Following the continued retail success of Halo 3 in 2007, there was never a chance that Microsoft would let its lucrative cash-cow go. Not even the confirmation that Halo developer Bungie was parting ways and becoming an independent entity, just days after, could stop that. Announced at X06, Halo Wars is Microsoft's first stab at a non-FPS Halo, and marks the final project for Age of Empire outfit, Ensemble Studios.
Set two decades before the events of the original Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo Wars takes players on a journey that criss-crosses the galaxy, and follows a group of UNSC soldiers as they try to push back the Covenant. Recently, TVG spoke with Halo Studio's (the new defenders of all things Master Chief) Jason Pace, Lead Producer on Halo Wars, about the upcoming RTS...
TVG: Halo Wars is now approaching its late-February release date; what were some of the goals both Ensemble Studios and Halo Studio set out to achieve?
I think that if you want to reduce it down to its core, one is to create a great Halo experience in a new genre, and then the second goal is to prove that you can do an awesome triple-A title on a console.
TVG: With that in mind, what do you feel is the essence of a great Halo experience?
The essence of a Halo title is the heroism you feel as you take on the role of Master Chief; epic scope, the fate of humanity is in your hands. It's that feeling you get whenever you play a Halo game; you should feel like you're carrying the torch, that there's a vast universe in before you, in front of you, around you – past, present, and future, you've got to feel like you're a part of that experience.
So when we think of great Halo games, regardless of what genre they might be in, preserving that feeling even if you offer it in different ways – offering it from a third-person perspective isn't the same as jumping into the role of Master Chief – but preserving that experience is really key.
TVG: You're a month away from release; do you feel like the goals you spoke have been attained?
Oh, absolutely. I think I can speak for the entire team that we've absolutely nailed both of those things.
TVG: The development of Halo Wars was done by Ensemble Studios, so what role did the Halo Studio have to play?
The Halo Studio is the caretaker of the franchise; we're very involved with the kinds of stories we tell, the kinds of experiences. We partnered really well with Ensemble; everyone at Ensemble was working really closely with the Halo Studio art folks, producers, testers, developers – it was very much hand-in-hand.
Certainly it was Ensemble's effort, and it's definitely Ensemble's baby from that perspective, but Halo Studio was involved throughout all disciplines every step of the way.
TVG: Halo as a franchise began with Bungie Studios, so how has its integration under Halo Studio gone, since Bungie went independent?
Microsoft has always owned the Intellectual Property to Halo, and certainly when Bungie was a part of Microsoft, those questions weren't mooted. When Bungie separated, there were a lot of folks thinking about how Halo could be moved outside and grow the franchise. Bungie was always passionately committed to the first-person shooters for Halo, but after Bungie separated from Microsoft and we started to think about longer-term growth of the franchise, we actually spent a lot of effort putting together story bibles, really thinking about the consistency of the universe, thinking about what kind of stories would be appropriate to tell, and what kind of partners we'd like to tell them with.
TVG: So with that in mind, is Halo Wars a proof of concept that there's life for the franchise beyond the first-person shooter?
I guess that's one way of looking at it. I don't think any of us would call it a 'proof of concept' because we believe it's a full-on standalone effort on its own. Microsoft isn't in the habit of expensive proof of concept projects (laughs). I actually think that we believed from the very beginning that Halo had the potential, along with Ensemble, to be an awesome action-strategy game. Very early on, Ensemble came up with a series of controls that led us to have full confidence that it was going to push both Halo and the franchise forward.
TVG: Do you feel that with Halo Wars, the franchise has returned to its roots, given that it began as an RTS for the Mac ten years ago?
I think the world changes so fast that I would hesitate to say that. If you step back and look at things from the abstract perspective, you can certainly say 'Oh yeah, we've returned to our roots', but I think that takes away from the innovation that Ensemble has done. So when you sit down and play this game, I don't think you're going to get a sense of how Bungie would have developed the Halo game as an RTS back in the day. I think it [Halo Wars] represents a significant step forward in how strategy games are delivered on the console.
TVG: The RTS genre hasn't properly been attempted in the past because of a lack of high definition. Now that we have that with the current crop of consoles, EA, SEGA, and Ubisoft, have tried to introduce the genre properly to varied levels of success. Ubisoft in particular has gone one step further with the integration of a voice-based control system, and I was wondering whether you feel that perhaps that is one further area for future Halo Wars to explore?
