Halo stalwarts and series developer 343 Industries recently visited Australia to show off the the upcoming Halo Wars 2, which launches on Xbox One and PC on February 21.
While I wasn’t on-hand to play the game, I did get a chance to speak with lead designer Clay Jensen over the phone about the game.
We spoke about the challenges of bringing an RTS to both console and PC, and offering an equally compelling experience across both, as well as microtransactions, Blitz, Creative Assembly, and eSports.
Fenix Bazar: So when it comes to the console RTS, there’s this common perception that the game is made to be more accessible at the expense of gameplay depth …
Clay Jensen: That’s absolutely true. 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. It will be far too simplistic.
Fenix Bazar: How is Halo Wars 2 the exception to that rule?
Clay Jensen: I think Halo Wars 2 in particular really strikes a balance there, it actually is equally as compelling on PC as it is on console. You’re right in that the standpoint of accessibility, it actually has been a big goal on console, not only how do you bring in fans that really loved the first game, for other RTS players in general, but also, 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 balance to strike. One thing I’m really happy about is, overall it’s a really compelling game experience on both platforms.
Fenix Bazar: The controller obviously presents a huge challenge — how does that tie into ensuring you find that balance for an equally-compelling experience across both platforms?
Clay Jensen: PC feels very native to that platform. All of the standard controls you’d expect from a PC-focused RTS are there, and a vast majority of it translates directly across to console. 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. Which means adding more controls with the same amount of buttons. But I’m really happy that it’s basically, you’re getting the same experience on both platforms, and almost everything you can do on PC you can do on console.
Fenix Bazar: “Almost”?
Clay Jensen: Well as an example, if you do unit grouping on PC, you can do it on console as well. The only difference is that you have more controlled groups that you can set on PC. So there are more advanced controls built into the controller. If you’re a first-time player I’ve no doubt you can jump in and grasp the controls in 5 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, more so features that you would expect from a dedicated PC RTS.
Fenix Bazaar: So obviously there has been a conscious effort to make the game more adaptable for PC.
Clay Jensen: Anecdotally, the people that I’ve seen playing the PC build have been really surprised by how solid it feels, and natural it feels on PC. Ultimately it’ll be up to players, obviously, to determine if it has the amount of depth and stuff that they’re expecting. I’m confident that it’s there. To be able to play on PC and then pick up and move to the couch for example and grab your controller and play to have the same experience, and also keep your save project, it makes for a really seamless experience. Probably the best vote of confidence I guess for the controls scheme, is I’ve seen a lot of PC players swap over and play with the controller. I’ve had to do a double-take, I’m one of those people. It takes a while to appreciate it, but it’s a good example that it’s pretty seamless across both.
Fenix Bazaar: I would imagine that the pedigree of Creative Assembly had led to — at least what you would say — is a better overall game. What have you learned from the studio, how has the relationship evolved, and in what ways have they contributed to Halo’s lore?
Clay Jensen: It’s been a great partnership. A little bit of history: the number one request we’ve had at 343 since the release of Halo Wars 1, was to make Halo Wars 2. We’ve had absolutely non-stop requests for it. And we’ve wanted to make it for just as long. The big thing that we wanted to do was to find the perfect partner to do it with. And when Creative Assembly were interested in the project, I personally knew it was going to be a really, really good match. Like you say, the pedigree that they’ve got, the Total War series, the traditional, historical RTS, but another thing I think a lot of people forget is that they also did Alien: Isolation, which is an immersive, horror, survival game. And you wouldn’t necessarily see where those two games connect, but the thing for me, the secret sauce, is that Creative Assembly is extremely passionate regardless of the project they’re working on. They’re always doing projects that they feel that way about.
Fenix Bazaar: Do you see any major similarities between the two studios?
Clay Jensen: We’re really interested in creating immersive experiences for people. And in this case we’re applying it to the Halo universe. They jumped in and embraced that with the same rigour you would if you were going to do a historical game. There’s a depth of realism in the game that I think is really good, but is also really “Halo”. In terms of working it’s been a great collaboration, I’ve loved working with them. And there’s a really good open brainstorming coming back and forth. From a gameplay standpoint, we’ll look it at from the franchise story standpoint, Creative Assembly has always been really keen on making something that feels like a Halo experience and making sure that it has that authenticity that you would apply if you were doing something based on actual historical events. So that’s one of the cross-over points that I think has been great. Not only gameplay driving story, but also story driven gameplay and making sure that the game itself feels like Halo wars.
