Q&A: Rippy on sparking Bonfire, disbanding Ensemble

Halo Wars dev alum discusses his former employer's fall, forming a new studio during a recession, and the state of the RTS genre.

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In September, Microsoft announced that it would be shutting down its wholly owned development house Ensemble Studios. The move coincided with the software giant's announcement that it was shedding 5,000 jobs to help cope with the worldwide economic slowdown. Like a shock of cold water, the announcement rippled down the collective spines of the industry, as it proved that no developer, no matter how venerable or prestigious, was safe from the worsening global financial meltdown.

David Rippy
David Rippy

Upon completion of the console real-time strategy game Halo Wars in March, Ensemble Studios alums officially dispersed, splintering off into a number of new development houses. Former Ensemble head Tony Goodman built Robot Entertainment, senior software engineer Dusty Monk founded Windstorm Studios, and Halo Wars executive producer David Rippy started Bonfire Entertainment.

While all three studios have been understandably cagey about their nascent projects, GameSpot recently spoke with Rippy to get an idea of how he is coaxing Bonfire to life. No stranger to the gaming industry, Rippy began his career with Ensemble back when the studio was still developing business applications for Fortune 500 companies, eventually writing music for the original Age of Empires. He later served as lead producer on Age of Mythology and Age of Empires 3 and lead a number of prototype teams before joining the Halo Wars crew last year.

Despite Halo Wars' mixed reviews, Rippy says he's quite happy with how Ensemble's first and only console RTS came out. However, he also noted that while the Bonfire team has ample experience in the RTS field, the studio's first project won't fall into the tried-and-true strategy genre. Rippy also addresses how the Ensemble team came together to finish Halo Wars, reflects on what can be learned from Ensemble's fate, and talks up the advantages of starting a new studio during uncertain times.

GameSpot: How do you feel about the game's reception so far?

David Rippy: We're very happy with the response from our fans and the press. The review scores are in line with our previous titles, and the fans have accepted Halo Wars as a true extension of the Halo universe. Because we're trying to establish an unproven genre (RTS) on the console, we didn't have a good idea of how the game would sell. We started to feel a lot better once the demo set the one-day record for most downloads on XBLA. Since then, sales of the game have smashed all of our expectations!

GS: What worked particularly well?

DR: The thing we are probably most proud of is our customers' acceptance of the control scheme. RTS games have struggled for years to find a home on the consoles. The biggest barrier to that has been the controller, since RTS games have traditionally been so closely tied to the mouse and keyboard.

GS: What do you feel could have been done better?

DR: There's no one particular feature or aspect of Halo Wars that comes to mind, but as a developer, you always wish you had extra time for one last round of polish. Given another year of development, I'd like to have included an additional campaign told from the Covenant's perspective. There's so much great Halo fiction to draw from, and I know our fans would love it!

GS: If you had to go out on any game, is this the one it would have been? Is this the game you would want people to think of when they think Ensemble?

DR: Yes, Halo Wars is a great game for people to think of when they remember Ensemble. So much of Ensemble's legacy is founded on the success of the Age of Empires franchise, but Halo Wars is the culmination of everything we've learned over the years, and it's a very polished game that everyone at Ensemble is proud of.

GS: How much, if at all, do you think Halo Wars' development was impacted once everyone knew that Ensemble would be closing upon its completion?

DR: Shockingly, the schedule was impacted very little. Only three employees left the studio after the announcement was made that Ensemble would be closing. Everyone else banded together, crunched for four straight months, and vowed to make Halo Wars the best game it could be, no matter what it took. That's just amazing to me, and speaks volumes to the character of the people at Ensemble.

GS: Why do you think the studio was shut down?

DR: I believe we were shut down for business reasons that made sense to Microsoft at the time. We've seen dozens of announcements recently of studios closing and publishers scaling way back. It seems we were just a few months ahead of the curve and one of the first studios to be affected by the layoffs that are so common in our industry now.

The Bonfire has been lit.
The Bonfire has been lit.

GS: What did you learn from Ensemble and its closure that you plan on keeping in mind with Bonfire?

