort of your home and finally put to rest all the rumormongering and speculation about what the Beta contains. The code itself is about 99.99% complete, and it’s in the final test and certification stages (fingers crossed).
Naturally we’ve had our share of leaks from the internal beta, and while it makes us angry that some people want to ruin the surprise for others, the real joy of the Beta is in the playing. We hope you’ll agree. On the 15th, the day before the Beta goes live to the public we’ll update Bnet with a cavalcade of Beta related content, including FAQs, tips, tricks, map guides and more.
FRIENDS AND FAMILY FIESTA
You may have heard rumors, tales whispered in dark corners of mysterious taverns. Bearded men speak in icy tones of a legend. A secret level of Public Beta, called ‘Friends and Family.” Aye, such a thing exists. It is the same beta, sent out a few days earlier, to Bungie Friends and Family. We never revealed how you became a friend or a family member, and nor will we. Some of ye already know who you are and how you’ll be getting your invite. Others, in for a rare treat.
A selection of Bungie.net members – regulars all - has been picked using a semi-random process devised by our own Roger Wolfson and Tom “Achronos” Gioconda. Those lucky winners have already been picked and collated. Next week, on the evening of the 11th of May, they will receive a Friends and Family code, delivered to one place and one place only. Their PM mailbox right here on Bungie.net. Spread the word – a small percentage, but still a significant number of Bnet loyalists, are getting the Golden Ticket delivered straight to their Bnet PM mailbox.
For those of you who “win,” congratulations. And for those who find that PM Mailbox empty on the 11th, our commiserations. NOTE: These winners have been picked; the ONLY way to find out is by checking that PM mailbox here on Bnet on the 11th. Do NOT ask us if you’ve won or not. We can’t tell you. Do NOT try to create a new account – it’s already too late. Do NOT spam the forums. The matter is settled.
For everyone else, the same avenues for the normal Public Beta still exist – for most of you, that means playing via specially marked versions of Crackdown (still available in stores) and a few others won contests from their regional Xbox organization.
But it’s all so much. If only I had help.
LUKE WARM WELCOME
Next week, Luke Smith, formerly news editor at 1UP.com starts work here at Bungie Studios. He’ll be taking on all manner of new Bnet projects. Some we can’t talk about because they relate to uber-top secret game-related features. Some are straightforward – Luke will be reviving and improving our Emmy award winning podcast series.* He’ll be working on day to day content and becoming a familiar face around this here place.
But next week, he’s going to be immersed into Bungie like a French fry into hot oil. Luke is a well-known Halo fanbot, so if the process doesn’t fuse his mind and cause his face to auto-depilate, I don’t know what will. Which is just as well, since next week I am jetting off around the world to begin a Halo dog and pony show I’ll share with you from other shores. Nothing too exciting, but interesting.
This week is like, crazy secrets week. I have seen three things that are ridiculously secret. All Halo 3-related. All somewhat mind blowing. Well, one of them is quirky rather than mind-blowing. We will test out the power of those secrets on Luke’s face.
*Actual podcast came out once, and won zero awards. And we will have to redo the sweet-ass song we made.
And finally, somebody asked what Mister Chief would Luke like. THEY DID!
One last thing, a reader we shall call Alkaline Black somehow convinced his GF to make Mr. Chief cupcakes. I for one do not wish to enjoy the creamy filling, but they are kinda awesome...