TGR Halo Wars Interview: Establishing a Genre

The Game Reviews recently caught up with Emsemble Studios’ Dave Pottinger to get some information on the upcoming console RTS adaptation of Bungie’s original franchise. Dave was happy to spill whatever he could about Halo Wars, and we were happy to listen.

The Game Reviews: Ensemble studios is best known for its critically acclaimed Age of Empires Series that helped define the RTS genre. What was it like transferring that passion to an already existing IP with Halo Wars?

Dave Pottinger: It was definitely different. Working with somebody else’s IP, I think, is always a challenge. The cool thing was that the whole team obviously loves Halo 2, and it has been a lot of fun to go in and deal with the flesh that IP has. I like superheroes and stuff like that, and my favorite part of a superhero story is the origin story. The way that we set this game 20 years before the events in Halo 1, and using the story that Graeme Devine wrote, gave us a chance to go in and put our stamp on the IP. It felt as much ours while still being in the Halo IP as if we would have set it the same, showed what Master Chief was doing, and stuff like that. At this point in the overall Halo fiction there is not a whole lot that had been defined, yet the Human/Covenant conflict had already started, so we had to go back in and sort of tell a bunch of the missing pieces. That is a lot of fun, I think, from a story standpoint. From a story standpoint, I think that we have been working on strategy games for 15 years or so now and it was actually very re-invigorating to the team to have the challenge of establishing a genre on the 360 console. Many of the demonstrators had never had the console before, so this holiday season I think that has shifted a bit. We still look at it as trying to establish this genre and as I said, it was a pretty big challenge. I think that we got excited a lot by that.


TGR: Like you were saying, the console strategy games have actually had a pretty difficult time gaining an audience compared to their PC counterparts, and it is normally a result of the control schemes. How does the team plan to overcome this obstacle? Did you ever consider an alternative control scheme such as voice command vs. using just the buttons on a controller?

DP: I think that is a legitimate question and I think that it exemplifies the whole reason why we got into this project in the first place. We have been making strategy games forever, and we had an idea, basically, for how to bring the strategy games over to the console and give those console gamers a chance to experience that gameplay. That idea basically evolved around the controls. We had the idea to continue to do the circle menu–to do the selection the way that we do it–and the whole game pretty much evolves from that.

The actual prototype that we used for the gameplay was to take the Age of Mythology game that we had done several years ago, and convert it over to be playable with the controller. That got to be really fun and hardcore guys got to be really, really good at that and eventually sort of signed off that it was as easy to play as on a PC. And that kind of told us that we were onto something, and that the ideas that we had, had some merit. In talking with Microsoft, the perfect marriage was born and we got a chance to use the Halo IP. The way we look at it is that we are still trying to establish genre. The Halo IP is the one we love, and to be honest, it’s a great chance to help get this game noticed. We have the challenge of convincing people that this type of gameplay, that they probably haven’t played on a console, before is something that they want from the the next Halo game. The Halo IP really, really helps that out because we  don’t have to try to sell an idea at the same time.

Given that, I think that we were able to do a pretty straight-forward development process, starting with the controls and building those from the ground up to be something that was possible on the console. The Halo thing makes sense, and we have been refining the controls for the last three or four years. The last big run at control changes that we made was right before E3 this year and we actually simplified our controls again. I think they went over pretty hugely from previews and from the feedback that we have been getting on the system. They say it is excellent. We have a couple of mantras on the controls. We have ’one button does one thing’ and yet it is easy in a strategy game to get very deep with hot keys and things like that. Now on a PC you expect the hot key usage. ’Well if I already have 90 hot keys, what’s five more?’ On a controller, we found that we have a hard time with people remembering different states of buttons and things like that, so, right before E3 this year, we actually stripped some of that stuff out. The usability and people just enjoying themselves went through the roof when we did that, because people no longer had to remember what they were trying to do. It just came second nature, and I think that is one important thing that we did in the game–we built the gameplay around those limitations on the controller.

Actually, one of the things that I am most proud of in the game is how we’ve not asked people to do insane things with the controller. If you want to play really hardcore and micromanage your guys, you can do it. Our hardcore guys do it, and they have fun. If you want to just press the left bumper and select all the guys in the world and tell them to do these special abilities, you can do that; it is very easy. And we find that is what, I think, as much as the Halo IP, gets people interested in the game. They can get a little skeptical about it, but when they play it a couple of minutes, they know the controls and they don’t have to worry about what they don’t know. I think that is an important thing when we are talking about establishing a genre; we need to convince people that this is a game that they can play. We know it is a game they want to play. The strategy genre has been in game consoles for a long time. We know they want to play it. It’s Halo and they want to play that too, but they don’t need to actually involve that and ensure that they can play it.

TGR: Okay.

