'When It's Ready'

A recent back-and-forth in the HBO forum, as well as numerous references to quotes involving Halo, possibly Halo 3, and release dates in the past year led me to want to try and collate a bunch of these references.

First, let's take this quote from Robbie Bach at Microsoft:

"We're going to ship it when it's ready. [...] You have to be careful with franchises like this."

That sounds like Halo 3, doesn't it? Sound just like what Bach said about Halo at X05, right?


That was about Halo 2, back in January of 2004. The upshot? Halo games get released "when they're ready".

Is that true?

This phrase goes way back in Bungie lore, as the company, historically speaking, did not give release dates, but released games when they were ready-- box manufacturers and coffee machines notwithstanding.

Wait, how about this quote from Bach:

"Bach said Microsoft's focus now is on more-lucrative game sales. The heavily anticipated [Halo sequel] is expected next spring, and a sequel to the successful "Project Gotham Racing" is set for this fall."

That might be about Halo 3, right? Except, no, I've given it away with my edit. That one's about Halo 2 again. So there's Bach saying Halo 2 was expected in the Spring. He was only six months wrong.

Well, perhaps that's evidence that it's true-- that Microsoft doesn't want to stifle the goose that laid the golden egg, and allows Bungie the resources and time they need to make each Halo game.

Except that theory is really hard to swallow.

Halo 1 was released as a launch title back in November of 2001. As brilliant and successful as it was, there were those who said the deliberate revisiting of locations in that game bespoke of a need to finish it quickly. Bungie had only been purchased by Microsoft just the year before, and had spent their time developing the game for Macs and PCs. As recently as E3 that year, major portions of the game (namely AI) still didn't even exist. They had approximately a year and a half to simultaneously finish the game and retool it for the new platform.

Is that giving Bungie time? I submit, no, it is not.

I Would Have Been Your Daddy

Would Halo 1 have benefited from extra months to gain some polish?

Yes, I believe it would have. And not just in the same way that almost anything benefits from more time. As Steve Jobs once put it, real artists ship. And Bungie are real artists.

Halo had already been in development for awhile when revealed to the public in 1999. In fact, at MacWorld in New York that summer, Jobs announced that Bungie would deliver the game the following spring for the Mac and PC platforms. Whether he knew what he was saying or not, the game had been in development for some time.

If one marks Halo 2's development from when Halo 1 shipped, then Bungie had 3 years. Even so, there are signs it, too, would have benefited from more time. Some said the campaign was too short. Even though it has levels which dwarf those in Halo 1, a lot of those extremely large areas are blocked off from players by invisible walls. They look large, but the playable portions are not as large as the whole level is.

Bungie personnel on the LE DVD mention wanting more time. If Bach's quote about Halo 2 being slated for a spring 2004 release were on the money, it may be true that they got that extra time-- even thought it ate into time the company could have used to start developing an Xbox 360 title.

But November 2004 was the beginning of what Microsoft must have known even back in 2003 would be the swan song for the original Xbox-- the last holiday season. Halo 2 would be the last, best chance for a huge seller on that platform before the Xbox 360 takes the center stage. Unless Halo 2 could be retooled to take advantage of the Xbox 360, there would be little point in releasing it later than the 2004 holiday season. Not only that, but the I Love Bees promotion was already in full swing by that summer, leading up to chances to play the game prior to release. To delay it any further would mean losing the momentum generated by that campaign, losing whatever share of the holiday shopping dollars Halo 2 would have ended up garnering, losing a chance for underscoring the potential for success within the entertainment division of the company by having a spectacular and profitable (if singular) quarter.

For many reasons, Halo 2 needed to come out no later than holidays 2004. None of those reasons have anything to do with "when it's ready".

'They Walk Right Into Halo 3'

Then we come to E3 this year, where Bill Gates says that Halo 3 will be ready to counter Sony's PlayStation 3 when it launches.

That launch, it is expected, will be sometime next year, perhaps as early as next spring-- a mere 18 months after the release of Halo 2.

Halo 3 going to be ready then, do you think?

