The RTS Problem
Reinventing Halo as a strategy game may seem like an easy task — slap a Warthog here, a mob of Marines there, a cursor, and voila! — but the reality of producing Halo Wars has required tremendous effort and thought from the veteran RTS developers at Ensemble Studios. Halo Wars has forced Ensemble's team to re-evaluate its most deeply held beliefs about the function and feel of the RTS genre, in the process turning conventional wisdom on its head. The first challenge was the hardest: making a strategy game that feels utterly natural when played on a game controller, a demanding task since the device can't match the fluidity or flexibility of a PC mouse and keyboard.
Multiplayer matches are expected to support up to six players over Xbox Live. Two players can play online co-op in the campaign.
"We started by converting [PC strategy game] Age of Mythology to work with a controller," executive producer Ryan explains. "We didn't want to worry about the specifics of the game, just the user interface and the feel of the controller." Though Ensemble's prototype took months of hard work from a dedicated team, the proof-of-concept caught the attention of Microsoft, the studio's owner and publisher. "Then," Ryan adds, "we started talking about Halo."
But making the switch from PC game development to console development brings some serious challenges. "Ensemble has had to step away from our own classic definition of an RTS," Ryan explains. PC RTS games rely on their complex interfaces and detailed in-game economies, features that the studio acknowledges just won't work when played on a TV set in the living room. In designing a more visceral combat system and visual communication style for Halo Wars, the experienced PC studio had to move outside of its comfort zone. "These are all new challenges for Ensemble," Ryan says.
Capturing the awe-inspiring locales of Halo in an RTS took some fancy coding, but the results speak for themselves.
The good news is that many of Ensemble's bold design decisions in Halo Wars have re-energized and re-focused the team. One promising example is the simplicity of Halo Wars' economy, which isn't structured around wood or gold or money, but simply an all-encompassing resource called "supplies." With such a simple economy in place, players can focus on the real action: upgrading units, building helpful new structures, and sending legions of troops into battle. "The economy is simple but meaningful," Ensemble designer Dave Pottinger says. "All the big strategy decisions remain, but the game style is more adrenaline-filled."
That speedy new game pace, which lowers the learning curve and better captures the energy of the Halo shooters, is another bold move that Ensemble is particularly proud of. Rather than battles that rage on for 30 minutes or more, Halo Wars encourages faster, more vicious conflicts that can play out in a fraction of the time. It's a play style that suits the Halo world well. "In early versions of the game, it took 10 minutes to prepare to fight," Pottinger explains. "Now we've got that down to about 10 seconds." Starting a match is faster and more engaging, too, as you begin every battle with a lone unarmed Warthog that you can drive around to collect the supply crates that dot the environments. Once you collect a few supply crates, you can start pumping out troops seconds into the match.
The attention to detail is impressive. Note the Marines piling out of the Elephant mobile barracks, and the Wraith looming in the distance.