Xbox 360 Interview

Graeme Devine exposes Halo Wars

Designer talks candidly about new RTS

We're gathered in the imposing atmosphere of the library, in the heart of London's Greenwich Observatory, where game designer and writer Graeme Devine is relaxing ready to answer questions on Halo Wars - a Halo-themed RTS swansong for soon-to-close developer Ensemble.

How do you tell a new Halo story through Halo Wars?

Well, there are CGI cut-scenes throughout the game, but if we only used CGI cut-scenes to tell the story that would kind of suck; it wouldn't be connected at all to the gameplay. Most of the story is actually in gameplay, although there are many minutes of CGI... there are many many more minutes of recorded dialogue in the actual gameplay. Also, one of the ways of approaching the story, I mean, the Halo FPS games are all about one person. So when we approached the writing of the story for Halo Wars we opted to focus on the crew of Spirit of Fire, so its about multiple characters. You play multiple characters on the ground, multiple character in the story, characters with multiple abilities; mirroring their RTS counterparts.

RTS games are often about mad resource dashes and tank surges. How do you try and create a more immersive experience, that makes people feel the importance of the battle at hand?

Well, I hate RTS games that are like that, because I feel like I'm just building my base, and I'm building that thin red line that goes towards the front line, you know, its a meat shield that advances towards the enemy - or goes the other way if you're losing. If a game is like that then you're not looking at the cool effects. We want amazing combat. We want you to feel like you're on the front line. We want you to care about the combat... we don't want it to feel like an expendable army. So, this is why we're weaving secondary abilities into the game, the reason we added veterancy into the game. We want players to care. We went them to heal, them. Some RTS games are about expendable armies, and those armies can be fun, but I don't think anyone wants that sort of back-and-forth in their game.

Has creating an RTS game for a console been difficult?

One of the first things we did on the game was that we spent most of the first year just working on those controls. We looked at Age of Mythlogy, before the Halo IP, or any IP at all, we just took away all of the usual on-screen controls and interfaces; that U-shaped thing at the bottom of all RTS games because it must be there... the big line across the top... we moved all that out, and we just thought about what we wanted to do with an RTS game. We thought about the actions. I want to control a unit, I want to control an army. We didn't think about porting the PC experience - left clicking, right clicking, shift clicking, all that kind of thing. We tried to think about the end result. We wanted to get successful with the controls. This is a complete reset. Thinking about the actions is very important. We really balanced everything, playing the heck out of things... we're convinced the game is more controllable on a controller than on a PC; and we even have a direct comparison because of Age of Mythology. We've completely rebuilt the controls, and that team agreed it was easier with the controller.

How difficult is it crafting a new Halo story?

Really difficult! You're going into an IP and story that is very well known by fans. When we put out that X06 trailer, we gave the Spartans these battle rifles, and we got nailed to the wall by fans! The Spartans don't get those until 2552! Oh my goodness, this is 2526, what the hell are you doing! So, the fans are very aware of the cannon - they are extremely aware of the events, how they play out, so adding a new story - especially a prequel - is actually challenging, but because its set 20 years before its a very different time in the Halo universe. Its good to be able to tell a different story with different characters.

Sgt Forge seems to play a big part in the new game - is this a deliberate reference to the Halo 3 mode?

No! Its a funny story though! We went over to Bungie and we showed them some of the story, and they were busy making Halo 3. They said: 'Sgt Forge, interesting, we've put a Forge in our game'. We were like 'cool, is he a Sgt too?' And they said 'no, not really'. They didn't say what it was. I thought it was a character! That was the inference... then the demo arrived and I thought 'Ah, now I know what they mean!'

Is the game built the way it is because this is a Halo game? Or would you have made the same decisions if you were crafting a new RTS title?

Well, we did spend the first year just looking at the controls, making it work with Age of Mythology. A lot of what we had there fell out of that... the circle menu and so forth. So, those areas didn't change because this is a Halo game. The things we did because this is a Halo game... when we first started playing the game, and watching Halo players play it, talking to them afterwards one of things they said was 'I wish I could throw grenades', the infantry at that point could just shoot guns, like a classic RTS game, but the secondary abilities came out of this. The ability for infantry to throw grenades. The ability for Warthogs to ram. All of that is very Halo like. These abilities come from this being Halo.

Any political dimensions to the plot?

I'd love to say this is about the Iraq war, a commentary on that... but really what I set out to do was write a good Bruce Willis story. Sgt Forge is pretty much a Bruce Willis character, and we wanted this to be an action-adventure game. So, for me personally, there's no comparison here with world events. Halo is great escapism from all that.

Why is Halo so popular?

Well, I think if you just look at the UNSC side of things its not so interesting, but the purple guys, the aliens, are pretty special. You know, they're all bitter, they all hate each other's guts, they have no imagination whatsoever... we get to tell the Covenant story a little more. Exploring the structure of their society is very interesting. What motivates these bad guys is really insane... there's a very colourful world here.

RTS titles are slower than FPS games. How do you balance what different players are after?

Of course its a challenge. You have to get Halo players playing strategy games and strategy players playing Halo games. We want twice as many people! But, I think its fair to say our game times are shorter than classic PC RTS games. You know, we're looking at 15-20 minute battles, compared to 45 minute experiences. There's a shorter experience here... on skirmishes. But we also get you into combat faster. This isn't about hanging around at your base. There's still strategy, but we want to get you involved. Even Halo requires more deliberation if you want to be good. There is a difference, though.

We want to teach people complex things slowly, so by the end they're doing it without realising it. For strategy fans I think there is enough depth there. We've added stuff in for them. I hope we've done it - but its hard to follow at times.

Halo has become famous for special multiplayer modes. How are you going to continue this standing in Halo Wars?

One of the things we thought about was taking through the map part of the game. They have hooks on them... but Halo has also evolved to reach Forge and modes like that... and so we haven't evolved to that Halo 3 position yet. We've got to get there.

So... maybe by number three?

Maybe by Halo Wars 3 or 4, yes!

Microsoft are going to close Ensemble. How do you motivate yourself to make a really cool game with this knowledge?

That's a really good question. You know, I've been working on Halo Wars now for over four years. Since the original prototype. So, I'm not about to walk away from a game I've spent four years of my life making, I really care about the end result of this game and so does everyone at Ensemble. I mean, that's something that's come through loud and clear since the news came through... you just have to walk around at Ensemble to see how much everyone cares about this game. It would be very easy to mail it in, and finish a game and sell that. But, we are not mailing in this game. This is our proud shout to Microsoft as to perhaps why they're mistake is obvious.

Some people are joining other parts of Microsoft I guess?

Microsoft are taking people on. There is a new company forming from parts of Ensemble, and Microsoft are working there too. There's a lot of working going on in the background.

Will you join the new company?

I'm not working for the new company, no...

Thanks for your time, Greame!

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