It's been an interesting year for Halo creator Bungie. In April the US studio signed a mammoth 10-year publishing deal with Activision for the worldwide rights to "bring Bungie's next big action game universe to market".
Since the announcement, Bungie's kept schtum on what its next big action game universe actually is, concentrating instead on bigging up upcoming Xbox 360 exclusive Halo: Reach.
But that didn't stop us from asking campaign designer Niles Sankey and community director Brian Jarrard about the deal and a whole lot more besides at a preview event in London yesterday. Oh, and have we mentioned Halo 4?
Eurogamer: You've said Reach is your last Halo game. Now it's nearly out, do you feel any tinge of regret? Do you wonder whether you've made the right decision?
Brian Jarrard: I've spoken with lots of people on the team. It's something we talk a lot about. Honestly, because we haven't released the game yet, I don't think it's fully sunk in for the majority of people.
People are just happy that the hard work is now behind them. Personally, it's not going to be until a couple of months out when we start to realise we're done working in this universe and this space.
I don't think there are any regrets, though. I have never heard any sentiment of that. There's a sense of pride and accomplishment for not only creating such a rich universe to be able to persist for so long, but feeling truly that we've built our best Halo game yet.
Niles Sankey: In many ways we don't feel done at all. We still have the best part about game development, which is releasing it to the public. It's always the most exciting part.
Especially with things like the new Forge and Forge World, we still haven't experienced the full Halo: Reach ourselves. Once we release it we get to see what the community does and how they contribute. It's so exciting.
Eurogamer: Why tell the story of Reach? Why not continue Master Chief's story?
Niles Sankey: Obviously the Master Chief story is cool in its own right. But with the Master Chief's story, he's the last Spartan. We wanted to see what is it like, back in the day before Master Chief, when there was a huge Covenant invasion and you had armies of Spartans and squads of Spartans engaging the huge army and invasion of the Covenant.
This is a good story in which we get to the high point or epicentre of the full-on battle. So we were like, "Yeah, we gotta do that.'"
On top of that, it does tell part of the story of the Chief. People do like to see how this all came to be, and how this story leads in, and how does Noble team impact the story of the Master Chief?
Brian Jarrard: There's something nice and poetic about ending our 10 years of Halo by going back to where it all began. And by being a self-contained story, too.
We've mentioned this before: the first discussion we ever had at Bungie started with, "OK, well let's discuss what Halo 4 might be and what could that entail?" But it quickly became potentially way more than we could fit into a single game and do it well.
It obviously brings forward a lot of baggage with it, too. If you're not familiar with all that's transpired before it, is that going to be a great experience for players?
Going back to Reach, the events on that planet and that turning point in the war are beloved by fans. It's an exciting point in the universe. Everything aligned to make it compelling for our studio.
Eurogamer: Activision has a bad reputation at the moment. Does that concern you?
Brian Jarrard: Do they? No, it doesn't concern us at all. We've spoken quite a bit about this. Certainly it's not great the situation that it's in.
I don't know any more about it than anybody else does. We're game developers. We have a great plan. We're excited about our future and our new universe that we're going to bring to life.
We have an awesome deal with those guys. Ultimately, I don't think it's going to matter who helps that game into the hands of gamers, other than we're happy to know Activision's got world-class publishing expertise across mutliple platforms and they're going to be a great partner that's given us a great relationship and a great deal.
So, we're not too worried about it.
Niles Sankey: 80 per cent of my answer is, we're still, in total honesty, getting over Reach. I don't mean getting over it, but excited to release it.
But, when we do look to the future, the nice thing about working at Bungie I'd say is, unique to any of the jobs I've had in the industry, the publishers know they can trust us.
They know if they trust Bungie we will deliver a great game experience. We won't fail at that. That's earned us a lot of freedom and latitude to do what we feel is right.
In the end I'm not worried at all. I'm sure the future's bright. I'll leave it at that.
Eurogamer: Is Master Chief in the campaign?
Brian Jarrard: Master Chief's not part of the Reach campaign. You can get him in the Armoury as fan service. But it will not feature his story.
Eurogamer: How long is the campaign?
Brian Jarrard: I can't give you a number of hours. Everyone wants to try to quantify it. Even looking back at the first Halo games, I've heard such radically different play through experiences and times.
Eurogamer: Is it bigger than Halo 3?
Brian Jarrard: I'd say it's at least the same, if not bigger. But it depends on how you're going to decide to play it.
Niles Sankey: There are a lot more options and things to keep you playing anyway.
Brian Jarrard: You will never feel like, "Why am I replaying back through this mission again and going backwards?" Each moment is totally original and unique and there's a new experience around every corner.
