Crispy Gamer

Last Days for Ensemble Studios: An Interview with Halo Wars? Creators

It's end of days for Ensemble Studios. The developer most famous for its Age of Empires real-time strategy series on the PC is in its last few months of wrapping up Halo Wars. Normally, that's good news for both gamers and the people working on the game -- except the finish line here will probably see more tears than sighs of relief.

The studio is shutting down after Halo Wars ships this February for the Xbox 360. And while discussing that near future nearly makes their eyes well up and voices crack, they're also gung-ho about going out with a bang that can only be matched by a certain galaxy-annihilating alien artifact. See what Lead Writer Graeme Devine and Lead Designer Dave Pottinger have to say about their near-finished project, the team's last few months together, and Microsoft's decision to close their shop.

Crispy Gamer: What's it like for the development team knowing there are only two more months left -- that after Halo Wars, there's no more Ensemble Studios?

Halo Wars for Xbox 360 screenshot

Graeme Devine: That news was a shock for the whole team. I've spent four and a half years on this game -- it's a big part of my life. We have a great love of what we've made. With the team, it's become a sort of "Let's make this. Let's prove to Microsoft that they made a mistake." I think from Microsoft's perspective, a lot of them were shocked, too.

It's an interesting time. Although we're closing a chapter, we're closing it well. The last thing we want is for people to just mail it in just to finish a game.

Crispy Gamer: So you're really not seeing any of that? Anyone just mailing it in?

Devine: Certainly not. If anything, people have doubled their efforts.

Dave Pottinger: Out of 105 full-time people when the news hit, we lost three. We feared losing 30 to 40 people right away. Yeah, that still hurt -- everyone at Ensemble is important. But it's a testament to the strength of Ensemble, to how much people care about each other. Certainly the Microsoft severance package is nice, and that helps incentivize people. But the stronger motivation is to send out Ensemble in the right way.

Halo Wars for Xbox 360 screenshot

I've worked at Ensemble for 15 years. I disagree personally with Microsoft's choice that they can make more money doing something else with headcount and stuff like that, but it's their choice to make. After we got that news, we looked at ways to keep as many people together as possible, and that's where our new studio came from. That studio will be supporting Halo Wars going forward. The customer trusts the game will be supported and not just be shoveled out there. It also helps the people working on the game to know that it won't just be shoveled out there to go away and die.

It's been impressive to see everyone stick it out and work really hard. It's not been easy. Nobody's too happy with Microsoft right now [laughs], but it is what it is. It's their right. It sucks; there's no two ways about it. We're working our asses off, we're crunching a lot, and as soon as the game's done, we're out of a job.

We'll have tournaments in Halo Wars, tournaments in this game called PitchCar, which is this little car-flicking game around a track ... things to do to keep the team together as much as we can. We kept everyone together at Ensemble over the years, and this would be a shitty time to ruin that. I mean, it got ruined for us; it's not by our choice. But we're trying to do the best we can.

Crispy Gamer: What's next for you guys personally, then?

Halo Wars for Xbox 360 screenshot

Devine: I have no future right now! The news completely sucked for me. But I don't want to split my time between looking forward and finishing Halo Wars, so I just decided to focus on finishing this and making it the best that it can be. In this industry, you're only as good as your last game, so ... this game is my focus.

Pottinger: Same for me. We wanted to make sure this is finished as an Ensemble game. But I'm on to the new studio. I'll be a designer for one of the games over there, but we haven't done much with it. We did enough to know we wanted to do something together, but beyond that, it's not something we want to get in the way of finishing Halo Wars.

Crispy Gamer: So Halo Wars will be fully supported post-release in terms of balance issues and downloadable content (DLC), like it was any other title?

Pottinger: Yeah, it's a completely new studio made up of about half the people from Ensemble. It's a new studio, so we can't really afford to take everyone. We don't have a name yet. [Halo Wars] has got the contract to do title updates, whether that'd be balance or, god forbid, problems with the actual game. DLC will be coming. I don't know what Microsoft has planned for Halo Wars 2, but in terms of ? making [Halo Wars] a great experience, that's covered.

Devine: One thing about DLC, all Microsoft games have them ... the DLC plan is part of our green-light presentation. It's built into [development].

Crispy Gamer: Stripping away the Halo license for a moment, what does your game offer that we haven't seen in real-time-strategy games before?

Halo Wars for Xbox 360 screenshot

Devine: We didn't start this game off as a Halo game. We started off wanting to make a console RTS experience. We spent the first 12 to 18 months just on that, with no [intellectual property] ... there was no concept of it being a Halo game. In fact, we started off with the Age of Mythology engine. Microsoft saw what we were working on and asked if they could use it [for Halo], and of course we said yes.

That was always the drive for us: To make a console RTS game work. It was always made from the ground up for the 360.

