Halo Wars wins best Strategy game in G4TV gamers choice awards & Dave Pottinger looks back on the project
Great news for all Halo Wars fans and Ensemble-lites, Halo Wars the best selling real time strategy game on any current generation console has been awarded best strategy game in the G4TV gamers choice awards. Ensemble’s “Halo Wars” won the award ahead of the competition by a “huge margin“! Congratulations Ensemble Studios! You can watch the incredibly short, (and perhaps a poor show) video of the announcement below:
Considering this award now is a great time for Lead Designer Dave Pottinger to talk about looking back on the game discuss lessons learnt. So lets take a delve down these corridors and see what he has to say..
Delve down if you dare..
The first thing Dave looks at is the all important gameplay. If the gameplay isnt right you’ve got a BIG problem. Luckily Ensemble had already started on a console RTS project before working on Halo Wars by using Age of Mythology as a basis for testing out the platform and refining the key controls.
Start with good gameplay you know and then go from there. If you’ve followed Halo Wars, you know that we started the project by making Age of Mythology playable with a gamepad. Once we had that, we knew we had solid basic gameplay to rely on. That was essential.
Halo Wars is a huge project, we’re talking big big IP with lots and lots of fans following the series and many also taking the time to explore the details of the story though novels and other outside of game media. You know you don’t want to mess around with the basics when your working with Halo. Most of all you don’t want to upset this guy:
Had to understand the motivations behind the existing characters in order to create compelling new characters. We needed to realize where the canon was flexible in order to squeeze in the things we needed. And, in a few cases, we decided to go against canon to make a better game/experience (e.g. the Spartan’s shield and sound). I don’t know how we would have made those calls without tons of research, chats with Bungie, etc.
Another key fact was that sex appeal wins. People love cool trailers. People love big explosions. People love Halo Wars trailers without MAC Blast and Scarabs…. not so much. Having cool things to show off in videos like the MAC and Scarab played an important role in drawing people into the game and giving the RTS style a try. Boring marines vs grunts only management wasn’t going to get anywhere.
It an E3 demo or getting dragged into your bud’s living room because “YOU GOTTA SEE THIS”, cool graphics are always sexy
Making use of Microsoft’s army of testers was important. You cant get enough testing.
Console cert processes are a confusing black hole. We finish. We think. The discs get sent off. Time passes. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Sometimes it’s a good answer, sometimes it’s not. We were lucky that the Microsoft Game Studio testers we had were so good; they saved us countless headaches that would have killed us in cert.
The other major thing to get right, is quite importantly, balance. You cant ever stop balance testing, even post release.
Balance is never over. Ever. Well, maybe if the Arch of Time collapses and the continuum implodes. But, then the Lord Foul is probably still pissed about those OP Gremlins.
Dave concludes his blog post looking back at one of the most important reasons that made him proud to work on Halo Wars. The team at Ensemble Studios. Considering the studio knew they were closing 6 months before the game was released, everyone knew they were on borrowed time and that the future post Ensemble could be bleak. I cant imagine how tough it is to work in that environment and keep the quality bar high but the team at Ensemble did. Lets just refer to the news at the top of this post.. best selling and winning best strategy game awards. The team did an exceptional job – as a player you wouldn’t even know the pressures the team was under until the credits.
Passion beats Talent. Team beats Individual. Finishing Halo Wars was the hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally. For so many reasons, the project was just a ton of work to get out the door. Amid uncertain futures, the Ensemble team pulled together in a way that exceeded every possible expectation I had. I’m proud to say I worked on Halo Wars just because of that.
Be sure to check out the full blog on the HaloWars.com website.
Justin Rouse and Duncan Stanley are back again on the HaloWars.com website with top tips for players on maps from the DLC map pack “Historic Battles” available for just 800 points on Xbox Live. This time one of my favourite maps in the game, Blood River gets detailed.
