Halo Wars Lead Designer Says Interface Key to Sequel Success

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Many fans were incredibly excited with Microsoft’s announcement of Halo Wars 2 for Xbox One and Windows 10. Perhaps none moreso, though, than Graeme Devine, the lead designer for the original game.

“I was screaming out loud during the teaser I was so elated,” said Devine, who now is head of indie studio Grl Games. “Wherever I have gone since Halo Wars came out I’ve always had the question asked ‘When is Halo Wars 2 being announced?’ It’s been too long since we left the crew of Spirit of Fire alone and not quite home. I’ve always been very sad I never got to bring them home and it was honestly a little bit bittersweet to see someone else take the helm, but it’s awesome to see that it’s being made and I can’t wait to play.”

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The original Halo Wars was a groundbreaking real-time strategy game for the console and an exclusive for the Xbox 360 from Ensemble Studios in 2009. Devine said that he thinks the game has withstood the test of time quite well.

“I’ve not actually played anything since Halo Wars on a console in the RTS genre that came close to it,” he said. “Every game breaks what we called ‘the rule of eight’ or ‘Graeme’s fracking rule,’ which was the control menu scheme we implemented. It’s so tempting to add the options in there, more units, but that limit meant we had to think and make tough choices to get the balance right.”

Unfortunately for the Ensemble team that worked on the game, Microsoft shut the studio down almost immediately after the game was released, leaving any updates up in the air, and any chance of a sequel even more tenuous.

“Robot Entertainment did make some updates and a few maps,” Devine said. “We always wanted a better Flood playable option to be in there, or at least better Flood maps, a campaign centered around them would have been awesome.”

He said the studio even had the groundwork laid for the sequel. “We did actually start to write the script for Halo Wars 2 (Devine was also lead writer). The Spirit of Fire ends up at a Forerunner station that Professor Anders had been tracking for over a year – she woke herself up 30 seconds after Cutter entered stasis. The early story of the Forerunners needs to be told, it’s not all about war, it’s as much politics as combat, and the RTS genre could have found new ground here I thought.”

When the game was released, it received generally good scores and gathered a rather passionate following, something that was not lost on Devine afterward. He said that the team’s passion for the universe and attention to detail were a big reason for that.

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“I worked really hard on making it feel like Halo,” he said. “We wore Spirit of Fire crew shirts, we argued over balance, we thought about the emotional story people would tell the next day, we thought about tourism on Arcadia, why our Warthogs were a little bit different, how the Spirit of Fire moved from being a colony ship to a war ship, and all of that showed in every pixel, every bullet, every explosion, and every ‘all units’.”

As for RTS advancement on the Xbox One and Windows 10, he said the platform is making some positive first steps. “I think we are seeing a confident game platform grow and step out into the sunshine yelling, ‘Yeah, I’m Windows and I PLAY GAMES!’ which it’s run away from for a while. It’s okay Windows, we all play games. In terms of what they can do for the genre, I hope they continue to embrace the indie and open up some of the Xbox Live APIs to indie game developers. It needs to embrace a world that plays games and not just the hardcore gamers because we are now a world of gamers and that’s awesome.”

Devine said that the sequel is in good hands with Creative Assembly, creators of the Total War RTS series. But he has one word of advice for them.

“Interface, interface, interface,” he said. “But Creative Assembly knows their stuff, they will be awesome. Invite me over to play. After watching the teaser, I’m wondering what the heck messed up the team so bad.”

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