Lessons Learned

Published Tuesday, August 25, 2009 1:25 PM by Aloysius

Lessons Learned. Those two words usually strike fear into the hearts of many steely-eyed game developers. Synonymous with the dreaded ‘Post Mortem’, many regard those exercises as a feel-good-love-in-trip-fests-of-hate-and-venom.

Post Mortems feel right, though. We’re supposed to look back on what we’ve done and talk about how it can be better, right? Unfortunately, we never feel good at the end of a project. We’re tired. We’re angry about some feature that had to get cut. There’s no regular Red Bull left in the fridge, only that Sugar Free crap. It’s hell! We’re in no mood to think logically or be constructive.

And what comes out of Post Mortems? That’s right. Lessons learned. Thus, by crafty logic, any so-called learned lessons are similarly indictable offenses. What chance do we have to get any decent feedback on improvements when all we want to do is drink until we throw up in the corner of our favorite German beer establishment? Or sleep. Take your pick.

Final Bier Garten Day

Despite all my blustering, three guesses as to what we did after Halo Wars finished. You’ll only need one if you’ve been paying attention. Yup, we did a post mortem! Hell, we even did a two-fer. One on Halo Wars, one on Ensemble. Fun incarnate, I tell ya.

I hope someone has read those post mortems because I haven’t. Instead, I’ve been trying to focus on what we’ve been dealing with on Halo Wars over the last 6 months. Where has our patch time gone? What are the fans saying? What cut feature do I really miss? THAT’S THE STUFF TO REMEMBER. That’s the stuff to focus on first, in my opinion.

So, without further ado, here’s a rambling list of the things that have been grafted into my brain regarding Halo Wars.

1. Good gameplay can work on any platform. If something is fun on one platform, it stands a really good chance of being fun on another platform. Sure, you’ll spend a lot of time finding the perfect control scheme and making endless tweaks to the game. But, good gameplay is good gameplay. 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.

2. Halo is HUGE. It’s hard to understate or underestimate this. Everyone knows Halo. Admittedly, not nearly as many know the difference between Halo and Halo Wars, but that’s beside the point. It was a surreal, humbling experience working on something associated with Halo.

The Chief never reminding us what was up on the way in to playtest.

3. If you’re going to work on someone else’s IP, you have to immerse yourself in it beyond just being a ‘fan’. This sounds kind of obvious when you read it, but it took us a while to figure it out. Most of us were pretty hardcore Halo fans, but that wasn’t enough. We 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.

4. Sex appeal still wins. Be it an E3 demo or getting dragged into your bud’s living room because “YOU GOTTA SEE THIS”, cool graphics are always sexy. Doubly so because it’s a console game. Triply so because it’s a Halo game. While there are healthy debates about the relative balance aspects, no one forgets seeing the Arbiter ride a smashed Hornet into a cliff or MAC’ing that enemy Scarab. People crave memorable game moments; graphics are a critical tool in that proverbial box.

5. 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 banner still flies high.

6. 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.

7. 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.

We tried to avoid this.

Well, there you go. Those are the big ticket items I’m going to remember from Halo Wars. I suppose you can call them Lessons Learned if you really want to. :)

Dave Pottinger
Lead Designer on Halo Wars