Cutting Room Floor
We have a special treat for you this month.
Something that becomes part of the great journey of many Halo fans is learning about all the stuff that didn’t make it into the games over the years.
When ambitious and talented developers are up against the challenges posed by limited time and resources, having to make tough decisions about what best serves the final product, many things end up in the horrifying tenth circle of Hell which Dante deemed too terrifying to tell us about: the cutting room floor.
Within this harrowing domain lies ambient life that will never roam free (RIP Porky), lines of dialogue and sound effects that will never be heard, NPCs who exist in a nightmarish state of non-existence through concept art and models incapable of motion, weapons that will never be fired, vehicles that will never be taken to the skies and seas, even the geometry of entire levels...
Sometimes, however, a light may shine through the darkness and reveal a world beyond the game proper, and that is what we have in store for you this month. A three-part exploration of some deep Halo history, which will proceed as follows:
- PART 1: Cutting Room Floor – learn more about the old and cut content from 1999 MacWorld-era Halo, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Halo 2 that is being restored.
- PART 2: Cutting Room Corps – meet the fine folks who have been working to revive this old content and learn more about their work.
- PART 3: Cutting Room Lore – a special encyclopedia-style Canon Fodder issue providing more details on how certain elements from these past games are incorporated into the universe and canon.
We’re joined today by Kenneth Peters, Senior Franchise Writer, for a deep dive into the worlds beyond the ones we’ve come to know over the last twenty years—an exploration of many things that didn’t make it into Halo: CE and Halo 2 which haven’t seen the light of day. Until now.
First, we’re going to dig into what this content is and its historical significance, and then we’ll talk a bit more about the road to getting your hands on it to experience yourself through leveraging the tireless work that continues to go into expanding the support and capacity for modding in Halo: The Master Chief Collection.
Take it away, Ken!
In the darkest depths of the 343 Industries intranet is a folder devoid of light, bereft of hope, swarming with corruption that even the Flood recoil from in fear. It contains treasures for those willing to plumb its depths and wrestle with the ruins of old dreams and tangled references. Its name? \share\Halo1.
The Halo1 folder is a complicated beast, and over the decades it has suffered from everything from corporate schisms to bit rot. For the last few years, I’ve been sticking my toes in there as part of our Franchise Team’s documentation and archival efforts—I would look around, pull a design document or PSD that people were looking for, then escape before darkness closed in.
That changed in 2021 after I returned from Budapest, when I started a more methodical and structured approach to recovering as much of the Halo source files as possible, with the help of Sean Cooper on the Publishing Team (better known to the community as “kornman”).
Before we really start getting into the nitty-gritty, I must give a very heartful “thank you” to Marcus Lehto for his invaluable assistance and provision of assets that filled in so many gaps in our knowledge.
“JUST A QUICK IMPORT”
One of the earliest finds were near-retail tags for the Kestrel and Spectre, which were cut from Halo: CE late in development. This meant the tags were fully compatible with the Halo: CE Editing Kit (HCEEK), and existing tools could extract the source models and bitmaps for editing.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the vehicles were complete: there were no weapon tags for either, and their in-game movement characteristics still needed a lot of work (both good reasons why they were not included in the final game in the first place).
I’m pretty handy with various DCC tools as a function of my job, but was not an expert in use of MCC mod packages and that content pipeline. So, the obvious solution to getting these cool finds fully in-game was to seek out masters of the modding craft who could help get this content in working order.
After talking to the Publishing Team, it was clear that there was both a group of experts who could help with the import process (the ever skillful [REDACTED] group. In turn, that led me to learning more of Blender to make use of a plugin that would end up dramatically simplify the whole process—the Halo Asset Blender Development Toolset.
With this group helping out, I got the Spectre and Kestrel in the HCEEK in a rough form. Within two days, we had ironed out the main issues with the Spectre, and got the Kestrel flying around with stubbed-in weapons.
Neither vehicle was in a shape where we felt comfortable releasing them widely, but they were in-game and drivable. This also kicked up a lot of interest in the internal group and among other 343 employees, as some of this content had previously been thought to have been lost forever or not compatible with later build versions. I expected some interest in this, but the sheer level of enthusiasm really caught me off guard, and kickstarted the idea of expanding this effort beyond cleaning up a few leftover tag files.
Unfortunately, the scale of the work involved quickly started to become a drag on my spare time as tasks related to Infinite support and the Paramount show took precedence. Luckily, I knew just the people from [REDACTED] to ask for help that had the right combination of NDA, love for Halo history, and ability to take incomplete material and bring it up to a working state in the current retail environment.
