The Birth of a Halo Wars Mission

Published Tuesday, June 30, 2009 3:48 PM by Aloysius

In a lot of ways the missions in a game are very important. For a lot of players they are the first part of the game they see, and for some the only thing. When we learned that we had gotten the go-ahead to use the Halo Universe for our game, the pressure was on to do something great.

The first thing we do when we start a new campaign is to do some research. Instead of hitting the history books like in our Age of Empires games, we grabbed anything we could from Halo and absorbed it. We read books, played through the games, and talked with Bungie to make sense of any questions that arose. I personally spent a few days doing nothing but playing the Halo campaigns in the office to refresh my memory and get some inspiration. This helped more than I even hoped… people would stop by my office to watch me play and learned some things they may have forgotten about the games – or to yell at me to turn it down!

The content designers got together and brainstormed. At this point the story was still in the works, so we threw out crazy ‘what-if-we-could-do-anything’ ideas. For example, I really wanted to do a mission where two Scarabs were destroying a city, and the player’s job was to stop them before a certain number of buildings were destroyed. That ended up on the cutting room floor with a bunch of other cool stuff, but the process gave us a lot of good gaming fodder - we ended up morphing that idea into the Super-Scarab in mission 07. So, once the story started becoming more concrete we found places to use those ideas.

Unfinished Super Scarab in Mission 7

The missions don’t live alone though, they have to work well within the campaign as a whole. Through a series of designer meetings we made an outline of all the missions for the whole game. We decided how many there will be, what the story is for each, and hashed out the gameplay. We also went through the Ensemble tradition of “the scenario auction.” We list all the missions on a whiteboard and “barter” over them. The idea here is that the designer who has the most interest in any particular mission will fight for it the most and will end up doing a better job in the end – basically “do what you love”. We looked at the missions on the board and made sure we had a good mix of gameplay without being repetitive.

Once the mission ideas are set and assigned to designers, it’s time to start production. The designers go off and write what we call “Tear Sheets”, which are quick and dirty summaries of the gameplay with the art and sound requests for the mission. These get reviewed for sanity, then we make drawings and quickly sculpted versions of the missions in our editor.

A "Tear Sheet" and a quick editor mockup.

Usually the missions are the last things to get “done” in our game. They are mocked up, triggered, and tested, even in this very preliminary stage, by select people that can handle the hacked-in nature of them. We got here very early and had to wait for the rest of the game to catch up, not to mention dealing with any rewrites or game design changes that derailed our mission designs. I used to joke that being a scenario designer is like being on a submariner’s schedule - 6 months of not much to do then 6 months of bone-numbing work in the last months of the project, when the pressure is on to polish up the missions to their final state and ship them.

The mission designers also affected the game’s story during this time. The story was written by the lead story designer, but the mission designers are the ones that have to make it feel real when you play the game, so they requested changes to make the playable part of the story seam up to the cinematic part. In this case, we had the benefit of working with Blur on the game’s awesome videos so we got to use their stuff for inspiration as well. For example, the Spirit of Fire’s hull was used in missions 11 and 12, which Blur had a big part in designing – we actually requested the upper deck of the ship be redone so Marines and Spartans could walk on it. Blur did this on the high resolution model for the ship, and our artists matched it in our missions.

Spirit of Fire Model in Mission 11 and 12

In previous games, the designers had to do a lot of the texture painting and beautification in the missions, but for Halo Wars we decided it was time to let the artists loose on the missions, and the results were awesome. First they did concept paintings based on our designs, then once we had tested the missions to a point where we knew they were not changing, we handed them over to the artists.

An artist's mockup of mission 15.

Concept art for the Relic object in mission 03.

Now we’re in the home stretch. And that means “test, test, test, and test some more.” Although we don’t change the missions drastically during this step, we do thousands of little tweaks based on feedback. We run round the clock playtest sessions and beat on the missions, finding every possible way we can find to break them and ways to make them more fun. It’s a cool time as a designer because you baby is starting to walk here. The art, programming, and design all [hopefully] come together into a fun, interesting, and memorable experience for our customers.

I, and all the other designers on Halo Wars, hope that you really enjoyed them.

Joe Gillum, Designer