Halo Wars Interview: Ensemble on Bridging the RTS Gap, Fearing the Flood, and Warthog Juggling

My interview with Ensemble Studios director of technology Dave Pottinger and lead designer Graeme Devine wasn't all depressing. We did eventually cover the finer details of Halo Wars, their upcoming RTS designed from the ground up for the Xbox 360.

During our extended conversation, Pottinger and Devine described the challenging process of crafting an RTS for a new audience, and talked about the feedback they've received from their casual focus groups. They also touched on what hardcore RTS fans will like about the game, and explained key development choices--including the reason for why the Flood aren't a playable faction.

Shack: It seems that within the strategy genre in general, there is a sense of urgency in appealing to new audiences. Is this a daunting task to accomplish without sacrificing the deep strategy that you guys are obviously fans of?

Graeme Devine: Well, one of the problems, but cool things about Halo Wars, is we have to make a strategy game that will introduce them to Halo, and then we have to make a Halo game that will introduce them to strategy. It's an inverse pyramid of complexity.

Perhaps the most genius game like that is Sim City. Sim City, you put that one thing down to begin with, and then it's 4 AM, you've got this bigger place, but you know where things are at. Perhaps the simplest one is The Sims, which sells billions. So obviously it's possible to make an inverse pyramid that works and drives complexity, so that people follow it and are learning and moving along.

We got maybe a little boring with the way Age 3 got balanced. It was always cutting things back.
We've seen that done in games, but I think a lot of real-time strategy games, they want to show you the big band right away. Let's jump into the skirmish, let's get them going with tanks, infantry, a couple of Warthogs there, and if you don't get the upgrade you're going to get pushed back.

And I think that's where RTS games lose people. "This is work. I'm not coming home from this job to command an army and think about it all." They want to just play a game. I think Halo Wars is really good at that inverse pyramid, making sure that people are having fun as they go along, so they're not thinking, "Oh my god, this is work."

Dave Pottinger: For the first time we really took the campaign needs and made them equal to skirmish. Age has always been more of a PVP game. Campaign was always there, but it's never really been the thing that we designed around. We designed around the campaign first this time.

And the idea that the first mission, you start with a unit, and the idea that you don't start building a base is, "Oh my god, how can you have an RTS game without building a base?" But we wanted to teach you selection, movement, simple attacking. If you're advanced enough to do Warthog ramming great, but you don't have to. The second mission is a light base-building mission. The third mission we're back at, "Here's tank, which gets countered by the thing you fight most." Now let's focus on special abilities. Then we're back on the fourth mission, where we pull it all back together a little bit.

Shack: So the progression is such that, as you play through the campaign, it becomes more and more of a skirmish?

Dave Pottinger: Yeah, you can definitely see that inverse pyramid. In terms of the units we have in the game and their abilities, we've actually molded that around how we could roll them out in the campaign. Whereas before we would come up with a great skirmish game and figure out how we could make a campaign after that. This was much more simultaneous and parallel, which presented a whole new set of challenges.

Graeme Devine: The other genius thing that we have in Halo Wars--okay, that's too proud. [laughs] Is that the tutorial is just a tutorial. It's not afraid to say, "Hey, I'm a game." Which I think a lot of games try to jump you into that fiction.

Shack: Right, Mission One.

Graeme Devine: Mission one, you're a commander on a secret mission. It's like, I don't even know what the X button is. So our tutorial is like, "You have a controller in your hand, look at the X button, right there!" When a game admits to being a game, it's always a good start. So that's the area that takes advantage of that.

Shack: What is it about RTS games that repels new users? Is there one primary thing you can point to?

Dave Pottinger: Everyone has different answers. I think it's complexity and the obstruction. The idea of--

Shack: Just not having control of that one character?

