Jason Jones Interviewed By You
Posted by Sketch at 12/18/2001 10:21 AM PST

Jason Jones Q & A

December 18, 2001

At long last, the much-anticipated Fan Interview with Jason Jones is done! Before we get to the interview, I'd like to say a few words about the question-selection process for the benefit of those who didn't get their questions answered. We spent most of a weekend sifting through the many letters sent to the Halo Q&A address. We expected a deluge of email and we weren't disappointed, but Jason is a busy guy and we had to narrow down the list of questions to a manageable size.

- By far the most frequently-asked question was "I heard Halo is Xbox-only. Will there be a PC version?" Jason has already answered this question, as have other Bungie representatives. The answer continues to be: Yes, there will be PC and Mac versions of Halo. We saw no reason to make Jason answer it again.

- The second-most-frequently-asked questions concerned the PC version of Halo. Unfortunately they were all really detail-oriented things that can't be answered right now ("In PC Halo, what frame rate will I get on a P4 overclocked to 2.8 GHz and the recently-announced GeForce 4-Zillion?"). It's not that we don't want to; it's just that the PC versions aren't far enough along yet for us to say anything substantial about them.

- A coarse few asked questions that were just plain rude (i.e. "How does it feel to be a traitor $ellout whore, Mi$ter Benedict Arnold Jone$?"). Most of these were prefaced with "You probably won't bother to answer this one, but..." Guess what? You were right.

- Finally, there were a few good questions that just didn't make it in because I can't make Jason answer questions all day. Maybe we'll do another fan interview with him sometime.

We'd like to thank everyone who sent in a question for this interview, and we hope you'll continue to help us interview the Halo team. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this collection of your questions and Jason's answers. Be advised that it includes a couple minor spoilers and one naughty word, for those of you who are picky about that sort of thing.

What did you learn from working on Marathon and Myth that helped prepare you for Halo?

Right before the end of any enormous creative project, it hurts. Everyone's tired all the time and you forget what it's like to drive home while the sun is still up. In July.

But it's always worth it. In the midst of those last days, I told a friend that Halo was like a cathedral self-assembling out of a hurricane. The speed at which new bits of art and sound and design were smacking into just the right place and being mortared into the whole was astonishing. We all sort of sat around in the after days, collectively wondering how the hell it had all come together and having a nervous laugh at the whole thing because it seemed kind of supernatural. More or less, this always happens. It helped to have this experience behind us at the end of Halo.

We learned a lot of hard design lessons back in the day, as well. The entire single player game of Pathways was a lesson in how not to balance the difficulty of a video game. Myth taught us the importance of showing people not just how to play the game (which our training level did competently), but how to have fun playing the game. In Marathon 2, when I said that I hoped "All Roads Lead To Sol" atoned for the sins of "Colony Ship For Sale, Cheap!" I was serious. I can't believe anyone ever finished Marathon 1. I can't believe Greg didn't shoot me.

How much design influence did you have on Halo as compared to previous games? Which role do you enjoy more, programming or designing games?

Halo was a really different experience for me than Marathon 1 and 2, and Myth 1. In all three of these games I was personally responsible for building, scripting or populating about half the single player levels, handling all game balance, writing about half the core game code and half (in Marathon) to almost all (in Myth) of the story. Working on Halo, I didn't get to script a single level, wrote none of the dialogue, and only did a small amount of coding. Everyone else got to do the glorious work (and my younger self has stopped talking to me because he thinks I'm turning into a manager, no matter how many times I tell him I'd rather rewrite Marathon's quad rasterizer for the fifth time than have another scheduling meeting).

Yet Halo kept me as busy as all those previous projects, so what did I do? Talking, mostly. I had a lot of dumb ideas, for sure (ask Jaime), but I had some good ones too, and I like to think that was my biggest contribution to Halo. We started in Seattle with a solid story, a sturdy technical foundation and an understanding of what was going to make the game fun. There was much left unplanned and undecided, but the roots were there. After that, I spent the rest of the time talking about these ideas (and lying to Hamilton about how Joe was going to be able to finish the cutscenes for sure, no problem, really, probably tomorrow even, and isn't that a few hours before we go into certification anyway, relax, down badger, plenty of time, look the pope!).

As for which I like better, designing or programming, I've never been able to decide. I hope people noticed I stopped trying to draw after Pathways, though.

I was watching the trailer again (I live in Australia, so no Halo for me yet!) and was wondering where the name "Pillar of Autumn" came from - at first it seemed like a pretty strange name, but it's really grown me. Who thought it up, and is there any significance behind it?

