GP: How difficult was it for Ensemble to go from the likes of Age of Empires, arguably one of the best RTS franchises ever, to Halo, which is such a remarkably different story?
Jason: The biggest challenge was understanding what’s required to capture the essence of a “Halo experience”, and making sure we reflected that in our game - fans of the FPS series have very strong expectations for how a Halo game looks, feels and plays. Halo is all about heroic action to save the entire human race, epic battles across the galaxy, visceral, highly-tuned combat and heart-pounding tension -- these are core themes for a Halo experience, and we need to make sure they’re clearly conveyed to players of Halo Wars.
The most obvious challenge in creating a Halo strategy game is that the camera moves from first person to 3rd person, 40 feet above the action – finding ways to connect players to the battles on the ground as intensely as they feel connected to the FPS games was an ongoing process throughout the development cycle. We did have a few things going for us: instead of taking on the role of a single character you’re now controlling an entire army - so everything is magnified, from the number of different weapons firing simultaneously to the size of potential targets (entire base structures) and magnitude of explosions.
If you’re going to fundamentally re-imagine a game genre so closely associated with the PC for a different platform, you want to make sure that the people doing that imagining are masters of that genre. The Ensemble team was a natural choice to lead us down this road, and we definitely brought a bunch of Halo experts to bear on the project from the other side.
GP: Has there been any talk – no matter how insignificant – about this getting a PC release?
Jason: We don’t currently have any plans to release Halo Wars on the PC, for one primary reason: Ensemble evolved the game mechanic hand-in-hand with the controls, so you’d see the same issues in taking Halo Wars to the PC as you find with PC Strategy games that have been ported to the console. Halo Wars has been built from the ground-up to be native for the gamepad controller, so the game would need to be fundamentally changed to be a great experience with a mouse and keyboard.
GP: What was the most difficult part of the design process you experienced, and did you have to dramatically alter any aspect to make things work?
Jason: The biggest challenge was definitely adapting the underlying game mechanic to work with the console controller – in the past, many Strategy games have struggled on the console because the genre has evolved over the years to take advantage of the mouse-and-keyboard input device, so just focusing on changing the controls doesn't address the needs of a genre that's designed to take advantage of all the precision offered with other input devices.
As an example, many traditional RTS games focus on the need for a variety of resources collected all over the map as requirements for building and advancing - currency, wood, ore, grain, etc. all must be gathered/earned/produced in order to succeed. In Halo Wars we’ve streamlined resources to a single type that can be produced on a player’s main base, so the need to manage a large number of remote locations is greatly reduced - removing the need to micro-manage many areas of the map solves one of the biggest hurdles with RTS controls on the console.
However, in order to create diverse units and/or units with powerful upgrades in Halo Wars you’ll likely need to manage multiple base locations to produce sufficient resources to fund your choices - bases have a fixed number of available build sites, and resource production utilizes those limited slots (as do power plants, both of which are required to produce units and unit upgrades). In this way Halo Wars requires the same kind of careful logistics planning across multiple sites as a traditional RTS, but the centralized base build-out plan makes it easy to navigate to remote bases quickly with the controller’s D-pad. There are similar innovations to the traditional PC RTS mechanic throughout game play, and it’s this ground-up approach to game design that we feel enabled Ensemble to make Halo Wars a breakthrough title on the console.
GP: Was it difficult to work on Halo Wars knowing that this was the last title Ensemble would ever do?
Jason: It was an amazing experience working with the Ensemble team – they’re an incredibly talented and highly professional group and it was a truly great experience to be part of the Halo Wars process with them. It’s a testament to the passion that everyone at Ensemble has for their work that the pending closure had no measurable effect on the production of Halo Wars – nearly everyone who started the project was still on the project when it was completed. The level of drive, commitment and focus throughout development was everything you’d expect from an Ensemble effort, and it shows in the polish and quality of the final product. Many of the folks from Ensemble have started a new studio – Robot Entertainment – and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of the new studio.
GP: The modding community has been such a big part of previous AOE and AOM titles, did removing any modding tools or modding potential change the way you approached Halo Wars on the console?
Jason: Strategy games have a rich history on the PC, and there are many ways that players interact with the genre. Halo Wars has an intense single player campaign and a deep online multiplayer experience that will feel very familiar to PC Strategy players, but our focus on action and combat will feel very familiar to Halo players as well. Our approach to Halo Wars was driven primarily by our desire to deliver both a first-class Halo game and a Strategy game that felt completely native to the console.
The above said, we feel strongly about providing players with the tools to contribute their own innovations to our games whenever it makes sense – Bungie’s Forge is a great example of this. These are the kind of things we think about when we’re investigating how to best support a title into the future – we’ll be paying close attention to the community that develops around Halo Wars.
GP: What’s your personal favourite method to win a battle?
Jason: I actually have quite a few personal favourites in Halo Wars depending on which race I’m playing and which Leader I’m using... I also don’t want to give too many of my secrets away! I will say that I love playing as the Covenant and taking my Scarab from base to base and watching my opponent panic!
GP: Will there be DLC, or would someone other than Ensemble have to make it?
Jason: We’re currently investigating the best ways to support Halo Wars moving forward – we don’t yet have anything to announce, but certainly downloadable content is always very high on our list.
Our thanks to Xbox NZ for this interview! For more information, check out our Halo Wars review.