Dave Pottinger: Yeah, the idea of not being a specific guy, and having to select and then order. That's where we've spent a lot on our controls and our teaching, and our tutorial focuses pretty heavily on that. That's where a lot of people get tripped up. They're running around the map, and they say, "I want to attack this," and they don't have anything selected, and they're pressing X like a madman.

Shack: Do you guys feel like you've been successful in fully bridging the gap, between hardcore and casual RTS fans?

Dave Pottinger: Yeah, I think the overall thing is it's been great. It gave us a chance to re-energize the team.

The RTS games that we've been making over the last several years have gotten some cruft. You get in that arms-race of features, and you have to keep all the features we had before. "What's new?" So we'd come up with three or thirty more new features, and do that again.

Halo Wars really forced us to boil it down to the essentials of strategy gaming, and in that sense I think it's a huge success. Probably the single biggest, best, coolest thing about the game is that all the interesting strategy gaming decisions that we've loved over the years are in this game. It's more interesting for me to decide to build a barracks versus a supply pad. Where I put the barracks? I don't really care that much.

So we've optimized out, streamlined, you don't have Building Tetris where you have to drag the building around. Basically because A, we couldn't really get it to work on the console, and B, it wasn't really the focus. Make that decision, get back to playing. It is a Halo game after all.

So yeah, I think we were successful in that, and really, building a console strategy game from the ground up is a huge factor in that.

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Shack: Have you gotten the game into the hands of new RTS players? How have they reacted?

Dave Pottinger: Yeah, we've done a bunch of focus groups. Microsoft's got a great user research testing lab. We've done I think probably three times as many focus groups and usability tests on this game as we have on our previous games perhaps combined. It's been a huge issue.

We are almost creating a genre on console. There have been strategy games on the console, and a lot of them haven't fared particularly well. We really think we have a huge leg up, with the Halo IP, and building it from the ground up, not being a port.

When people see the Warthog, they want to run over stuff.
But that's not to say that we didn't get some things wrong. We've streamlined and really worked on the teaching aspects of the job, and not having a sort of finger-through- the-nose, pull-you-through tutorial. It's a quick, short tutorial, and they get you into the game, and try to teach you things as you need them in each mission, and let's you have a lot of fun really quickly.

If we lose people on this game it's going to be in the first ten minutes. They're going to say, "Ehhh, I don't really understand this, it's too hard to remember." If we can get them past the first ten minutes, we've got them.

Shack: What in the game speaks to a hardcore RTS fan's sensibilities?

Dave Pottinger: From an Ensemble history standpoint, it's much more of a tactical combat game. The format in Age is military versus economy, guns versus butter. A lot of times you could out-econ somebody and win the game.

That won't happen in Halo Wars. You need to manage your army, you need to use your abilities, which make a sort of really cool, universal addition to the games that we've made in the past. You need to use those abilities at the right time. You need to use the powers at the right time, which is a little closer to Age of Mythology.

Looking back over our canon of games, Age 2 sticks out, and AoM has probably the most passionate following inside the company. So we've put a lot of that stuff forward, you know, the base model is AoM-ish. And the powers are certainly a lot of that. So using that stuff at the right time, I think that's all there. And it's a more combat-focused game, so it's new in that sense for our fans.

It's a shorter experience too. It's 10 or 15 minutes in a skirmish game, the campaign missions can go longer and whatnot. But we want that between-game fodder, those watercooler moments, where you and I play the game against the AI, and you get your butt kicked and the timer kicked in to get your base back, and we just by the skin of our teeth got it back, and then we talk about the next game going better.

That's something that doesn't really exist in Halo the shooter. You can talk about how you shoot your gun better, but there's not really that strategic talk between games the way you have in a strategy game. Bringing that to the console is huge. I think that level of depth, and that hardcore discoverability, where you say, "Okay, the third marine upgrade gives me a medic and heals my guys, and now I don't have to use my heal power the same way if I go with the marine strategy." That level of depth in there is really huge.

Shack: Did you struggle at first when deciding what elements of the Halo franchise to carry over into the RTS?