That was me, and yeah, there is a story behind it, though not half as interesting as that of her twice-renamed sister ship, "Dawn Under Heaven".

But forget the name, isn't it kind of suspicious that a single human corvette had any success at all against the Covenant navy, when in every previous battle the humans mostly just got sawed in half by particle beams when they tried to stand up to the aliens? (much less disabling four of their capital ships!) Do we know anyone who can work magic in fleet engagements against odds like that?

Ow. Somebody just kicked me under the table.

At what point in the development process was it decided it was not possible to create the truly "seamless" world as originally announced? Would that have required at least some computer-generated terrain, and if so was such ever coded or used in Halo at any stage?

There should be a stage in every product where the ludicrous is thought possible, where the team blazes trails right to the edge of the abyss in a hundred directions. Only through great risks are great things achieved, and all that. We were at this stage on Halo when we stupidly did a series of magazine interviews during E3. I'm surprised they didn't print the parts about stately pleasure domes and caverns measureless to man, too.

We had code running, back in Chicago, that spooled in and out geometry as you traversed an enormous world (an archipelago created during an ancient asteroid strike, back when the fortress worlds were planets and not rings), but our ideas changed. We wanted more fighting and less wandering. Action, not exploration. That giant world was sure cool, but it was more appropriate for an RPG game, which is not, in the end, what we decided to create.

How flexible is Halo's engine? Did you make it just for the game that you wanted, or with other games in mind? Is Halo just scratching the surface of the engine? Do you have a name for it?

I've always thought Bungie's greatest strength was that we had little distinction between design and code. The programmers all care about design here, and there is always a good understanding about why a piece of code is important to the game. This means that when a programmer is busy cutting and pasting away on some new feature he's going to have all kinds of ideas how he could write the code just a little bit different to make it better, or what other kinds of things a designer could build if the code was just a little more flexible. This interplay between the designers and programmers (who are sometimes the same people), is incredibly valuable.

What it means, though, is that we end up with an engine designed to run Halo, and not much else. It'd be useful as a starting point for other things, but we built it for Halo, and we tried hard to show players everything it could do.

And it doesn't have a name. Naming a video game engine is as egotistical as naming your- Ow! Who keeps kicking me?

If you had to pick the one thing you're most unhappy about in the context of the development of Halo, what would it be?

Lack of time; XBox launch as an inflexible deadline.

Don't misunderstand, though; after ten years of watching new consoles from 3D0 to Playstation2 launch without a Bungie title, it was quite a ride to be part of XBox launch. Figuring out how to squeeze a new piece of hardware is the kind of thing programmers live for, and it was a great challenge to try and take all the design lessons we've learned over the years and take a stab at the mainstream with one hand and hang on to our soul with the other.

I'm proud of what we accomplished, but much was left undone: so many ideas that never made it into the AI, so much artwork for weapons or characters we never got a chance to put into the game, so many ways to tell the story better. The environments in particular were hard, because they couldn't be started until we'd finished the new XBox engine but they had to be done early enough for the designers to populate them.

The hard launch date was valuable, though, because it forced everyone to focus on actually finishing the game in a way we hadn't been in Chicago.

Did all of the Covenant fleet from Reach follow you to Halo? If so, the Covenant is probably no longer a major threat to Earth, right?

Believing they were being led to an undiscovered human world, yes, the vast majority of the Covenant fleet which destroyed Reach followed the Pillar of Autumn to Halo (a minority of the navy's AIs actually disagree with this, believing instead that the Covenant followed the Pillar of Autumn because they had already found the Alpha Halo and wanted to prevent the humans from finding it as well). The Covenant is so much larger than the Earth Empire, however, that the divergence of a fleet of this size has no impact whatever on their search for Earth.

Naval Intelligence knows of a least four Covenant battle groups, centered around assault carriers like the Truth and Reconciliation, prowling near the human sphere. Thus far, our best weapon in the Covenant war has been the incomprehensible vastness of space: habitable planets are few, and the distances between them enormous. But it can only be a matter of months before the Covenant find another human world, and there are few left. Even worse, after Reach the Navy became convinced that the location of Earth had been compromised (how, really, could you keep a secret like that for long?), and a long-planned exodus of military industry from Earth and Mars began.

So we really aren't any better off, even after the events of Halo. Sure, we stopped the Covenant from making off with any good bits of the ring, cut short the Flood's galactic joyride in the Truth and Reconciliation and knocked the gun pointed at the head of the universe out of the Monitor's hands, but the people of Earth still watch the sky every night, waiting for the hammer to fall.