With starting positions placed in opposite corners, up on a hills, and a river with only 2 crossings above it, even the inexperienced player can feel relatively safe at the onset of a Blood River match. Then there’s the look, we chose this map to be set inside of the Forerunner shield world simply because we didn’t have one in that location yet. We always intended to make sure players of all game sizes (1v1, 2v2, 3v3) have a chance/choice to play on all our worlds.
Says Justin Rouse, map designer at Robot Entertainment. Community Manager, Duncan Stanley continues with some professional gameplay advice:
If you can hold the middle and keep pressure on your opponent, you can spend some time building armor or flying units which can really turn the tide of a battle, especially against UNSC. If they build a flame thrower army to counter your infantry, some flying units can really tear them up.
Given how small the map is, it’s very risky to try to boom on this map, map control early on is much more important than going for late game heroics with super units.
So beware of the rushers in competitive play! Get the full scoop over on http://www.halowars.com/GameInfo/maps/BloodRiver.aspx
In other news we have Brad Crow, an art bot from Robot Entertainments pods with his entry into the Clash of the Titans with Perseus confronting the Kraken:
Looking awesome as always from our favourite Art Bots. Be sure to leave a comment and check out the full blog post on the Robot website!
Its been a busy week so apologies to readers for the lateness of updates here at Remember Ensemble Studios. Good news is though if you haven’t already been on the Halo Wars and Robot Entertainment websites youve been missing out on some juicy blogs and art. Kicking it off we have Robot and Ex Ensemble designer David Leary talking about playtesting which Ensemble was quite famous for in its development cycle. As always theres some cool pictures of the old Ensemble office in comparison to the new Robot play testing labs.
One of the Ensemble playtest rooms on the 16th floor
The new Robot Entertainment play test room
David Leary’s blog post is an informative look into just how Ensemble executed its much talked about play testing and is a good read over on the HaloWars.com website. Or here’s a little snipped of the action:
“Managing a Halo Wars playtest session was a lot like herding cats. Some of the playtests were scheduled, but late in the project, a lot of sessions would get called on an as-needed basis. I’d page for testers over the intercom, but since everyone had other responsibilities, I’d often only get four or five people on the first call. Usually a second page would fill the rest of the seats. If that didn’t work, I’d start walking around the office – it was hard for my co-workers to turn down a personal request, especially if I groveled.”
Mean while over in Art Bot corner the Clash of the Titans is continuing with two entries from grand artists Won Choi and Bart Tiongson. First up we have Won’s Poseidon and Perseus almost painting look a like art below:
Bart Tiongson is next with his take on Medusa:
She’s looking much more “chilled” than she was in Chris Moffit’s scary picture!
If this outstanding series of art is anything to go by we can expect grand things from Robot Entertainment’s currently un announced game. But will it be mythology.. or something else all together?!?
Ed Fries has recently been involved in a “looking back” interview with Gamasutra. The ex Microsoft Game Studios executive was responsible for starting the Microsoft Games division and controlled it right up until the launch of the Xbox 360. Ed Fries is significant as he lead the acquisition of Ensemble Studios after the Age of Empires series proved to be a big profitable hit for the new division.
By then, we were up to maybe 5 or 600 people… and some weeks we would be the leading PC publisher in the country. We weren’t as big as Electronic Arts in general at the time, but we were getting there.”
It has become clear that it was only after the acquisition of Ensemble Studios that Microsoft was able to reap the rewards of the games division. The success of Ensemble games lead to Microsoft increasing investment in the games division enabling them to start looking at home consoles and acquiring more studios such as Bungie, Lionhead and Rare.
That, says Fries, is when “these crazy guys walked into my office and told me they had this idea to get Microsoft into the console business. They were from the DirectX team, and they wanted to make this thing called the ‘Direct X-Box.”
Direct X-Box, of course, was truncated to ‘Xbox,’ — and “marketing hated the name,” says Fries. “They went off and created this whole, long list of better names for the machine.”