Graeme Devine: Well the game didn't start out as a Halo game. One of the things we wanted to--the initial task for the game was just to make a console RTS. We purely focused on just controls, and we used Age of Mythology as the base engine to do all that.

So it was thinking about, a lot of other RTS games port themselves onto the console, and use that word "port." They've just taken the same experience, gone with the same version of commands.

Shack: Right, with a straight cursor and everything.

Graeme Devine: Right. We thought about it from a different method. We took everything away, and took the keyboard, the mouse, even the interface, that U- shape has been there forever across the top, because gosh we must have those.

We took all that away and thought about what people wanted to do. People want to select units, they want to move units, they want to build things, they want to attack things--rethink those from the opposite end of the problem, rather than how it's been done before. So that actually was pretty successful in getting a lot of the early things, the circular menu in particular, and the building, those fell out that early exploration.

And when we approached Microsoft, they had been talking a lot about Halo, and we were like well, let's make this Halo. It was a good moment to step back and think about Halo, and actually learn to love the game, because making a Halo game--what does that mean? What do these two sides mean? And what Dave was talking about was the secondary abilities of the actual units.

When we first showed the game to Halo fans--which started to translate to the Halo canon, we have infantry now, grunts and so forth--we would watch them kind of behind the glass, and they were having a lot of fun with it, but they'd come back and say, "Well, where's my grenades?" [laughs] "Halo's about grenades, don't you know that?"

The secondary abilities came from that feedback, which has really added a lot of Halo elements to the game. The ability for infantry to throw grenades, the ability for Warthogs to move around, and especially the ability for Spartans to take other enemy vehicles is very Halo-like. So I think that evolution from just not thinking about Halo, to how do we control RTS on the consoles, it worked out pretty darn well. If we had gone any other route I think we wouldn't have ended up with a control scheme that works as well as it has to.

Dave Pottinger: And one of the nice things that the Halo IP provides is, similar to an advantage we enjoyed with Age--with Age you see a guy with a bow and arrow, you know what he's going to do. With Halo, especially with the platform we're on, the 360--

Shack: It's iconic.

Dave Pottinger: It's iconic. When people see the Warthog, they want to run over stuff, like Graeme was saying. Even the most jaded gamer cackles with glee the first time. It meets their expectations. Then we try to turn around and leverage that, so that the Warthog blows up really well, and the Scorpion tanks are heavier, and Hornets do this--we can play off of that and develop the rock/paper/scissors relationships that strategy gamers expect, and play to what they already understand.

So in that sense compared to something like Universe at War, we've got a huge leg up with a great IP, but have already set some expectations. Some expectations have been harder to do than others. Like the Spartans for example, the jacking ability, we knew that because everyone is seeing through Master Chief's eyes, the Spartan units have to be the coolest units in the game. But then again, it's a strategy game--we still have to be balanced.

So we ended up trying to reserve the coolest ability, where he backflips over the Wraiths, beats the shit out of the dash, rips the driver out and takes that--we tried to leave that for him. So he's got to be cool, but he still has to be balanced. So some things like that we struggled with, but overall I think the Halo IP was a perfect marriage for the type of thing we were trying to do.

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Shack: Balancing is always a big challenge with RTS games. I assume that was this case on this project, especially in determining how often players can use these secondary abilities.

Dave Pottinger: Right. The first time we put Warthog ram in, there was no timer. [laughs] And that's evolved.

Some of the abilities have timers, some of them don't. The Spartan jacking doesn't for example. The balance guys--we've got a team of highly paid professional playtesters, that all they do is play the game, that are just massively better than the rest of us.

We actually did want to get the Flood playable into the game, and that was something that we struggled with for a long time.
So they had a hard time balancing the ability to juggle the Covenant leader, who's generally infantry, with the Warthog ram. Because they would build like ten Warthogs, they'd individually select each of them, ram the leader, and by the time he'd hit the ground they'd have another Warthog there ready to ram him again. And I saw a game where they juggled the leader for like 26 seconds.

