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Originally published June 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 29, 2009 at 5:57 PM

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Brier Dudley

Developers at Bungie ready to spring new heroes in the 'Halo' universe

All sorts of changes are under way inside the dark and mysterious Kirkland bunker where Bungie, the renown game studio, is putting final touches on the next version of "Halo."

Seattle Times staff columnist

'Halo' by the numbers

Copies sold:

More than 27 million

'Halo 3' game sessions played online via Xbox Live:

More than 1.2 billion

Average number of people playing 'Halo 3' online daily:

900,000

Average on weekends:

Over 1 million

Average number of 'Halo 3' online games played per day over the last two months:

1.65 million

Total unique online players to date:

13.5 million

'Halo' players who have shared screenshots and other files:

5.2 million

Average number of user-created 'Halo' files downloaded per day:

3.3 million

Source: Bungie Studios

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All sorts of changes are under way inside the dark and mysterious Kirkland bunker where Bungie, the renown game studio, is putting final touches on the next version of "Halo."

For one thing, Bungie is going into a dramatically new direction with "Halo 3: ODST," the latest installment in the blockbuster sci-fi shooting franchise that established Microsoft's Xbox console and has sold more than 27 million copies worldwide. It's also Bungie's first release since the studio became independent of Microsoft in 2007.

"Halo" is the Harry Potter of video games, a staggering success with devoted fans who can't wait for every new edition, so there's a risk in tinkering with the formula.

Apparently fans are pleased with previews they've seen so far. "ODST" remains the most-anticipated game of the year, with 53 percent of gamers in a Nielsen survey planning to buy the $60 title after it goes on sale Sept. 22.

In previous versions of "Halo," an armored supersoldier called Master Chief blasts his way along fixed routes, battling aliens and uncovering a Wagnerian story about giant rings with awesome powers.

"ODST" picks up the story of the supporting cast — orbital drop shock troopers, the "regular" soldiers who fought alongside Master Chief.

For "the kind of story we want to tell — which is a little bit more human story — they seemed like a really great candidate for a hero in the 'Halo' universe," explained Joseph Staten, writer and creative director.

Staten, who studied theater at Northwestern University and military history and political science at the University of Chicago, said the game has more drama and mystery than before.

"As far as the dialogue goes, we were trying to get a bit of hard-boiled, thriller, femme fatale and square-jawed gumshoe — a little touch of that," he said. "That most clearly comes through in the dialogue between Buck, your squad leader, and Veronica, this shadowy naval intelligence officer."

Structural change

The structure of the game is also different, for "Halo." Instead of trudging along a fairly set path, "ODST" begins in a dark and mostly empty city that players can freely explore, an "open world" model popularized by the "Grand Theft Auto" games.

Players who prefer traditional "Halo" can head directly to sites in the city that trigger "flashbacks," putting them into classic "Halo"-style missions fighting aliens and blowing things up. Clues to the mystery come from playing through these missions.

"We're doing a lot of pretty neat things in terms of mixing it up, introducing some non-linearity, some free exploration," Staten said. "This is also a mystery story so there's a lot more clue-finding and mystery-solving than you would normally find in a game of this kind — nothing that strays too far from the fun 'Halo' experience, but we definitely decided to take a little bit of risk and have some fun with this one."

Multiplayer option

Lifelike characters are just one way that "ODST" is more realistic and approachable.

The game also adds a new multiplayer option called Firefight that's designed to be quick and easy for small groups of friends to play on the same console or online. Groups of four cooperatively work through sessions that may last about 30 minutes.

It's an alternative to the more intense, competitive multiplayer sessions that draw about 1 million players per night to the Xbox Live online-game network.

Firefight is also a nod to the real-world demands on players' time, especially now that most original "Halo" fans are well into the parenting years. The average age of video-game players overall is now 35, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

Players like Staten, a 37-year-old father of two.

"To find an hour to play, or five hours a week, that's asking a lot of me," he said. "Firefight, from my point of view, is aimed at guys like me who have families and have lives outside of playing games and work. We love to play games, but we want them to be compatible with our real lives. For Bungie, at least, Firefight is really a nice first step down that path."

Independent spirit

Growing older is just one of the changes happening to the Bungie team.

"Halo's" success gave the team the clout, confidence and wherewithal to split from Microsoft in 2007, undoing an acquisition in 2001 that relocated Bungie from Chicago.

Microsoft continues to distribute Bungie games, and the studio so far has chosen to make games exclusively for the Xbox platform.

Bungie also received an early look at the "Project Natal" motion-sensing controller Microsoft is developing for the Xbox. Studio President Harold Ryan said he's enthusiastic about the device and it could be used in "Reach," another version of "Halo" expected in the fall of 2010. "I absolutely think 'Reach' could be enabled with it," he said.

With 163 employees now, Bungie has outgrown the offices Microsoft developed for it, a former Kirkland hardware store converted into a futuristic, metal-sheathed studio known as the "the Bunker."

Ryan, a Spokane native who rose from contract tester to studio boss at Microsoft, designed the building layout using Visio, a Microsoft technical-drawing program.

Now he's working on what may be even wilder new digs in downtown Bellevue — the former Galleria multiplex theater, where Bungie's work space will be in a vast open area with 30-foot-high ceilings.

New, giant studio

The studio hopes to move into the 80,000-square-foot space in January, giving up the 24,000-square-foot bunker and an additional 17,000 feet of offices in a nearby building.

Ryan said there will be room for more employees who may help Bungie continue increasing its pace.

He noted that it shipped "Halo 3" in 2007, it's shipping "ODST" this year and "Reach" is coming in the fall of 2010.

"We're looking to hire as many great people as we can hire ... we're increasing our capacity to do great games," Ryan said.

How big will Bungie become?

"I'd say Pixar is a great goal for us but I don't know if 1,300 people is where we'll be. ... We'll have to build a campus," he joked.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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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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