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article imageExclusive: Halo 3 Designer Reveals Secrets Behind Creating Master Chief's World

By David Silverberg     Sep 19, 2007 in Technology
Take a behind-the-scenes look at the shoot-em-up wildness that is Halo 3. In an interview with one of the game's lead designers, discovers the appeal of the fine details behind the Xbox 360 title launching on Sept. 25.
Digital Journal — It's not enough to simply call Halo 3 the most anticipated game of the year. Or the decade. And it's too easy to just list how this first-person shooter improves on its predecessor — new weapons like the Spartan Laser, instant replay to archive your favourite fights, high-def graphics that makes the original Halo look like Castlevania. See how easy that was? The difficult part is describing what Halo 3 will bring to the gaming industry when it's released Sept. 25 is the finer details of development.
That's where Mike Zak comes in. As environment art lead at Bungie Studios, the maker of the Halo franchise, Zak is responsible for building the world where Master Chief runs through, blasting enemies with assault rifles and leaping into Warthog vehicles. If anyone can dissect the inner workings of Halo 3, Zak can.
In an exclusive interview with, Zak explains what gamers will slobber over in Halo 3, what's new with the game's layered maps and how design meets physics in creating the lush world of Halo 3. What's new in Halo 3, and what are you particularly excited about?
Zak: There are all sorts of features that lets player do what we as developers can't predict or expect. A lot of gamers will like the Saved Films feature, which allows them to record a certain fighting session, like an instant replay. Something really fun is Forge, a feature that lets you create your own map with any weapons you want, so you can play on a custom level with your friends on Xbox Live. Or even just by yourself, if you want some shooting practice.
Also, making that quantum leap to high definition is huge for Bungie. It took us awhile to adjust to Xbox 360's horsepower and how best to use our art budget. It was really satisfying in the end, to know that anything imaginable was possible. Since you work on the maps and terrain of Halo 3, explain how you've added small details that enrich the gaming experience?
Zak: We'll have separate design teams for separate things, like a team working on objects, or a team working on designing trees. Replicating an environment becomes a very collaborative project. We wanted to make these levels rich in visuals, and epic in scale. We employed something called high dynamic range lighting, for instance, which brightens and darkens a scene just like your eyes would adjust walking from darkness to light. So if you're in a cave looking out over a bright landscape, the hot spots will truly be hot. When your eyes adjust and you look back at the cave, that area looks dark, as it should be.
In Halo 3, video game developers added new equipment to go along with weapons, including a Bubble Shield to protect a character from enemy gunfire. It seems like there's a lot of physics going into making a game as complex as Halo 3.
Zak: Definitely. Our engineers love to simulate nature, and it's funny how when an engineer talks to an artist at Bungie, he knows the exact physics behind the equation that supports mass and velocity of any given object. Or he can tell the exact difference between the brightness between the sun and incandescent bulb. And that game engineer will want to emulate that perfectly. It's well-known that the geography in Halo 3 is tweaked to add functionality. So in the Jungle level, for instance, in some places players have to jump down a steep ledge to reach the next area. That means players can't go backward, because they can't climb back up the ledges. That's great for some players who get disoriented in these kinds of games and might start running the wrong way. Was that the goal behind those tweaks?
Zak: Developers know the layout of a game in their minds so it's hard to put yourself into the headspace of new players. The ledge scenario is a great example of us watching first-time players and seeing what they do. There's lots of ways to lead a player to a goal, but you don't want to hold their hand. The art of making a game is letting a player discover their own routes. Explain how Halo 3 is sweetening the game with equipment. It's not all about weapons anymore, right?
Zak: At Bungie, we got this mantra about the "holy tripod" of Halo combat — weapon, grenade and melée. But in Halo 3 we've gone one step further and added equipment to the mix. Players can pick up and stow pieces of equipment to be used to for later, and we like to think of these objects as ways to tip the scales of battle. There's the Bubble Shield to protect you from enemy gunfire. There's the defensive Gravity Lift that propels you or anything up into the air. And a Power Drain is useful to stop oncoming vehicles dead in their tracks. You don't use all your equipment in every game because it's very scenario dependent. Early shooter games like Doom embedded secret weapons or passageways in their levels to give hardcore gamers incentive to poke around the maps. Anything similar in Halo 3?
Zak: It's always a fun pastime of developers to bury secrets in the worlds they create. In Halo 3, we're introducing the inclusion of skulls. These skulls can be found on each level, in very good hiding spots, and if a player finds all of them, he can unlock a menu in single-player mode to change the campaign. The skulls can modify difficulty, for example, and we're not just talking about adding more enemies. Each skull represents a different modifier, and it will change what we call "the sandbox" — all the elements that make up Halo 3. So how do you like to play Halo 3? Got any favourite things you enjoy doing?
Zak: When I play, I love hopping in a vehicle and taking a tour of the level. In multiplayer team games like Capture the Flag, it's particularly fun to absorb all the interactions between vehicles, soldiers and wild explosions.
BONUS! For a detailed review of Halo 3's single-player mode, check out on Sept. 23 at 3pm EST.
More about Bungie, Halo, Xbox 360
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