Last week I had the pleasure of heading down to London, to the Cabinet War Rooms no less, where Winston Churchill launched his World War II campaign, to play and speak to Lead Producer of the upcoming Halo Wars, Jason Pace.
The interview holds a whole load of gems including DLC, the possible sacrifice of strategy in sake of action and whether the frame rate can cope with the "hundreds" of on screen units.
We know you worked closely with Bungie in the beginning regarding the development of the story and what not, but how much input did Bungie actually have?
So Bungie are the creators of the Halo series, so whenever we have questions about anything in the Universe, those are the guys we went to, to get their input, so they had considerable input in to the development of the story.
Were there ever any scenarios where you wanted to go a certain direction, and they were they ever a bit like “oh no, maybe not, can we go this way?”
I don’t think I would phrase it in those particular terms. Generally speaking, we had story ideas and script ideas that Ensemble was working on. They definitely own Halo Wars, they own the story from that perspective. Bungie were more than happy to consult because they consulted all the way through the development process. I don’t think we ever got to the point where we wanted to do something and they said “oh no, that’s crazy” ... Happily, we avoided that.
That being said, the license is pretty accurate from things like menus, right the way down to the individual units. Do you think it’s fair to say though that you sacrificed some of the strategy elements to accustom to the more action orientated Halo universe?
So I actually think it was really important to finish the game and not say that we sacrificed the strategy element. I think that would have represented failure. Ensemble definitely had to sit down and had to think of the essence of strategy ... so, “what do strategy players crave?” ... and really, at the end of the day, it is the ability to manage, build and deploy their forces in the way that they wish. So lots of variety in the kinds of units you can have are really rich, deep, rock, paper & scissors modes of engagement.
We don’t believe that resource gathering is necessary and fundamental to the strategy genre. So gathering 17 different kinds of resources is really just a means to an end. As long as we can give players the ability to get to that end point and then go out and engage in battles in the way that they see fit; that’s what we think is really important. So I would say that we have evolved that genre on consoles, but I wouldn’t say we’ve sacrificed it.
So Ensemble is pretty much closed up now right?
Ensemble is closing at the end of this month.
Microsoft have already stated that there will be post-release support in the form of patches, DLC coming from a team they have within the company, have those folks made the transition across yet to Microsoft?
So when the studio closed, we were absolutely committed to working with those folks to make sure they either found a place in the Microsoft Games Studio, and also, a number or folks, as you may be aware, went off to form a new studio out of Ensemble, and so, we’re very much looking forward to continuing to work with those folks and the folks that are coming up to Microsoft.
DLC has been mentioned, is that something that is definitely in your minds following the release?
There is nothing we’ve announced yet and I wouldn’t say we’ve committed to anything but we have a whole load of ideas where we’d like to take the game after release and certainly DLC is very high on the list.
Would you be looking at more maps for the multiplayer or story-orientated single player?
I think everything is on the table.
Do you see the whole downloadable content thing as a way for developers and publishers to get through the recession? At the moment it can see like too much expenditure and a gamble to make a new game, whereas DLC allows publishers and developers to improve the longevity of a title in a more efficient manner.
I don’t think we look at it in terms of the current economic climate. I think we really look at ... we’re very passionate about building games and franchises that people stick with and can stick with for many years, so that when we look at our post release sustaining strategy for these games and what we’d like to do; it’s really giving fans the kind of things they want to see to stay involved and engaged.
We’ve seen quite a few of the Covenant units and the UNSC units thus far, do the line-ups expand as you get further in the game?
So the battles get bigger, and bigger? Because they seem quite linear to start off with.
One of the things we did as we were developing the game is to try and strike a balance in between teaching you in the early levels and giving you an open playground to run in the later levels. We actually scaled back some of that linearity in the beginning because we pulled an out of game tutorial in to a separate section which gave us a little more freedom to focus on story in those early missions but once we’re certain that players are comfortable with the controls and how to build and what to do; you can imagine that things get much more complicated and much more complex.
