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Q&A: How Ensemble Gets  Halo  Fans To Appreciate  Halo Wars
Q&A: How Ensemble Gets Halo Fans To Appreciate Halo Wars Exclusive
November 24, 2008 | By Christian Nutt

November 24, 2008 | By Christian Nutt
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive

The Halo series is in a period of rapid expansion. The first title outside of the mainline numbered installments will be next year's Halo Wars, a console-oriented realtime strategy title for Xbox 360.

Unfortunately for Ensemble, Halo Wars marks the final game from the Dallas, Texas-based Age Of Empires studio, with the Microsoft-owned developer set to close in early 2009 following the game's completion.

Nonetheless, Gamasutra recently had the chance to speak to lead designer Graeme Devine and Bill Jackson, the game's campaign producer.

The interview focuses on the challenges of bringing an original realtime strategy title to consoles, what focus tests taught them about Halo fans and grenades, project origins, and why one of their job titles is simply 'Game Developer'.

Prototyping and Testing Functional Controls

So, you guys are pretty far along in development, then, on this title, and it's gotten to the point where everything is pretty much set completely, at this point.

Bill Jackson: Oh, yeah. We're four years into the title, so...

Really? Four years?

BJ: Yes. Four years. Four long years. The first year was some R&D work -- controls, and things like that -- so I'd say three solid years of production.

That's what I want to talk about... There are two big obvious challenges: bringing this franchise into this kind of genre, and then bringing this kind of genre successfully onto consoles. How did you approach both of these?

Graeme Devine: That is exactly the problem; getting Halo fans to play a realtime strategy game, and getting realtime strategy fans to play a Halo game.

So I think that's one of the very core virtues that we took, in how to make the game approachable. "What are the best things about Halo?" You know, that visceral experience: the sound of the combat. The actual units and style aren't different than an RTS game, so, that helps. And then, bringing realtime strategy to the console; just that kind of crunch there too.

One of the very first things that we did was not try and port any other game. We didn't try and think, you know, "Okay, how can we get these keyboard/mouse equivalents onto the console?" That seemed to be where every other game went wrong; trying to emulate, somehow, that same same pattern -- some of them even had a pointer.

[We decided to] really start again from the ground up, and think about what we wanted to do in realtime strategy games -- controlling large armies, building structures, building some economy, and some technology -- to be able to do those constructions and then controlling them easily with the controller. When you start to think about it that way, instead of how it's been done before, the solutions started to present themselves, and it became pretty easy.

Did you go through a heavy prototyping phase? At that point, were you trying to make functional control schemes?

GD: Oh yeah. We actually started out with Titans, one of the expansions on one of the Age of Mythology games. We spent a long time trying all sorts of variations; we had all sorts of things -- circle menu changes, with twelve things round it, and sub menus, and...

You you actually took an Age of Mythology game, and hacked it to use as a prototype?

GD: Yup. Yeah, basically the first year of the project. And then about six or seven months in, Justin -- one of the balance testers at that point, and he's now a game designer -- he's a real big RTS player, and he came up after one of the games, which he'd tested every single day. He said, "I think it's now easier to play this game with the controller than it is with the mouse and keyboard." And at that point we thought, "Well, okay, we're on the right track."

At that point did you unleash it on focus groups, or at least people who had not encountered it before, to see what their reaction was? Because obviously he had probably been there, observing that process.

GD: That was one of the actual concerns. In game design, it's very easy to reach an evolved process. You know: We have an evolved set of controls; we're now here because we did A, B, C, D, E, so if someone new comes in, can they get the E right away without having gone through A, B, C, D? So, we actually had a high amount of belief in what we were doing. I remember when we did our first focus test...

BJ: It's been at least two years since we started testing.

GD: But we started early on in the process. We weren't Halo IP when we did our first.

BJ: So about three years ago we did our first, and we've done focus group testing with different types of people, not just with the same group over and over. So, we've done Halo fans; we've done non-Halo fans; we've done people that have never touched a console game; even people that have never touched a game.

And we've gone the whole gamut, and gotten feedback. And useful feedback, from just about all of those people. With that said, I would say that Graeme and everyone who worked on the controls, it was a design that was internal. We just used the focus testing to validate assumptions -- as opposed to, "Hey! What do you want in an RTS control scheme?" And that's why it's so different than the RTS control schemes that are out.

GD: Our first focus group was actually Halo fans. I remember that. It was interesting, because one of the first things we learned was how much hardcore Halo fans like throwing grenades.


GD: It seemed like a really funny thing to get out of the control test, but they all would come up and say, "This trigger needs to throw grenades!" Over and over and over again, that was direct feedback -- "We need to be able to throw grenades!" So, you can throw grenades now.


BJ: Another thing that we found out is that there's a pretty big overlap already, between Halo fans and RTS -- at least some RTS experience. Whether that's RTS on consoles on some other products, or whether that's RTS on PC.

So we actually had to go out and say, "Let's change our criteria; let's only get Halo players that have not played a realtime strategy game." When we first did it, we just ended up with a large proportion of people who understood what RTS was as a concept. So we have really stretched our wings on that, and really tried to find every little nook and cranny, to get the feedback from all groups.

Design Is Also a Solution

You're aiming at some problems that are pretty ripe to be solved on consoles, still. First, getting an RTS just to function as a genre on the console is still a relatively large issue that hasn't really been addressed. Like you've said, some have done better and better at emulating the existing control mechanism from the genre, but there hasn't been a lot of effective work in developing new, meaningful controls.

