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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

10 Things you didn't know about Halo Wars Xbox 360

Release Date: 03/03/2009
ESRB Rating: Rating Pending
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Ensemble

The 1UP Network previews games with the philosophy that people want to hear our honest opinions on titles before they are released. If a game looks really promising, we'll pass on our excitement. But if a game needs work, we'll let you know. Here are our Halo Wars Xbox 360 previews.


Lead designer David Pottinger writes about design changes, what goes on behind the scenes at Ensemble, and fashion.

No. 1 -- Vampires are better than Gorgons

Creating a strategy game based in the Halo universe gave Ensemble the chance to take a rich franchise and flesh it out in new ways. As huge Halo fans, this was awesome for us. And as designers, this was required. The Halo shooter games have put a lot of different units in the universe, but a strategy game has different needs: We have specific unit roles that need to be filled, and we have to have enough units of each type to ensure that even the basic strategies have multiple options.

When we originally spec'd out the Covenant, we gave them a ground-based, antiair unit called the Gorgon (above left) -- a bulbous, biped walker that used heavy Needlers to rip apart thin-skinned aircraft. Once it was in the game, though, we realized that we'd created a recognition problem: was the Gorgon a vehicle or infantry unit? We intended for it to be a vehicle, but the legs were causing problems, since we also said that "anything with two legs that walks is a dude." The final nail in the Gorgon coffin? The Covenant already had too many ground vehicles; we needed more air units.

Enter the Vampire (above right): a flying, antiair unit armed with heavy Needlers. Once we picked an appropriately "ethereal" name, its unique ability became obvious. The Vampire has the Stasis beam that can prevent enemy aircraft from moving; once upgraded, this beam can drain health from the target and heal the Vampire.

No. 2 -- "December Madness" hits Ensemble

We have a lot of fun with various pools and tournaments, for events like fantasy football or March Madness. Back during the Age of Empires II days, we started doing tournaments at the end of the game's production. By the end, most folks are playtesting 24/7 anyway, so they get pretty good at the game. Well, by our standards, anyway -- it's a complete myth that most developers are great at their games. Sure, we have a professional balance team that's astoundingly good at playing our games, but frankly, most of us kinda suck.

Our tournaments have gotten progressively more intense and organized. For Halo Wars, we've got actual trophies, are giving away Xbox 360 consoles and Halo Laser Tag sets, and so on. Karen McMullan, one of content designers, has even gone the extra mile this time to prepare Ensemble December Madness brackets. Everyone can put in their brackets to try to predict the winners in each game; we've got 29 teams, so it should be a challenge to get them all correct.

No. 3 -- A soft spot for the Cyclops

The Halo universe has a lot of ranged combat units. That makes sense; it's sci-fi, after all. Strategy gamers want more options, though. When we looked at the UNSC unit list, we quickly realized that the UNSC was severely lacking in hand-to-hand power. Spartans can do ranged and close combat, but we needed another type of fighter more clearly oriented around melee damage.

We bounced around for a while on what the actual unit would be. We tried the lore-accurate Mark1 armor suits -- a precursor to the more modern Spartan armor. In practice, they were just too close to the Spartans and not distinguishable enough in-game. We had to make our new melee unit stand out more, so we ended up with a lumbering mechanized suit that couldn't be confused with the Spartan at all: the Cyclops.

The Cyclops can beat the crap out of anything around him, though his mobility's limited by his speed. In Halo Wars, that's not enough; he has to have a unique ability. In fact, that's where his name comes from. We've got a lot of fond memories of Age of Mythology -- there's a lot of that game in Halo Wars, actually. One of our favorite units from AOM is the Cyclops. He's a big, hulking brute that can pick up enemies and hurl them for extra fun. Thus, the Halo Wars Cyclops takes his name and ability from his Age of Mythology ancestor. Beating your opponent's Scorpion tanks with the Cyclops is a lot of fun, but there's an extra "in your face" element if you can then throw those pieces of debris for extra damage.

No. 4 -- Fun with names

Most developers work in a few nods to friends and family in their games. We're no different. A sample of the "inside references" within Halo Wars:

--We know there are a fixed number of Spartans in the Halo universe, but they're not all named. With Halo Wars introducing a few more Spartans to the lexicon, we had to come up with new, unique names. One's a nod to our lead campaign designer, Jerome Jones.
--One of our Skirmish maps called "Fort Deen" (above) is named after one of our senior designers, Tim Deen.
--My kids are named Andrew and Thomas. They're young boys and, as such, like pirates a lot. The achievement "Alas, Poor Andrew Thomas" is awarded once you get the first skull in the campaign. After all, what's more pirate-y than a skull? And it's a goofy Shakespeare joke, to boot.
--The achievement "Big Al's Scooter" (awarded for a quick Skirmish win) contains the nicknames of producer Chris Rippy's two kids.

No. 5 -- "The Magic Y Button" fixes failed abilities

For a long time, we had the mantra that Halo Wars was "playable with only the left stick and four face buttons." That was good. I really love simple statements like that. At that time, the mapping for the four face buttons was as follows:

A: Select (in various forms)
B: Cancel (cancel selection, menus, powers, etc.)
X: Move/Attack
Y: Leader Menu (for transporting, powers)

Unfortunately, we had a problem: We wanted to put in an ability system for the units. We knew that'd be fun, but we didn't have a good button for it. As such, when we tried it, the system just didn't go over well. No one used the abilities enough to justify the gameplay bandwidth we'd allocated for them. We tried a few things, but we ended up cutting unit abilities out of the game entirely.

Almost a year later, we kept circling around the abilities idea again, because the game really needed more to do in combat. But we knew we were out of buttons, and we didn't want something as cumbersome as remappable buttons or modifier buttons (e.g., right trigger + X). Abilities needed to be simple and fast.

The "big fix" came when we decided to undo one of our assumptions. We moved the Leader Menu to the D-pad and put unit abilities on the Y button. Now we had something close to a primary and secondary attack with X and Y. Shooter fans "got" that. Awesome. Plus, it tested through the roof. The game instantly got more fun, and everyone was using abilities.

We did lose the "left stick plus button" thing. In hindsight, it would've been nice to save that, but players just don't use the Leader Menu as much as they use abilities. It made more logical sense to put the unit abilities on the Y button, even if that meant sacrificing one of our mantras. Plus, it was just a lot more fun.