Fenix Bazaar: So there’s obviously a lot more to this game than the first entry, and Blitz is one factor. How did that mode come about, because it’s not common to have a competitive card battle game in an RTS …
Clay Jensen: Well, as many would know, the idea of playing an RTS for the first time, people are often intimidated by that. It takes too long, it’s complex. Whatever. Those are legitimate concerns. But it does take a little bit of time to see the real excitement and beauty of RTS once you get into it. Blitz was born out of a desire to try and add a mode to the community game that felt very quick, very action-focused, something you could pick up quite easily, and even if you have experience in the rest of the game, you can jump in, learn how to control your units, learn what each unit does, and have a fast match that goes for 4-5 minutes, have a really satisfying game. From my standpoint, one was the goal of making something that you could pick up and play and play a match in the same amount of time it would take you to play a full match. But also something that taught you how to play those longer modes more effectively. And one thing that it does is, you have a more focused number of units, you’ve got to manage those units and take care of them, better than you would in a bigger battle, and I think also it teaches you how to micro your units, to make the most of the units that you’ve got. It really is kind of a crucible of learning RTS tactics. Even though you jump in as a new player and think, “Oh this is fun, I can learn this really quickly,” I actually think there’s going to be a lot of deathmatch players that are going to benefit from Blitz, simply because it’s going to teach them how to become a better RTS player.
Fenix Bazaar: So we’ve seen in your time with the Halo franchise, the inclusion of microtransations, and now they’ve fought their way into Halo Wars. I think the community is concerned that this will lead to a pay-to-win scenario.
Clay Jensen: We’ve actually got the same concerns that the community does. Microtransactions are always something that, when you do it, you need to always know why you’re doing it, and communicate why you’re doing it.
Fenix Bazaar: And this ties into Blitz, which is where I think some of the concern comes from.
Clay Jensen: Well in the case of Blitz, you’re earning cards, you’re going to want to earn more, and so you’re going to have more to build bigger and better decks. You can get all of those simply by playing. Play with Blitz, you’re getting packs. Play campaign and you’re getting packs. If you’re doing daily and weekly challenges, even more packs. So it’s a legitimate strategy to just earn as you go along without purchasing anything. In many other games like this, if you buy additional packs, it’s basically a shortcut to getting more of them more quickly.
Fenix Bazaar: Can you just talk briefly about the nature of the microtransations?
Clay Jensen: So there’s basically two varieties of packs — regular and premium. Premium packs have a greater chance of getting rare cards. You can actually collect cards fairly quickly playing on your own. Once you get more cards, you may be adding new cards to your collection, but duplicates get attached and added to your base cards, and then level the cards incrementally. So over time you’re levelling them up slightly. We’ve been really careful to do that to a point where there is a bonus, there is a benefit to having those cards level up a bit.
Fenix Bazaar: Well I think it’s here that people are concerned about pay-to-win scenarios.
Clay Jensen: Well it’s not overwhelming, not something that’s going to put you into a position where you can blitz everyone else with maxed out cards. In my experience watching new players play Blitz, it always comes down to what you actually do with the cards, rather than simply what cards you have. The exception to that is of course if it’s a completely uneven playing field. Even if you’re playing and levelling cards, it’s a reasonable advantage. It’s something we’ve been conscious of in the past, and we’re looking towards post-launch tuning and balancing.
Fenix Bazaar: Staying on the point of competitiveness and multiplayer: in what ways are you working to improve the matchmaking and leaderboards for Halo Wars 2’s multiplayer?
Clay Jensen: From the standpoint of matchmaking in multiplayer, that system has certainly continued to improve and is really strong. Initially, at launch, it’ll be more open. Matchmaking will be in place, but we’ll be rolling out Ranked a little after launch, just to get the community set up. So far it’s working really well. We had a great experience with the beta just last year, which was very successful in terms of matchmaking. Things have certainly improved since then so I’m happy with that. Even at this late stage, we are looking at ways to make that multiplayer experience better, as we did with the recent Blitz beta.
Fenix Bazaar: Just one last point on multiplayer: eSports. Obviously there’s immense potential there, and you’ve invested a lot into Halo 5’s multiplayer. What’s the go with eSports with Halo Wars 2?
Clay Jensen: eSports is something we’re very excited about the potential for. It’s something we’ve obviously thought about since the development began on Halo Wars 2. We don’t currently have plans for eSports support, but that’s very conscious actually because ultimately, any desire for eSports is going to come from the community. We just need to wait and see how things develop. If Blitz comes to the foreground as something people want to see played more competitively, we’d certainly look into it. And I think that’s the case. There’s a lot of great ways to play Blitz. Even DM and Domination mode, and Strongholds, more resources that you could possibly spend and upgraded units right at the beginning of the game, it’s basically a race to capture points across the map and have the most bases before time runs out. That’s a really fun mode with a time frame that would be a great candidate for eSports. Like I said though, it’s an organic process, we just want to get the game into everyone’s hands and see what they want to do.
Fenix Bazaar: Just finally … and this one is from the community: Will Halo Wars 2 support HDR?
Clay Jensen: I wish that I could say yes. Unfortunately, we are not going to have HDR support for Halo Wars 2. We do support 4K on PC, which looks gorgeous. It’s something that certainly in future titles, we’ll be looking to support it, but unfortunately, not for this launch.
Fenix Bazaar: Great! Well, thanks for your time, have fun in Sydney, and good luck with the launch!
Halo Wars 2 launches February 21 on Xbox One and PS4.