Halo Wars Interview (Xbox360)

Ensconced within a conference room on the upper floor of the National Martime Museum situated in the middle of Greenwich Park, we got to chat to Halo Wars' Lead Designer Graeme Devine in between shovelling miniature mash and gravy into our pie hole.

He had some pretty incredible stuff to say about Halo Wars' control system, which has been painstakingly built from the ground up for the game.

Devine also answered burning questions concerning the Master Chief and prospective DLC for the forthcoming RTS now that Ensemble Studios has closed. Read on...

Strategy Informer: You said earlier today that Halo Warsí controls are better than PC RTS games. Thatís a very bold claim.

Graeme Devine: Yes I realise that, and you're going to back that up for me when you play the game. It's a brash thing to say but I wouldn't say it if I didn't believe it. We spent the first year of this project just working on the controls. There was no Halo IP; there was no concept of this even becoming a Halo game. Without the controls working it was pointless even doing the game.

So we actually took Age of Mythology and the finish line that we set was when one of our testers - who's a hardcore RTS PC guy - came up and said that it's easier to play with the controller than it is with a keyboard and mouse. At that point, we gave ourselves the green light. Within about 12 to 18 months of playing with just the controller we actually hit that milestone so then I felt the controls were ready. I've seen enough people converted that I feel really confident about it.

Graeme Devine, Lead Designer.
No doubt, the game definitely looks good


Strategy Informer: Being a console strategy game, how accessible is it to RTS virgins?

Graeme Devine: The cool thing about Halo Wars is that it has got to appeal to two sets of people. Strategy fans have to learn to love playing a Halo game. Halo fans have to learn to love a strategy game. For the mainstream player, we have to be able to introduce them into the game gently.

What we did is start off real simple and slowly build up the complexity. If we've done a good job of that, you'll actually be able to do more complex tasks and get really good at what you're doing. We wanted you to be able to jump in if youíve never played an RTS in the same way that you could jump into Halo if youíd never played an FPS.

Strategy Informer: Did the decision to make a Halo RTS game stem from Haloís original guise as an RTS (as it was originally conceived before being scrapped to make an FPS)?

Graeme Devine: No, but it was an interesting coincidence though. We got that Age of Mythology prototype running, and all along Microsoft was saying, 'This would be great if it was a Halo game.' In the end we went and showed what we had to Bungie, who thought it was great, but asked what we wanted to do with it and we told them that Microsoft kept saying it'd make a good Halo game and they were like, ''Oh! Interesting!'' then we started talking about making it into a Halo game, and getting an idea of what Halo was all about.

Strategy Informer: How did you guys deal with the news of Microsoft's decision to close Ensemble Studios once Halo Wars is finished?

Graeme Devine: There's no doubt that it's very tough. But Microsoft made the news available to us very early, and were able to lay out compensation for everyone, and keep places for us to stay on to make sure the game was finished. The last thing you want is for people to start mingling into work. You don't want that final push to be unpolished. I think that, because we got to have the news early, absorb it and know that Microsoft were going to support us and help us afterwards quite a bit, (it) has actually resulted in quite a lot of intense work to make this game a polished product. But there's no doubt the news sucked.

Strategy Informer: Do you think fans will be disappointed that Master Chief wonít feature in the game? You have categorically stated that he wonít be in Halo Wars at all. Have you considered putting Master Chief in the game as post-release DLC if the demand is high enough?

Graeme Devine: DLC has been part of the game design since day one, but I think the fans really want to see Spartans Ė that seems to be the number one reaction I've got from different people who've played it. That, to them, is the mega army. Thatís the really cool thing. But Master Chief is not in the game.

Strategy Informer: What exactly is the plan with DLC and post-release support considering the studio closure?

Graeme Devine: The main thing is that DLC was built into the game design from the very beginning so we've actually been working on DLC all along. It was never the plan to finish the game and then start work on the DLC as itís always been in place.

Strategy Informer: So does that mean all the DLC is pretty much already complete and you're just holding it back for timing then?

