The real challenge in bringing a real-time strategy game to console doesn’t just lie in making the game good: it’s also in breaking the perception that accessibility always comes at the expense of gameplay depth.
That’s how fans of the genre generally see the transition from the PC keyboard and mouse to the restrictive console controller, that in fitting the complex mechanics of a standard RTS onto a smaller button map, you’re limiting how deep the gameplay experience can go.
It’s a harsh reality that publishers and developers have to face: that regardless of how good your game is, you’re always fighting an uphill battle, attempting to convince the audience that your game belongs on the platform.
Halo Wars is perhaps the exception to the rule, although it’s hardly — if at all — the benchmark of the RTS genre. It’s a great game, no doubt, and it has a bright future on Xbox platforms, but it was always going to be the game to prove that the stock-standard RTS has a place on consoles.
That’s a tough role. It’s not trying to be the next StarCraft or Age Of Empires. It just wants to be a game that’s respected by the passionate RTS player. It also wants to grow into something big and defining of the Xbox name.
Halo Wars 2 may just be the game that pushes the franchise in that direction. It’s still battling as an outsider, but it has plenty working on its side. With Total War series developer Creative Assembly collaborating with 343 Industries on the project, Halo Wars 2 stands to break simplistic perceptions of over-accessibility.
“I think the perception is that if you can manage to fit an RTS on a console, then it won’t be any good at all,” 343 design director Clay Jensen told me in a soon-to-be-published interview. “‘It will be far too simplistic,’ they’ll say. But I think Halo Wars 2 in particular really strikes a balance there, in that it’s actually equally as compelling on PC as it is on console.”
The challenge for 343 and Creative Assembly has been in creating a game that not only brings together fans of the first game, but also of the genre across platforms. “How do you do it in a way that new players that haven’t been exposed to an RTS before, or haven’t been exposed to a lot of strategy titles … for them to be able to come in and get their feet wet and not feel overwhelmed?”
It’s an interesting, frustrating and challenging balance to strike, according to Jensen, but he’s confident that Halo Wars 2 finds it by offering something equally as compelling on console as it is on PC. “A vast majority of it translates directly across to console,” Jensen explains, hinting at how certain features, such as unit grouping, appear in both versions, but are slightly tweaked and refined to compliment the corresponding play styles dictated by the different control methods.
“One of the challenges of bringing any RTS to console — and the first game certainly had to deal with this — was how in the world do you take keyboard and mouse controls and condense that down into a controller? In the first game I thought it did a good job of that. We’ve obviously tried to push things and improve things now, but we also wanted to add a lot more depth and interest to the game.”
That means adding more controls, but with the same amount of buttons on the Xbox controller. How they’ve managed that is anyone’s guess, but Jensen is steadfast, insisting that the differences are minimal.
“I’m really happy that you’re basically getting the same experience on both platforms, and almost everything you can do on PC you can do on console.”
“Almost everything” is an important tidbit here, for obvious reasons. Once such different between the two versions is that, while unit grouping is possible on both PC and console, you have more available to you on PC.
Jensen explains this as being a case of more advanced controls being on the controller, which permit features otherwise only available on PC, albeit with some minor restrictions due to the limited space.
“If you’re a first-time player I’ve no doubt you can jump in and grasp the controls in five minutes. But for an advanced player, there are many more controls for unit control, unit management, moving around the map faster, camera control. There are a lot of things happening under the hood that you didn’t have in the first title that are, really, features that you would expect from a dedicated PC RTS.”
Feedback from the PC community, Jensen says, he been very positive, and that the game feels natural on PC. If you take that at face value, it means little if anything has been restricted or taken out of the game to keep it on par with the console version. Ultimately, however, it’ll be for the player to decide, something Jensen openly admits. “It’ll be up to the players to determine if it has the amount of depth and stuff that they’re expecting,” he said. “I’m confident that it’s there.”
Stay tuned for Fenix Bazaar’s full interview with 343 Industries design director Clay Jensen in the coming days.
Halo Wars 2 launches on Xbox One and PC on February 21.