There's no doubt that Halo Wars has been a bit of a gamble for Ensemble and Microsoft.
Console RTS titles seldom manage to capture the speed and ease of control found with their PC brethren, and whilst many have the best of intentions they can often be relegated to the bargain bin prematurely.
As far as franchises go, it doesn't get much bigger than Halo, so if any game can break open the console RTS market with innovative solutions to clunky controllers, then surely Bungie's iconic title stands a good chance? Lead Designer Jason Pace explains what it's like to work with such an acclaimed title:
GP: What part of the dedicated console-only control method are you most proud of, and do you think you’ve finally cracked accurate controls for the console RTS?
Jason: I think ensemble’s circle menu design is the most important interface innovation – the team did extensive design around the circle interface and really tuned it to always have the maximum amount of options available without ever feeling crowded or confusing. We have a “rule of 8” on the circle menu: that is, we never present you with more than 8 options at any given time. This seems to be the magic number for people to be fast and efficient on the controller stick without making excessive errors, and the game design flows out and around from there.
GP: Did working in an established universe limit your creativity?
Jason: One of the best things about working in the Halo universe is the scope and scale: we have entire galaxies and thousands of years at our disposal, so when we sit down and think about the kinds of stories we want to tell it’s pretty much wide-open, even considering the framing and story elements that have already been told through the first person shooters.
Halo is designed to be a giant window on a particular lore that runs very deep: we haven’t even seen stories yet about the mysterious Forerunners, for example, but we all know there’s something Very Big there that will likely blow everyone away when it’s revealed. And what happened to Master Chief at the end of Halo 3? What was going on before the Spartan program started? There are an unlimited number of stories for us to tell, and we actually find that the Halo canon provides us with some great foundation guidance to start from. It’s definitely feast, not famine.
GP: Do Bungie consider the story of Halo Wars to be a part of their official canon?
Jason: Yes, Halo Wars is canon. Frank O’Connor is the Halo “canon overseer” and we have his official signoff!
GP: Did Bungie reject any of Ensembles ideas?
Jason: The Bungie guys were great partners during the development of Halo Wars, and we all take the Halo canon very seriously. Ensemble consulted Bungie throughout the development of Halo Wars, and those guys were instrumental in helping us make sure the game was a genuine Halo experience. From the game standpoint this is 100% an Ensemble creative project, however – it’s fair to say that Ensemble had great feedback from Bungie, but Bungie didn’t provide creative oversight for the project.
As an example of how Bungie helped make the game a great Halo experience, we needed to accurately represent how each of the units looks and “feels” – warthogs must control, sound and feel like warthogs, Covenant grunts must move and act like grunts, etc. Bungie was a great resource throughout the development cycle to help make sure we captured the essence of each individual unit, and we discovered that when we nailed how units and characters felt in the game it significantly contributed to the overall sense of being in a Halo experience.
GP: If I am awesome at Halo, will I be awesome at this?
Jason: The tactical and strategic skills you develop playing the FPS Halo games will definitely help you approach battles in Halo Wars, but you’ll also find yourself presented with a new kind of challenge -- you’re no longer stepping into the role of one character, but rather commanding an entire army composed of many different kinds of units with unique strengths and weaknesses. You’re also “designing” your army based on a wide range of choices on how to engage your opponent, so there will be plenty to learn and master. I’d expect Halo FPS fans will learn a number of new strategies and tactics in Halo Wars that they can take back to the FPS experience, and vice-versa.