Interview with Halo Wars 2’s Design Director Clay Jensen

halo wars 2 jerome

After eight long years, Microsoft Studios has pulled the Halo Wars series out of cryostasis, reintroducing the concept of a console-based real-time strategy game to new a generation of players. In that time, the franchise as a whole has transferred to a new studio, making this the first RTS title ever produced by 343 Industries. Yet they didn’t have to go at it alone, bringing in strategy powerhouse Creative Assembly as co-developer.

Eager to learn what we could about the sequel, GameAxis and other members of the Singapore media spoke to 343’s design director, Clay Jensen, on what production has been like, the story, and how Blitz mode works.

Full disclosure: Travel and accommodation were provided by Microsoft for coverage purposes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

halo wars 2 clay jensen

343 Industries design director Clay Jensen. (Photo: GameAxis)

This is the first time 343 Industries has collaborated with Creative Assembly. How did that come about?

Clay Jensen: Basically we had been looking for a partner to do Halo Wars 2 with for some time, looking around at different possibilities with different studios. Once we met with Creative Assembly and just started talking to them about the project, it was really clear that they had a huge amount of passion not only for strategy games in general but for Halo in particular.

They weren’t interested in just making another Halo Wars game, they were interested in making the Halo Wars game [laughs].

Expanding on that, how involved were they in the game’s production? Was it since pre-production and are they still involved now?

Absolutely. They have been involved since the beginning so we’ve been on that journey together. There’s been a huge amount of collaboration between 343 and CA. That’s been a really, really good partnership and lots of ideas flowing back and forth.

The game launch is obviously coming up soon but we have other content, more content, coming in the six months after and we’re continuing to work on that now as well.

You mentioned it’s a new story for new players to jump in. How much does it tie into the ending of Halo 5?

[Smiles] I can’t go into too much detail there, you’ll have to play to see. One thing that I’m really excited about is that the original Halo Wars storyline was one that fans really were interested in, but it was quite separate from the traditional Halo story arc. So one of the decisions early on was to try to bring those two together.

Halo Wars 2 still has its own independent storyline but now we’re up to speed – the two stories are happening in parallel. It’s something that we’re certainly excited about exploring in the future as well. I think it’s definitely worth staying tuned.

halo wars 2 atriox cinematic

Banished general Atriox, the new antagonist for Halo Wars 2. (Screenshot: Microsoft)

Halo Wars 2 takes place on the Ark, the Forerunner site. It’s already featured in the main games themselves, so what was it like translating that to an RTS map?

Very exciting. For fans of the Halo games, they will instantly recognize the Ark and they’ll know the backstory. But for people who haven’t played Halo Wars before or haven’t played Halo before, they won’t know what the Ark is; and the [UNSC] crew of the Spirit of Fire who are showing up there mysteriously, they don’t know what it is either. It’s actually a really interesting way for players to dive into the story because they’re learning at the same time the Spirit of Fire is.

As far as a place to develop an RTS, you couldn’t ask for a better battlefield. It is an absolutely massive installation and if you look at the Halo lore, you’ll realize that it was initially constructed to house and protect species from all over. In terms of the kinds of areas that you can play in, it’s literally endless.

There are any number of different types of environments and things you can do. And the Ark itself has a very interesting story [behind the] defense system, if you will, in the form of the Forerunners and the Sentinels that helped create it. That’s something that plays very heavily into the storyline…you’ll start to get a sense that the Ark itself actually plays a part in the story.

You’re not only having to deal with the Banished but the Ark will protect itself if it has to. I think for us, developing for it gave us a really interesting dynamic that, in some cases, both UNSC and Banished are having to work with the Ark and understand what it is.

halo wars 2 ascension campaign

Spinning Sentinel from the campaign mission, ‘Ascension’. (Screenshot: Microsoft)

Every genre of games evolve. How would you say Halo Wars 2 is keeping up with rising trends?

From my standpoint, one of the challenges that we had with Halo Wars 2 is that we have a number of different audiences. On the one hand, we have hardcore fans of the original game, we have fans of RTS in general, but we also have a flood of new players that will not have actually played RTS [or] strategy games before.

From a game design standpoint, I think the challenge was building on what we did in the original game – adding more depth, adding more units, adding more strategies to keep veteran players interested and at the same time, make it more accessible for new players. What that led to, though, was an RTS that – you know, it sounds a bit cliché – it’s really an RTS for everybody.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are lots and lots of deep strategy but it means that there’s a number of different ways that you could play. So to your point about innovating, I think Blitz mode actually is a really interesting example of that.