I think one of the awesome things about developing games, even within a genre, is that you can choose what your core guiding principles are, and go to town on it. So when you think about voice command of units, it's actually pretty interesting, but it's not necessarily the kind of vision we have for Halo Wars – that's not to say that we wouldn't do it, you never know – but I think that with Halo Wars, we'll look at how we can make this game an even more visceral experience whilst staying true to the strategy roots. If voice happens to the that way, then maybe we'll investigate voice. If it's a change in how the camera is presented, then maybe we'll do that.
These are all open questions for us to start talking about if and when we start having the conversation to take the series forward.
TVG: Halo Wars currently relies on using the gamepad for its control system; what is it about the scheme developed by Ensemble that succeeds where the likes of EA's Battle for Middle-Earth or Command & Conquer 3 on Xbox 360 perhaps doesn't?
I don't think it's just the controls; it's the controls coupled with a brand-new game mechanic that has many of the core elements of great strategy games, but has changed and evolved in a way that makes it feel native for the console. I would say that games that have their roots in the PC, have their roots in a mouse and keyboard metaphor, and a mechanic that supports that.
Our game doesn't have that baggage. It's not just that we developed a unique control system that you can overlay onto a game that's fundamentally 'mouse and keyboard'; we developed a unique control scheme over a brand new game mechanic that's fundamentally console.
TVG: So it's more the fact that Halo Wars has been build solely up as a console IP?
Absolutely. One thing to say is that part of the way we've changed the mechanic is to give you fixed bases. When you no longer have to be jumping over the map to manage your oil production over there, or your wood production over there, that takes away a whole series of problems right there. Then the question becomes [whether] it's going to a deep enough experience for strategy players. The way we've addressed that is to introduce the notion of multiple bases, and so what represented the early development was really just evolving the mechanic from the get go to be very console friendly.
TVG: But the PC as a platform is still THE platform for strategy games, isn't it?
It is until we release...
TVG: ...so you really do believe that Halo Wars can change the future of the genre on the console?
What I would say is that there's room for everybody. I think that there are things you can do on the PC that you can't do on the console, and that's great. There are things that you can do on console that you can't do on the PC, and I that I think is something people will see when they play Halo Wars. They're going to say, “Wow, there's an entire strategy experience that I probably wouldn't be able to have to such an extent on the PC, I can have it on the console and it's awesome.” I think we can have both.
I think we'll fundamentally alter the conversation so that it's no longer appropriate to say 'PC is the only place you can do strategy.”
TVG: As an entity, would you say that Halo Studio is similar to Microsoft's previous strategy with Mistwalker? That is to say, it's a place for ideas to be developed before the actual production of a title is farmed out?
No, I don't think that's a good analogy because we have internal development teams as well. We own the Halo universe and story bible. That doesn't mean that somebody else can't come and say 'Hey, I have a great idea for a Halo story!' We would then work with them to make sure it was canon, and that it was right for us. I wouldn't view us as a prototyping place where things are then farmed out, because we have lots of things we work on internally, lots of things that are second or third party; we have creative control over the novels, we release a lot of other content deals and merchandise. I would say that we are purely the franchise owners, which includes all of the story content.
TVG: With that in mind, if Halo Wars becomes successful – and no doubt you'll correct me and say 'when' it becomes successful – who would develop it? There's no more Ensemble Studios, and most of the other big RTS studios are subsidiaries like THQ's Relic Entertainment, SEGA's Creative Assembly, or EA's LA outfit...
I think should the time come when we start crossing that bridge, there are a number of interesting options. Many of the folks from Ensemble have started their own studio, and I know personally that many of us would love to work with those guys again on another title – they're just awesome folks to work with. That's one potential avenue we could go down.
We always have the discussion about is it a project we could do with our internal development team? Is there somebody out there who might not be immediately recognisable but could be great for this project?
I think that level of discussion happens when we start pulling the trigger.
TVG: As a producer at Halo Studio, what's next? Has the Peter Jackson/Wingnut Interactive title been canned?
I cannot comment on any of that stuff right now.
TVG: Thanks a lot Jason.