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Halo Wars: Cracking the Console Nut

September 24th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Design, Ensemble, RTS

Soren Johnson has posted his thoughts on the future of real time strategy on the console side of the industry, inspired by a video of Ensemble’s Halo Wars in action. The money quote:

At the very end of the video, however, there is a tiny suggestion of just how fun an RTS could be on a console. The human side has some sort of orbiting uber-weapon they can use to wreck massive destruction on a specific target. The console interface for this system is a snap – it’s simply a huge reticule. Just aim and shoot. Sure, it’s a strategy game, but why not? The effect is not unlike the God Powers of Age of Mythology, Ensemble’s PC RTS from 2002. However, this mechanic is a perfect fit for the console. Personally, I was hoping that Halo Wars would focus more on these types of interactions – ones where the player is taking advantage of the joystick interface instead of fighting it. RTS’s truly need to be built from the ground up for consoles, without the expectation of controlling multiple groups of soldiers. Ensemble is one of the best developers in the business (Age of Kings was probably my favorite game of the ’90s), so they are more than capable of delivering an awesome title. They just need to unlearn some of what they have spent the last decade learning on the PC.

Unlearning is hard in a genre, but Johnson’s largely right. Though consoles have pretty much proven that they can handle turn based strategy games with little problem (Shattered Union was no better or worse on your TV than on your monitor, for example) their are serious interface barriers to traditional unit centered RTS gaming on the Xbox. So many things that designers have come to rely on in the genre (drag selecting, double clicking, control groups, build queues, hotkeys, minimap navigation) are just a little bit slower and/or more difficult on a console. Neither Battle for Middle Earth II nor Command and Conquer 3 were terrible on the console side, but both paled next to their PC parent. Sometimes more buttons aren’t better.

So the alternative, Johnson says, is to think of a different approach to real time strategy, and he goes on to list games that could point the way. His examples are a little out there (MULE?) but he lists them more, I think, to highlight design alternatives than to cite them as direct inspiration. His basic outline is quite simple. Design with the controller (joysticks and buttons) in mind and don’t force the player to do too much at once.

Now, if anyone can make an RTS work on a console, Ensemble will probably be the ones to do it. The Age games look so similar to each other in so many ways that we’ve come to take the little innovations they’ve had for granted. Ensemble has the money and Microsoft backing to do what needs to be done. Graeme Devine, the lead designer of Halo Wars, has a background in FPS games but did programming on Age of Empires III. Given the origins of the Halo franchise, it makes sense to draw on someone with this history, I suppose. But there is one thing that Ensemble has a little trouble with.

They aren’t the masters of interface design. The UI for Age of Empires III was probably the worst part of an otherwise very good game. It was too obtrusive and omitted some pretty basic information and options. (Patches took care of that to some extent.)

Big Huge Games does it better, or at least did so long as Scott Lewis was there. And BHG is working on the new Age III expansion. Maybe some of that UI design skill will rub off.

Another problem is the one that has been bugging me about my console experiences. The seven to eight foot gap between me and the TV means that, visually, things will have to be exaggerated. No small print, no border shading to identify enemy units, no laser riflemen who wear different hats to indicate skill level. You can deal with this by just keeping the zoom in even tighter, but you need a good design reason to justify limiting the player’s view to a unit’s maximum line of sight or something. But, the tighter the zoom, the greater limits you place on micromanagement; it means more scrolling, more minimapping, more jumping around to keep your diverse armies together. If you keep the unit numbers down (as Johnson advocates in his remarks on DotA) you can handle this sort of thing with little trouble.

But then it starts to feel less like a war.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott Lewis

    Don’t give me too much credit. Brian Reynolds has a fantastic vision for interfaces and I have no doubt that BHG will have great game interfaces without me.

  • Troy

    I don’t mean to diminish the skill of Brian Reynolds, an amazing talent, or anyone else at one of my favorite development houses. But Rise of Legends and Railroads both have well above average interfaces for a reason…