In focus testing, the marketing team left the name ‘Xbox’ on that long list simply as a control, to demonstrate to everyone why it was a horrible name for a console. “Of course, ‘Xbox’ outscored, in focus testing, everything they came up with. They had to admit it was going to be the Xbox.”
The Xbox was greenlit by Microsoft upper brass, giving Fries and his team less than two years to pull together the first-party launch lineup. “We were lucky to team up with people like Bizarre Creations to create Project Gotham Racing… and Bungie, we did the acquisition at that time.”
In 2004 Ed Fries left Microsoft Game Studios at the 360′s launch having developed the division from scratch for some 18 years. With the departure of Ed Fries the division was shaked up with alot of new management being brought in for the division. Bruce Shelley of Ensemble Studios frequently suggested that relationships with these new execs was not as good as those under the old leadership.
The Gamasutra interview provides good insight to what Microsoft and Ed Fries wanted Microsoft Game Studios to be, before and after Ensemble Studios and other studios were acquired.
Justin Rouse and Duncan Stanley are here again to talk about the 2v2 Halo Wars DLC map Memorial Basin.
Memorial Basin, the map based on a design of “excess”. The goal, instant action. First, the close proximity of players starting locations is the number one driving force causing players to mix it up with each other early. Second, hooks! There is an abundance of them littered all over the map. There are Reactor hooks tucked safely behind each team’s starting location, while Supply Elevators and extra Building sockets line the sides of the map between enemies. Cover locations scattered throughout the middle are good for mixing things up defensively or offensively.
Says Justin Rouse skirmish map designer at Robot Entertainment. Community Manager, Duncan Stanley continues with:
Memorial Basin is a great DLC map, a real change up from other maps in terms of strategy. Both teams are directly across from each other, making it really easy to hit and run. The open bases are great to grab early and get it going. I usually try to make my second base my economic base and my first base my unit producing base. All of the extra hooks lying around the map are also great to grab giving you a good bonus, and denyng your opponents any advantage.
You can experience Memorial Basin and three other brand new maps in the Halo Wars DLC “Historic Battles” for just 800 points available today on Xbox Live!
For the full blog post head over to HaloWars.com :
Wait dont leave! I know thats a scary looking image but its nothing to worry about! Medusa hasnt escaped from Age of Mythology either. This is infact and outstanding art piece from Robot Entertainment’s Chris Moffitt as part of the Clash of the Robots theme “Clash of the Titans”. Its amazing how the above came to light from starting out like this:
It goes to show just how talented the ex Ensemble artists are at Robot Entertainment and we look forward to seeing more excellent pieces from the Art Bot team! Be sure to check out the blog over here! :
Gamasutra has lifted the lid on a classic interview with Ex Ensemble graphics engine programmer Matt Pritchard. Matt joined Ensemble in the early days of Age of Empires development, so early that the game was called “Dawn of Man” before being renamed “Age of Empires” later on. The archived interview is an excellent read for Ensemble and Age of Empires fans. Reading the article you should recognise many names including Tim “timotron” Deen who has worked at Ensemble since Age 1 right up until Halo Wars and the studio disbandment. Tim Deen is now working at Robot Entertainment. Matt Pritchard went on after Age of Mythology to work on BlackSite: Area 51.
The interview talks about some of the choices made at Ensemble about the games design, multiplayer and testing along with details about how the game was programmed. Matt’s primary role was developing the “Genie” graphics engine which powered Age of Empires 1 and 2. Matt’s efforts with the engine managed to increase the initial framerate of 7-14FPS right up to 55FPS. The remainder of the interview discusses things that went well such as the games database driven design, staying in close contact with the publisher (Microsoft) and how Ensemble’s management truly respected its employees. Many of the good points that Matt talked about in the article remained true right up until the end of the studio including the database driven design and employee morale, maybe not so much the publisher relations aspect, though.