DP: Like I said, to sum it all up, the idea is that we built it from the ground up to be on a console, and we have accepted that in the game designs. We don’t have a thousand units, we don’t have a lot of things to use to get into the gameplay; we have limited the gameplay with just what the controller can reasonably do. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I think that we actually made a pretty fun game of it.


TGR: Do you feel this game is going to appeal to hardcore strategy fans or newcomers to the genre? Or do you think that it is going to bridge the gap between the two?

DP: I don’t think that we would be pretty close to shipping if we didn’t think it would bridge the gap. I think it has appeal for very different reasons. The way we kind of look at it is, obviously we are on a console, so it has to be a game that makes a console gamer happy. The gameplay is shorter than at least our average strategy games have been in the past. H2, AoM, and H3 were all 35-, 45-minute scrimmage games. Halo Wars is more like 15 minutes. It is a lot more action-oriented, too. Plus, to be honest, it is a Halo game, and I want to blow some stuff up! People need that. It is not a game where I want to ask my Spartan to go get trees and bring gold back to my town. He needs to be out doing what Spartans do, and so we have definitely skewed the gameplay to focus on the combat. In that sense it is more spectacular than any game we have worked on. Combat is more meaningful.

One of the things that I think a lot of people liked about Age is that you could just out-econ somebody. You can see me play better "air quotes" now, you take a good look and build up your economy, and then you go to lunch with the guys and kind of ask about the battle, and a lot of people don’t even watch the battle, then they go back to managing their economy. Halo Wars is definitely the exact opposite of that. We want those big, sort of epic economic decisions, and I am big on the theory of continual investment in your economy in a strategy game. It is not something that we want you to set up on autopilot in the first 30 seconds and never go back to it.  We have got that typical strategy game and the typical Ensemble game depth in the economy, so naturally, I think it will appeal to the people who have always liked our games, but it is now in a much more console style. When you want to go back and upgrade your economy you pop back to your base and you can just press left on the d-pad to do that. You can switch on one of the supply pads and upgrade them, or maybe you will build another supply pad, so there are different ways to do that. There are a limited number of building sites on a base, so you have to decide: "Do I you want more economy?" "Do I want to upgrade?" or "Do I want to expand?" That is a really classical strategy choice.

So we have that in this game, and I think people will recognize that, but it is much faster-paced. Sort of strategy boiled down to the essentials. And I think in that way, I do hope that it appeals to everybody. Not that I am widely optimistic enough to think that we won’t get roasted by some of the hardcore Age fans and the people who say, "OH! Strategy games can never be played on a console." You know, some people think that you can’t play strategy games on the console. I am not sure there is anything that we can do to convince them; if people are open to the idea that a strategy game can work on a console, I think that they will play it and I think that they will really like it, but for very different reasons.

Halo fans will look at it all, get it, and say, "Hey this is really Halo in a new way and I get to control an army and I get to fight against, you know, a whole screen full of Flood from a top down perspective. I get to play as the Prophet in a multiple player scrimmage, or in the Covenant, you know as the Arbiter." Then there is another one that we haven’t even announced yet. But they will see those Halo things.

I think that people coming from maybe the Ensemble background will come over, and they won’t necessarily focus on the Halo things, but they will see the gameplay. They will see the idea that you have different things that you do in each unit, and if you don’t want to build lots of heavy tanks, that requires me to total up a little bit, and they will see those typical strategy things in the game first. And then hopefully they will kick each other’s ass.


TGR: The Halo universe has a wealth of vehicles, weapons, and enemies, have you announced exactly how many buildings and vehicles and units there are going to be available in this game?

DP: I don’t think that I am allowed to give the final, FINAL answer on that.

TGR: Okay.

DP: Yeah, it is around the order of…. I may have mentioned the "one button does one thing" mantra, but I also said a lot about that there is the rule of eight, so we have a circle menu that pops in the center of the screen and it has eight places for stuff on it.  If you select a place to build, you can have just one of eight; you can actually have a few less than that. It is along the order of ten or fifteen units per site versus five.

We just talked about Ensemble fans and that people come just for Ensemble, so for them there is the UNSC and Covenant playable sides and those, I think, are probably our most differentiated civilizations that we have ever done in terms of gameplay. Then we have three leaders that sit on top of that. It is sort of like Age of Mythology, if you remember that one, where there were Greeks and Egyptians and then Captain Cutter is our Zeus and Sargent Forge is our Hades. So we want to get again into that type of replay. We know that strategy gamers enjoy a lot of long plays, when there are a lot of depths to explore. I think that is one of the coolest things that is different about Halo Wars from Halo the shooter. In Halo, we have a deathmatch and then we get around the water cooler and we talk about that. We talk about getting cool head shots and things like that, but we are not really talking about the interests from a competitor’s standpoint. There are different strategies that we may employ, like picking up a different gun and being a different spy in there, but strategy games have so much more to do differently in the next game than just a shooter. It is a different type than what people are used too, so I am really excited to have people be able to have different water cooler moments with Halo Wars, like, "Oh! If I had just gotten my economy rolling earlier, I could have just gotten my Scorpions out and maybe X # of Grizzlies before you came in with your Hornets," and things like that. It is a different way of thinking about Halo, and a different way of thinking about how your next game is going to go than people have gotten used to on the console, and I am really excited to see how that turns out.

