Halo Wars Q&A

At the beginning of the month, I wrote that the Xbox 360-exclusive real-time strategy title Halo Wars, turned three years old. Some of the former Ensemble developers, now working at Robot Entertainment, agreed to answer a few questions about their experiences building the game.

Disclaimer: I am not a journalist, and this is my first attempt at “interview-style” questions. I did not want to ask the same questions they answered three years ago during all the pre-launch hype. Those are still out there on the ‘net to read today, so I purposefully came up with a handful of questions I don’t recall ever seeing.


What units were most difficult to implement in Halo Wars?

Juan Martinez, Animator:
From an art perspective the Warthog was the most difficult unit to create. It basically had all the features of all the other units combined into one. Physics, Driver, Passenger with grenade launcher, another Passenger on a mounted turret or gauss cannon.

Something like the Scarab was actually pretty easy, but we needed to add inverse kinematics for the legs to plant on the ground.

We also had a lot of trouble with building constructions. The final solution of rising out of the ground was pretty simple. But for the longest time the game designers wanted all the buildings to come from space like the Command Center.

Dusty Monk, Programmer:
I moved onto the project about halfway through its development, and one of the main things I was tasked with was pathing and AI movement.  And the coordination between Scorpions and troops was problematic from the get-go.  Trying to produce formations that looked halfway decent and actually resolved into lines when moving through narrow gaps produced all kinds of crazy difficulties.   Also, as Juan mentioned, we spent an extraordinary amount of time working on the Warthog to try to get it as close to the signature Halo Warthog as we could in its movement and physics.

I remember reading the Flood was originally going to be a third playable faction but it kept playing out too Zerg-like, which was not the intent of the Flood so that idea was scrapped. Was that a final decision to scrap the Flood or were there ideas that could have salvaged it but time constraints on the project did not allow it to be worked on?

Joe Gillum, Content Designer
There were a couple of legitimate reasons:

– Can we cram another full civilization’s worth of content onto the disk, and/or run all that with the memory available on a 360?
– We were trying to budget the game to finish the content we had planned. Adding another civ was a big risk.

The pitch I threw out to deal with the memory issue (and the fact that not all 360 owners had hard drives) was a USB Flood Infection Form dongle toy. “Infect your XBOX with the Flood, this fall!”

Prior to notification that Ensemble would be dismantled at Halo Wars’ launch, were there any discussions or plans of DLC beyond the multiplayer map packs? Any potential for additional campaign/co-op DLC? A Halo Wars 2? (Many fans are still hopeful 343 doesn’t forget this franchise.)

Eric Best, Programmer:
We had a good framework in (code-wise) for a lot of future map packs.  We also had a system so that for each matchmaking bucket (1v1, 2v2 Teams, etc.) we could rotate out the map sets and tweak the matchmaking connection values for each one (as well as just adding in new buckets without a patch).

What features were left on the "cutting room floor" either because it was totally justified (just wasn’t working at all) or because of time constraints and "cutting the fat" so to speak? Were there features that were cut that you really wish had been able to get in the game?

Bart Tiongson, Concept Artist
The feature that was cut that I was truly hoping for, speaking as a very biased concept artist, was having interacting wild alien creatures throughout the levels.  We had conceptualized a TON of various creatures that never made it into the game and the ones that we had in there never "reacted" to the player like we were originally hoping.  It was really just a matter of not having the time and bandwidth to do it because of higher priority features. Here are a few concept art designs that were not used:

Juan Martinez, Animator
At the beginning of the project we wanted a Forerunner civilzation. The idea was rejected because it would interfere with the main Halo story line, including pieces we didn’t know about at the time. Other than that, everyone was pretty flexible and even integrated a few of our ideas into the Halo canon.

From my perspective, most of the fat that was trimmed came from the cinematics. There were many more characters to compliment Forge and Anders. But budget and disk space chopped a lot of that down.

Eric Best, Programmer
Splitscreen was working in the renderer and sim, and the network layer was redone so that it was decoupled from the "one player per box" setup that we started with.  But time ran out and there wasn’t enough time to finish the feature.  This was a painful one to not see come to completion.

Additionally we had a system which could pull down a MP balance tuning file where the designers could tweak the movement speed/DPS/etc. on all the units.  The game would check it every time it connected to Live so we could balance stuff without having to patch the game.  But once it was clear that designers wouldn’t be around to make the changes – we had to drop the system.


Thanks again to the fellows at Robot Entertainment who took a little time out of their day at work to answer these questions, and to Dusty Monk in particular who forwarded the questions to everyone then got the official clearance to send the answers back to me! Here’s hoping the team gets the itch and the opportunity to try their hand at another console RTS on the next generation of hardware in a few years.

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