Graeme Devine: Yes.

Strategy Informer: Isn't there an argument for just releasing it all on day one?

Graeme Devine: I don't know - that's a good marketing argument (laughs). I think the thing with DLC is that, if you release it all, how do you sustain interest in the game? One of the ways of sustaining interest in a game is with (post-release) DLC. So I think it's there for that purpose and does a good job.

I think if you get it all it's like a massive blitz of content in your face and you don't get all the value of everything we've put into the game. I think the game contains an awful lot in the box already, so DLC is a good way to be able to add to that experience.

Strategy Informer: With the studio closed, where does that leave the sequel? Who will take the reigns on that? Is there a developer in mind or someone already on the cards?

Graeme Devine: Iíve never been asked that question before! I really hope there is a sequel. I think there are people who actually want to play the game and I think it could be a huge success. I don't think Microsoft has any plans or has made any announcements as to Halo Wars 2. But feel free to write to Microsoft and ask for one!

Strategy Informer: What made you decide to include only the option to play as the good guys? Why canít you play as the bad guys too?

Graeme Devine: That was Warcraft III (laughs). In that game you start off as a good guy, playing as the King and about halfway through the campaign you become the bad guy and I really hated that. We tried to think of ways to get to play as the Covenant - perhaps they team up or help save the humans, but it seemed cooler just to be able to play from the good guy perspective.

Strategy Informer: Halo is a massive, gung-ho action game. How can you replicate that in an RTS? Was that a challenge?

Graeme Devine: Yes. One of the things is that Halo hits the ground running and is always in your face. One of the things that Halo's good at is making you feel like you're a part of something huge. You really feel like you're part of something so massive in scale that it's going to change the fate of humanity, so I think getting that feeling into the campaign was very important.

Strategy Informer: Any plans for a demo?

Graeme Devine: We haven't actually announced anything about a demo yet, but I think it's really important for people to play the game.

Strategy Informer: Were there any elements you wanted in the game that ended up staying on the drawing board? Any gameplay mechanics that you werenít able to implement for instance?

Graeme Devine: One of the main ones was to play as the Flood. That was one of the things that we thought really hard about doing for the multiplayer. We thought about it and it didn't seem fair to have blue Flood and red Flood, and we never came up with a good system. It was disappointing that we couldn't find a way to do it. The Flood are in the game but you fight them rather than play as them.

Strategy Informer: Did you take any inspiration from any other recent console RTS games?

Graeme Devine: What we've seen before on console is that people try to port the same experience across. They take a PC game and port it to the console so you end up with a halfway hybrid. There are a lot of things that we saw that were wrong and we made a note not to do that. I don't think anyone's done good console strategy games before. I think there's only been a few examples of what's worked out there.

Strategy Informer: What are those examples?

Graeme Devine: Hertzog Zwei on the Sega Genesis and Pikmin on the Gamecube.

Strategy Informer: Just those two? What about some of the recent ones like Lord Of The Rings Battle for Middle Earth or the Command & Conquer series?

Graeme Devine: I think they've found that exact halfway point between a PC game and a console game, and I think that no man's land does neither version any good.

Strategy Informer: Those games' control systems didnít really work then, but yours does?

Graeme Devine: Well, go play it!

Halo Wars is out February 2009. Look out for our hands-on preview to find out if HaloWars' control system is as effective as Devine claims.


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By Kres (SI Elite) on Nov 18, 2008
Controls better then on PC? I'll look into experiencing that claim for myself. I know they had a very tough job at building controls but need to say that it would be hard to imagine a better ran RTS on anything other then mouse + keyboard or a direct computer to brain plugin. But who knows, maybe they really managed to do it better... But am a bit skeptical at it.
By sharpe_ (SI Veteran Newbie) on Nov 18, 2008
Some of the screens could pass for a C&C game. Anyone know what engine this is built on?

Looks pretty good either way. Wonder if it'll come out on the PC within the next decade :P.