Halo Wars: Ensemble Interview
The team tells us about starting development on the Halo-themed RTS in secret, control iteration, and more.
The real-time strategy genre seems perfectly suited to the overflowing options offered by computers and their oh-so-versatile keyboards. Controlling a battlefield is complicated business and all those keys come in handy. But why should PC players be the only ones to enjoy the spoils of this particular brand of virtual war? It's a question console developers are desperate to answer.
The last two years have seen a slow stream of RTS games for consoles and handhelds, most of them created for the Xbox 360. It was there that EA dipped its toe into the waters with Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth II before giving it a more concerted try in last year's Command & Conquer III: Tiberium Wars. While the Lord of the Rings game was mildly successful, Command & Conquer started to make inroads. Now Microsoft itself is giving the genre a try, and the company is throwing its biggest franchise into the mix.
Halo Wars is an Xbox 360-exclusive real-time strategy game set in the Halo universe. Though the game is starting to get more attention now, things were very touch-and-go in the beginning, as Harter Ryan of Ensemble Studios tells us.
As executive producer at the developer, Ryan is more familiar than most with what makes the RTS genre work. Ensemble has made its name with solid games over the past decade, including the popular Age Of Empires series on PC. But before it could even think of adding the Halo universe to the mix, the team first had to prove that an RTS would work on the Xbox 360. And to do that, Ensemble had to start right from the beginning again.
"We started this as an internal project, without permission," Ryan says. "We felt like the opportunity was there, but to prove the opportunity at all we needed to come up with a usable D-pad control scheme."
When the clandestine work began, around two and a half years ago, the team took its then most recent Age game, Age of Mythology, and ripped out the control scheme, to see if they could make the idea work on a console. For months they reworked the controls, rethinking every decision, tinkering here and there, discovering by trial and error what worked and what didn't.
"We gave them time, and they took the Age of Mythology game that we created on the PC, plugged the D-pad into it, and we gave them the resources and time to start iterating on completely replacing the interface on that game to play with the D-pad," Ryan explains.
Then came the day they had to come out of the shadows. The team approached the higher-ups at Microsoft about doing an RTS in the Halo universe, and it got the OK. The Microsoft deciders were particularly interested in doing something with a more futuristic bent, says Ryan, since the RTS games that had been tried in the past on the console were more historical or fantasy based.
"I think the fact that we had come with a very compelling control scheme is what sold them on us being the developer," says Ryan, who feels that it was the games that weren't forced into a particular mold that generally got it right in the past.
"We thought we could do a better job of creating a console RTS experience. We felt that some of the real-time strategy games that had been developed for the console had been less than they could have been, and we felt that the main obstacle to that was the control scheme."
For six months Ensemble experimented with different ways of controlling the action. Now, with Bungie and Microsoft pleased with the outcome, the next move was to come up with a story.