The Copdahl Chronicles are for your reading pleasure

The Copdahl Chronicles are for your reading pleasure

Here's a straight cut and past from a series of questions and answers with Bungie's Mr Chris Opdahl who is apparently some kind of genius Halo game maker. Like most of the people at Bungie!

The Copdahl Chronicles 

Back when I wasn’t sure if we’d have much to talk about in the update I asked our fan community to pose some questions to Reach’s Campaign Design Lead, Chris Opdahl, who graciously offered to spend time answering them. I sent Chris almost every question posed, asking him to answer the few he felt inclined to answer, and he actually answered ALL of them. It’s actually too much to include everything in this already gigantic update so we’ll share some now and some later. Here are a few of the questions pulled from the forums of Halo.Bungie.Org along with Chris’ responses: 

"Bluerunner" asks: What are your favorite missions from each Halo game? Is there a level in Reach that you think will be an instant fan favorite? 

Chris: Let's see, favorite levels from the previous Halo games: Halo 1 - Silent Cartographer, Truth and Reconciliation, Attack on the Control Room :: Halo 2 - Outskirts, Delta Halo :: Halo 3 - The Ark, The Covenant :: ODST Uplift Reserve.

One of the most exciting parts of Reach is that so many of the missions vary things up. This means that a bunch of them will be different people's favorites, based on their tastes. We have infantry missions, vehicle missions, exploration missions, slow burn missions, crazy action missions, and (if you watched the E3 presentation) there is a mission that takes you places you have never been in a Halo game. I expect there to be a lot of online discussions with greater than and less than carrots (< >) discussing Reach Missions. That said, here are some of the acronyms that are likely to show up in a lot of people's favorites:: TotS, LNoS, Ex, NA, LW (and another that would give away too much if I acronym-ized the title).

"The Alpha Elite" asks: “How is Halo Reach’s campaign meant to feel in relation to ODST? ODST had a very somber, lonely feel and I’m wondering if anything from ODST has influenced the atmosphere in Reach? 

Chris: If we did our job right, Reach will feel heroic in the face of tragedy. We definitely learned a ton from ODST. It showed us that players can get behind a Halo story that is not about the Master Chief, how to build the big ambient moments in a mission, what a city (or planet) under siege might feel like, and Firefight! 

"Leviathan" asks: What's the atmosphere in the studio as Reach nears completion? Or your personal feelings? Confident, nervous? 

Chris: The studio recently turned the corner from mad scrambling to get everything in the game, to wrapping it up and fixing all of the final bugs. This is when everyone at the studio has chances to really play through the game and get a sense of everything that is going in. So lately we hear people talking about all the moments they had in the game recently, about what they still want to fix, occasionally cursing the Committee for ‘wont fixing’ the bug they want to fix, and often laughing and having a good time with what they are currently playing. I am definitely very excited for Reach, and am curious to see what all the fans end up thinking about it. When you are surrounded by the talent at Bungie and have the time and resources that we had for Reach, it is pretty easy to be confident.

Some of the things I have heard from people at Bungie lately:

1) This is the best friendly AI driving we have seen in a Halo game.
2) (In a three player co-op game with multiple skulls on) Nearly every Elite kill requires teamwork with baiting, flanking and assassinating. It’s really interesting.
3) My Wife was incredibly invested in that character. (one of the engineers playing at home in co-op with his wife)
4) Goddamn this game is a lot of fun.
5) Cable's little tweak where the suicide Grunts get an upwards impulse before the grenades go off is a nice touch.
6) Where the *blam* did that Elite go?

That sounds pretty excited to me!

"GhaleonEB" asks:  With Reach, you Bungie has taken a more intimate, "boots on the ground" approach to story telling, focusing the action around the characters and avoiding some of the epic sweep of the previous trilogy. At the same time, the story is set duringa massive battle on a planetary scale. Can you talk about how the team is approaching conveying the scale of Reach's broader context while also keeping the narrative focus more personal?

Chris: Hey Ghaleon, from what I’ve read on NeoGAF about your feelings regarding what works for a Halo game, I think you and I are on a very similar page. Looking forward to seeing how Reach treats you.

Keeping the story on one planet (Reach) goes a long way towards solving this issue. By keeping it about one planet and one conflict we are able to spend less time telling the player where they are, and more time with the characters in the story. Not having to explain where the player is and why they are there before every mission helps to allow every line of dialog to be about the who, and not the where or the why. Add to that mix some really talented writers and story tellers in our writing group, you get the chance to make every moment count.

"SPU7N1K" asks:  The first level of Halo 3 was pretty much a tutorial for newbies-- jumping over obstacles in the jungle and getting used to the controls. How will Reach cater to those new to halo fps?

Chris: I think you always have to take into account a new player when you are making a game. And not just for the first mission. We have Armor Abilities, Assassinations, new enemies, new vehicles, and new weapons. And taking new players into account whenever you add one of those elements is very important. That said, you want to do that in such a way that it does not immediately feel like a tutorial. The more you can blend those elements into the feel of a mission, the better. Sometimes we do it by giving the player a fairly open space to practice with the new element. Other times we put the player in the encounter with other members of Noble Team, since those friendly AI can help draw fire and keep the player alive. Other times we are more heavy handed and give a series of tutorial elements for the player to play through before they proceed (this is especially true with the more complex or critical path elements).

