Halo Wars dev on disassembling Ensemble

D.I.C.E. 2009: The Age of Empires may be over, but Ensemble Studios cofounder Bruce Shelley recaps what his studio did right--and what it did wrong--during its 14-year run.

LAS VEGAS--It's not uncommon for game conferences to play host to game postmortems; that is, frank discussions from developers about what worked and what didn't with their latest efforts. This week's D.I.C.E. Summit played host to a postmortem of a different kind, as Bruce Shelley, cofounder of Microsoft's shuttered Ensemble Studios, reflected on what led the Halo Wars studio to its demise.

Ex-Ensemble head Bruce Shelley

Accentuating the positive, Shelley started with what the company did right. From the very beginning, Shelley stressed, the studio's priorities were to create a great place to work and to make great games, in that order. The company culture came up time and again as an example of what Ensemble did right, especially in the early years. Shelley brought up the strong sense of community the team had, a recruiting process that involved the entire team, a focus on boosting morale, and strong communication within the studio.

Additionally, Shelley said the company showed some wisdom in its choice of games. When the company started in 1995, the real-time strategy genre was exploding, but everybody was making sci-fi or fantasy RTS games. That made Ensemble's historical Age of Empires, released in 1997, stand out from the crowd and gave the company a competitive edge.

Halo Wars.

Other Ensemble successes that Shelley touted included delivering exceptional value for the price in each game, building games with an appeal that spanned regions and gaming tendencies, and keeping a low turnover rate among its employees. When Ensemble closed down, Shelley noted that 60 percent of the employees had been with the company since the original Age of Empires project--or at least 12 years.

When it came time to assess what went wrong, Shelley brought up many of the same points again, noting that those qualities eroded in later years. As the studio grew, the culture changed, and the sense of community was negatively impacted. Shelley said it was harder to find quality hires to fill every lead position, especially once the studio split into three teams.

The lack of genre diversification was also a problem, as it tied the company's fate to the popularity of the RTS genre. While Ensemble did try to branch out multiple times over the years, those projects wound up canceled. Shelley also said the studio tried to do too much with each game, which led to the near constant cutting of features, long crunch times, and delays.

The original Age of Empires.

Finally, Shelley said the last thing Ensemble did wrong was to be closed down. The management thought it had been running the company from a strategically sound point of view, but in hindsight there may have been ways to stave off the closure. Shelley suspects that the Texas studio's ties to Washington-based parent company Microsoft had become too weak over the years due in part to distance. Ensemble also may have erred in not downsizing at all after Microsoft canceled two of the studio's projects. Not only that, but the company continued to go full speed ahead with plans to expand even further with new facilities.

"It's a sad day, but this is business," Shelley said. "Maybe we didn't do some things very well. We were shocked, but we've gone through the stages of grief and now we're looking for a new direction."

Sad as the closure might be for Shelley, he was heartened that there are already two studios starting up out of the ashes of Ensemble. In addition to the already announced Robot Entertainment, ex-Ensemble players have stoked a new operation called Bonfire Studios.

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116 comments
chimpanchu
chimpanchu

Microsoft gets too arrogant and overconfident. Because why would they need to keep the expensive 1st party studios to make games for them, where there are tons of 3rd party studios are willingly develop exclusive games for them?

man-man-man
man-man-man

WTF??????????????????????????????????? I SWEAR I HAVE THIS GAME I'VE JUST GOT IT TODAY I SWEAR.............................

DoomSky
DoomSky

So do microsoft still own the age of empire franchise? Sucks if they do, mind you who would you give the rights?

Koal_Jadian
Koal_Jadian

Microsoft ruins another studio, I'll miss the high quality, high-featured and highly customizable games

Nicman07
Nicman07

and there goes another great game company... R.I.P.

RoyalPurple
RoyalPurple

So FallenAngel, you've played Halo Wars... But it's not even out? Oh wait, you must've pirated it. But why would pirate a Halo game if you hate Halo and played the demo? What's that... You didn't play the demo? You DON'T have the game? Oh well that explains it then! R.I.P Ensemble

Arronaxxx
Arronaxxx

So long, ES, and thanks for all the fish ;)

ace-of-spades93
ace-of-spades93

IM not an rts fan at all so im not going to say R.I.P ensemble because it would be fake. I do think that this is a dark day for gaming if an apparently well-loved and respected studio can be shut down after making games that you guys all love. TUT TUT

harkusrex
harkusrex

A sad day indeed for Age of Empire fans.........We will miss you Ensemble Studios......Does this mean that the Age of Empires series is over? I personally can not see a new Age of Empires game out in this new era.