Shack: [laughs] Right.

Dave Pottinger: Like, there's no way I could ever do that. [laughs] But they could, so we ended up having to balance that out so that they can't juggle him anymore. They just kind of knock him back. So things like that have been kind of fun to be honest.

This is a much more tactical strategy game, and it's a different set of challenges than I think we faced with Age 3 and Age of Mythology. It's much more about the fast-switch type of things. If you played Skirmish, the Arbiters powers are something that's just not been in a strategy game before. You press Y, and the camera sort of zooms in, and it's this rage power. You flip the right stick and he jumps to this target and does a fatality, and you flip this one and he jumps back to this target and does a fatality.

We're struggling with that one from a balance standpoint. Not from a "how much damage does he do," but how easy is it for an enemy to target him in that mode. So we're trying to write some code so we can kind of target a couple places at once and fix that. We're down to those sort of edge cases. The game has been pretty balanced now for a while. We've done enough of these games now where we're pretty decent at that.

Graeme Devine: I think we still wanted to have that "monster over the hill" feeling though. We just didn't want it to be tank-tank, infantry-infantry. We wanted a group of 20 infantry to go over a hill and see a Scarab.

That Scarab mowing them down, it's like that moment in War of the Worlds where all the troops go over the hill, and they go over the hill, and they all come back flaming. That's cool, and that's what you want from aliens, right? I think one of the genius things of Ensemble is the ability to balance that and still get that feeling into the game.

Dave Pottinger: It's been a struggle, because we... we got maybe a little boring with the way Age 3 got balanced. It was always cutting things back. And we had a very clear mission this time that nerfing isn't allowed. If you're a unit, and Graeme's a unit, and I'm a unit, and you're overpowered, Graeme and I have to be brought up to equal you--not bring you back down, which is the easier way to do it.

And so having the Scarab, it's that big unit, 20 pop, 3000 supplies, takes a long time to build--you get one of those things up, and it's a freakin' force to be reckoned with. But, it does walk kind of slow, and it has to strafe the beam, so you can micro against it. Or you can just completely ignore it, sacrifice this base, and go try to kill the base over here that produced it.

Dave Pottinger: It's a big, bad-ass thing, but it does have a few Achilles heels, and ways to deal with it. But it is one of the things that Halo forces us to play on. Scarabs are Scarabs. Spartans have to be just right on the precipice of being overpowered, because they have to be the coolest thing.

Shack: How will co-op play in the campaign function? Will you have two separate bases, or share?

Dave Pottinger: You share things. You can build a base, and then I can build a barracks with that base. I can use the barracks, you can use the barracks. We thought about for a long time splitting everything, where you have my bank, I have my bank, and ne'er the two shall meet. And in the end--because the big concern on paper was, what if you spend money that I'm saving?

And it turned out that the right thing for co-op was to actually pool it, and let you spend the money that I'm saving, so I can get mad at you. That interaction is actually really good. It takes about half a scenario to a scenario for people to figure out this natural play.

If you play scenario four, which is kind of some base building and some fighting, you start out with Warthogs and Hornets. So we give all the Warthogs to one player, all the Hornets to another player. You can gift units to another player, so you can switch it up. That kind of co-op tends to lend itself to splitting up roles. You're going to build the base and defend it, and build me the units, and I'm going to go out and use them here and manage the special abilities.

And I think the secret thing was kind of doing the opposite of what everybody asked for initially, and making people actually work together and figure out the hard problem, as opposed to un-asking the question, which seems like the safer... "Don't fuck up my bank. Here's yours, and here's mine." Turns out that putting them together was actually the secret sauce that made co-op really fun, and at least for me, and I think for Graeme too, it's the best way to play the game.

Shack: I assume competitive multiplayer has all the standard features? Matchmaking..?

