Interview: Dan Ayoub and David Nicholson on Halo Wars 2

343 Industries studio head of strategy games development Dan Ayoub and Creative Assembly executive producer David Nicholson talk about the challenges of multiplatform RTS development.

Interview: Dan Ayoub and David Nicholson on Halo Wars 2
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I have a soft spot for the original Halo Wars. Despite my preference for PC gaming, I fell in love with the Halo franchise. And when I learnt that Ensemble Studios—those RTS gurus behind Age of Empires—were making a Halo RTS, I was immediately on board. Halo Wars is still probably the best RTS to grace console screens, and while I would have loved to have played it on PC, I didn’t have that option.

Fast-forward to today, and Halo Wars 2 is slated for release on Xbox One and, more specific to this website, Windows 10 PC, on February 21. I recently had the opportunity to play a few hours of Halo Wars 2 on Xbox One and PC, and also had the chance to sit down with some key developers to talk about the game. What follows is my interview with studio head of strategy games development at 343 Industries, Dan Ayoub, and Creative Assembly executive producer David Nicholson.

We discuss creating an accessible RTS, lead platform considerations, the balance of macro and micro, and how easy it will be to play on controller, for those so inclined to shun keyboard and mouse controls when Halo Wars 2 releases.

PCPP: I wanted to start with the idea of making an accessible real-time strategy game and how, I guess, coming from a PC perspective, how that might be seen at ends with a deeper gameplay experience. Can you talk about how they’re not mutually exclusive for Halo Wars 2?

Dan Ayoub: Yeah, absolutely. I think the easiest way to break down how we manage the accessibility is just modes. And that’s one of the big reasons we wanted to work with Creative Assembly, who obviously has that very strong pedigree in classical hardcore RTS. We say we wanted to build an RTS for everyone, the challenge that that immediately brings is how do you not isolate one group while you’re trying to do it. What we do is let players go down that rabbit hole as deeply as they want to go.

So if you’re a hardcore player, the hope is that people are going to want to play all of the modes, but people who have those very classical RTS expectations are certainly going to have that fulfilled. Mouse and keyboard, you can do all of the usual things that you’d expect to do on any kind of classical RTS. Now if you’re a new player, I talk a lot about the spectrum of modes, when we think about how is that new player going to engage, if this is the spectrum [holds out his index fingers], we probably see new players hopping in somewhere around here [close to one end].

And what’s interesting is that you move across this spectrum, we take a few layers out, so the beauty of that is when you go up the other way, we’re gradually adding a few layers to it, so our hope is that we can start to train new players on how to be full, classical RTS players. So at the end of the day, we leave it to the player how deeply they want to jump in there. Anything you wanted to add to that, Dave?

David Nicholson: No, I just think, just another benefit of what we’re finding with the modes is, we really love cooperative play, so we want to make the RTS for everyone. So if you’re a hardcore RTS player and you love the depth of the traditional RTSs—and as Creative Assembly, we certainly love the depth of the traditional RTS—but if you want to invite somebody in to play a Total War game, it’s going to take them a while. So on Halo Wars [2], we really wanted to say, well, if you want to invite your mate in to play who’s maybe not as familiar as you are with RTS mechanics and controls, and the strategies that you need to play, we want to give you a mode that they can come into and they can say, ‘Well, actually, yeah, I do really like these games. They’re not intimidating. They’re not daunting.’ And you’d start with Blitz. You’d say, ‘Let’s have a quick Blitz match. Oh, right. Okay. I get this. I understand counters now. Okay, I understand the traffic light, thanks for that. Okay, so now, what if I had a different route to take down? What if I had different units, I could follow a different strategy.’ So then you layer on base building. Then you layer on the economy. Then you layer on the teching-up of your bases, that sort of stuff. So, yeah, I would just add that it really helps with cooperative and bringing new people in, and bringing your friends in to experience the joy that is in RTS.

PCPP: By default, do you find that the Xbox One has to be the lead platform in terms of the literal limitations of the number on the buttons that it has on the controller? And does that lead to you having to come up with creative solutions for gameplay mechanics, and even how you handle AI across platforms because somebody might be playing on a controller on PC versus someone playing with a keyboard and mouse who’s very proficient with strategy games and keyboard shortcuts?

David Nicholson: So you may think it brings constraints. What we’ve actually found is it brings real… a focus of thought. So saying and really believing that one of our pillars is accessibility and having the constraint of a console controller, in just the number of buttons, makes you sit back and think, at its core, ‘What is the fun of an RTS? What do you need to do?’

So what we’ve been able to do is we’ve been able to translate that into accessibility on a console controller, and carry that accessibility over onto a PC. So on the PC we still have the radial controls, because we think it’s a really accessible way to get in and control things. Other RTSs, it’s all about the actions per minute. So it’s not necessarily that on our title. So we’re bringing across the accessibility of a console with the depth of the PC.

So on the PC, we have more control groups to get into, but on the controller, we’ve brought across the advantage and the benefits of having control groups and put them on the D-pad. So we started off thinking, ‘This may be a real challenge; this may be a real problem,’ but, actually, it’s great to have the learnings from both platforms and cross-pollinate across the two.

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