No, probably not. And probably Gates can't make it so, no matter what he does. But that's not the point. The point is that this demonstrates that there are forces within Microsoft-- some very powerful ones atop Micrsoft's structure-- that have reasons to try and manipulate the release date of Halo games to serve business interests that may, at times, be at odds with Bungie's interest in making the best game. And to believe that Bungie is immune to these forces, that the release dates of past Halo games has not been affected by these forces, that the release date of future Halo games also will not be affected by these forces-- this is naive.

The Halo3 - PS3 matchup had already been discredited, despite Gates' pronouncement and with no official retraction from him, when in June, Kikizo interviewed Microsoft's J Allard started with the "when it's ready" quotes:

We're never going to ship a Halo game (if we were to make, hypothetically, Halo games in the future) - we want to have the Bungie team - we want to give them the amount of time they need to create the product that they envision.

The understood words in Allard's quote-- the ones he is careful to not actually speak-- are "before it's ready".

Was Halo 1 shipped before it was ready? Was Halo 2 shipped before it was ready? Might Halo 3, also, not be shipped before it was ready?

No, says Allard.

And that is exactly what Robbie Bach expects Halo fans to believe, with what he said after Gates' E3 pronouncement:

We haven't announced anything on what Bungie is doing or where we're going with the future of the 'Halo' franchise. With all respect to Bill, I don't run Bungie's studio, and neither does he.

It's true that neither Bach nor Gates runs Bungie Studios. However, Microsoft owns Bungie Studios. No one should mistake where the buck stops.

'We'll Ship When It's Ready'

More recently, Bach was quoted at the X05 event, delivering a similar line to the "when it's ready" remark about Halo 2 back in 2004:

"Halo is something we'll ship when it's ready."

The quote, as Bach delivered it, doesn't even say "Halo 3", it just says Halo, although that didn't stop many news sources from inserting it for him, and the rest of the world from assuming that's what he meant to say, and that the 3 was omitted solely for the purpose of admitting that the game hasn't even been announced by Bungie yet.

This quote, and the Eurogamer article that it came from, as well as the myriad of similar articles that reported his remarks later, prompted me to call them "Old and Inaccurate" in a post on the HBO forum.

They're old; Bach has said them before about the Halo franchise. They're inaccurate, because they beg Halo fans to be so naive as to believe that no business considerations, but only creative requirements, determine the release date of the games which, to date, form the only proven system-selling franchise that exists on the Xbox platform.

It wasn't the complete truth when Bach first uttered it in 2004, and it's no more true now. The only saving grace is that given when Halo 2 came out, it's impossible for Halo 3 to be a launch title, so fans are spared having that portion of the series be unduly rushed.

Will Microsoft really allow Bungie all the time it needs? Even if that means more time than the three years they got for Halo 2? Even if Perfect Dark Zero, the Xbox 360's flagship shooter so far, fails to impress? Even if the Halo feature film is ready first? Even if Xbox 360 sales don't meet expectations? Even if the PlayStation 3 hits the ground running next year and overcomes the 360's sales figures? Even then? Are we to believe nobody is going to come knocking at Bungie's new doors in Kirkland, begging for Bungie to rescue the platform it nearly single-handedly built?

Are any or all of those events probable? I can't say. Surely, Microsoft is betting that they won't happen.

Are they possible?

You bet.

You can also bet that yes, Halo 3 will be released when it's ready.

And it'll be ready when it needs to be ready, according to the people who get to decide what "ready" means at Microsoft.



I know a lot of people have been thinking this. Thank you for just saying it. :\


[Sorry to be an anonymous coward here- gspawn from wherever]
I'm a strong proponent of the idea that some games are NOT better when they're given more time. Sometimes, games just have to be kicked out the door or else they'll never get done.

Could Fable (aka Project Ego) have used more time? Lots. But it had been in development for-frikken-ever, and kicking it out the door was pretty much the only way it was ever going to get out. The developers saw that, closed out the project, and called good, good.

So to the absolute edge- Duke Nukem (in development) Forever. Nobody is kicking the studio's butts and telling them they have to publish, and so they've never release any game. At all. What's better- some game, or no game at all?

So could Halo have used more time? Sure, if we wanted to see it still be in development, only now for Xbox 360 (they did jump three platforms, and were still nowhere really closer to completing it until M$ set a deadline, so who knows what setbacks might have happened).