Back in the early days of Bungie, the team put a huge amount of thought into the background of the games, such as Pathways and particularly the Marathon series. The plot points were often hidden, so that they were only visible to people who looked for them. Where do you (and the team) draw your influences from, and how do you weight the importance of plot to action?

I didn't even bring my TV with me from Chicago, so I'll talk about books. Influences are many, but history and mythology on one hand, and science fiction on the other are the most powerful. I'm really only speaking for myself, but I'll give some examples.

Just so everyone knows (remembers?) I'm a freak, I'll do history first. In the darkest hours of Halo, coming home at two or three in the morning and having to get up before eight the next day, I read all seven volumes of Oman's Peninsular War (the journals of infantry soldiers in this war, especially John Kinkaid, are also entertaining). Only Churchill, in his own memoirs of World War II, better glorifies the righteous struggle of a reluctant but determined underdog. Butcher calls this war porn. They're also great stories.

I've shunned classical mythology for years now, but there's no shortage of great stories from other cultures. David Ferry's "interpolation" (as opposed to translation; I still can't believe I even picked up this book) of Gilgamesh is an interesting read.

The new generation of science fiction from Banks (Feersum Endjinn), Vinge (Deepness in the Sky), Hamilton (Reality Dysfunction), Reynolds (Revelation Space), and that lot is well read here, but one of the best bits of space opera of all time is Starhammer, by Christopher Rowley. Good luck finding a copy these days, though.

That said though, it's the action that matters. We could have talked for years about the Nar's coal powered starships and it wouldn't have made Marathon any more fun to play. The game has got to come first, but it's made stronger by a good story.

Do you see Bungie's work as a whole (from Minotaur and PID onwards) to be a continuous progression reflecting the same ideals and themes? Are there any primary influences that have been drawn upon for the bulk of Bungie's creative output; something profound that has somehow manifested itself in all of Bungie's incarnations?

Wasn't it obvious after Gheritt White, even if you missed it in Pathways?

How do you react to people who review your game poorly, especially when they point out something completely ridiculous and untrue about the game?

I personally find it impossible to read public reviews of projects I've worked on. When bad, they're always a downer, no matter how much you try to shrug it off (you've just let off slashing your wrists every day for two or three years to put this thing together, right?, what does this guy know?). But a thousand times worse are the good reviews. When somebody pisses on you, hopefully you think about what you could do different next time to avoid getting wet. When it's all sweetness and light and you can't walk without stepping on rose petals it makes you lazy.

What is your opinion on the development of the "Xbox Gateway" and "Gamespy Arcade's Tunnel" software that will let you play Halo online right now! Are you against this or are you happy to see the community taking such an interest in playing this game online right now. But most importantly, do you plan on having these two software programs stopped?

I love this kind of hacking, and would never let anyone try and stop it. My only regret of course is that Halo's network code assumes it's running on a LAN and so you feel every last millisecond of latency (for "feel" read "are messily stabbed over and over again in the eye by"). Knowing how little time we had to make launch and that the XBox internet service would not go live until 2002, we drastically simplified the networking code. This let us spend much needed programmer time elsewhere.

You're on the cutting edge of a hot industry. Describe for us, if you will, a gameplay sequence or experience that is not quite possible now but will be possible in the next three years.

I hope this doesn't sound short-sighted, but I don't think about this very often. Video games are about doing everything you can with what you've got, so thinking about what's not possible isn't really that interesting. You've got a story to tell, a game to build, a piece of hardware to run it on and two years to get it done. Go.

You've got to think crazy, of course, because you only get innovation by refining insanity, but thinking about anything beyond the next two years is just masturbation.

Easy question: What was the best work related experience that happened to you last week?

It's been hard to get anything done in the last few weeks, what with Tyson busting out "O Canada" at the least provocation, Chucky suddenly telling jokes again and Butcher raging about us all being savages. But let me think. It's nice to actually play other people's games again, but that's probably not what you mean, either, you probably think we've been working. Ask me again in a month.

Where do you see Video Games heading? If only we could get theory and criticism behind it, video games could become a new established art form, and surpass existing popular forms of entertainment (ie bad movie blockbusters, and television)... Have you put any thought into this, and how to advance your art into a higher critical realm?

I'm not sure I like being taken seriously. A month ago a reporter from one of the big west coast papers asked me a leading question about video games being used by the marines to train real life soldiers, and hey, would I be interested in talking to them about Halo, because that sounds interesting, right? Hell yes, I say, as soon as the fucking space marines are interested in a real time training tool to desensitize themselves to killing aliens, I'll give you a quote for that story about video game violence you're working on.

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