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.

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Interview: Dan Ayoub and David Nicholson on Halo Wars 2

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.

PCPP: Anything to add?

Dan Ayoub: No, I thought that was great.

PCPP: Cool. Is that all my time?

PR Person: That’s it.

PCPP: Alright!

Yes, that was a sarcastic “Alright!” because I had a whole lot more questions, and not a lot of time. Then, as it turns out, because the next interview was running over, I was allowed to ask some more questions. Unfortunately, I turned the microphone off during this middle section (rookie mistake!) so I missed some great quotes about the depth of deck-building in the CCG-meets-RTS mode otherwise known as Blitz. What follows is where we picked up.

PR person: Do you have another question?

PCPP: Do I have another question? I have so many! I actually wanted to touch on the idea of, I mean, you look at Total War and you think of that blurring between epic macro and then the micro of the strategy. I look at Halo Wars and I see a bigger emphasis on micro than macro. I guess, what sort of challenges does that present creating a game that is very micro focused, as opposed to having those macro considerations, as well? We’ve talked about the accessibility of not having the focus on macro, but what are the challenges of being so micro focused?

David Nicholson: Yeah, that’s a good one, I think, so, I think a lot of our macro, a lot of the macro in T[otal] W[ar] comes from, it’s historical. So the story has been told, and so you’re not going to be telling any different stories. Whereas in Halo, it’s a new story that’s being told. Does that make sense? So a huge part of Halo and the enjoyment that we get and fans get and why we’re doing it is we love telling stories, we think we’re great storytellers. So bringing in the macro element of, ‘Why am I here? What am I doing? Why am I battling these people?’ So listening this morning about the backstory to Atriox, I think that was the macro of why we’re here, what we’re doing, what the overarching purpose is comes through the narrative.

PCPP: I do like the idea of an accessible RTS, but what I’m envisioning is a lot of people doing the army blob tactic. Do you have ways of educating people beyond that and almost deterring the blob tactic?

David Nicholson: You see how far you can get in Blitz Firefight using just all of your units.

PCPP: I did see how far I got. It wasn’t far at all [it really wasn’t].

Dan Ayoub: It’s been kind of fun to watch people… obviously, we’re primarily a shooter studio here [at 343 Industries]. We’ve got some RTS fans in there, but it’s certainly not the majority. That instinct for the new player, it’s been fascinating for me, and I’ve kind of loved… it’s been a great focus test for us, because Blitz is literally for those people. And everyone starts with blob, where they’re just massing units.

David Nicholson: All the units!

Dan Ayoub: Yeah, all the units, and they just go. Literally every person has that moment where they’re like, ‘Huh, okay.’ And then amazing things start happening. You start seeing these people split their forces. You start seeing people thinking, ‘Okay, I’m starting to think more about the timer. You know what? The timer is running down. When this wave is over, I’ve got to start thinking about who I’m sending out to collect energy,’ and things like that.

There’s that moment that everybody realises, blob’s not going to work, and then you start to see… it’s great, that’s exactly what we want. You start to see this non-strategy gamers start to think strategically about their gaming, and that for us—we were talking about this earlier—that’s just the moment where we’re like, ‘Yes! This is actually what we want.’

PCPP: How easy is all of that on a controller?

David Nicholson: Fantastic, thank you, perfect segue.

PCPP: I just ran into that one.

David Nicholson: What we’ve done… so it’s really funny, so early on in our designs we were looking at, ‘Okay, how do you bring control groups onto console?’ And we had a design, and we ran it through 343, and Dan picked up on it and loved it. Basically, we’ve put control groups onto the D-pad, so you can have four control groups.

And I remember many subsequent milestones with Dan saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s great. When am I going to be able to play with control groups? When can I get control groups into this build?’ So playing on the console, it’s essentially, pull a shoulder button or a trigger, and then assign groups to one of the four directions on the D-pad, and then jump to the D-pad. It’s what I was saying about the benefits that we get doing both a PC and an Xbox game in parallel.

So control groups are really, really important on PC, and it’s a very classical control, y’know, control one-, control two-, control three-assigned groups. So that’s what we want to do. How do you bring that onto a controller? How do you bring that dexterity of control onto a controller and make it accessible? Well, you’ve got four buttons there that are really, as soon as you start using it, ‘Okay, that’s the way it should be done. That’s clearly the way it should be done, why has it not been done before?’

Dan Ayoub: I think that was my biggest frustration with the first one. I’ve always been a PC RTS guy, and the first thing I wanted to do was start assigning groups. I use groups all the time, and I think, every build, I was like, ‘Control groups: go, go, go!’ It’s just great.

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