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Monday, November 8, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Halo 2" ready for blastoff

Seattle Times technology reporter

A game is born


"Halo 2" debuts tomorrow for the Xbox video game console.

The game was developed by Microsoft's Bungie Studios.

The Bungie team: There were 67 full-time employees at Bungie creating the game this summer, including artists, musicians, producers and designers. Most have been on vacation since wrapping up the game several weeks ago, but they're heading back to the office today for some launch events.

The plot: The game involves the adventure of super soldier Master Chief, who returns to Earth to save the planet from dangerous aliens.

It's not for kids: This game has been rated M for "mature," meaning its content is best for people ages 17 and older. Retailers probably won't sell it to anyone younger than that.

The cost: $50. A "limited collector's edition" in a metal box will sell for $55. At least 1.5 million copies have been pre-ordered, which means that the game could easily clear $75 million in sales on its first day.

Source: Microsoft

While the rest of the Puget Sound area relished a gorgeous summer, Microsoft's Bungie Studios team spent nearly every waking hour putting the finishing touches on the video game "Halo 2."

The job was so grueling — at one point the studio worked 48 hours straight — that Microsoft rewarded the group by bringing in chef Shiro Kashiba from the Belltown sushi restaurant Shiro's to prepare an extravagant meal.

Tomorrow, the team will get to see if the work was worth it. Microsoft's Xbox division has waited three years for its first bona-fide phenomenon, and it likely has one now in "Halo 2," the sequel to the sleeper hit that became the most popular title in the Xbox console's short history.

Customers have paid to reserve 1.5 million copies of the game — an industry record and a sign that "Halo 2" could become the biggest-selling game of the year.

Microsoft rarely, if ever, sees this kind of rabid enthusiasm for its products, and it's trying hard to turn the game's release into an event, with launch parties this afternoon at Experience Music Project and tonight at Times Square in New York City. It has also rolled out a massive marketing campaign to promote the game in movie theaters and on television.

And at the center of it all is Bungie, a former developer of Macintosh games and the creator of the original "Halo." That game was initially to be made for the personal computer, and its fate, like that of Bungie's, was something no one could have predicted.

Microsoft bought Bungie in 2000 for an undisclosed amount and made "Halo" one of the games that accompanied the console's launch.

The game didn't have the best start. The Mac community was still bitter that Bungie had been sold to Microsoft, and early impressions of "Halo" were uneven. The game site GameCritics.com called it the "biggest joke" of the 2001 Electronic Entertainment Expo convention.

"People were pretty cold to it," said Greg Kasavin, executive editor of the GameSpot gaming site. "When you played it for 15 minutes, it didn't really seem that special. It took people really sitting down and playing it for an hour to really understand why that game was different."

The game seemed to put more emphasis on story — a classic good vs. evil, aliens vs. humans tale — and innovative gameplay, and sales picked up as the word spread. Microsoft would eventually sell 5 million copies, a figure that compares with the 15.5 million Xbox consoles it has sold.

"Halo" became the flagship title for the Xbox, and Bungie's status rose quickly among the game-development shops owned by Microsoft.

"You have to definitely count Bungie amongst the top ranks in our business," said Shane Kim, who as head of Microsoft Game Studios oversees the company's game developers. "Do they get everything they want? No, but they get a lot of what they want, and for good reason. Not very many people are doing what they're capable of."

Bungie's status was so rarefied, in fact, that Microsoft gave it the luxury of focusing all its time on a sequel to "Halo."

One big room

For three years now, "Halo 2" has come together in a nondescript business office complex on Union Hill Road in Redmond, a few miles from Microsoft's main campus.

Unlike most Microsoft employees, Bungie developers don't get their own offices. Instead, the group works together in a large room where everybody can see everybody else, an environment designed for maximum participation and accountability.

"It's knowing that you, in a group of your peers, are always on the line to deliver," said studio manager Pete Parsons. "That you as an individual and we as a team are the only things standing between basking in our own glory or bathing in our own blood."

Bungie developers spent the summer feverishly wrapping up the game, spending as many as 20 hours a day at the office.