Eurogamer: Why did you build a new engine for Reach? Was it because of fan feedback?
Niles Sankey: We're our biggest critics by far. With every aspect of the game - it's not just the graphics but other things like animation and AI are huge leaps forward.
We make games we want to play. Of course, we want to play a great game with great graphics. So when we set out for Reach we said, 'Well sure, we gotta up the stakes here.'
Better graphics was challenging because we needed to retain the notion of, these are open levels that players can play how they want. It's a sandbox game.
Brian Jarrard: Just doing what we did three years ago obviously wouldn't be good enough. It's certainly not a reaction to critics or complaints or anything like that.
It's more about, how do we push this even further? And how are we going to realise this vision of having bigger missions with hyper detailed characters and much larger squads and bigger encounters?
We realised none of that would have been possible with most of our old tech. It needed to be gutted just to bring this Halo experience up to the level we had envisioned, and also to bring this game up to the current generation of game expectations and game experiences.
Eurogamer: Expectations of visuals have changed since Halo 3's release. Killzone 2 springs to mind. Do you keep an eye on other games in that sense?
Brian Jarrard: Sure. We're all gamers, too. It's not always easy to find time to play stuff. But our artists and our engineers and our designers - everyone's always interested in what's happening in the industry.
I wouldn't go so far as to say we're always waiting and watching and trying to react, because by then we've already made our decisions and set down our cores.
To us graphics are more a means to an end. It's really just about the experience and immersing players and just delivering a great game.
We're not trying to hit, we have X number of polygons or we're pushing X resolution. Halo has always been about the aesthetic and the art style, generally speaking, more so than just pushing numbers.
With Reach we were able to find a balance and do both at a level we couldn't have achieved before.
Eurogamer: BioWare's Greg Zeschuk reckons 10 million sales constitutes a hit. Do you agree? Do you care about sales?
Brian Jarrard: 10 million sounds awesome. I don't think we would complain about that.
Off the top of my head, I couldn't even tell you what Halo 3's lifetime numbers are. I certainly don't know what ODST has sold.
Obviously sales are important. We're an independent studio. We have a livelihood to maintain and a business to run and people to feed and a future to fulfil.
But I don't think it's something most of our team spends much time on or has any awareness of. It's just, do the best work you possibly can. You can't get caught up in that cycle of trying to second-guess yourself. "Oh, but if we add this maybe we're going to bump our sales up to X."
More on Halo: Reach
Eurogamer: It must be great to be able to do that and know that Reach is a guaranteed hit.
Brian Jarrard: People say that. We haven't sold it yet.
There isn't that attitude in the studio at all, though. It's funny, as successful as the series has been, as great as every game has been prior to Reach, the general attitude of the team hasn't changed.
Every game is always about doing your best possible work. How can we improve on the last game we made? Even to this day, we're so critical of our work that some people don't realise that thing you think was terrible actually set a new industry standard and now everyone's trying to copy it.
Eurogamer: You've made your name making first-person shooters. Is there a feeling internally that you'd like to try something else?
Brian Jarrard: I'm not going to give you any hints to the genre of our future projects. But, Bungie, even going back to Marathon, obviously there are a lot of us that enjoy playing these types of games and putting players up close and personal and being able to tell a story in that kind of way.
We enjoy that. But Myth was an innovative action-RTS at the time. Oni was a third-person game that had a lot of interesting hand-to-hand combat dynamics.
We like to pride ourselves on great technology, beautiful art, responsive, tight gameplay and deep integrated social and community systems. All of that in a rich deep universe that people want to spend time in. For us, those are hallmarks of our titles and themes we'll be carrying forward into our future work, for sure.
Niles Sankey: The only thing I'd say is absolutely critical that we do in our games is less genre-based and more an approach to games that says, "Hey, how fast can we get people in and playing and having fun?"
Halo, the first one, it prided itself on being a very simple console approach to the FPS. The important thing there we struck on at Bungie was presenting an experience to the player that is easy to get into and easy to have fun.
That is reflected in things like Forge. A lot of other games have editors. It takes practically a degree to figure out how to use them, right? Forge is just fun to use. Even if you never make something you can end up playing in a Slayer match, you can have fun just moving the pieces around. You can drop a tank on your friend's head because it's a co-op experience.
That is the critical approach we take to games: easy accessibility to the most amount of immediate fun.
It's really an exciting time in the industry. It goes back to our future. It's such a great time. We feel like we're still in the early years of videogame development and the really big things you can never expect and never see coming.
I'm very proud to be at Bungie. I feel we're going to have a huge impact in the future of games and some of the best, maybe the best stuff is still yet to come. I believe that.
Halo: Reach will be released on 14th September for the Xbox 360.