The last few weeks of working on Halo Wars were quite a blur. Actually, the last several months of working on Halo Wars were quite a blur. I think if you were to ask most folks working at Ensemble Studios to describe an event in their lives from the last year, they’d have a hard time remembering what season the event took place in. For us, it was all Halo Wars, all the time. Blurry days.
Today, I’ll do my best to remember the final steps of getting Halo Wars out the door.
The final months of a project are all about taking the previous years of work, mashing it all together into something cohesive, testing the game, and fixing bugs. It’s also a time of very difficult decisions. In the name of getting the game out the door, we’re forced to eliminate several features, many of which already had months of work put into them. This can be costly (literally), but it helps provide focus to the most important aspects of the game, and gives us a better chance at hitting our target release date.
Now would probably be a good time to detail out all the features we cut, but maybe that’s best left to everyone’s guesses. Or maybe those features will show up again somewhere else…
Back to it. As we approach the last 6 weeks or so of the project, we begin thinking about something called “Release Candidates”. These are complete builds of the game that we believe are good enough to make it to the retail shelf. On December 1, 2008, we created “RC1”(Release Candidate 1). Cool, we’re done! Not so much. “RC1” never makes it all the way through the testing process, and in fact, our designers run a contest for everyone of our games trying to guess the actual number of Release Candidates we will create. Guesses for Halo Wars ranged from “RC2” (yeah!) to “RC426” (no!). For a build to be considered “the” build, several parties must sign off on it from Ensemble Studios, Microsoft Game Studios Test, the Localization team, and a Production team at Microsoft. In the end, RC11 was “blessed” by this crew. Halo Wars build number 1169.
We’re almost home at this point, but we still have a crucial step in front of us, called Certification. For Halo Wars to be “certified” a team at Microsoft takes the game and runs it through a battery of very specific tests to make sure it lives up to the quality and experience expectations of the Xbox360. Tests range from making sure Achievements work, to seeing how the game responds to people yanking out their memory cards while the game is running (never a good thing to try :) ).
Going through Certification is a very strange experience. It can be a multi-week process, and you can go days without hearing from the Certification team on how things are going. Ensemble had just gone through months of crunch, and we suddenly found ourselves in a waiting game with very little to do but hope the game makes it through successfully. Work hours returned to normal and people passed the day working on the demo or playing board games. Weird.
Finally, on January 8th, 2009, Halo Wars passed Certification and was declared “gold”. From there, the game was sent off to manufacturing plants all over the world, packaged up, and put on a shelf at a store near you. Good times.
Developers Playtesting the DLC