FallenAngelXBL
FallenAngelXBL

Hellequin85, you see i to am a lover of the RTS genre, however i thought Halo Wars was terrible. I really did not enjoy it. Do i think Gamespot was Bias? No. Why? because its one mans opinion. I dislike Halo 3, however it got a 9.5 (i think), i dislike GTA 4 it got a 10. Its not biased if its there own opinion, even if it is against yours. Thats my 2 dracma

Hellequin85
Hellequin85

We got the game a week early at work, and we have an xbox in the staffroom so I had a blast. I am a hardcore PC rts gamer but I still enjoyed this, it's the only rts I've actually enjoyed on a console. I don't know how gamespot can give it a 6.5 but they most of their ratings have been off/biased over the last year or so.

gnrlstuart
gnrlstuart

i really dont care what gamespot said about the game, shure its not a fully fledged rts. but its damn impressive for a console, topped off with killer visuals and a great soundtrack. theres not much the game does wrong.

dkjjabs
dkjjabs

reading all your comments is shocking that ppl will go by a ratings even if thay have never played it, its just shocking

dkjjabs
dkjjabs

The demo of this was great easy but still tactical, plus any game to me that puts in co-op campain are already on the right track. Well done this will keep me going till RES 5.

DoomSky
DoomSky

Intrestingly enough Official Xbox Magazine UK gave Halo Wars a 9. I do feel gamespot reveiwed the game from a hardcore pc rts gamer point, what were they expecting a in depth strat on par with Total War or something? I respect their opnion though and I have yet to play the game but from what I have played and seen already I dont I will be giving this a 6.5. This game looks simple, high quality and most of all fun, just what I would expect from Ensemble.

gameking5000
gameking5000

They created amazing games and yet this happened... They won't be forgotten... ever... :(

arickamaru
arickamaru

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

funnysplay
funnysplay

I dont know about the rest of you but im gonna pass on this. I love the studio'n all, i mean i still play age of empires 2. But halo wars got a 6.5/10 thats not to good for any standard. Besides money is tight right now, and im only spending my cash on the best games have to offer.

dannyatkinson
dannyatkinson

I too loved Ensemble however I will not buy Halo Wars until it comes to PC.

SchumiF1
SchumiF1

Age of Empires.....the memories....

uas-2001
uas-2001

Age of Empires was awesome :cry:

Tr5978
Tr5978

For the life of me, I still cannot figure out why Ensemble would be closed before the sales figures of Halo Wars are even out.

21655
21655

Somebody get this straight for me: will there be an AOE4 or 5 or not?

GameFan1983
GameFan1983

I just played halo war, you know what Ensemble? you guys are epic pwnage. From earliest AOC2-AOC3, to now halo war, there are greatest RTS I ever played. Every game you brought us is so ground breaking and outstand the others. Those so called "best" RTS world in conflict, redalert 3, total war etc. been there done that, was great but nothing like the depth and fun that AOC2 and AOC3 has gaven me. and I still learning the great halo war. If say a qualitied stuido like Ensemble has to close but a half ass Halo 3 studio such as Bungie is keep growing fat. Gaming industry will going down sooner or later. What is going on? mIcosoft? or stupid immature players don't know how to appreciate a great game anymore?

gow117
gow117

only great companys go down..what a shame (well, not all)

Lum_Yatsura
Lum_Yatsura

It's simple. Microsoft has greatly cut back PC game publishing. So they no longer need studios who's main strength are PC.

endocrine
endocrine

Kokonut you make me laugh. Microsoft are poor decision makes? Is that why they made 4 Billion profit last quarter and their second highest highest profits per year during a recession? Microsoft knows exactly what they are doing, but I just wish they didn't have to screw over their employees in the process. We only made our second highest profits ever, time to fire people.

Gamingcucumber
Gamingcucumber

Now two of the best RTS developers has been shut down by a stupid move done by their parent company. Westwood and Ensemble Studios it's a damn shame.

kokonut1971
kokonut1971

It boggles the mind to see microsoft who swims in money not able to forecast that at some point of time business might be bad and save some money for rainy days and support their low level tier business..it also boggles the mind that most of these guys are just gonna turn around form studios like they did and produce derivative stuff from what they had done at ensemble...Microsoft just looses all the money in that case or would have earned it if they had the wisdom to reinvest in the company......they are really poor decision makers at that company.