TGR: Very cool. The Halo franchise has obviously been a first-person shooter in the past, and it has focused on a lot of one on one combat, how important will the individual unit be in Halo Wars?

DP: It depends a lot on what civilization you go to, to be honest. Let’s start with that for a second. We have the UNSC Covenant as it is. They’re the fairly regimented army. Spartans kick ass; a lot of the best things about Halo Wars from Halo stand-point is that it is back when there were multiple Spartans alive in the galaxy, well, that you could access. So, with  multiple Spartans on the battlefield, this is the first time people will be able to play with multiple Spartans at one time. So that is cool. Spartans are really bad ass. They have probably the single coolest ability in the game, where they can hijack an enemy vehicle and jump on top of a Wraith, beat the crap out of it, rip off the hatch, toss out the driver, and now they’ve got the Wraith and kind of made like a super unit on the battlefield.

In terms of individual combat power, the three Covenant leaders are individually the strongest units in the game. The feasible spin on the Covenant that I think actual Halo fans will recognize is that the Covenant is lead by a bunch of charismatic leaders that are largely sort of religiously oriented zealots. The Covenant units, pound for pound, are just a little bit weaker, actually, than the UNSC units, except for the leaders; the three leaders in a skirmish game are the three best units in the game. So, if you are talking about the Covenant skirmish game, actually, the entire civilization is oriented around your leader. They have a bunch of leader-specific things that they can do; they have different barometers from the Prophet and in these civilizations mechanics are oriented around a leader in a really different way. Whereas UNSC may be a little bit more wookie-like in that kind of strategy game–it is definitely the simpler civilization to play–Covenant are kind of advanced.

When you play the campaign, you play as heroes from the story. We talked a lot about our characters and the campaign, such as Captain Cutter and Sargent Forge, who is the first survivor of the game. You just select Sargent Forge and his Warthog and drive him around, so in the campaign it is really, really important to get your units together.

We talked a lot about the mechanics of the skirmish game, too, where the Covenant leaders are very important. With that said, it is a strategy game, and everything has to have a counter. One of the challenges in making a Halo game that lives up to the Halo fan expectations is creating a game where the Spartan isn’t the most bad ass thing in the universe. We always hear the line that everybody remembers from Halo, "Tank beats all." Of course I am referring to the Scorpion. Well it beats all of them…sort of. In Halo Wars it has to have a counter too, right? So, I think that we have had some challenges bringing the Halo IP over and still having the Spartans feel like Spartans in order to meet peoples expectations there. But then, if I build the Spartans and a couple of Scorpions, you still have to have a way to beat me.

We have been able, I think, to pull that off pretty well, and the view that I think I am getting at is Spartans are really bad ass, Covenant leaders are awesome, and Ganks feel big and heavy, but it is a strategy game ensemble and it is just very well-balanced. We have had a balance team on this game for the last two years to make sure that it comes out that way, especially with LIVE and Halo and all the online games out there, so we know we are going to get a fair and fun experience online.


TGR: It was announced that the Flood is going to play a role in the game. Is it possible that the players will ever play as the Flood, or is it just going to be an enemy?

DP: It’s kind of an enemy to all. There are some ways that you can definitely interact with the Flood that we are not quite talking about yet, but we talk. We did actually think a long time about making the Flood playable and, for a couple of reasons, we decided not to do that. From a fictional standpoint, this is a time when it is still very much UNSC versus the Covenant. I think in order to tell the best story possible, we decided to tell a story from the UNSC standpoint only. And really, there was also the challenge with Halo IP; Halo has always been experienced through the Master Chief’s eyes, so we needed to separate that out, we thought, to make sure that the people weren’t expecting the Master Chief to show up in the game at some point. He is off doing something else in the galaxy right now in our time frame.

We also have an ensemble cast. The cool thing about that is that it is actually tied to the game player, alright? Because in Halo the shooter, the story is about Master Chief. You are Master Chief. Here you are everybody. There are four (or depending on how you count, five) main characters in our main story and you get to know each of them. You get to know what the motivation is. We have almost a half-hour of cut scenes that are vectored and high quality, that you receive kind of between the missions, and there are mission cut scenes, too. If you sit down and watch all of those movies back to back in the theater, it is a great half-hour show. It’s played well in the past, Graeme’s story, which I think is the best way that the Halo story has been told. It is fun to see again, to be able to do the gameplay differently, but also to tell the story from a multi-character standpoint.