Dave Pottinger: Yeah, so we have 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, different modes, things like that. You can go in and do a private match and invite people, matchmaking, leaderboards.

Shack: Seen a good reaction to that component?

Dave Pottinger: Oh absolutely.

Shack: Sort of that Halo-esque competitive thing?

Graeme Devine: [laughs]

Dave Pottinger: We definitely expect 99% of the people to play the campaign first, certainly even moreso because it's now on console. But the legs of the Age games, and the legs of the Halo games are rooted very deeply in the multiplayer aspect.

So we spent a lot of time, even though it was done in parallel with the campaign, in fleshing out both civilizations. They play really differently when you get down into it. When you play as the UNSC, it feels different than the Covenant.

Shack: In what way?

Dave Pottinger: The thing is that--Graeme has also written a big chunk of the battle chatter. The battle chatter with the units the UNSC guys do is different than the battle chatter the Covenant guys do. We have this thing called AI Coach that helps give you some context for a skirmish game. If you play against the AI, the UNSC is nice. The Covenant is a little bit berating.

The Covenant guys, all three of those leaders-- the Prophet, the Arbiter, and the third we can't exactly mention-- they're all angry. They're the big charismatic religious leaders, sort of zealous followers. The UNSC are more the good guy regimented armies, but the Covenant leaders are the single most powerful units in the game. Everything the Covenant do revolves through the leader.

There's three different ways to deploy leaders: they can be a great combat unit, you can use their cool powers, which are very interactive and visceral. By that token, you pay for them every second. If you cast Cleansing, the beam comes down--if you're familiar with the lore that's what they use to blast the planets--so that's the Prophet's ability. The beam comes down, and you drive it around with the left stick, and you can spell bad words out online, but you're paying resources every second. And that's the only power the Prophet has.

It's the kind of evil leader thing that's really the big difference. And they build bases differently, and have different ways to protect the bases, but that's more secondary.

Shack: So you guys announced that the Flood will make it into the game as enemies, but they're not playable, correct?

Graeme Devine: The Flood are not playable. They're on some Skirmish maps, and it adds a lot of flavor to those maps, and you certainly do fight them in the campaign. We actually did want to get the Flood playable into the game, and that was something that we struggled with for a long time.

But in the end we wanted the Flood to be the thing you feared the most. We wanted that fearful feeling. We didn't just want them to be monsters that were versions of infantry that you could not really be scared of. We want them to be scary, we want them to be the overarching bad guy, that if you let them go for long they will dominate the entire galaxy because you left them for 20 seconds too long. So getting that feeling of fear into the Flood was really important. But they're in there.

Dave Pottinger: The Flood are just in the campaign, and the Flood that are in the skirmish come from Age, and come from that background. Just kind of change it up there, and make the maps have a much more individual identity. And we can't really talk about all the Flood-specific maps yet, but it's a complete head-turn when you play on those maps, it's very different.

Shack: And you have long-term plans for downloadable content?

Dave Pottinger: Yes, the studio that's starting will be doing support for title updates, DLC. We've got DLC planned forever--that's obviously an important part of the overall Microsoft strategy. And we've had some workings on that already. And we did have some plans for Flood in Halo Wars 2, and that's perhaps more up in the air now.

But to Graeme's point, we wanted to do Flood, and do it right. We needed to get the good guy UNSC and the Covenant right, and the Flood were never quite getting the proper attention to fit in. And we don't want to do them and make them half-assed and have them be not as threatening as they should be.

The Covenant and UNSC--once you play the UNSC you'll be able to play the Covenant fairly easily, though the Covenant are a lot more advanced, and have some harder to use things. But the Flood needs to be very separate and different.

We wanted to do it right. If there's a Halo Wars 2, maybe. But that's not for us to say anymore.

Shack: Thanks guys.

Halo Wars is expected to land on the Xbox 360 sometime in February.