People slept on giant bean bags scattered throughout the office and played video games to blow off steam.

At least they got free food — lots of it. One employee set up an internal Web site where others could rate nearby restaurants and decide where to order takeout. In the last month of work, Bungie brought everyone dinner every night and lunch on the weekends.

"When people care a lot and they're not going to leave until it's the way they want it to be, you don't tell someone to go home," Parsons said.

Remember "Pong"?

Long days were always a way of life at Bungie. The studio started in the early 1990s when two fresh-out-of-college guys, broke and living in Chicago, got together to work on Mac games. The company was founded by Alexander Seropian, who had created a clone of the classic game "Pong" and reversed the title to call it "Gnop!"

Those were lean years for Seropian and his colleague, Jason Jones. They sold games by mail order and assembled the boxes themselves in Seropian's basement apartment. Their early games, "Operation: Desert Storm" and "Minotaur," sold about 2,500 copies each.

They went on to develop a game called "Pathways into Darkness," and Seropian can still remember the night when he realized his company was going to make it.

He had been riding his exercise bike in his apartment when the fax machine rang and the first big order for "Pathways" came in.

"It was more units on this one piece of paper than we had sold in our last two games combined," he said. "That was the moment that I realized the potential that we could reach wasn't a fantasy. It was doable."

Bungie started hiring and began to grow into a real company. Seropian described the studio as a place where misfit game developers came together in a universal dislike of, well, employment.

"When we started, we were all really young," said Seropian, now 35. "We'd never had real jobs, and whatever experience we did have working for other people, I think, all of us sort of shared the same displeasure with that experience."

Bungie was a relaxed environment, Seropian said, but everyone working there felt pressure to impress each other and not to fail.

"We were always trying to one-up each other," he said. "You put all that stuff together and you have this pretty interesting, self-motivating pressure, where everybody wants to do their best, and they want to be better than everybody else, and they're afraid not to be."

Bungie went on to put out some of the most beloved games in Mac history, including the shooter game "Marathon" and a strategy game called "Myth."

"Not a lot of people were making Mac games at the time, and the stuff we were getting were things like 'Mario Teaches Typing,' " said Kirk Hiner, senior editor for the Web site Applelinks.

"Then along comes Bungie and they were making first-person shooters like the 'Marathon' series that were excellent games and in a lot of ways were better than the PC equivalents, and they were Mac-only. They immediately developed a huge following."

Bungie started working on "Halo" in early 1998 and showed off an early version at the Macworld show in 1999.

Soon the studio was getting numerous buyout offers, but nothing solidified until the next year, when Seropian went to get an early look at the Xbox at a developer event Microsoft held in New York City.

"It was pretty obvious that [Microsoft] had done a lot of thought about the hardware, but what they really needed was content, was software," said Seropian.

He flew back to Chicago and called Ed Fries, at the time the head of Microsoft's games division, and suggested working out a deal.

The acquisition was announced in June 2000, and Bungie moved to Redmond. The amount Microsoft paid wasn't announced, but insiders say it was in the tens of millions.

Seropian left Microsoft two years later and returned to Chicago to start another video-game studio, Wideload Games, which announced last month that it will publish a game featuring a zombie hero next summer for the Xbox, Windows PCs and Mac.

Seropian said he's happy for all the attention "Halo 2" is getting but doesn't want to see the franchise get abused with too many games in the way British developer Eidos' "Tomb Raider" series did.

"I think it would be good for Bungie to take a break and maybe revive," he said.

"Halo 3"?

That's what the studio intends to do, said Kim at Microsoft Game Studios.

"I know they've got more stories to tell than just 'Halo,' and we have other plans in the pipeline," he said.

But even Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer has hinted at "Halo 3," and Parsons at Bungie said "Halo" is probably not yet finished.

"Bungie as a creative team of developers should be working on the things that they want to be working on first and foremost, because good teams are hard to come by," Parsons said. "If those things happen to be also the franchise that you want, I think that's great as well. So you never know. I suspect that we're not done with the 'Halo' universe."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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