So in that sense we wanted to keep the focus there on the UNSC versus the Covenant, and the Flood just kept sort of getting in the way, from a story standpoint. Gameplay-wise, we tried a lot of paper models on the Flood and to do the Flood right. It just wasn’t in our schedule because they need to be enemy to all. They are the most evil thing on the planet and all of that stuff, and we just didn’t have time to get that right and still spend all the time that we needed to on the UNSC and the Covenant. Maybe in Halo Wars 2. Depending on what Microsoft does with that, you can think about that.

But the good thing that the Halo fans can definitely hold onto is that the Flood are in the game in a big way. It’s not Halo without Flood, despite what I said about them. Definitely, to skirmish fans and stuff like that, the Flood do have some major scene things that you can do. We have some really cool maps and stuff like that with Flood on them, but I can’t quite talk about those yet. The difference will be there. It is a big part of the Halo lore, but the story that they focused on was the UNSC.

TGR: Could you talk to us a little bit about the music? It’s done by a different person, but will it still have the traditional music?

DP: So, the music was written entirely by Stephen Rippy, who you know is one of the infamous Ensemble Rippy brothers. But the great thing about it is that it’s Halo-esque. We have obviously talked to Marty a lot and been up there and down here and all of that stuff. It’s got the same kind of rock vibe to the music that kind of sets off against the mox and the champion. It’s all in there. Again, it’s Halo Wars. We have a different sort of four-note iconic theme in our game. But it definitely feels like Halo. When you roll your army into battle, the guitars and the drums kick on and it feels like you are playing Halo, but it is all in our music. That is one of the coolest things about the game: listening to music. It is different, and you can tell it is different, but it still evokes the same sort of hair on the back of your neck craze when you go into combat. It helps to really set the Halo vibe for people.

TGR: Very cool. It was announced that the Limited Collector’s Edition is going to come with two unique vehicles?

DP: The LC actually has one: the Honor Guard.

TGR: Oh, I am sorry.

DP: The Honor Guard Wraith and then if you pre-order…

TGR: If you pre-order you get the…

DP: You get the Fireball Warthog.


TGR: So could you tell us a little bit about those and why they are being–

DP: Well yeah, you know it is equivalent. I think of it in terms of how we plug into an IP and have the things that we think about (people have the vanity armor in Halo). That is what these essentially are.

TGR: Okay.

DP: Functionally, the gameplay works the same. It’s a strategy game, so we can’t let people who pay more have an advantage.

TGR: Yeah, the balance…

DP: That would be a little bit of a screw, but it’s just some bling; just a way to have fun. The Honor Guard Wraith is a play on our version of the Leagues that are in the game. So, the Lead Star would be a unique unit for the Prophet. Because of that, we were able to actually help you pull back a little bit more of the lore.  You can actually build, as an Elite Unit, the Honor Guard Elites. They are kind of like the Red Storm Troopers who guarded the Emperor in Star Wars; they’re secret service guys. The Honor Guard Leaders are the guys who guard the Prophet. We were able to pull out a little more of that lore and give people some liturgy on that. They rate it just as good or better than the regular old Elites. In that sense it is just their hot ride. And on the UNSC side, if you pre-order you get the Fireball Warthog, which is a Warthog, and is bad ass. You want the flames on that.

TGR: Very cool…

DP: Yeah, it is just a way to have fun. If you have those codes, you can unlock them on the Skull Picker ( I’m sorry, we’re not supposed to call it that anymore). If you go to the Skull Selection Screen, just like you would to turn on the Skulls, you just collect those. So, it is a way to have some fun, and I admit it, they do look cool. They are bad ass. But it is a strategy game, and we can’t really do too much from that standpoint. Otherwise, people would be at the doors of our office with burning pitchforks saying, "what the hell!?"

TGR: Well that is actually all that I have, so I would just like to thank you for your time. Do you have any closing remarks for our readers?

DP: I would just generally say, I think that people will be happy with the game. It has been a labor of love for us for a long time. We started with one of our more powerful passionate ideas, actually. You have the idea, "hey, we love this game, let’s go put it on the console," which is a pretty organic way to start a game. It was born out of that. It was originally a small 10-person team and now we have a hundred people working on it. There was a lot of love poured into this game and I hope people will pick it up. I think that it is a great way to look at Halo in a different way, again looking close. Hopefully we will get plans and maps up on Live, and you will see. It could have a long life on Live, and hopefully we will start up a new genre on the console.

TGR: Thank you very much.

Author: John Laster