Insider Q&A: Halo Spartan Assault’s Dan Ayoub
How can Microsoft combat the overwhelming dominance of iOS and Android devices already on the market?
Launching its biggest video game franchise as an exclusive to Windows 8 machines is a sweet first shot as Halo: Spartan Assault stormed the digital marketplace last month, and this week, already adds five new missions, not to mention Xbox 360 controller support, for gamers looking to take their fight against the Covenant mobile.
Inside Mobile Apps caught up with Dan Ayoub, Halo’s executive producer, to get the story behind Spartan Assault, the advantages of Windows exclusivity, and how he hopes the game’s striking style will bring even more developers to the platform.
Inside Mobile Apps: What was the internal thought process behind bringing Halo to mobile? Was there any internal debate about whether or not it should even be done?
Dan Ayoub: It was actually a pretty interesting process. We had thought about it for a while, as I’m sure many franchises have, and it was an idea we’d been kicking around for quite a long time, but the goal at a high level was, how do we take the experience so you don’t have to be sitting in your living room in front of your big TV, and what’s the right experience to offer. We didn’t just want to port that first person experience over to mobile and tablet. That’s just traditionally not a great experience. We wanted to capture that soul — something that still looks like Halo, still sounds like Halo, and still feels like Halo — but it had to be the right game for the screens we were talking about. So once we decided to pull the trigger, we started looking at what the right experience would be — what these screens were good at, how people engage with them — and then we just went from there.
IMA: Were there member from the Halo design team that didn’t want to see the franchise on mobile, or was everybody down for the challenge?
DA: The entirety of the team on the 343 side who worked on this, we were all console developers for a long period of time, so there was definitely that curiosity because you’re seeing more and more mobile and tablet games. We’ve all seen them, we’ve all played them, but none of us had ever made one before, so there was definitely that curiosity of, ‘Hey, this is something we’ve never done before. This is going to be a really, really fun challenge.’ That’s what got people excited. When it was finally locked that this is what we were doing, the team was really excited because game developers love hard problems they haven’t solved before and this definitely fit this bill.
IMA Were there any challenges about bringing Halo to mobile that you didn’t anticipate before starting work on the design?
DA: I think back to when I started making games, and this was back in the PC days a million years ago where you didn’t have too much memory or graphical power at your disposal, so you had to really lock on what you wanted that game experience to be really quickly, and you had to make trade-offs essentially, just to get to that core fun as quickly as possible. That’s the challenge we were anticipating and that was rather fun as well. But I think the one that surprised us the most was the controls. The touch controls that we did for the tablet and the phone version, we’ve gotten some great responses and people really like it, but man, was that difficult to pull off. We easily went through 12 to 15 different control configurations that we just threw out because they just didn’t work. Some of that was us, some of that was focus testing where we’d think we finally had something and nailed it, but then the focus test would completely hate it. It was really a touchy experience for us, no pun intended. [laughs]
IMA: How has the reaction been from the hardcore Halo fans? I know I heard a lot of gripes when the game was announced for mobile, but has there been a change in opinion now that they’ve actually had the chance to play the game?
DA: Yeah, and actually, the change in reaction has been great. I can completely understand people’s concerns, but when you go to events like E3 and Gamescom, you get the chance to interact with people directly, which is awesome, and the biggest thing I heard was, ‘Oh man, I was convinced you were going to bring this out as a first-person shooter and those aren’t good on mobile.’ So people were glad that we went out and built a Halo experience that worked for the platforms. The other big question was, ‘Why can’t I play with my 360 controller?’ This week, we have good news for those people as you’ll be able to use your controller.
We definitely designed the game from the ground up with touch, and of course, you could also use your mouse and keyboard as we realized, sure, there’s Surface and mobile, but the game is playable on anything with Windows 8. So if you have Windows 8 on your PC, we wanted you to be able to play the game with a mouse and keyboard. As for the controller, we started playing with the controller the closer we got to launch, and we just really enjoyed the twin stick feel, but we wanted to make sure we got those controls just right. We just didn’t have time to perfect those controls and still get the game out when we wanted to, but it still fits nicely into our longer-term strategy. I say all the time that Spartan Assault’s launch date was our starting line, not our finish, which is evidenced this week with some new content and controller support. Now people can go back and try to play the game a different way, and it really feels great with the controller. I think people are really going to enjoy it.
IMA: For Halo fans who follow the series but haven’t picked up the mobile version yet, what’s the storyline Spartan Assault follows?
DA: I said early I wanted the game to feel like Halo and play like Halo, and Halo has always had a fun story and cinematics. We wanted to make sure that we made this a true Halo experience, so we have some great cinematics in there. And we’re actually telling a pretty compelling story as players take over the role of Sarah Palmer as she’s reliving … actually it’s taking place on a simulator, but essentially she’s reliving her first mission as a Spartan. Players get to take control of her and take over that experience. It’s a brand new way to play Halo, but we’re still telling an awesome story and we tie it in to the Halo 4 experience. Whatever we do, we want the universe to feel connected, and this is no exception.
IMA: Do the new missions releasing this week pickup more of Sarah’s story, or do you play as a different character? Will we see other character missions in the future?
DA: The five additional missions finish off that mission of hers, but what’s really fun about the way we setup Spartan Assault from a fiction standpoint is, it’s really easy to add more missions and more content. Like I said, we saw the launch as a starting off point, and the team and I are already grinding on a bunch of other ideas. This is a long game for us, and we want to continue to support it, so people should expect to see some more cool things from us down the line.
IMA: What do you think of the game being exclusive to Windows devices as opposed to opening it up to iOS and Android users?
DA: Yeah, you know a lot of people have asked me that question. [laughs] I can certainly understand people’s thoughts on that, but what we wanted to do was, when you look back at the life of the Xbox as a console — Halo has always been a big part about defining the platform and showcasing the features — and we wanted to do the same thing on these Windows devices. We wanted to build something from the ground up that was going to showcase those devices and really just be laser focused on that rather than worrying about trying to fit something across a bunch of different devices. And the results have been great. The game looks amazing on the Surface, and on the phone, people are blown away that they are getting a game this good looking. We wanted to set a really high bar for mobile gaming. I’ve said a few times that people associate mobile gaming with limitations, and we just wanted to prove that it doesn’t have to be like that anymore. You can have a AAA mobile experience off of your console, and that’s what we set out to do with this.
IMA: Is it also a way for Microsoft to show other developers what can be accomplished on the Surface and Windows phones that maybe you can’t accomplish on other platforms?
DA: I think that is a part of it. If you look at the hardware we had to work with, the tools we had to work with, we could really do things that we just couldn’t do elsewhere. We not only wanted to set the bar high, we’re inviting people to come and knock it over. This is just the start. The tools are great, and just like any platform, the more you get to know it better, you learn to take more and more advantage of it. I think this is a great launching point. Developers can do some amazing things on the platform.