When Halo 3 came out, Bungie sent Luke Smith and I to London for pre-launch European press work. I remember one of the magazines sent their ‘Home and Garden’ writer to check out Halo 3. The writer had never played a Halo game, and had likely not played many games at all. She had a heck of a time trying to learn to use two analog sticks to navigate the space. She could move alright, and she could look around alright, but put those two together and she was in trouble. So we broke it down so that she would move OR aim, and not try to do both at the same time. She was able to get through a few of the missions during the play through. Anytime I want to skip out on training for the player I think about that writer. Of course there is only so much we can do, since the more we have obvious training the worse of an experience it can be for the classic Halo fan (who only ever plays Legendary! amirite?) There is definitely a balancing act between catering towards those two ends of the spectrum.

"yakaman" asks: How did advances in programming efficiency, resource use, etc, affect campaign scope? Did the resource people inform the campaign people "you have X processing budget, use it wisely" or was it more like "we campaign people want to do X, Y, and Z, so give us everything you've got?

Chris: We absolutely could not have made Reach without all of the Engineering magic that went on. The sheer volume of code changes and how much more we can do because of them is staggering. We have imposters, AI LOD, a new memory management system, networking (both synchronous and asynchronous), neuticle system, Big Battle flocks, new flying vehicle behaviors, stimulus system, new damage model, physics updates and improvements, perception models, lighting model upgrades… And that is just the few things off the top of my head. All of those together allow us to make moments that we have never been able to do in a Halo game. We are also able to achieve a visual fidelity for those moments (at the scale of a Halo encounter that you have come to expect) well beyond what anyone has done before on a console.

The process is a little bit of both. We start by planning out what we were thinking for the game, at which point we start to bring in all the people who have to sweat and bleed to make it happen, and have them pass along a sanity check. Is this possible to accomplish? What sorts of sacrifices will need to be made to achieve this? What sort of Engineering and Art resources will need to be dedicated to this moment? Is that moment worth those resources? We then answer those questions and begin to flesh everything out. Along the way we always course correct as elements get out of scope or the design changes or the initial idea needs to be fleshed out further. We are constantly evaluating and reevaluating what we are making over the course of the project. Then we get to the end and we make the hard calls (which often means cutting) to get everything working and under budget, and what needs to get cut or changed to make that particular moment (or the entire game) work.
"TravisSch" asks: Since you are mostly done squishing bugs in campaign, how much deja vu do you go through when playing the Reach campaign levels over and over again? Have you played the levels long enough to know exactly what is going to happen at a certain moment in the level?

Chris: One of the most challenging parts of game design is the ability to keep a fresh eye on the game. One of the last tasks I did for Reach was to figure out the balance for Normal, Heroic and Legendary and then solve for 2, 3 and 4 player coop for each of the difficulties. It is very easy to play the game so much that everything feels too easy and you make everything a little harder, which is (obviously) incredibly dangerous. The best way to counteract that is to try to play the game in a way that emulates a newer player, and someone who had not played each mission 100+ times. Some of the tricks I try to use to simulate ‘worst-case’ players are: 

• If I can play the game incredibly aggressively on Normal and still generally make it to cover every time -> the game is slightly too easy. I usually want the game to sometimes beat me when I get really aggressive, but certainly not every time.
• I should be able to beat the game on Heroic with just vehicles and the plasma pistol. I don’t get stuck on any encounter for long periods of time but dying times on any encounter is cool.
• Legendary should require me to really think about every encounter when I don’t pick up any of the hidden weapons. If I find myself in a location with a placed weapon, I pick it up. But I don’t go scouring the map for goodies. With that in mind Legendary should routinely kick my butt until I find the right strategy.
• Coop should have everyone who is playing yelling and laughing throughout the mission (including cursing the Mission Designer for the mission). People should still play the game on their normal difficulty level regardless of coop players, unless they want a challenge. ß tThis one is less about how I play and more about what I listen for when people are playing
      - We played the third mission last week on three player coop, on Legendary, with a couple skulls on. And we had to really work together to make it through the mission.

The great thing about Halo is that I still don’t know exactly what is going to happen in most of the encounters. They surprise me all the time. I have a pretty good idea what challenge is coming down the pipe, but how it plays out will be very different this time than last, especially if I tackle it in a different way. 

"Duncan”"asks: - When planning out the campaign levels, is there any push to recreate situations from the previous games? As in, "Ooh, we should have a level like The Maw run. Add in a Truth and Reconciliation level here." Or are those types of similarities more accidental in nature? How much effort is put into making new gameplay mechanics like Space Combat feel like Halo? Was there ever a point early on when it felt too out of place? If you could remake Halo 1's campaign using the Reach engine what would be your favorite change/update to make? 

Chris: It is definitely a little bit of both. We went into some missions with the intent to capturing the feeling specific missions from previous Halo games. We also talked a lot about what experiences and emotions we wanted to capture from the previous games. A great example of that isare the senses of wonder and the sense of exploration from Halo 1. You don’t need to necessarily recreate a situation to make that happen, but understanding what created that feeling from those missions is important if we want to recapture it.

Obviously there is a fair amount of Art and Gameplay Sandbox that went exclusively into Space Combat, and much of the AI systems were used in other parts of the game (like flying behaviors). My guess is that the amount of work specifically for Space Combat is on par with the work on the Scarab for Halo 3, but that is just a guess. We view Space Combat in very similar ways that we view the Banshee missions from past Halo games. It is a change of pace for the player and an opportunity to see something in the game that they have not seen before. My feeling is that the Space Mission not only delivers on the fun gameplay elements, but also opened up specific story opportunities that we would not have had available without it. Given that, it never felt out of place.

Man, I have no idea what I would change from Halo 1. I still view Halo 1 as one of the pinnacle moments of games for me, and who knows what terrible damage I would wreck cause by changing anything about that game. 

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