Microsoft’s Halo fans got a pleasant surprise when the company announced last week that it would make its Windows Phone 8 game, Halo: Spartan Assault, available as a downloadable title on the Xbox One video game console on Dec. 24. That means you’ll be able to get your Halo fix for the holidays.
The game is a remake of the tablet and PC version, which came out in the summer. but it has an interesting new co-op mode where two players can team up over Xbox Live against hordes of The Flood, the popcorn-like vermin race that Halo fans just love to massacre. The Flood typically come at you from all directions and keep on doing that until you run out of ammo. The game also has a single-player campaign story set between the events of Halo 3 and Halo 4. In the war with the Covenant, the game features the first missions of the Spartan Ops program and the rise of commander Sarah Palmer.
The game costs $14.99 for a digital download, but if you bought the earlier Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 version of the game already, you can get the Xbox One version of the game for $4.99. Halo: Spartan Assault for the Xbox 360 is coming in January.
We caught up with Mike Ellis, lead designer of Halo: Spartan Assault at Microsoft’s 343 Industries game studio, in a recent interview. He tells us the 30 missions in the game are going to look beautiful and run natively at 1080p and 60 frames per second on the Xbox One. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Can you describe what you’re doing differently with the Xbox One version of Halo: Spartan Assault?
Mike Ellis: When we did the original game, it had 25 campaign missions split up into chapters. We then bolstered that with an additional five missions in the Operation Hydra pack. What we’ve done for the console versions of the game, we’ve packaged that up, so you have a 30-mission campaign, and then we’ve created five new cooperative missions for two players over Xbox Live, exclusive to the console version.
For those missions we’ve brought back the old enemy, the Flood, whereas the campaign focuses on the Covenant. Players will fight against the Flood with a host of new weapons, including the BR, the grenade launcher, and for the first time we have the machine pistols. We also have new armor abilities like teleport, or one that allows you to drop a gas cloud that the Flood can’t penetrate. You can use that to protect yourself from being overrun, or even drop it in specific locations on the map to deny them access to particular routes.
We’ve also revised all the medals and achievements, and spent a lot of time configuring the game to make sure it feels native to the new controller. For Xbox One we’ve embedded functionality in the rumble triggers.
GamesBeat: Did you have this planned out a while ago? Or was it the success of the game that led you to do the Xbox One version?
Ellis: Originally the project was meant to be for Windows 8 platforms — phone, tablet, and PC. We were just so happy with the results that we thought the game would translate very well to console, and so we set about converting it over. Obviously the Halo fan base is so large that we want to make sure we’re reaching as many fans as possible, as well as making new fans with this game.
GamesBeat: The earlier versions of the game racked up about a 71 out of 100 on Metacritic (for PC version). Did you absorb some of the criticism there and think about that for the Xbox One game?
Ellis: Definitely. We’re always concerned with making the controls as intuitive and responsive as possible. When we were first thinking about converting the game over to console, we spent time on the controls, making sure they felt good and were going to natively work with the console version, as opposed to the touch controls you saw on the phone or the tablet.
We also used our business intelligence and metrics to do some rebalancing to the game. We’ve done some tuning, balancing, tweaking of the scoring and the thresholds necessary to get the bronze, silver, and gold stars.
GamesBeat: While you’re going on to console, you’re not trying to do another large-scale Halo game. What would you view, maybe, as the achievable goals with this, if you’re not trying to do something like a Halo 4?
Ellis: 343’s looking to have Halo experiences in as many formats as possible. You can look through our portfolio now. We have games. We have books on the New York Times bestseller list. We have toys and things like Mega Blocks and McFarlane figures. Halo is bigger than any one game. We see it as an entire universe of experiences.
GamesBeat: How do you try to translate that touch control into button-pushing on a game pad? What exactly is controlling what now?
Ellis: The controls break down so that the left stick controls movement. The right stick still controls aim. One slight change we’ve made is that the player also pulls the right trigger to fire, which is a tweak you didn’t have in the touch versions of the game.
GamesBeat: You were always firing when you were moving, right?
Ellis: Yes. In the touch versions of the game if you were pushing the right stick in a direction, you’d be firing in that direction.
GamesBeat: How is that different from a Halo game’s normal controls?
Ellis: In a standard Halo first-person shooter, you would move with the left stick, yeah. You would kind of aim with the right stick, although you’d be aiming the game camera as opposed to your character. It’s similar, but different. We still have controls for interacting with the world, changing primary and secondary weapons, changing grenade types. There are a lot of similarities between the games, but there are still some differences given the genre.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about designing the co-op experience and what you wanted to achieve there?
Ellis: I think we have a very cool complementary set of missions there. They play very differently from the main campaign. The main missions have multiple objectives. They have that driving force of exploring the map and finding the objectives and completing them. When you’ve moved away from the Covenant and toward the Flood, though, the pace ratchets up. It’s about the two players working together to ensure that they both survive.
We have lots of little co-op mechanics in play. Players are able to assist each other with how they move and how they fire. They can use different armor abilities to help each other. I could throw down something regens both of our health. We have a cooperative form of turret in some levels. I can fire my sentinel beam at the Flood, which is a very effective weapon, but it needs power and it very quickly runs out. The second player can go step on a charging pad, though, to supply power to the turret while it’s in use.
Or players can stand on a button that lowers a special force field, in order to advance through the maps. We have a mission where we’re both guarding a fortress. The combat forms of the Flood are very dangerous. They’ll throw grenades or shoot at you from a distance. What I can do is let you out of the fortress by stepping on that button. You can go clean those guys out and then escape back into the fortress while I slam the door shot on all the infestation versions of the floor.