Pottinger: Halo Wars is strategy boiled down to its core essentials. We wanted a shorter skirmish experience on the console. It's Halo, so it has to be more about combat than about tasking individual guys to gather berries or chop down trees. As fun as that is, that's an Age [of Empires] type of thing. That's a slower game. This is a game more about combat -- more military versus economy. We want to have a simplified economy, but where you still have high-level, epic choices to make.

Crispy Gamer: As more and more RTSes come out, they tend to add more features, but it seems you guys are taking a step back and simplifying things.

Pottinger: Yeah, we got caught up like everybody does in an arms race of features. "Oh my god, we can't cut that feature because it's been in our previous game." One of the things that [reinvigorated] the team to do another RTS game was the change in platform. We simply couldn't carry over all the arcane gameplay. [Age of Empires III] was great ... but it crumbled under the weight of all its features. We had to rethink everything.

Halo Wars for Xbox 360 screenshot

On the PC, I could put my buildings anywhere, and some people thought that was important to the strategy aspect. And you know what? It's not. The choice is to make the building, and I think a strategy game is better when all of a base is together. It's better for pacing. And the game ends when someone's base blows up. That's awesome. I don't have to track down that last damn villager or that barracks you built behind my town.

In the Age games, you would build up to this great crescendo, and then you have five minutes of "bleugh." In Halo Wars, when the base blows up, [finger snaps] done, next game. It's very climatic.

Crispy Gamer: The storyline in the Halo trilogy can get very confusing at times. Do you guys see that, and are you making a conscious effort to make the story in Halo Wars easier to follow?

Devine: We wanted to make sure the story was both easy to follow, and felt epic and involved. We tell the story with cut scenes in between the cinematics, and a lot of it is on the ground as well -- keeping clear objectives in front of the player as to "why am I moving forward?" and "what am I doing next?" and "how is this involved with what I've just seen?"

The task of the story is to make believable characters that feel three-dimensional and real. For [the characters] to make decisions that should take months to actually make, but to actually do it in 30 seconds -- "Hey, let's go blow this up" [laughs] -- there should be months of planning and charts everywhere. But because they're believable characters, they can go do it.

Pottinger: By the first or second mission, you've met all the main characters. You know who they are, you know a lot of their motivations, you see the tension between [them]. That ? makes the story inherently more followable.

Crispy Gamer: Most modern RTS games have three playable sides. With two playable teams, can Halo Wars compete with those games that offer more?

Halo Wars for Xbox 360 screenshot

Devine: Are they offering more or are they diluting more? You want [the sides] to feel very different. I want to feel when I'm playing the UNSC that I'm playing a well-run military organization. But when I play the Covenant, they're crazy, need-someone-on-the-battlefield-to-control-them. You know, they really hate each other. Getting that diverse feeling between the two sides, so it's not just their tank and our tank and their airplane and our airplane ... was more of the goal, rather than having more units for the sake of having three sides.

Pottinger: There's an obvious third side with the Flood, and we're not doing that. Our focus was to take the two sides and differentiate them as much as we could, but still making it so you can play [either] and not be completely befuddled.

The UNSC has the MAC blast and carpet bomb ... which are these great big explosive things. But the Covenant are more visceral. They're more angry. They're more interactive, too. I can put the Arbiter into "Rage" and flip the right stick, and he jumps from target to target -- [it's] kind of Too Human-esque -- and he does super-huge fatalities. They are very angry. Our Arbiter is an evil mo-fo. He's Darth Vader times 10.

Halo Wars for Xbox 360 screenshot

The UNSC has very different strategies than the Covenant. The Covenant can be in your town very quickly, quicker than the UNSC, but the UNSC has a few more things to counter. If you don't build a shield generator [for the Covenant base], it's like papier-m?ch?. The UNSC base is much more solid by itself.

Those things aren't necessarily first and foremost for civ differentiation, but if people want to focus on the big things, it's leader versus Spartans.

Devine: Going back to the Flood, if you think about making them playable as a civ -- the Flood in the Halo canon are the single scariest thing you'll ever see. If you see one Flood form, it's enough to destroy an entire galaxy. Although it would've been great to make the Flood playable, it also would've taken away a lot of their power. Having them be this evil, "Oh my god, if that infection takes hold here, we're going to have to lose the universe" -- that's actually a big part of the Flood. We thought long and hard about how to make them playable, but we couldn't come up with any way to match the canon exactly.

Pottinger: We had some plans for future games that had the Flood in them, but those don't really exist anymore. But they do show up in skirmish and in the campaign. It will be the first time humanity has encountered the Flood. The fans are all abuzz about how we can do it without ruining the canon with having the Flood come in 20 years earlier, but the way it's set up is pretty cool.

Crispy Gamer: One last question: Did you guys purposely make [Halo Wars holographic artificial-intelligence chick] Serina hotter than Cortana?

Devine: [Laughs] If you mean by her writing, then yeah. Serina, to me, is the character, not the model. Like I said, I want all my characters to be three-dimensional and believable. [Her personality] comes through in the cinematics in such a way ... that's what makes her attractive to me. It's not necessarily in rendering at all. It's all in the character. [Laughs]