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Originally published August 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 6, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Brier Dudley

Microsoft's "Halo" faces its toughest test yet

The game was mostly finished on July 20, but last Wednesday night Harold Ryan and his lead developers played through "Halo 3" one more time...

Seattle Times staff columnist

The game was mostly finished on July 20, but last Wednesday night Harold Ryan and his lead developers played through "Halo 3" one more time, looking for places to squeeze in even more features.

For the time being, Ryan may be the most important person at Microsoft. The 36-year-old Spokane native runs Bungie Studios, the company's flagship Xbox game developer.

On Sept. 25 Bungie will release the third installment of its hugely popular "Halo" series of sci-fi shooting games revolving around an armored Marine battling aliens.

Fans are enthused about previews released so far, but the pressure's on Ryan to deliver more than a great game.

Microsoft's counting on him to deliver a blockbuster that will finally make the Xbox division profitable.

If "Halo 3" is a hit, it should give the division momentum to move past concerns about the console's reliability, fend off Sony and Nintendo and, ultimately, convince Wall Street and the world that Microsoft can build a massive, successful entertainment business from scratch. If it flops and the division falters, it will renew skepticism about Microsoft's ability to ever expand beyond its aging cash cows.

At the very least, he's expected to better "Halo 2," which has grossed more than $300 million, including $125 million in the first 24 hours after its release in 2004.

That's a lot riding on Ryan's beefy shoulders, but he seems unfazed and focused, a wry engineer with a methodical approach to designing, testing and releasing what's essentially more software.

Maybe that's why Microsoft trusted him enough to delay the release for nearly a year, giving Bungie time to get it right.

"The main focus for us is always on the quality of the game," he explained in a voice still gravelly from the previous night's battle. "It's sort of the way we run and the way Microsoft prefers for us to run ... in the long run it's the right results for everybody, for us to focus on the quality of the experience we're producing and then, second, to worry about time."

Started as contract tester

A high school wrestler and football player and son of a real-life chief petty officer, Ryan studied electrical engineering at Washington State and worked with a consulting firm before joining Microsoft as a contract tester in 1996.

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Not many temps end up running high-profile groups at Microsoft, but Ryan's education prepared him to work with 3-D graphics hardware that was beginning to transform the game industry. By late 1997 he was full-time and listed in credits of Microsoft PC games such as "Hellbender" and "Age of Empires."

He was managing game releases when Microsoft acquired Bungie in 2000. The studio wasn't familiar with Microsoft systems, so he moved over to handle testing, hardware budgeting and staff planning.

Ryan said a reorganization gave him the choice of several studios, but he liked Bungie's emphasis on quality.

"You never hear from anyone at Bungie that something is good enough or, 'Oh, it was broken last time, so it's OK to ship it this time around,' " he said. "My least favorite thing to ever hear as a tester was always from a developer: 'Well, how often does that happen?' It doesn't matter how often it happens; it happens, we should fix it."

He became studio manager at the start of 2006 and now leads a team of 115, working in a bunkerlike converted hardware store in downtown Kirkland. That's supplemented by others in Microsoft, plus contract testers, bringing the total crew to about 250.

No room for bugs

It's telling that Microsoft put a tester in charge of "Halo 3," a game that it has to get right. Ryan said eliminating bugs is especially important with a game such as "Halo" "that sells 8 or 9 million units or something."

"With 100 testers in the building, [if] you can find a bug one time, 8 million people are going to find it a hundred or a thousand times a day," he said. "In my opinion there's no room to let that bug you only find once go, and that's really the model we follow. We have a system that logs every single crash the game ever has and we investigate and fix all of them."

Bungie has spent three years developing "Halo 3," which is the first version of the series developed specifically for the Xbox 360 console. Microsoft wanted the game delivered in late 2006, to give Sony's new PlayStation3 console a knockout punch, but that didn't give Bungie enough time.

"We looked at what we could do by last Christmas and it wasn't the game we wanted 'Halo 3' to be," Ryan said.

Among the new features are collaborative play capabilities and the ability to record and share video clips of game play. Ryan expects fans will create and post 10-hour-long movies of themselves working through all the levels.

I should disclose that I've been a "Halo" fan since the first version in 2001. I've spent months plotting to disappear for the day or so it will take me to flail through the game.

My first criticism: Microsoft is doing its new favorite trick with "Halo 3," releasing multiple editions at prices ranging from $60 to $130. That will confuse buyers and nudge them toward more expensive versions, but it will boost revenue per unit sold and give Ryan some breathing room.

Internal pressure

How does Ryan manage under such high expectations for "Halo"? He goes back to the quality thing.

"There was a lot of internal pressure on ourselves, certainly pressure I put on myself, to keep the quality bar and what was it that made it so popular that made everybody like it," he said. "A lot of people can tell me what they like about it — polls, marketing and P.R. stuff and the fans certainly are very vocal, a big fan group tells us what they like and don't like all the time — but internally it's hard to say, what did we do that made them like it that much? And so the real pressure is, first, making something that we're happy with again."

Ryan has other qualifications. A hunter from Eastern Washington, he's one of the few working on the game who regularly uses real guns.

He's a hard-core gamer, but he's also a family guy trying to broaden the appeal of video games and thoughtful about their violence. Especially since he's been playing "Halo" with his 7-year-old since the boy was 2.

"Despite its rating of 'mature,' it's definitely much more family friendly than many of the other mature games. ... You don't end up slitting people's throats, you're not encouraged to go kill people, you're very attuned to a group of allies that you're with against a group of aliens," Ryan said. "If evil aliens ever show up, we're trained to eliminate them. I'm happy with that."

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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