DIGSITE CREWS: IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Even when not working on getting content in-game, I was pulling files from the /share/halo1 cave and organizing them. Now that we were finally assembling known-good files, more interesting assets started to be found—both original source files and tags.
Now we really needed to bring in task-focused experts to help fix and analyze them.
I can’t go into details on how the group members were selected, but the results speak for themselves. The “Digsite” team created new animations (or fixed old ones), corrected shaders, made new tags, and adjusted assets to not only get them working, but working pretty darn well.
The number and complexity of assets also quickly expanded to include cut animations, weapons, maps, and even bipeds as the team flexed their animation, texturing, and tools-creation expertise.
The officially unofficial logo for the codename of our once-secret work group.
And in the middle of this, we also started working on refining long-lost Halo 2 content, starting with the Piglet and then expanding to look at restoring other cut material or resurfacing ideas that (usually for very good reason) had never been implemented in the retail release.
The /share/halo2 archive was in good shape, albeit missing many work-in-progress files from the earliest development days, so it was a cleaner process to start standing up content.
First test ride of the Piglet in my HCEEK test environment. I used Halo: CE to try out things, as it is easy to get vehicles usable and in-game for “should I continue work on this” scoping.
At first, this was more of a stress-test for the updated Halo 2 Editing Kit (H2EK) tools and processes as we ingested the Bungie game engine documentation, but it quickly grew in scope until we eventually had to limit our time on it a little, as we were going in a million different directions and our CE work was getting disorganized!
WHAT ARE WE WORKING ON?
So. What does this mean to the wider Halo community? The TLDR is that we are working to bring as much of this prerelease content to the community as possible, using the Editing Kits for Halo: The Master Chief Collection.
Data, tags, everything you need to put these in your own mod, and enough information to let experienced modders experiment, remix, and even port to other Halo engines than what they were made for (not other games, read your license info, folks!)
The work done on this project has already directly fed into improvements for the Blender tools, documentation, and Editing Kit bugfixing, which benefits everyone, even if you are weird and not interested in this cool Halo history.
For those only interested in new maps, characters, and assets, we will also have plenty to excite and delight. As with any big project we need to be careful of being realistic in our goals, so to keep things organized we are focusing on two areas:
- Prerelease Halo (Digsite Alpha): This is content related to Halo from its earliest origins as an RTS up to material cut from the retail release. That does mean we are revisiting a few things that were restored in the PC port, using more of the original source files (looking at you, flamethrower animations).
- Halo 2 Development (Digsite Delta): The sophomore release in the original Halo trilogy had a complicated development, and while we don’t have every iteration of the work-in-progress builds, we do still have a wealth of cut material.
WHEN CAN WE GET IT?
SOON! We would not be doing this article if we couldn’t see the finish line coming up fast.
That said, we don’t have a specific date as we still need to follow Microsoft and Xbox Game Studios processes and reviews, even for “mod” content. The team is not willing to put out half-broken content, so we’ll be fixing stuff and making additions right up to release.
Tweaking Spectre shaders to better capture the look of the 2000 marketing shots.
WHAT WON’T YOU GET?
I don’t want to dwell on negatives, so the short answer is that we can’t include what we don’t have, and not all development files survived the transition from Bungie to 343, or being moved around over the decades (looking at you, original CE Sentinel working files).
In other cases, we have one or two reference files, but not the full selection and would have to plug so many holes that it ceases to be an original asset and more of a reinterpretation.
The team are working on a large amount of content, but a few items are of note, either because of how “complete” they are, or the significance of the find and reconstruction efforts.
The RTS-era vehicles are very interesting from a historical perspective but are not going to be easy to integrate and have little in the way of support data (textures, animations) that look good in first-person.
We also don’t really know what many were even supposed to do, as there are no design docs of that era available to us and little in the game mechanics we can glean from the early builds. We are still working on these vehicles, but they will require more time in the development oven.
RETURN OF THE MAC
We have managed to recover cyborgs, animations, aliens, weapons, vehicles, and props from 1999-era Halo.
Using the original tags, the team has also tried to replicate the particle FX and sandbox values in the retail engine where possible. That’s not an exact science, and the assets were made for a third-person perspective, but we still think these are very cool!
And yes, that does mean our plan of record with the cyborg player models is to use the retail rig—including those variants never seen outside the walls of Bungie and 343 Industries, until now.
