21-Jul-2007 Interview: Ensemble talks up the console RTS
Of all the genres jumping ship to console land, RTS was always one that would never be the same without the comfort of a mouse and keyboard. That's exactly why the Age of Empire boys are ignoring the genre conventions of the past, and building Halo Wars from the ground up for Xbox 360.
What crazy ideas do they have to get this running on a joypad? We caught up with producer Chris Rippy and lead designer Graham Devine at E3 to find out more.
What kind of user interface tweaks have you made to make Halo Wars work well on the Xbox 360 joypad?
Devine: The most important user interface in the game is the circle menu, which is how we do everything in the game. You make your units here, you build you buildings here, you call in your leader powers from here; it's all done from the circle menu.
You can also use the d-pad to very easily jump around the map; back to your base, back to your battle and back to your armies. It's very important that you're able to move around the map fast.
That sounds promising. So do you think you've cracked the console RTS interface problem then?
Devine: I think we have. I think that's the breakthrough. If you look at all the RTS implementations on a console from Pikmin to C&C3 and Overlord, the games that were made directly for the console have the best implementation of controls. The games that were ported from PC games or had a PC version too had to find some halfway ground that's not best for the console.
So we decided to design our game from the ground up just for the console, that's all we thought about. So I really think that once you get to feel the controls you'll see that that's the revolutionary aspect. We're really happy with that.
So there's no PC version in the works?
Rippy: No. One of things about this game is we always wanted a console RTS. One of things that makes it work is that we've thrown out all of our previous notions about a PC RTS, focused on that and made that work.
What's the ultimate goal of the game?
Devine: To keep the universe around until the events of Halo 1 (laughs).
We actually fill in little pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. There's a large story to tell here and we add to that story and fill-in pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that you get to learn about in the Halo games and the books. It's part of that tapestry.
How is the story told in Halo Wars? Is there an overall story arch?
Devine: The story's told through pre-rendered cinematics and in-game moments like the one you saw with the Scarab. The story takes place in 2531 and ends in 2531.
We got different planets, so it's safe to say that the environments change quite dramatically as well.
Any cameo appearances from the teenage Master Chief?
Devine: No teenage Master Chief, but there are Spartans in the game.
How involved has Bungie been with the RTS project?
Devine: Well the assets are all from the ground up for the RTS. We worked closely with them on the story and they give us continuous feedback, but they let Ensemble make an Ensemble game. It's our game.
Rippy: Yeah, it's been a really cool relationship.
In the multiplayer department, how important is that to the game and how many players are you going for?
Rippy: We're still nailing a combat number right now, but we're absolutely going to have a robust multiplayer.
Devine: There's a lot of expectations from Halo 2 multiplayer and we really want to be a first class citizen there. One of my favourite ways to play a game is co-op mode, so you can play the campaign in co-op online as well. I love playing with someone else against something, so co-op will be a huge part of the online experience.
Has the Halo 3 multiplayer beta tempted you to set up your own beta test as well?
Rippy: There's nothing that we're talking about right now.
Devine: There'll be a demo that ships before the game ships. We're anxious for people to see the controls and learn the controls.
Is there any resource gathering in the game at all?
Devine: Oh yeah. We didn't actually look at the resource gathering model today, but we saw the supply depots in the base. We want to make sure that the economy has depth but it's streamlined from what we've seen in other RTS games.
There's still strategy there but we want you looking at the combat, we don't want you managing your base. We want you out managing your combat and that aspect of the game.
Right. So it looks beautiful, you've got the Halo license and it's on a console. Not that that's not enough, but what are the other major differentiations between this and other RTS games?
Devine: That's a very valid question. There's a lot of variation in RTS, it's a huge genre by itself. The major problem I've always had with RTS games is I want you to look at the combat, I don't want you to play the base game and just make units to supply to the front line.
The combat is where the coolest special effects are. It's all about the combat; managing the combat, keeping the combat cool, being able to select the right units and do that right thing in combat. Making that the game seems to be the challenge to me, and doing it on a console was just a plus.
Traditionally you'd say console gamers are looking for more instantaneous action than PC gamers, which you wouldn't really associate the RTS genre with. Have you addressed the mindset of the console gamer versus the PC gamer?
Devine: We think of ourselves as an 'arcade RTS' or 'action RTS'. It's OK to have a super weapon fire and kill everything on screen. It's OK to have a scarab that can destroy everything. If you save up and you get that Scarab, go for it.
I feel that that's a good approach for the console, it really gets that console feel behind the game.
Rippy: We're excited to bring RTS to a console. So many people have an Xbox and have never played this type of game before, so we need to make sure that they get in the game and enjoy it.
We love this type of game. Every game has such a wonderful build up of tension where you're building up your base, then you're going out and fighting, making a decision and you're causing these things to happen.
That's awesome, not many games have that type of pacing. I feel that we're going to bring this genre to a new group of people, and that's pretty damn exciting. It's funny to look back and remember that Bungie's original concept for Halo was as a PC RTS, which is probably why the universe fits so snugly with Ensemble's vision for Halo Wars.
Did any of you guys ever play the Starship Troopers RTS many years ago? It was on PC but you only ever had to control one or two squads and there was no base building. Do you think that would of been a better way of using the Halo Licence for an RTS on a console?