We have a core mechanic where players can be infected by the Flood. They’ll climb on your back and very quickly drain your shields. The way to get rid of those would be for you to shoot them off my back or melee them off. The characters have a very symbiotic relationship. It’s a lot of fun. I spent all of yesterday just playing through co-op missions.
GamesBeat: Are the co-op missions divided into chapters as well?
Ellis: No. While the campaign has five chapters of five missions, the co-op missions don’t have a story that runs through them. Each one is its own little scenario that you can play any time.
GamesBeat: Are you working toward a particular objective with your partner, or is it mostly just standing against all with your partner?
Ellis: The co-op gameplay is definitely about trying not to be overrun by the Flood. Some missions are defensive. Others do require players to explore the map and achieve objectives.
GamesBeat: Can you think of an experience that resembles this kind of co-op game? Is it similar to something like the endless co-op play in Halo 3?
Ellis: It’s similar to some things you’ve seen before in FPS games, where wave after wave of Flood are crashing into you, and it’s all about crowd control and maintaining your space. Then you seek out those priority targets, the combat forms of the Flood, and killing them before they get close or deal more damage from a distance. It’s more of that frantic experience you find when you encounter the Flood in the other games.
GamesBeat: Do you have split-screen for the co-op in addition to remote play?
Ellis: At the moment, the co-op is Xbox Live only.
GamesBeat: What are some of the challenges you’ve had to face doing this? Were there technical limitations that kept the game from supporting more than two players on Xbox Live, or was that a design choice?
Ellis: When we started out, we wanted to have the right balance and blend and pace of gameplay. The more players you add to that, the more firepower the player team has, it affects that blend. We wanted to make sure we were able to render enough enemies on the screen that it really felt like a frantic fight for your life.
GamesBeat: Did you use the same team for this, or did you change teams?
Ellis: The console version of the game is once again made by a collaboration between 343 Industries and Vanguard Games in the Netherlands. Between our two teams, it was the same people.
GamesBeat: So it didn’t necessarily require a change in the skill set, making the mobile version versus the console game?
Ellis: The games have a lot of the same values. A lot of the building blocks of the core gameplay are the same. It was just a matter making sure that this version of the game was appropriately native to the console. We went in and looked at as if it was a console game from the ground up, and evaluated what changes needed to be made to make it a successful console shooter.
GamesBeat: Do you think it’s harder? Which version would you say is more intuitive or easier to play?
Ellis: It depends on your experience and where you come from as a game player. We’ve tried to tune the game so that no one version is easier or harder to play. People coming from a console background will probably be happier with a game pad in their hands.
GamesBeat: Are there in-game transactions of any kind in the console version? Can you buy things?
Ellis: Yeah, it’s essentially the same game as the mobile and PC versions. Players can earn XP in order to unlock things in the world – weapons, armor abilities, boosters. They can also shortcut that using credits instead of XP. But there’s no paywall hiding any content. Players can level their way to anything with XP.
GamesBeat: How much is this one going to cost?
Ellis: I believe it’s $14.99 for the console versions of the game. For someone who’s a previous customer, though – if they bought an existing version of the game – it’ll be $4.99.
GamesBeat: It seems like this kind of game would still be easier to play with a controller, as far as gameplay goes. Do you have any opinion on that, as to where it feels most natural to play the game?
Ellis: I’d say each version of the game is tuned to the platform it’s created for. We try to have a level playing field across all of them. It just depends on where you’re used to playing as a gamer and what you particularly like. If you’re a casual gamer who’s never experienced playing on a console, you might be happier with the phone or tablet versions. A PC gamer would be more comfortable with a keyboard and mouse. Our console fans should be very happy with the controller.
GamesBeat: There aren’t that many parallel games on mobile, though. Maybe Gun Bros is a good example of something that’s done well there. But it seems like the shooter category is just too hard to do on mobile, using a touch screen. I don’t know anybody who likes playing shooters on mobile first and foremost, without one of those Bluetooth controllers.
Ellis: It’s a challenging prospect. When we working on the touch versions of the game, we put a lot of time and effort into making the touch controls as good as they could be. Behind the scenes, we’re playing a lot of little tricks. There’s a certain amount of aim assist to help players.
We’re very proud of the adaptive control scheme. You could put your thumb down on either the left or the right side of the screen for either stick, and the actual sticks would follow you around the screen, so you weren’t confined to the bottom corners. We also reduced potential fears of being run off the screen onto the bezel.
GamesBeat: With the touch screen, you still tend to have more of those mistaken touches. Is that something you tried to address in the design? People accidentally making contact with the screen that they didn’t intend.
Ellis: As I say, we did a lot of little investigations into the kind of things that happen to people while they play these games. We tried to put as many solutions in place as possible. The adaptive controls really did reduce the potential for people making mistakes.
GamesBeat: If you look at the opposite problem, if someone goes from the touch screen and doesn’t know a controller well, is there something you’ve done for them to make the Xbox One experience easier to learn?
Ellis: Each version includes a tutorial level that players can go through before they get into the action. That takes them through all of the controls and all of the conventions. It teaches them some core Halo conventions, like how regenerative shields work.
GamesBeat: Do you think it’s more casual than a mainstream Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 4 game?
Ellis: I guess it depends on how you want to define hardcore. This kind of shooter was hardcore at one point. In the early ‘90s, these frenetic shooters were the most hardcore games out there. It’s just a different experience, compared to the Halo FPS games. We think we’ve created a game that looks like Halo, sounds like Halo, and plays like Halo. We see it as another part of the Halo universe.