These are not remakes, they are built from the original model and texture data (albeit for some we had to do reverse-engineering trickery to get them out of old tags).
A surprising number of these look perfect in CE, and it is a testament to the original artists how well these assets hold up in 4K resolution!
But great source assets still require a lot of processing, testing, and tag work to get in game. Huge props to the Digsite team for rigging these models, creating new shaders from scratch, and fixing up animation edge cases.
RELIC BULLET STORM
In addition to the MacWorld-era weapons, we’ve also recovered and analyzed other cut sandbox items from the prerelease era, including iterations of the plasma pistol and plasma rifle that are quite different from how they ended up in the final game! After diligent work, we’ve also found multiple SMG versions! We plan on retaining over-the-top muzzle flash for at least one of them.
Oh, and the microwave gun. Everybody loves the microwave gun!
USED CAR LOT
Vehicles that we can confirm are in the process of being polished and packed for release include—but are not limited to:
Spectre: The original Spectre, back in action! It was straightforward to get this in-game in basic form, but had a lot of tweaking and fixes to get everything working (and looking) correct.
We are still a little in the dark as to the full FX setup for the plasma cannon from when it was introduced in the 2000-era and will improve on it as additional info comes to light.
Restoring and rebuilding the physics model of this vehicle could be an entire article on its own, but the short version is the tags we first found did not have the right physics setup, and so we had to do that from scratch. We eventually did find the intended physics JMS, but we had already made so many fixes and handling improvements that we stuck with what we made instead. The lesson here is that we are not going to use original assets if they don’t work properly in the current engine version.
Kestrel: This was cut for a reason (that being, there are no true VTOL physics in CE), but we’ve done some performance edits to make it more controllable and useful in multiplayer maps.
We plan on including the original .vehicle tag if you want to mess with the value as Bungie left it on the cutting room floor. Digsite Alpha has done playtesting and balancing passes on the weapon loadout (which are ground-up rebuilds), but are interested in seeing what the wider community thinks. The Kestrel would be a fun vehicle to port over to Halo 3, where it can hang out with its development grandkid, the Hornet.
(Of course, fans of Halo: Spartan Strike can pilot this magnificent craft in that game’s campaign too!)
Viper: We’ve given this a proper Halo name, since “Stealth Tank” doesn’t have quite the same flair. After an informal naming competition, the name “Viper” was the top contender.
The Digsite crew helped with updating everything to the current engine, and now it fills a different role on the Halo battlefield versus the Scorpion, using old tags to inform its performance characteristics (speed, ground friction, etc.). The Viper’s stealth features include a smaller signature on motion trackers and a low-profile to make quick flanking attacks.
The powerful cannon and recoil FX will give the Viper away after firing, so sink your fangs on the first shot!
Some vehicles have no associated performance tags, or don’t work quite right in the retail engine. These vehicles are still being worked on but are not yet ready for prime time. We want to take a stab at making them fully operational, but our fallback is “let other modders work with it.” Notable examples include:
Forerunner Tank: No, not the cut Halo 2 level. As far as we know, this alien war machine was the first Forerunner vehicle ever made. It appears quite early in the development timeline, with the first models originating from around the transition from RTS to third-person. We need to do some work to bring the shaders up to a retail level, but it’s on a short-list with our future planned releases.
Doozy: We have the Doozy imported… but water vehicles are not well supported in retail Halo: CE or Halo 2. The Digsite crew considered making it a jetbike, but that’s probably too far into “reimagined” territory for our current work. It’s also not the only boat we have in the harbor...
ALL THAT SLITHERS AND WALKS
The team has made huge progress on vehicles and weapons, but I want to make sure we call out interesting characters who may soon be walking around in your games—if we can work out some blocking issues related to animation and skeletons.
For any data hoarders out there, we are still on the lookout for the “tankbeast” creature, so let us know if you find that one!
Covenant Elite: Not just any old plasma rifle-wielding weirdo, this is THE warrior of the Covenant, straight outta’ 1998! Affectionally referred to as the “toad Elite” by the Digsite crew, and “smilies” by old-school UNSC soldiers, this old alien is breaking out new tricks after being re-rigged and their shaders updated. We have some other Elite-related surprises in the pipe, but this is one of the most exciting for the crew.
“Slugman:” In the past, they might have retreated to the Covenant fringe… but now is the Age of the Slug!
Work has started on returning this fighter to its role as a sniper in the Covenant war machine. We are exploring the possibility of retargeting the Elite animations to this rig, as it has a similar digitigrade setup.
