My Trip to Bungie
11/5/04 Bungie was so very gracious to invite us to their studios for an advance peek at "Halo 2." Lucky Stuffo! All this week, we'll be running exclusive interviews with Bungie team members so you can find out what we learned when we went. Also coming this week: screenshots and video.
How does one describe a trip to Bungie Studios? I imagine Dorothy could relate to my struggle to find words when she tried to impart her tale to see the wizard. Despite the lack of a "million gallon aquarium or ground based space laser," as studio manager Pete Parsons so eloquently put it, I was no less impressed with my peek behind the curtain.
To put it mildly, Bungie is a heck of a place. Nestled deep in the heart of the sprawling office park splendor of Microsoft's Redmond campus, Bungie is in the same building as other parts of the Microsoft Game Studios and yet still worlds apart.
My guide for the day was Agnes Hansdorfer. Though not technically a Bungie employee, Agnes was one of the forces behind the marketing and PR for "Halo 2." So just like the people I was about to meet, Agnes had been living and breathing "Halo 2" for the last few months. When Agnes later said, "I heart Master Chief, " I believed her.
"So this is it." Agnes swung her arm in a wide arc around a non-descript office hallway. "This is where the magic happens. This is Bungie Studios," she said through a wry laugh as we made our way down the hall. Honestly, not at all what I expected. For all of its lackluster, it could have just as well been an orthodonist's office.
We made our way to a small reception area with plush chairs, a "Halo 2" adorned coffee table, a trophy case loaded with awards and a "Streetfighter" stand up arcade game machine in the corner. Now we're talking.
The first Bungie person I met was administrative assistant Alta Hartmann. She was a delightful woman with a beautiful smile that poured enthusiasm into everything she said. As we chatted, I made a mental note that I would bet Alta was largely responsible for holding Bungie together. Alta told me how the team had only just gotten their retail copies of "Halo 2" and how much she and her boyfriend enjoyed playing the game at home.
She went on to explain how exciting it was around the studio these days, so close to launch. She likened the vibe around the office to planning a wedding and then remembered she had to order food for the office launch party. I made a second mental note that my first mental note was undoubtedly correct.
From around the corner I heard a familiar voice. Pete Parsons strolled into the reception area. I had recently interviewed Pete on the phone. It was great to meet him in person. After excusing himself, and I quote, "to the little Master Chief's room," Pete promised me a tour of the studio when he returned.
Agnes and Alta ducked out for a minute leaving me alone in the reception area. I pored over the trophy case. "Game of the Year", "Best of Show" and the like adorned every trophy in the case. Then the full gravity of the situation hit me. I realized I was standing in the beating heart of the Halo universe and I was about to meet the people behind this legendary game. I realized that today, the day after the election, I was going to play "Halo 2." I realized that they were millions of people who would kill to be in my shoes right now. I realized my fly was down. Sometimes I hate myself.
The Tour Begins
When Pete returned, he started the tour. He took me through the main work area -- a large, dark space with desks and cubicles arranged as if they were meant to stop an oncoming invasion. Most of the desks were empty on November 3rd -- Pete explained that many Bungie folks were still on vacation. The low light, modular office furniture, mounds of gear, clutter and general lack of human beings gave the whole space a vibe that blended "Office Space" with the Gaza Strip.
Pete led me to the multiplayer test area. The room was being re-purposed during my visit but in the back part of the room sat sixteen TVs that were hooked up to sixteen Xboxes in two back-to-back rows of eight. The whole thing was networked. I pinched myself.
Pete explained that this room was also where they brought in outside test subjects to play the game and record every aspect of their experience. Test players reactions -- to the sound, visuals, weapons, gameplay, interface, and difficulty -- were all monitored and taken into consideration.
Next, Pete took me through the art and engineering departments. As we walked, Pete talked about each aspect of the job and the people doing those jobs. If Halo were a religion, then Pete would be its profit. Unshaven and clad in a flannel shirt, Pete bounded around the studio with giddy excitement of a proud father, the swagger of a pro athlete and the charisma of a campaigning politician. He is definitely the Mayor of Halotown.
Along the way, Pete pointed out highlights like the desk where the Warthog was created and the area where weapons are developed. He showed me his desk in the middle of it all. No big office for this studio manager. In fact, he had one of the smaller desks in the place. Later, we stopped by the station and recording suites where Marty O' Donnell creates the music and sound for "Halo." Though Marty was out, Pete detailed some of the new aspects of the sound in "Halo 2." (You can check that out later this week in the Stuffo article on the sound of "Halo 2.")
Bungie.net and the Clubhouse
Pete then led me to a piles of whiteboards stuffed in the corner of a small room. On each one was a detailed, hand-drawn map broken up into encounters, enemy placement, dialogue, triggers for cut scenes and more. Pete explained how these whiteboards were the building blocks the team used to develop "Halo 2."
