Halo CE Anniversary: an interview with executive producer Dan Ayoub

In my job I get to talk to some pretty passionate people who work in the games industry: one of those people is Dan Ayoub, from 343 Industries and executive producer on Halo Combat Evolved Anniversary.

I spoke to him today about Halo Anniversary and what it took to get it out to the fans. It’s long, so sit back, grab a cup of something warm and settle back …

GC: Halo CE Anniversary has already released here (in New Zealand) but first off, with a game like Halo, which really launched the original Xbox console, how daunting a task was it for the team at 343 Industries to tackle a re-imagining of that?

DA: Once we made the decision to actually do this I think there was that intimidation moment that we all had because, first of all, you know, memory is a funny thing. I always draw the analogy of watching your favourite movie when you were younger 10 years later, and you know, it’s just not the same and second of all, this is such a well-known game that was so perfect in so many ways that it was quite intimidating because we wanted to make sure that  we did something like that justice.

Ironically what we got to was: the best way to do it justice was to change as little as possible and it quickly became out mantra for the game that it needed to play exactly the same as it did so you look at all the features and the graphical improvements that are additive to the core game play but we wanted to make sure that the game played identically so that was one thing that we made sure we didn’t mess with.

GC: As you said, there’s a huge following for Halo and the original, and I guess if you deviated too much from the original, in what had been set in stone, I guess you would have felt the wrath of the fans …

DA: Oh, I think absolutely. I love Halo fans and I always say they don’t miss anything and they’re extremely passionate about their universe so, yeah, I think if we’d gone in there and started messing with it there would have been a huge backlash. I mean that kind of thinking is even what influenced us to use bits of the same engine. I say all the time that there are portions of that original Halo code that shipped 10 years ago in the game – and those are the lengths we went to to make sure that it played exactly the same. I like to joke that we shipped the game warts and all – we didn’t even fix the original bugs because in many cases those bugs have become exploits and things that people use and there are just so many funny moments involved with those that if we started fixing bugs we figured we’d get into trouble as well.

GC: How did you start on this? What was the process when you started this re-imagining?

DA: It was an interesting process. I mean, this is something that the Halo community has been asking for a really long time – in some cases since the Xbox 360 launch and I think it’s the kind of thing I think your hesitant to do just for the sake of doing it. Then when November 15, 2011 started coming around and it’s like “Wow, this is like the 10th anniversary and we’ve got to do something”. We’d talked about it for a while and we finally got to the point that we went off and explored it but as a development team we were clear about one thing: we didn’t just want to do it in high definition and call it a day: that wouldn’t be a good enough treatment for Halo. If we do this we need to be sure we can do something special and make it right for the fans.

We starting thinking from an emotional standpoint and what was it that we wanted to convey. You know, it’s the 10 year anniversary and there’s a lot of nostalgia and then we just got to the point that we want this game to help people relive the experience of what it was like to play this game 10 years ago. That was sort of what gave birth to the classic mode: it was like ‘OK, let’s create this mode where at any point you can hit the back button and see the graphics as they looked 10 years ago’ .

GC: I was really amazed with that classic mode. I remember playing Halo on the original Xbox 10 years ago. I mean, how hard was it to overlay the new look over the old engine?

DA: I was pretty tricky but it was an investment we wanted to make for two reasons. First of all, we believed in the switch mode and second of all, by figuring that problem out it meant that we could run the original Halo code at the same time – so it kind of fixed two of our problems – but it was a really complicated problem. It took us several months to get it to a point where we could see it working and what happens is you have that original game play AI code that we interwoven with the new graphics and audio engine. Probably the simplest way to describe it is imagine two screen running simultaneously and the back button is just helping you decide which screen to see.

GC: Is it a direct overlay: so if you press the back button the scene of the Anniversary edition exactly matches the scene of the original version?

DA: It basically follows you in “new” mode so if you’re in new mode, storming the beach in Silent Cartographer and you’re shooting up a bunch of grunts, and you hit the back button you’ll be at the same moment in the old mode as you were in the new mode. It’s really slick because you can be in the middle of a firefight, you know, emptying out your gun and hit the back button and that continuity is just perfect: you’re at exactly the same moment when you go back.

GC: You said as an engineering feat it was huge task but are you pleased with the end result?

DA: In terms of classic mode and the game in general, yeah, we’re really thrilled with that mode. Classic mode was kind of tricky for us: we were initially investigating putting it on the menu so when you start the game you choose which mode you wanted to play it in and for a period of time while we were waiting to hook it up we had it in game play where you could do it anytime – and I was playing it and it was clear to me and everybody else who got to play it that this was the magic. You could relive the nostalgia and at any point say “Hey, what did this look like 10 years ago?”. We also realised that it turned into a fun tool – I’m like you, I remember playing the original one – but if you’re an 18 year old gamer you were eight when the first Halo came out and you may have never really seen it and I like to say it’s 10 years of gaming evolution that you’re seeing on your screen at the same time because it’s not just how far Halo has become, it’s how far the technology has come, how far the industry has come, how far our craft has grown. I’m really pleased with how it came out and how well people are responding to it.

GC: I was talking to someone this morning and the game shows how ahead of its time that Halo was for console gaming, but who do you think this anniversary edition will appeal to?

DA: When we were putting this together, I think, if I had to say, our first group was certainly that hardcore Halo fan, right? Who’s really going to remember it, who’s really going to enjoy the nostalgia of playing it but I think there are two other categories: one, is the person that never played the original version and maybe only got in at Halo 2 or Halo 3, and I think that Halo is also important not just to Halo fans but I think it’s also important to shooter fans because Halo ushered in so many new ways of doing a shooter and crafting a shooter that even games today are using. I like to think of it (Halo) as the grand daddy of them all and it just innovated our space so much and pushed it forward.

GC: Do you think that even if it hadn’t been the anniversary of Halo do you think you guys would have remade the game anyway?

DA: Oh, wow, that’s a really great question and I’ve never even stopped to consider that. You know, I think we’re doing this because fans have asked for it for so long and it stands to reason that we probably would have got around to it anyway but I think the fan momentum for the game was picking up as the anniversary was getting closer and it seems such a good way to celebrate the birthday of this title. I think all the stars just aligned for this thing.

GC: It’s probably also a good lead in for Halo 4, isn’t it? Get gamers excited about this and keep the momentum going

DA: I think this is a really good way to reacquaint people with the Master Chief. I think there is definitely that. Also one of the features in the game is terminals, which made there debut early on as a text DOS screen but we’ve taken a much more graphical approach with them and we’ve placed some story hints in the terminals. So if you find the terminals you’ll get some story hints at what we’re planning for Halo 4. I definitely think it’s a great connective piece.

GC: 343 Industries have taken over the Halo franchise but that’s a lot of expectation on you guys, isn’t it? How do you deal with all that pressure?

DA: That’s a fair statement and I think there are tremendous expectations but I think what we have working for us is that 343 not a new studio and we’ve been involved in Halo really since Halo 3 and number of Bungie employees are now working over here but I think we’ve waded our way into the waters. The Defiant map pack was the first map pack we did entirely as 343 and now we’re onto Anniversary and I think it’s been good to show the fans that we love Halo as much as they do. I think that’s the biggest concern people had when that handover happened and we’ve got tremendous kudos from the community and huge pleas of relief with people saying ‘You guys get Halo’ and that’s really important. The big constant is the community and in my view this franchise has always belonged to them and as long as they’re still there we’re going to make great games for them. It was great to have that dialogue with the fans.

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