DR: I think Bruce Shelley hit the nail on the head in his DICE presentation. Developers need to always be in close sync with the goals and needs of their publisher. Maybe we could have done a better job with understanding how Ensemble fit within Microsoft's broader plan.

GS: Why did Ensemble splinter into different studios?

DR: We split into two companies based largely on the goals and types of games the founders from each company want to create. The guys at Robot are great friends of ours because of our long, shared history of working together. Both companies have big, ambitious plans, and it's great because those plans don't clash with one another. I expect great things to come from both Robot and Bonfire.

GS: What's your current headcount? Do you foresee this number increasing anytime soon?

DR: We have about 35 people at this point, and I believe we'll stay at that size in the short-term. As we get further into the development cycle on our new title, we'll grow according to the needs of the project.

GS: To what extent do you think Bonfire will live in Ensemble's shadow? How do you all plan on distinguishing yourselves?

DR: Ensemble created some fantastic games over the years, and that's a part of our history that we'll always be proud of. It's exciting around the office, because Bonfire's culture and identity has already started to take shape. We're a very lean, hungry company with big ambitions! As we ship our first few titles, we'll continue to distinguish ourselves through our games.

GS: Will RTS again be the name of the game, or do you all plan on branching out into other genres?

DR: I could easily see us doing RTS games in the future since we have so much experience in the genre. Our first title has a heavy strategy element to it, but it's not an RTS. I think our fans will be really excited when we announce our plans!

GS: What is your opinion of the RTS genre? What are its current problems, and what needs to be done to advance beyond them?

DR: RTS games continue to evolve, and I think in a good way. Emphasis these days seems to be much more on getting to the combat quickly with less time spent on balancing an economy. Dawn of War 2 is a great example of a modern, combat-heavy RTS that looks great. I think it's important for developers that want to bring RTS games to the console to do so with very thoughtful design changes in mind. The initial round of RTS games for the consoles were mostly ports from the PC, and that just doesn't work as sales have shown. Halo Wars was created exclusively for the Xbox 360, and every decision was centered around making the experience work for a controller and a TV. That forced us to make some tough choices as to what we included in the game. In the end, we think we found the right balance of features and depth of strategy for the console player.

GS: The overwhelming trend of late has been studio closures or layoffs, not openings. What does it take to open a studio in the current economic environment?

DR: It certainly is a tough time to be starting a studio. It takes a lot of faith, a bunch of motivated people that believe in what we're doing as a studio, and the right business partners. As disappointing as it was for Ensemble to close, it really did present a tremendous opportunity for our employees to be a part of something exciting and new and also a great opportunity for a publisher that wants to work with a functional team that already has such a strong pedigree in the industry.

GS: Does the economic climate present any advantages, open any windows?

DR: The poor economy does have some advantages, mostly on the administrative side of running a studio. Businesses are willing to negotiate deals that would not have otherwise been possible in a more healthy economy. Also, while publishers are closing their internal studios, they are still in the business of making games and are now turning to reliable third-party studios such as Bonfire as a cost-effective alternative.

GS: What would you say to a studio that's considering being purchased by a large first- or third-party publisher?

DR: Being acquired by a large publisher can be a very beneficial thing for a studio. We enjoyed working with Microsoft when we were independent, and they were great to work for when Ensemble was purchased back in 2001. Some of Ensemble's best titles (Age of Mythology, Age of Empires 3, Halo Wars) were released post-acquisition. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, a studio considering being purchased will want to make sure they understand where they want to go as a studio and how that matches up with the goals of the publisher.

GS: Would you prefer to be independent or part of a publisher's stable? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

DR: Ensemble was a great place to work, and we had tremendous creative freedom both as an independent studio and as part of Microsoft. I actually don't have a strong preference as long as our employees love what they do, we get to make the games we want to make, and our business model is solid. Ensemble did enjoy the relative stability that Microsoft offered, and I imagine that would have also been the case had we been purchased by another large publisher. As for disadvantages, it's like a marriage--you are in it for better or for worse. Being an independent studio does enable a lot of creative freedom, but as a business owner, it's important to make sure that that creativity translates into an actual market opportunity.

GS: And the million-dollar question... When are we going to see Bonfire's first effort?

DR: We'd love to share that with you, but I have to hold off for now.

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