So huge battles? How many units can we expect to see onscreen at once at the high end?
At the high end of the single player campaign, I believe you’ll see hundreds.
How does the frame rate cope?
The frame rate is very smooth. That was of course, especially in multiplayer when you get in to situations where you can’t really predict how many units there are going to be. Focussing on frame rate and really having an understanding of what your minimum experience is going to be is really important and we did that across the board.
Part of the problem in the past with RTS games on consoles has been the whole the multitasking aspect in the latter levels. How did you defeat that demon?
It’s a demon to some, and it’s what makes the game fun to other people. That’s one of the really key things that you’ve got to nail. We really believe that you can play Halo Wars the way in which you want to play it.
So for action gamers, you can build up a bunch of stuff in the beginning and just go out and slaughter. Or, you’re the type of person who likes to have multiple bases, so when we talk about the complexity of strategy games, one of the ways we brought that back in, was allowing people to take over and use a number of different base locations. So you can imagine, you have a dedicated resource production base and a base dedicated to your infantry and one for flying units that’s near mountains. And so if you are a true strategy gamer and you want that true level of complexity, it’s there for you. You can micro manage to your heart’s content.
However, that is not required to play the game, you can actually focus on creating a set amount of units, type of units and find a strategy that works for you and you can get out fighting within two minutes. And that’s if you’re at the beginning of the game, or the end of the game.
Would you say there was an audience difference between console gaming and PC gaming, or would action foremost over strategy be more of a transition from standard RTS titles to a Halo franchised title?
I think all of the above. There are certainly PC fans who have nothing to do with consoles and vice versa, what we’re hoping and definitely what we see, as time goes on, there is more of a cross-over as more consoles are available, more people have them. Folks are starting to become more willing to go in to a console experience.
From a Halo franchise perspective, we’re very much focussed on the 360 because it is a first party title for Xbox. And so, although we’re focussing on the 360, we hope we have enough of what makes a strategy game great to entice PC players over.
Are there any plans for a PC port?
We have no plans currently. The same difficulty you see when you try to port PC titles over to consoles, you will find with us. Our mechanic and our controls, we're really designed exclusively for the console and moving that over to PC, you’ll have a fairly big challenge.So it just wouldn’t work?
I wouldn’t say wouldn’t work, but I would say it would end up, especially if it was something we did without sufficient forethought and if we did a straight port, you would probably experience the same weaknesses on the PC that, PC players experience on the console when they play a console port.
Jumping quickly to the co-op ... So the campaign is completely available in co-op. How does that work as it seems to be more of a toe-treading exercise if you are working from the one base?
You can manage that experience how you like. One of the really cool things we saw was that when folks played co-op, there tends to be someone who naturally gravitates towards production and management and someone who naturally gravitates towards fighting, and it’s really exciting watching that dynamic play out. It just almost happens organically.
Someone will be like “no, I really wanna upgrade and build” and “no, I really want to be out fighting”, but you can imagine, one of the interesting things about the legs of this game, that will really keep it fun and interesting in the future is that there will be lots of those issues that folks hash out together and develop brand new play styles, so, it’s really interesting to watch people play co-op for the first time. Some just fall in to a groove really quickly and other times, they end up butting heads just like in another other game.
It was previously announced that the Flood would take part in the story-mode campaign, how will their mechanic work as they aren’t as technologically as advanced as the other two forces?
That, I don’t want to go in to too many details about the Flood because they’re a very critical part of the tension and the horror and the suspense of the game but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how Ensemble put them in the game.
You also mentioned using the whole Forerunner technology as well, how does that come in to play?
Again, I won’t say too much as it’s critical to this particular story but you’ll be very surprised and your jaw will be hitting the floor by the end of the game.
I’m not trying to force you in to spoilers ... honest
Halo Wars is out in Europe on February 27th and March 3rd in North America.