Could Halo 2 have used more work? Absolutely- assuming it'd be out by Xbox 4 at that rate. Bungie freely admits the real problem is that all they code they developed by "that e3" had to be scrapped, and the whole game had to be rebuilt from the ground up. It wasn't time that was a problem- it was development issues that would keep causing delays. They had to set their own deadline and say no matter what came up- the game had to be done- or else something would have been allowed to creep up and destroy the project again, a la Duke Nukem or Fable.

I love Bungie, but when you look back, Halo looked best when it was back on the Mac anc PC originally (those environments are still some of the most impressive in all of gaming, even now), and it will never look that good again. But those games were never going to be finished- the development industry as we know it just can't ever bring those games out.

So, personally, I think reality is the only thing getting in Bungie's way. If you're given infinite time to complete a game, you're also given infinite new hardware to adapt to and infinite problems that can destroy a project. In essence, the more time you have, the more problems you're exposed to. A deadline means you know what hardware you're aiming at, and you know that problems have to be taken care of at that exact moment- instead of waiting months when the original problem destroys everything you did after it originally cropped up, THEN new hardware pops up, THEN everything you did is out of date for the market... etc etc.

Bungie could make the perfect game- if they had a time machine, and took an Xbox back to 1990, and could spend a decade working on it knowing they had the next generation of hardware in their hands before the fact. Otherwise, the reality of developmnt will always keep that game from being full realized.

Of course, all IMHO.

To a certain extent, I agree. Time, BY ITSELF, does not fix certain things. Daikatana was not going to get better if it came out a year later, for instance.

Obviously, Bungie decided that Phoenix wasn't going to get better with time, that it was better to stop and work on something else.

However, this is Bungie and Halo we're talking about. The premise is not flawed. The execution is not poor. For all the criticism-- and praise-- they have drawn, these are not games that needed to go back to the drawing board and started all over.

But when you look and see certain things done with one level of attention to detail, and then look at others and see something else, I think it's a reasonable response that more time would have helped.

As one example, I'd say look at the character animations in the Gravemind cutscene, where the Master Chief and the Arbiter are caught up in GM's tentacles. Those are really well-done, show off how natural they can make movement feel. It really looked to me like GM was turning them around, over, and upside down.

Then look at other animations-- look at Keyes grabbing the index and how stiff that looks. Look at the Grunt at the end of that same Gravemind cutscene, the one the Chief surprises, who drops his Needler and runs.

I actually watched that cutscene in animatic form, on the Limited Edition DVD, before I saw the real cutscene in-game. I thought at the time, "wow, that looks rough." The grunt seems to spin as if he's on a platter, and then slide away from the camera. His legs don't seem to move. He looks like he's not walking, but floating.

And then, of course, the in-game cutscene looks exactly like that. The animation looks like it's unfinished.

It's a small thing to be sure, and for every detail that seems a little off, like that, there are five that Bungie nailed.

I'm just saying that Bungie is good enough that if you give them another few weeks, they will nail nearly all of the moments like that.

In this way I think the two Halo games have different flaws. Halo had a lot of repeated geometry with small changes, but the level of polish is nothing short of astounding. The game's flaws, if it can be said to have them, are not of the "needed one more week to finish X" kind of flaws.

It's things like the death animations-- things that would have required wholesale changes to the physics engine. That wasn't going to get done in a few weeks. Bungie knew that, and that's why Halo 2 uses Havok (for good or ill).

The essential point-- and perhaps I'll actually have to draw it out-- is that I think you can draw two trend lines on a graph. Call the X axis "Time" and theY axis "Value". One trend line is for the quality of the game, and the other is for the business value.

Both lines are curves. One might argue, as you've essentially put it, that there is a point of diminishing returns, where adding more time does not improve quality. In fact, the curve might even dip downward, as developers begin to doubt their initial assumptions. (We'll see, if DNF ever actually comes out.)

The Business value curve has peaks and valleys dependent on certain factors. Peaks near console launches, holiday seasons, and other possible special events (competitors' release, culmination of PR campaigns, movie tie-ins).

Games get released at points when the volumes of the two curves reach their highest combined value-- even if that is NOT the highest point on the Quality curve.

The trick is to try and schedule things so that it is. But that doesn't always happen.

Rampant for over six years.