Initially, Strongholds was meant to be a kind of beginner mode, Nicholson says. But its potential became apparent during testing. "The idea behind Strongholds is that the complexity behind RTS is that you're spinning multiple plates. Let's take some of those plates away so you don't have to worry about them, and we thought that would instantly make it easier, more accessible. And while we didn't want to dumb it down, we thought it would be a good way to introduce people to the game. But what we found was that if you don't know what you're doing in Strongholds and you're matched up against someone who does, then they can absolutely roll you over. So there is that depth—you see two very talented RTS players matched up in Strongholds and it comes down to the last few seconds with two or three points changing hands so quickly. And I would love to see where that goes when people get really good at it."
In a sign that Creative Assembly has given a lot of thought to how Halo Wars 2 can be a successful eSport, Nicholson talks a bit about the qualities they've identifies in top-level games. "Another thing we've also identified with eSports titles is that there has to be a climactic moment. A Deathmatch mode can go on for a long time and just be a war of attrition, which is good fun for the players, but does it make for good spectacle? Are the events leading toward a climactic victory event? And I do think Strongholds does offer that with the time-based structure. Talented players swapping bases in the dying minutes is really good."
He continues, "Climactic moments. Readability. eSports become popular because you watch the best players and want to get to that level. I can watch very high level League of Legends matches, and there's no way I can play at that level, but I can see what skills they're using. You watch the StarCraft World Championships, and you know it's about actions per minute. In League of Legends, I can see that Faker is there at the end, he's being attacked by four guys, and his positioning and microsecond application... I know I'm never going to get to that level, but I can see what he's doing."
In that vein, Creative Assembly seems to be taking a page from League of Legends as well as more recent Blizzard games like Overwatch in trying to make a competitive game that is broad but deep. With the vast Halo fandom behind them, they can afford to reach out and try to take advantage of some of the eSports infrastructure put in place for Halo 5. But if it doesn't work out, they still have a fun casual RTS that can work on either PC or console.
Still, don't be surprised if Creative Assembly and Microsoft try to make at least a little bit of a push toward making Halo Wars 2 a proper eSport. Tomorrow (January 20th), Creative Assembly is kicking off another beta—this time for Halo Wars 2's Blitz Mode—which suggests that they care quite a bit about getting the balance of the gameplay right. That doesn't necessarily scream "eSport," but it does highlight the amount of thought going into the competitive game.
We'll know more when Halo Wars 2 launches on February 21 on Xbox One and Windows 10. So will Creative Assembly.