Fun fact: Based on the evolution of this critter in concept art, it has a much closer kinship to the Hunter than you might have realized!
Thornbeast: The perpetual “almost made it in” critter—from Combat Evolved to Halo Infinite—has seen some work. No promises on making these more than nice-looking animated scenery, but 343 folks are looking at the source code and prerelease design docs to see if we can get more sophisticated ambient behaviors in-game.
Blind Wolf: We have a few iterations of the blind wolf and its insectoid partner-in-crime available, but the AI hookups to get them properly working in game (not just standing there for target practice) is still a work in progress.
Their intended use in-game varied over development, but the team feels confident we can get the wolves working to a level that other modders can take up the reins. No promises about making them rideable though, as that’s a bug\issue with retail CE we’ve escalated up the chain.
By the way, the keen-eyed loremasters out there may have noticed the “eyespot” on OG blind wolves from the early builds looks a lot like the sensory organ found on Sharquoi. Curious, that!
Keelbug: This little beastie’s role as a battlefield corpse disposer was never fully implemented, but the recovered model may yet find a home in future mods as an ambient critter, or perhaps ported to Halo 2 or Halo 3 as boids?
And did you know we worked in a reference to the keelbug in the Halo Infinite ‘Bleached Bone’ coating?
Maps are a complicated beast, and most of the maps that did not make it into retail CE were not in a state that we felt comfortable releasing. There are exceptions, including new work the team has done which brings one of the prerelease maps into CE as a multiplayer arena!
We want to do a deeper showcase of the maps later, but here’s a sneak peek at our maps working directory:
I’m not afraid to say Halo 2 is my favorite Halo game, so it was very exciting to work on this part of the project. I also find the Halo 2 Editing Kit (H2EK) to be a joy to work in, and it’s really an underappreciated gem of a toolset that got a bad rap from the old Vista edition. With that said, let’s cover a few of the high points of what we are working on, and plan on releasing as mod content soon.
NEW WHEELS AND DEALS
While we continue to seek treasures such as the tracked Warthog variant, we do have some cool stuff for modders to have fun with for campaign mods and multiplayer mayhem.
Mongoose: The Halo 2 Mongoose WIP tags were included in a H2EK tools update a few months ago, but savvy modders quickly discovered that it was missing various things. Well, that’s because it was… not a complete vehicle and cut before it had finishing work done (there are no LOD models, for example).
We’ve gone back and done work to get it to a usable state with some of the missing assets not included in the tools release, such as Master Chief and Marine animations, a basic damage model, and miscellaneous fixes. We’re not doing a polish pass, but I think you can have fun with this vehicle and am excited to see how people integrate it into their own mods.
Uberchassis: The Uberchassis is back, and drivable in Halo 2! The team really knocked it out of the park with amazing work here, though some ambitions were scaled by limitations on moving collision volumes (RIP proper gullwing doors with physics).
We’re not expecting this to be a cornerstone of new game modes, but it was a fun project to get up and running, and I hope to see people use it in inventive ways.
Piglet: No Halo 2 release would be complete without our favorite toy Warthog. General got very ambitious and made custom Chief and Arby animations for it as well. Oh, the instrument panel also works!
NEW MOON RISING
We have some big surprises for folks in the area of maps, but I want to take a close look at one huge (and early) success in rebuilding a cut campaign map—Alphamoon.
Portions of this map got worked into the gas mine levels (such as the boss fight against Sesa ‘Refumee, the Heretic leader), but people have never had the chance to experience this level as intended. Campaign maps require several orders of magnitude more work than a multiplayer map, so being able to get this restored is a source of real pride!
I helped dig these assets up and dust them off, but most work had to be done after that. General has done an incredible job of rebuilding this map and getting it in a playable state, using as much of the original scripting as possible. So, let’s hear General talk about this massive task, in his own words!
General: “Alphamoon was an interesting beast to handle. Originally, we only had the level source data along with the scripts. We didn't have much for the level assets besides map objects like scenery. Map files eventually turned up, but they were made during a time where Halo 2 more closely resembled Halo: CE in terms of file structure along with some tag groups. With no way to use them and no idea what was inside, our Digsite crew had to get creative. Support was added to Assembly [Ken: A tool used to analyze and decompile Halo resource files] to load the map files and dump tags in a JSON format. From there the Blender toolset had a feature added to read and build a valid retail Halo 2 tag.
Solving that was only the beginning however...