Of course a large scale game development like Age of Empires comes with its bugs and these are also talked about in the article. A late beta test, lack of multi player testing on residential modems and not planning for a patch rank highly. In the original release of the game some players found online play unsustainable due to lag time and drop outs over slow 56k modem speeds. Due to the whizzy and fast equipment at Ensemble Studios the testing which took place internally did not necessarily reflect the speeds players would get on the outside. Luckily the good communication with management at Ensemble and Microsoft allowed for the creation of the 1.0a patch which duly rectified most of the multiplayer issues.
Alongside a retro article comes a retro picture of Ensemble Studios staff in 1997. See if you can spot some familiar faces in the picture below:
Looks like Christmas!
I encourage all fans to have a read of the Gamasutra article below, delving into some history of the studios early days. Ensemble Studios is sorely missed.
Nate Stefan, artist at Robot Entertainment has added his entry into the Art Bot Clash of the Robots. Hot on the heels of Dave Kubalak, Nate takes a more comic book approach with his very Age of Mythology looking entry below:
Your comments are very welcome in the Art Bot blogs over on the Robot Entertainment website. I encourage you to leave a comment with what you think! Plus check out the blogs to read about the stages Nate went through when designing this art piece
Stand by for more entries in Clash of the Robots (Titans)!
In another action packed week of Robot blogs we now have more information detailed about a Halo Wars DLC map, the 1v1 Barrens.
Barrens has some interesting gameplay for any leader but Forge is my favorite option. The layout and hooks play into Forge’s strengths exceptionally well. Barrens forces you to leave you expansions more secluded from each other than normal, early game this can allow a Forge player to gain a bit more advantage from his boosted supply pads while other players have to spend their early game resources upgrading pads if they don’t want to risk the far away expansion
Barrens is an excellent DLC level and if you haven’t yet had a chance to pick up the Halo Wars DLC I encourage you to do so! DLC gets you four maps for just 800 Microsoft Points. Be sure to check out some of the other map information pages to sharpen your strategies on the Halo Wars map page.
In other news Lead of Art Bot Central David Kubalak is back to reveal details on “Clash of the Robots”. This is where a theme will be picked and each of the Robot artists will be posting art on the chosen theme over the period of about a month. Hopefully at the end of each theme there will be a poll or vote for us to select the best submission. Dave kicks off the first theme “Clash of the Titans” with his cartoony model “Perseus” below:
Check out the full blog on Art Bot central for the full details and be sure to leave a comment!
Ever wondered how Robot programmers start the day, or boot up in the mornings? Well Rob “Xemu” Fermier the Lead Programmer for Robot’s next IP details the morning start in depth. As the morning begins and charged over night Robot’s make their way to the pods for work they first gather round and exchange communication in the form of Morning Syncing. This is a 15 minute process where programmers talk to each other about what they did yesterday and what they are going to do today. Keeping in sync so that everyone knows whats happening. It sounds like a great idea as it enables programmers with particular talent areas to focus in on what they are good at and ensuring no overlapping of jobs. As this syncing happens every single morning its important to have some ground rules. Lead Programmer Rob Fermier details these below:
- Short: Each person has to be short and to the point, and the whole thing usually takes 10 to 15 minutes. It’s never allowed to go over 15 minutes, period. Discussions that crop up as a result of the morning sync are usually resolved in ad hoc meetings immediately afterwards.
- Easy: We sync right in the same pod where we are working, so there’s very little organization required. Everyone has a good sense of what they are doing and never has to “prepare” anything. One advantage of a daily meeting is that it can be pretty casual and folks fall into a routine with it easily.
- Reliable: The sync always starts on time, regardless of who is there. People can plan on it and it doesn’t drag on by starting late or hanging around.
- Open: Anyone is welcome to listen in on the sync meetings. But they don’t talk, since the meeting is focused on the people doing the work. By having them out in a common space, it promotes the idea that we want to share information to anyone who wants it.
Programmers engaged in the morning sync
Read more in the full blog: Robot Coders.