Without even making a game Microsoft's 343 Industries has shot to the top of every gamer's watch list.
As the new custodian of the Halo franchise the studio has high expectations to live up to. What you might not know, however, is that 343's first full release isn't being developed by its own team at all...
New Jersey and St. Petersburg, Russia-based Saber Interactive (TimeShift, Inversion) is the developer behind Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary's single-player campaign.
In an exclusive interview with CVG, the studio reveals it was the impressive Saber technology behind Anniversary - which allows players to switch between classic and HD visuals with the press of a button - that managed to win over Microsoft's top bods and secure it a development role one of the most desirable franchises in all of entertainment.
Here, the ever-friendly, passionate and insightful Mathew Karch, CEO of Saber, expresses his excitement for Anniversary and says he hopes the release will give some creditability to the exciting developer.
First thing's first - how did you manage to get the job remaking Halo: Combat Evolved?
Microsoft really wanted to do the game for the 10th Anniversary for Halo. They approached multiple developers and we were one of the teams they were talking to. We gave them a very strong pitch and showed a lot of passion for it - they vetted us out very closely. We said 'we're going to over-deliver on this', 'we're going to beat your expectations', 'we're going to take it as seriously as we would a $20 million new IP that we need to go all in on'.
We realise how important this is and we've gone all in on it. It's Microsoft's crown jewel - that's my opinion. People can say Gears, but as big as Gears is it isn't Halo. I don't think they have a Gearsfest every year. I don't know, maybe they do (laughs), they had a Halofest and Anniversary was a key component of it and it showed really well.
Do you think it was your technology that won Microsoft over?
Oh yes. It was definitely our technology and the solution we came up with. One of the things Microsoft said is they needed the gameplay to be exact. Halo fans are extremely exacting and the gameplay couldn't be changed. We came up with a way to do that and preserve the gameplay. I think we've mentioned this and it's public but we took the Bungie engine and we plugged it into ours, so the game itself is running in the original Bungie code but the rendering of the world and the engine is ours, so we basically took the game scripting and AI and plugged it in.
If you drew a circle you can picture the original Bungie engine fully within the circle of our engine, almost like a wrapper. My partner Andre came up with that idea, we gave them a demo very quickly and said 'hey look, you can toggle'. That's something that Dan Ayoub from Microsoft really wanted, the toggle feature; he wanted to switch between classic and new. We showed them that and they we're like 'holy shit, ok'.
That's when we were off and running on it, things started to really move in the right direction, We proved it early. They called us up and said they wanted to do this; Andre was on a plane to Russia the next day when they called us and said they were interested.
We said 'here's what we're going to do', we took a screenshot from the original Halo, gave them to our artist and said 'let's envision what we can make this look like and show it to them'. So we did before and after of the game, we painted over them. There was scepticism - people were saying it was just a paint over and questioning whether we could really do it. Then we started doing it for real and they were like 'oh, wow'.
I kind of like being the underdog, I kind of like our position. I mean, I'd like to be retired at some point (laughs) but I like it.
What does the Halo deal mean for you as an independent studio?
We've had the opportunity to work with some really smart people, to work on a really big franchise which has been great. It's given us more visibility which we need and one of the things that excites us the most is that it's got such as huge fanbase and there's something really great about working on a property that already has a built-in community.
With our other game Inversion the challenge is building that fanbase and whether or not that will happen I don't know. Whether or not our publishing partner has the resources to really pull that off the way... It won't be Halo. I'm not going to deceive myself, but getting that awareness is the challenge. With Halo there isn't that challenge, instead it's matching people's expectations.
We're embracing that because we know we're a really good team, and we don't have to overcome the perception barriers that come from being a Russian company, which has negative barriers. There's a validation in working with Microsoft and 343 on Halo. That's what I love about it, the validation and the fact that we're able to start from an advanced point and focus on just on the things that we know are going to matter. Less on the PR, brand awareness and more on execution on the game and on delivering on what Microsoft wants us to deliver. That's been fun.