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Halo Wars

Interview: Ensemble talks up the first proper console RTS

All the RTS games of late are "halfway-hybrids" of PC games. Halo Wars plays better with 360's controller than PC RTS games do with a mouse and keyboard.

Those are just two of the bold statements made by the confident Halo Wars lead designer Graeme Devine, who recently showed off Ensemble's work in London's Greenwich Park (don't ask).

Speaking in between mouthfuls of mini sausages and mash laid on during our meet, Devine told us why he thinks Halo Wars is the first proper pure-breed console RTS since Pikmin on GameCube, and how the game will outlive the development studio with plenty of post-release DLC.

Zoom

You say the controls are better than PC RTS games. That's quite a 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 becoming a Halo game. Without the controls working it's pointless even doing the game.

So we actually took Age of Mythology and we set ourselves a target. One of our testers, who's a hardcore RTS PC guy came over and told us that it's easier to play with the controller than it is with a mouse and keyboard.

At that point, we gave ourselves the green light. It took about 12 months of playing with the controller to hit that milestone so at that point I felt it was ready. I've seen enough people converted to be pretty confident about it.

Being a console strategy game, how have you designed it to be accessible to the RTS virgin?

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.

We start off simple and slowly introduce more and more complexity. If we've done a really good job, you'll be able to do more complex tasks and get really good at what you're doing.

Did the decision to make a Halo RTS game stem from the original plan for Halo to be an RTS (before that plan was scrapped and it eventually became an FPS series)?

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.'

Zoom

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. We told them that MS kept saying it'd make a good Halo game and they were like, 'Oooh, that's interesting.'

Then we started talking about making it into a Halo game, and getting an idea of what Halo was all about.

How did you guys cope with the news of Microsoft's decision to close Ensemble once Halo Wars is done?

Devine: There's no doubt that it's very tough. MS made the news available to us early, and were able to lay out compensation for everyone, and keep places for us to stay until the game was finished. The last thing you want is for people to start mingling in to 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 MS were going to support us and help us afterwards quite a bit, [it] has actually resulted in a lot of intense work to make this game a polished product. But there's no doubt the news sucked.

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