x360a Meets Graeme Devine: Halo Wars
Written Monday, November 17, 2008 By Dan WebbView author's profile
You've no doubt seen the dribbles from this interview for most the day now over here on x360a, but now, you can have the chance to read the full interview, right here.
It's a decent enough interview with plenty of great topics of conversation with some particular focus on controls and that Microsoft culling of Ensemble. Take a read, but be warned, it's a long one! And don't say "that's what she said" ... It's so not cool. Enjoy!
So how far is the closing of Ensemble a vote of no confidence on Halo Wars?
None at all by Microsoft as far as I can tell.
Are you sure?
Yeah, pretty sure.
If it wasn’t a vote of no confidence, then why close the studio?
I think Microsoft is refocusing where it’s put its head count. Honestly, it’s as boring as that. It’s one of those things that’s not anything to do with the studio and is all to do with numbers and places and geography.
As much as that completely sucks and as much as that is completely without feeling or without ... Ensemble Studios makes great games and continually produces games that are profitable, that do extremely well and sell in great numbers but I think the reason for the closure is actually quite boring.
We touched earlier on upon the sequel. If there were a sequel, would you like to be the guys to work upon it and do you have plans for a sequel?
That’s an interesting question. I love the characters that make up Halo Wars and love the story I’ve told and I’d love to be able to continue telling that story. It’s a good set of characters and a great story and we leave it at a very interesting place.
Going back to the structure of the company, mentioning that some of you guys are going to be sticking around and supporting the game with DLC and all this?
DLC has always been part of the game plan since day 1. It’s an Xbox game and Xbox games for Microsoft particularly have a lot of DLC. That DLC plan is right there in that green light presentation too. So DLC has always been thought of since the beginning.
Coming to the general market; seeing as in fact it’s a Halo RTS, obviously the game does a lot to work physically for a console and makes it more accessible but do you think that’s going to grab the Halo crowd who are traditionally a very different group from the RTS crowd? Do you think that’s going to be enough?
I think that and the story. I think that and making the game seem approachable because we have to cater for two crowds. We have to convince the strategy game players that the game has the depth of a strategy game that they can enjoy. When it comes to the Halo players, it’s got to be Halo enough so that they sit down and learn a strategy game.
We have what we call an inverse pyramid where we make use of something simple so it seems really easy; “I’m doing good” “I’m doing this” and then you’re doing three different things at once and before you know it, you’re running a whole city and actually doing something quite complicated.
In Halo Wars, it does a very good job introducing you slowly and building you up. I think that’s there and I think the story is something that our researchers, knowing Halo fans, know they love story and they’ll play through the game to see the dying end of the story.
Do you think the game is more stacked up to cater more towards the Halo player? How will you cater to the more serious RTS players?
I think one of the things was always to hide the strategy, sure it’s there, but ... an example of that is the base; the base to begin with has only 3 slots around it; then you can upgrade it to 5, then to 7.
To an ordinary player, it’s like “Great, I’ll plonk down some buildings now and then build an army” but if you’re a real time strategy player, you’ll think about the depth ... “Well I’m going to have to rethink my building layout as to how I actually do anything. I’ll build one supply pad and upgrade it so I have two supply pads right away. The cost to upgrade my reactor is actually 1,400 and the secondary reactor only costs 500, which is cheaper.” In the end, if you’re a true RTS guy, you’ll say like 1,400 is actually cheaper because that empty slot is worth more than 900.
By hiding the depth and complexity, but making it still there, on the battlefield instead and on the interface, I think we have an effect that it’s there but there is just a different way of showing it.
When you started making the game 4 years ago, the control interface, the radial interface, has been seen in a few games this year. Had you guys been working on it a long time before you saw those games or was that something that affected the development?
I think there are a few games we’ve already influenced. I think that’s fair to say... I wish we had actually called it the radial interface. It’s a funny story but we started calling it the circle interface early on and it caught on and was in all the manuals and the core presentations. We kind of wanted to change it to radial but it was too late. I’ve seen it in other games and yeah, but no one has done it quite as well as Halo Wars.
RTS games on consoles never seem quite as sophisticated and accurate as PC RTS titles. Was this a big factor in the game’s development? Like making groups and such...
We tried to deal with the action. Taking your examples, groups are automatically done for you; if I press down on the d-pad, it’ll jump between my groups of units. But we don’t need you to do that; all I want you to play with is those four buttons on the controller. You can play the entire game that way.
The other way is to sub-select groups; if I press the right trigger I can sub-select between my troops but we don’t teach these things right away, they aren’t even in the tutorial because all we want you to thinking about is that one controller; A to select things in the very beginning and you’ll be able to play the entire game that way. But if you’re an RTS player and want to be able to play with groups and you want to be able to sub-select; that’s definitely there.
So we understand that you’ve worked quiet closely with Bungie in terms of the licenses and models but how much did they help you along the way in terms of making the game?
