Halo Wars: Spartans in a Strategy Game

Published Tuesday, September 02, 2008 5:40 PM by SOLUS

Admit it. You love being Master Chief.

What’s not to love? You get this swank, indestructo suit of armor. Sure, it may chafe a smidge here and there, but it sure is shiny.

Then there are those catchy little taglines. Who hasn’t found an extremely inopportune moment to say “I need a weapon” in a husky man growl? All members of the opposite sex surely scattered to the four winds at that point, but you felt *** cool.

And, to top it off, you jaunt around and save the galaxy’s collective ass on more than one occasion. Spartan work is definitely good work if you can get it. Assuming you aren’t horribly maimed or disemboweled by the training…

Yet, how is that relevant for Halo Wars? We’ve already disclosed that Master Chief isn’t even in Halo Wars. Halo Wars is set 20 years before the events Halo: Combat Evolved FTLOG! Heck, at this point in the Halo Timeline, Master Chief is probably off leveling up in WOW XXIII or sniping pigeons in New Liberty City.

Funny geek jokes aside, Master Chief lords over Halo Wars even though he’s not in the game. His eyes, his character have provided the only perspective players have ever had on the Halo Universe. There’s no way anyone can ponder doing a Halo game without thinking about how Master Chief has skewed the perception for approximately 14.9 bajillion players.

People expect Spartans to kick serious ass. The Halo FPS games have trained folks to believe Spartans are uber. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it does create some issues when you think about a strategy game setting.

Typically, strategy games feature a rock/paper/scissors relationship system (“RPS” for those hardcore strategy game fans) of some form between the types of units in the game. No matter what type of units I choose to create, there’s always at least one way to do something to counteract my strategy and turn the tables. The best strategy games have really good balance between the units and winning is a blend of dexterous skill (how I use my units) and intelligent strategies (which units I bring to the fight).

Halo Wars is no different. We have a pretty clear punch/counter-punch game play at work. We want a lot of back and forth in the game. No one wants a strategy game where there’s a single big battle. Well, we don’t at least. We want a lot of smaller skirmishes that lead into big battles that lead into huge wars that eventually end in the eradication of all known life for one team. In 15 to 20 minutes.

Earlier on, I mentioned that people have expectations about Spartans being excellent units. Implicit in that statement is the simpler expectation of players just wanting Spartans in the game in the first place (note the plural there; we’ll come back to that). Turning that expectation into a reality is part of what will make Halo Wars great.

That goal has actually made the problem a bit harder, though. Not only do we have to deliver on the actual quality of Spartans in combat, but we’ve got to make them show up quite a bit. Fans familiar with strategy games can probably recognize the issue with giving players access to uber units early on in the game. They’ll wreak havoc on the fun/pace of the campaign and be a total screw in multiplayer skirmishes.

The traditional balance tack of reducing the combat quality of the unit in the early phases of the game doesn’t work because then it’s not a Spartan that meets player expectations. No one wants to see their Spartans wasted in the first 5 seconds of a firefight. Yet, if we move the Spartan to the end of the game where he can be uber, then we risk him not showing up in enough games. It’s not really a Halo game if you hardly ever see Spartans.

So, what have we done?

(Editor Note: Dave is actually not invisible in this picture.  He is lurking behind the camera person, ready to strike.  The editor also likes Full Metal Jacket.)

Multiple Spartans. Earlier on, we talked about Halo Wars being a prequel to the previous Halo games. If you’re a fan, you know this means that multiple Spartans were alive and kicking in our timeframe. That’s a huge advantage for us. Fictionally, we can tell a story with multiple Spartans now, something gamers haven’t had a chance to experience yet. Design-wise, we can actually use this to help address the quality expectations people have. Individually, our Spartans are very good. But, together they’re great. If you want that “Spartans kick ass” vibe, you can get it as long as you train a few Spartans.

No More Nerfing. It’s really easy to work on a strategy game and balance everything by reducing the stats of too-popular units until people begin to use other units. The problem is that nerfing makes for boring games. No one wants units that only do a bit of damage. They sure don’t want Spartans to just plink away at Wraith tanks forever. They want their Spartans to beat the living hell out of those evil mothers on the other side and tear them to pieces. So, for all the whining I’ve done about the potential for overly strong units, we actually just decided to embrace that for Halo Wars. Every unit is a screw Spartans can deal massive damage and, left unchecked, tear through an army really quickly. But, with the right counter units and focus from a player, Spartans can be killed in some spectacularly gratifying ways.