The map had several problems before it was finally cut. First off, the mission was incompletable due to geometry reworks, stretched UVs, and incomplete vehicle and weapon assets making some encounters not function properly, just to name a few issues that caused asserts or other failures. The level wasn't that far off from being complete, however. Maybe not by retail release standards, but certainly as a fun curiosity. With that, we decided that it was worth the effort of doing some targeted fixes to not only get it running in Halo 2 MCC but also finalize/fix a few issues.
The idea is to get it running mostly as-is. Ideally, you'll be able to put down the Heretic rebellion with a friend, but we need to make sure the map is performant and won’t crash MCC in single player first! We've already fixed various geometry and UV issues on the map, and are working to finish the assets that the level requires to function.
What's the release date you may ask? Sometime before or after the year 2552, though we won't leave you without anything for that long. There’s still work to do of course, but I did a quick coop run with one of the Digsite crew members to give you a taste of what is to come.”
We've teased this in a few of the shots above, but I can confirm we are working on a rebuild of the original E3 Earthcity scenario that makes it playable in modern retail Halo 2.
This was NOT a trivial process, and we should probably layer on a whole page of caveats that come with taking a demo map for an engine that no longer exists and getting it to not blow up the current lightmapper (among other issues that come from letting people go into areas that were never intended to be seen).
In many ways this is harder than Alphamoon to work on, as it was never made to be played “off script.” Oh, and the scripts. Well over 3400 lines of barely documented haloscript originally written under an insane time crunch almost two decades ago, which itself was made to work around various bugs of the engine at that time. Not a joy to decipher and translate into the modern engine, to say the least.
We have seen things… things a programmer wouldn’t believe…
General is the Digsite foreman and technical historian in charge of the Earthcity work, so it’s best to let him speak to some of the work that went into this map.
General: “This map requires little introduction, I think. A piece of legendary content that we hope to make playable in the MCC (though we can’t make promises on it being available on console). Like Alphamoon, we originally didn't have a lot of assets lying around for the map from previous analysis of leaked builds and the like. Just the source JMS files for the BSP and a few scenery objects. However, once the source map files turned up it was only a matter of time before we had all the data we needed.
Additionally, Kornman and Ken helped us out by diving into the murky depths of the Halo 2 source depo. They ended up retrieving many of the source files for the demo animations that weren't available on the internal [REDACTED] tag share. The remaining unaccounted data was handled by our Digsite members to complete the relic and knock off dust that had accumulated over the years. This took a bit of force, since the data is not valid for any of our current tools. We had to write up some new pipelines for dumping and converting the data from the ancient cache file. Our work was far from complete at this point.
As mentioned before, the script was in a sorry state. Both the script in the map file and the ones given to you through the Halo 2 Editing Kit are not valid for modern Halo 2. The script uses a few functions that changed a bit during Halo 2’s development. They no longer function as they once did, or in some cases aren't accepted by the compiler at all. Our Digsite crew members put in some long hours upgrading the script to work well in the modern era while keeping it mostly in-line with how it was intended.
Scripts weren't the only thing that had to be modified. At this point in time, the game didn't have characters set up through variants. Each character was its own unique set of tags such as a marine.biped or a marine_odst.biped. We had to go around the script and the scenario to update it to use the modern setup for Halo 2’s tags.
There are a couple of issues as well, such as losing support for colored gels in Halo 2 (used in Johnson’s briefing scene), but we will see what we can do to work around those issues.
Our end goal is to get it running in the MCC and playable end-to-end and working as intended if you follow the presentation script (including the Ghost hijack!). Hopefully we will even make a few things shown in the presentation a “real thing” by using retail H2 elements where appropriate. This may be a shocker for some, but several parts of the demo gameplay were smoke and mirrors!
I can't say when you'll get your hands on the final product, but I think you'll find that it will be worth the wait.”
And with that, the first of our epic three-part series on Halo’s early cutting room floor comes to a close!
That was quite the flood of information and nostalgia, undoubtedly reawakening old memories for some veteran fans and probably looking like a completely alien curiosity to some newer folks finding themselves here. We hope you enjoyed this look back into some deep Halo history, and I for one can’t wait to see people get hands-on with it as this content comes closer to completion.
Next time, we’ll be speaking more closely with the marvelous modders who have brought this swath of ancient content out from the depths and into the light, exploring the weapons, vehicles, levels, and alien fauna they’ve been working on. These include General_101, Con, Num0005, Scruffy, Sean T, Ludus, and Zeddikins.
Until then, live well and praise Slugman!