Early on, we talked a lot to them about what it meant to be Halo and we talked to them a lot about what a Halo action game meant to them. We took up builds of our game and we talked about story with them. We talked about the events of Halo 3 and the background for the Halo characters; who they were, where they came from...
Then they got really busy with Halo 3 and they haven’t actually got to play it in a while ... I think I’m going up there soon to show them the game. But mostly, what it meant to be a Halo game; an example of that is grenades. Like ... You’ve got to be able to throw grenades in a Halo game and so the secondary powers of all the units; grenades, ability to ram in the Warthog; all of those are very Halo elements.
Has their involvement changed since they left the Microsoft Games Studios?
No, I don’t think it has. The e-mail address has changed but the relationship between the studios is great, so actually no.
The secondary attacks seem quite powerful; has there been lots and lots of testing going on to do with the balancing and such?
Almost everyone at Ensemble right now is running through the game constantly, only playing the game and a lot of our gameplay right now is focussed on, are our legendary achievements even possible? Can I get legendary gold?
So it’s done in the way Halo is?
Oh yeah. The thing with the secondary attack is that we want you to time when to use it right, so that you’re not constantly walking along holding Y. We want you to use it and then, you know, then a tank comes and you’re like “oh s*@t, I’ve just used it”.
How does that apply to the online as well then?
Those timing differences are exactly the same online.
And the Covenant, you say you can control those online?
How do their troops compare?
They are similar and some of them have some Halo special abilities. If you look at how the Covenant work out; the Covenant infantry is perhaps the worst in the world, you need like 6 squads of them to take out a single infantry. Then the UNSC infantry is perhaps the next best. Then Spartans are absolutely cool, but the Covenant leaders are possibly the most frightening; it takes many Spartans to take out like an Arbiter or something because Spartans aren’t quite as good as Master Chief.
It was mentioned by Bill Jackson earlier on that you intend to do for the console RTS what Halo did for the console FPS. How do you even start about doing that?
Well for starters, we don’t say that right away *laughs*
We spent the first year and a half of the project just working on the controls and we took Age of Mythology and looked at just making a joystick control work with that game. We took away all the interface, all the concepts of the, you know, RTS must have this big huge apron with this big line across the top and just thought about not using a mouse and keyboard but looking at what we want to do with a RTS game.
I want to be able to select units, I want to be able to select an army, I want to be able to attack with an army; and how to do that with a controller from scratch so not even thinking about porting games over, or even the concept of right click, left click, shift click, drag clicks which when I see other console RTS games that ported that experience across and have obviously thought in their minds, I’m shift dragging or alt clicking; they haven’t thought about how to do the whole experience from scratch.
The finish line we set for that was our balance testing. You can imagine balance testers at Ensemble studios; some of the best RTS players in the world. Having them say at some point that Age of Mythology was more playable for them with the controller than it was with the mouse and keyboard. When we got them convinced that was possible, we felt we had controls that worked.
There’s a lot of different RTS control methods coming in these days; say EndWar with the voice control, Stormrise next year with the “whip select”. Was there any point during development where you went “hold on a minute, that’s a great idea and we could use that to help our current system?
We’ve been fairly convinced about our controls from day one ... I think it’d be interesting to show you all that Age of Mythology build actually at some stage and there are several concepts in there that are still very visible today; one of those is the circle menu and only having 8 things on that; and another is the building from a building thing, instead of having to select the building you want to building from there.
Something we did change was those secondary abilities and added those to the actual build; they weren’t in the Age of Mythology. That was something we added because we felt we needed to add a Halo aspect to the game, not because we felt that the controls were lacking in anyway.
We went in with the conviction that we had the controls right and those convictions have stuck. If we didn’t have conviction and we were changing it throughout the project, I think we’d have a sucky game.
In closing; do you think that the closing of Ensemble and consolidation of development will increase/decrease the quality of Microsoft’s output?
I can’t talk on Microsoft’s behalf, but I can talk about my observational acts. What I’ve noticed about Microsoft is that it is the job of the first party and the job of the first party games to be absolutely the best games on the planet. To make the pyramids.
Microsoft have the conviction to make pyramids and we want to build games that are around for 4,000 thousand years and I’ve not seen any change in Microsoft’s approach, in fact I’ve only seen more determination at Microsoft to be the first party games world that makes the absolute best first party games, because that’s how you sell consoles. It’s great that Madden is on all three, but it doesn’t make me buy a 360. It’s a game that is only on one console that has an exclusive to the console that actually makes you buy that console.
Everything I see from Microsoft is about making those games that make those console buying decisions. I don’t see any change in that rift at all, if so, there is more determination.
Do you think that Tony Goodman’s new company will better represent the spirit of the Age of Empire/Age of Mythology and Halo Wars and the next game they choose to develop?
I think so. I can’t talk for the new company because I’m not part of it but I know Tony very well and I think Age of Empires and the spirit of the Age of Empires will lead Ensemble’s next games and be the foundation or I hope it is.