Next was a visit to the area of the office set side for Bungie.net. While most of the office was abandoned, the Bungie.net side was a buzzing hive of activity. With "Halo 2" opening up multiplayer to the world, Bungie.net has the responsibility of shepherding the world's largest game of cowboys and Indians. One of the coolest new features in "Halo 2 "is that it now has a fully-functioning online component with stats, ranking and more. The Xbox Live experience will be tied into the Web site for those gamers who have signed up on Bungie.net.
Going down a small hallway behind the Bungie.net area, we got to another set of cubicles for the game-testers. Pete pointed out how important these guys were and detailed the extensive debugging processing that "Halo 2" went through. Bungie actually developed an automated system for finding and tracking bugs in the game. As I was told by many people that day, the two Halo games have gone through far more testing than most video games. This is a key component to their flawless presentation by the time it makes it to your Xbox.
Our last stop was the Bungie clubhouse. "Not a very impressive room but a lot of important stuff happened here," Pete said almost apologetically. The "no girls allowed" sign didn't stop Agnes from following us into the bean-bag-filled room. Pete explained that the clubhouse is where everybody got together to flesh out the story of "Halo 2" and hammer out the core design work and game details.
Later in the day, I had an opportunity to sit down and talk at length with several members of the "Halo 2" team. Lead Gameplay Designer Jamie Griesemer, Bungie.net Content Manager Frank O'Conner, Designer Tyson Green, and Engineering Lead Chris Butcher. Next week, as our "Halo 2" coverage continues, you can check out our interviews with each of these guys to get the lowdown on the creation of "Halo 2."
I Get Schooled
Pete and Agnes wanted to make sure that I got an opportunity to see the game in action. First up -- a few rounds of multiplayer. When the game call went out, it was like someone rang the dinner bell. Bungie staffers practically leapt over desks to get to the multiplayer area.
After the rush, I took the last available seat. They were gracious enough to find me an old-school Xbox big controller because I can't play "Halo" on the S-controller. I created a profile, inverted my controls and it was on.
Now, I'm no slouch at "Halo," but playing multiplayer "Halo 2" with fifteen guys that helped to create the game ... how to say this ... I got worked. I got dusted. It was like I wasn't even there. What did you expect? Playing "Halo 2" multiplayer with the guys at Bungie is like playing paintball with Navy SEALs.
Even more impressive was the guys' string of expletives. They communicate during games using some odd in-house dialect of English that I'll just call Bunganese. They take trash-talking to a new level, as they rip on each other not only for game skills, but also for their own work in the game. I actually heard someone defend themselves by saying "You're not ripping on my geometry. You better not be ripping on my geometry." I don't even really know what that means.
A Taste of Campaign
The multiplayer was fantastic. I kept forgetting I could wield dual weapons, but when I did remember it was a sweet symphony of destruction. After several rounds of Team Slayer, we played Oddball with rockets only, on this one map in some kind of factory with a gravity lift on one end. Players could use the gravity lift to leap ridiculously high into the air. The great thing was that blasted bodies would periodically get thrown into the lift and spat up into the air. You would be locked in a rocket fight and then out of no where a dead body would come raining down. Good clean family fun!
After some more interviews, it was time for the moment I had been waiting for all day. It was time for a little one-on-one with the Chief. Campaign mode.
Alta sat me at a desk with an Xbox, a controller and a TV. After it fired up, I heard that sweet, sweet music. I sat down, created a profile, turned up the volume, and accidentally changed the channel on a TV that they had lost the remote for some time ago. Go Robert!
After setting me up for a second time and adding me to a list of journalists who aren't allowed to touch anything in the studio, I was ready to go again. I was playing "Halo 2."
And the Verdict Is?
What can I say?
Do you remember the first time you saw "The Empire Strikes Back"? Yes ... it's that good. I was joyfully transported back to a wonderful and familiar world, but everything was different and new. I clung to every detail I saw and was amazed by the scale of this new offering. A jaw-dropping cut scene ushered in the second dark act of the saga. It was beautiful.
Then, before I knew it, I was back inside the armor of the Master Chief, and you know what it was time to do. You've read about dual wielding, you've talked about the new weapons, but brother, wait until you actually have two SMGs, one in each hand, and you're using them like bullet hoses to water down the Covenant with so much lead.
I'm not going to rob you of any of the awe I felt by spilling the details. Suffice it to say, my little bit of time with "Halo 2" has already exceeded my expectations and has turned my already fevered anticipation into a frothing madness.
Right as I was about to part an Elite's head with a two charged shots from two Plasma pistols, I got the tap on my shoulder from Agnes. It was time to go. I hit pause so that the Elite wouldn't use the interruption to his advantage and glared at him through the pause screen. You got away this time, you Covenant bastard, but we'll meet again. On November 9th, we'll meet again.