There are a number of different modes that allow you to play however you want. If you want a full-blown, really in-depth epic death match game that goes on for two and a half hours, you can play that. If you want something that’s [snaps fingers] really quick and fast and dirty, you can jump into Blitz. I think one of the innovations of Halo Wars 2 is that all of that is in the same game. It’s looking at it from the standpoint of having lots of deep story, deep involved gameplay, but then also changing that up and allowing people to have a different perspective.

halo wars 2 frontier multiplayer

A warped explosion set off on the ‘Frontier’ multiplayer map. (Screenshot: Microsoft)

In Blitz mode, as we get packs we get more units. How do we unlock those packs? Is it a purchased option?

It’s both [through gameplay and the store]. Basically, you have cards that go into your deck and you get new cards by opening packs. You can actually earn packs simply by playing, so if you just play Blitz mode you’ll be awarded packs; if you play the campaign you can get special packs. There’s daily and weekly challenges as well that award more packs.

If you want to get more packs than you’re earning you can buy them. But you don’t have to. You can legitimately collect cards just by playing the game. All of them basically build towards your deck, so duplicates and so forth actually just add to the cards that you already have. If you have a Warthog card and you get another one, it just…boosts the power of that base card that you have.

So if you want to just unlock all the cards, you can do that pretty easily through just playing the game and getting packs that way. If you want to accelerate things if you’re impatient like I am [laughs], you can buy extra packs.

Other than speeding up the process, is there a difference? Would we get purchase-only cards?

Yeah, there are premium packs which will give you rarer cards. It’ll increase the odds of [getting them]. But it’s fairly basic in terms of the choices you have, either standard packs or premium.

So over time, your deck would be more powerful. How do you balance that against other players?

The incremental changes were something that we were very conscious of. We wanted to allow you to accelerate the process of getting cards if you wanted to, but we didn’t want to give people a huge, overpowered advantage. If I’ve bought a lot of packs and you haven’t, we didn’t want that to be deciding factor at all.

The cards that you get will make your cards more powerful but it ultimately comes down to what you do with those cards. And just in the process of natural matchmaking, those balances tend to even themselves out. It’s not something that we’ve seen a problem with. The strengths of your cards will help you, they’ll give you an advantage, but it won’t save you [laughs]. From my experience so far, it balances out quite well.

In the long term, if you take a look at Hearthstone, the starter decks tend to fall behind in the meta. Is that something you’re concerned about?

No. As you play Blitz mode you’ll be able to jump in and have some starter decks, just to kind of get you going. It’s very easy to build new decks. There’s a bunch of cards in the game at launch but something to look forward to in upcoming content…is new leaders, new powers, new units, new cards. So that’s going to be expanding.

The other thing is that each leader has their own unique cards as well so there’s quite a lot of depth there, and you can build your own custom decks around each of those leaders. So you can have multiple decks per leader and select them pretty quickly before you jump into a match.

But another thing also is that there’s a difference between building a deck just for yourself and building a team deck, and I think that’s something that’s been really exciting to watch, especially as people play 2v2 or 3v3 matches. They start to realize you want to build a deck to help out, so if you’re going to go for just cheap and fast and easy units, I may do something with lots of expensive leader powers. Then we work together, you scouting and trying to take over things and me coming in to drop my more expensive things on it. So even though I only have a 12 card deck and you have a 12 card deck [points to two persons], collectively we have a 36 card deck if we work together.

In terms of the campaign, what changes have you guys made to make it more appealing and different from a usual RTS?

I would say one of the things that, for me is the most powerful way that our campaign is different, is the story. The story itself is really quite deep and compelling. If you’ve watched or played the first Halo Wars, you probably remember the cinematics that Blur [Studio] did for those. They’ve worked with us again on Halo Wars 2 to create even more [for] the story, which is very, very impressive. As good as the first ones were, the one in Halo Wars 2 are just bounds better.

But the other thing that I think is really important about the campaign is that, as you’re playing, it ties very directly into that story. So the players are actually getting to progress and, through their actions, advance the story. I just find that it’s a very immersive, story-driven and exciting experience on its own, and it’s very engaging.

halo wars 2 ashes multiplayer

Big units dropping in on the ‘Ashes’ multiplayer map. (Screenshot: Multiplayer)

The other thing that is not unique to Halo Wars 2, obviously, but I think is important is that the campaign is very much a [training ground for new players]. It’s a great way to learn the game and, by the end of it, be ready to jump into multiplayer. For us that was a very conscious choice…that by the time you’re done, hopefully you’re feeling confident enough to jump online. If not, you can jump into Skirmish and practice against the AI.

Thanks for your time!

Halo Wars 2 launches on PC and Xbox One on Feb. 21, 2017, and is part of the Xbox Play Anywhere program. A Blitz mode open beta is slated for Jan. 20–30.

Ade Putra

Ade thinks there's nothing quite like a good game and a snug headcrab. He grew up with HIDEO KOJIMA's Metal Gear Solid, lives for RPGs, and is waiting for light guns to make their comeback.