Jacking. So, a band of Spartans can belt out some mega damage. That’s cool, but if you’ve followed Halo Wars at all, you know that we’ve got a system where each unit gets a special ability. That’s another golden chance for us to live up to the Halo lore and get Spartans to stand out more as fun units. Simply put, we decided early on to ensure that the Spartans had the coolest unit ability of them all.

But which ability? We could have gone the whole upgradeable hero route with the ability and let it get better over time. But, that didn’t really feel “Halo” nor was it a simple fit for the quicker, more adrenaline-soaked game play we wanted. We needed something more visceral and immediate. Looking at the “in the moment” choices that happened during combat, we came up with two obvious ideas: picking up enemy weapons and vehicle jacking. Those both felt really Halo to us and were certainly something players would expect to be able to do.

We seriously thought about both and even did a little test work before making our decision. In the end, the weapon thing never really got past the “What’s that tiny little thing on the TV over there?” problem. We didn’t want to overdo the cheese factor by having Manga-sized weapons bouncing up and down on the screen, so that meant you just couldn’t see the weapons once they dropped. Plus, while the eventual act of wielding a Fuel Rod Cannon is very impressive, the act of picking one up doesn’t make anyone say “Holy Crap!  Did you see that?” It just wasn’t exciting enough.

Cue up the Jacking. There was never any doubt that it was cool, but it took a long time to get right and really become the “money shot” we needed it to be. Sadly, any Halo Wars team member can probably relate “fond” memories of the countless times I’ve pantomimed the whole Spartan Jacking sequence in front of the team in our theater to help communicate what I wanted it to be. I even got excited enough to start doing sound effects a few times. I hope there aren’t any pictures of that anywhere…

Anyhow, I’m actually very, very happy with how the Spartan jacking turned out. Seeing a Spartan jack a Wraith or Locust is kinda like the first time we showed off the Age of Mythology and had a Cyclops pick up an unlucky spearman and huck him across the screen. You don’t have to say anything; that little moment is a perfect demo of why the game is cool all by itself.

Jacking a vehicle is as easy as selecting a Spartan and tapping Y on top of that Wraith. We definitely exaggerate the running and jumping animations of the jacking maneuver to make it larger than life. Strategy games do need to exaggerate key actions to make sure they “read” as more important than the general battle action when you’ve got a ton of troops that you’re looking down over... Your Spartan might even do a back flip en route to his perch atop the tank. Anyone who’s watched a fragged Spartan go flying off into the abyss with his arms flailing away will feel right at home watching the jack sequences.

Back to the details… Once atop the enemy vehicle, a bevy of heavy Spartan punches beats the living crap out of the Wraith. The hatch is eventually chucked out of the way followed closely by the former tank occupant. The Spartan jumps in the seat and now the Wraith is yours. Throw in some amped up effects and sounds and this sequence becomes a showpiece for the entire game. Jack a few vehicles at the same time with multiple Spartans and people will grab their buddies and literally drag them over to see it again (if the E3 reception is any indication).

But looking cool and achieving that “Whoa” factor isn’t really enough. We needed to make Spartan Jacking matter from a game play standpoint for folks to really want to do it a lot. In Halo Wars, each unit has a Level. This is the simple sum of his upgrades (technologies that you can spend resources on to improve a unit) and his veterancy (combat bonuses that are layered onto units that survive a lot of battles). The higher your level, the larger your swagger on the battlefield. When a Spartan is inside a vehicle, he adds his level to that vehicle’s level. So, that Level 4 Wraith tank can suddenly become a Level 10 Wraith tank, something that’s well beyond what a normal Wraith can achieve.

Now, we’ve got something that looks badass but also is badass from a game play standpoint. Spartans have become a true ‘kingmaker’ unit, which gives them an interesting, unique role inside Halo Wars. Spartans and Spartan-manned vehicles are something every UNSC player wants in his army because they strike some serious fear into the opponents. The fact that some of those vehicles might also be originally built by the enemy is just icing on the proverbial cake.

Oh, and in case it’s not obvious, Spartans can commandeer your own vehicles, too. This makes them useful in more ways, which is great. Plus, who hasn’t ejected some lowly, faceless UNSC goob from a Warthog driver’s seat? So, when Halo Wars ships, watch out for the Level 14 Spartan-controlled Grizzly tanks. They’re pretty darn good.

So, kudos if you’ve waded through this whole thing to make it this far. Hopefully it’s been useful or at least mildly bemusing. I’m sure you’ll let us know what you think in the forums.

Dave Pottinger
Lead Designer, Halo Wars