Don111
Don111

When is this going to be for the PC?

dmish82
dmish82

Looks like Microsoft's plan of stealing Killzone 2's thunder by releasing Halo Wars at the same may not work based on the review scores received so far.

raptures330
raptures330

@Buffalodude Last I checked the release date for the game was March, 2009. Maybe you meant to say "The demo for Halo Wars rocks." Which it may very well do. I never said that it would or wouldn't rock. Since it has not been released I do not have an opinion on it. Which is why I answer to your comment with "Huh?" ^_^

rikhan_z
rikhan_z

Ensemble did amazing games... the first Age of Empires did have a few painful flaws, however the company continued to make games and learn from those mistake to produce something EPIC! For that... I hope they use those skills and quality to produce more great games.

Kravyn81
Kravyn81

AoE is the first RTS I ever played, and it is responsible for me even having an interest in PC gaming or the RTS genre. Everyone drools over "wrong" it was consistently churn out quality RTS games for MS. And how does MS repay that loyalty and hard work? With a kick in the ass and a pink slip. Burn in hell, MS, for destroying the ONLY studio that I actually supported of yours and that was truly worth a damn.

drangel_jam
drangel_jam

waiting for the spiritual successors killer apps.

jadefury27
jadefury27

hey make us a great game and we'll repay you by shutting you down and scattering you to the winds. nice job micro$oft.

doyd
doyd

rip ensemble

sackboy25
sackboy25

too bad that ensemble is gone, hopefully robot entertainment rts games. age of empires was good.

tsb247
tsb247

It's sad to see Ensemble gone. Age of Empires was amazing. Oh well... Here's to looking toward the future. Bigger and better things are sure to come our way. @dannyatkinson - Is your avatar from a Man-O-War album cover? Cuz it REALLY looks that way.

dannyatkinson
dannyatkinson

That and stupid DRM like EA is using. Down with SecuROM. I will not buy any more games with SecuROM on them period.

dannyatkinson
dannyatkinson

@ Halo_wars86 That is a total load of bull. I am so sick of hearing this. The Developers are what is killing PC gaming period. How come Stardock can produce games with no protection whatsoever and they do extremely well. This is a stupid misconception that just needs to go away.

Buffalodude
Buffalodude

I may have not been a huge Age of Empire fan. But they made some great games and Halo Wars is awesome. Ensemble me and my friends will miss you. But thankfully you still have a chance to keep up the good work.

01_855403
01_855403

that was a head shot to Microsoft really bad.

xbox4life76
xbox4life76

another one bites the economy bullet. what can we do except hope they rebuild somewhere else and produce even greater games.

raptures330
raptures330

A comment that keeps getting repeated every time a loved studio is closed or gets in trouble, especially when related to Microsoft, is that since they made good games they should be untouchable and the parent company is a demon bent on destroying gaming for everyone. Damn the leaders of these companies! They know nothing about how the BUSINESS of entertainment works. Since they released a genre revolutionizing game 8 years ago, they should get a "get out of fail" card until they make another game like that in the next 8-20 years. A good game is not enough to keep a studio afloat. A good game is just a key part of a whole, upon which a studio is built even, but it needs more than that to stay alive. No income means no money to invest in future projects. I can think of many studios with good games that noone bought and the staff have been recycled to serve in other studios and projects. If every game Ensemble made was a gem then it would not be closing. Microsoft didnt wake up one morning and say "Hmmm, I want to close a segment of my company. Flex my muscle a little." Then proceed to throw a dart at a chart with all the studios on it. Mr.Shelley pointed out the distance between Ensemble and the parent company, so the quality of the product is not the fault of MS (no wait, of course it is, it has to be!). In this very article some of the most important reasons it was closed down are pin pointed by the leader at the time, but we will just look over them and point the finger at the parent company. Imagine Ensemble was an indie studio still... If they invest in two games all or most of the money the company has because they are betting hard on these games, and they do not sell well, what would happen? Closed. Less than spectacular sales for years now have led to this point and it is only the money muscle of the parent company that even got them this far in the first place. You can bet your college tution, or your kids tution, on the fact that if Ensemble had been able to keep up and make some good returns on investment it would still be open. If Rare doesnt do right as well they will be facing the same music. I am sorry to see them go and now with 2 studios forming from the remnants I hope to see some new IPs filling up my harddrive and spare time.