GD: I think, even, it goes beyond controls sometimes, too. I mean, on a PC RTS, you can sometimes get 3,000 units, or something. You can get so many units that you just can't physically do this on a console. But they try! And then you get the photo frame-fest, of just one frame every three seconds, and the game becomes non-fun very quickly.

So design becomes a major component in getting people to understand the game, both as a Halo game, and as a strategy game that they can effectively play?

GD: I think it was key that it'd be console-only. And everyone was like, "Oh, there will be a PC version down the road," or, "I'll wait for the PC version," we see that all the time. But no, there's no PC version coming, because it was designed for the console.

We thought about going both ways, but as soon as you make that thought in your mind, it's easy to say, "Well, I'll use the text interface device that's coming out... That'll be how I do macros; I'll start to use the shift button to do more than one control thing," It starts to become an issue. But if you've only got this thing [holds up controller] and this thing's complicated enough -- it's a good challenge.

Yeah, the challenge of consoles, I think, is to simplify the controls to the point where they still function, rather than complicate the controls to the point where you can do everything on different buttons.

GD: There's ways to simplify the two, I think; they're kind of invisible. One of the ways that we simplify, say, the economy in the game. We have just one resource in the game. The supplies come in, and they come in all the time; you don't have to send people to go dig in the dirt.

But one of the other things that we have is our bases, in order to simplify -- that provides, actually, depth -- that there's only so many slots around the base that you can build at. It starts with three, you can upgrade to five, and then upgrade to seven.

But the decisions that you make there, as to what you put in the slots, is actually a really complicated problem. But because it's a visual problem on the screen, it's like the map becomes a desktop, almost...

If you become really good at Halo Wars, it's actually a hardcore decision, like, "Do I build two supply pads and upgrade one to get the reactor?" It's a different way of presenting the same problem, but visually, and with the controller, it's solved pretty well.

Working With Bungie's Baby

Were you able to pull any assets from Bungie's stuff, and use them? Or did you have to build it all from scratch?

GD: We had to build it all from scratch.

Did you have really good reference material from them?

GD: At the time, the movie deal was in process, so they actually prepared a lot of stuff for Weta. We used that. We also found the Halo art books to be very useful. But one of the other challenges was, all of their stuff was from this [forward] perspective, and all of our stuff is from the top. So we actually had to change things up quite a bit for that perspective, to make the units recognizable.

Getting the Halo units to look and feel the same was also one of the other challenges, because everyone knows what those Warthogs look like, when you drive them and so forth, but up in the air you can actually exaggerate that a quite little bit and they'll still look the same.

So, you know, that thing's actually jumping three times as high as it does in Halo, and it goes four times faster than it does in Halo, and all these things -- but it looks the same. Very different, between look and accuracy.

Did you have the wherewithal to create new units and machinery? Or did you have to have to stick to what had been established in the mainline Halo series?

GD: One of the things about Halo is... Well, Master Chief is a one man army, right? So he's got a couple of ODST troops to help him, but that's really about it.

We actually had to fill in a little bit on the UNSC side to make the side more complete. The Covenant, they were actually more complete than the UNSC side, so then less work went into making them a complimentary army.

Because you're already fighting them as an army.

GD: Yeah.

From a design perspective, when you just threw the extant Halo ideas into a new perspective, did it offer up design ideas, by dint of just changing the view?

GD: Yeah. And it's a cool universe, because the humans need to fire lead, and the aliens need to fire plasma. You can't just suddenly give the humans ray guns, and say, "Okay, now we're gonna go out there, and kick ass with ray guns."

On Job Titles

I actually have a question that's totally outside of this, but I notice that your card just says "Game Developer," rather than a specific discipline. Is that a philosophical choice, on crediting? Or is that because you do a lot of different stuff?

GD: Well, I can kinda do a lot of different stuff! I've been making games almost 30 years now. So, I am terrible at drawing, but I can make games. But I'd program, write -- you know, juggle...

One of the things, when you make games, is that there's no badge when you make a game: You might be a programmer on the game, but you're still have an actual opinion about the actual game you're making. So many people are labeled "Programmer", and, "I'm not going to listen to you because you're a programmer," that's just the wrong approach to take. Someone's discipline is not necessarily their role in a game.

BJ: That's why I chose producer, Graeme.

GD: Yes. You can't comment on the story at all! No, you comment on the story the whole time. But that was exactly -- you know, it's a good example, I mean, Bill read through the scripts and gave great feedback on the story.

BJ: I was the editor.

GD: He was the producer on the campaign, and was integral to a lot of the actual design of the campaign maps, and how they were laid out. When you say the word 'Producer', it doesn't conjure up in your mind the guy who is helping me out with the script, or working on campaign map layout.

Yeah. If anything, it's one of those roles that, depending on what studio you're talking to, it means one thing or another.

BJ: Yes, that's very true. It's very true. I think, at our studio, we've always had the mentality that everybody can comment on the design of the game in any way that they want.

So it doesn't matter what role you are, or how long you've been there; you can say whatever it is you want to say. And our job is to hear that and respond to it. And if we can't respond to it, then it probably means there's some validity to what you're saying -- so, it's worked well, I think. It makes good games; high quality games.

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