Ensemble Disassembled

By Kieron Gillen on September 10th, 2008 at 10:34 am.


The Age of Empires it over, it seems. This is a bit of a shock, but news has broke – and been confirmed – that once they’ve shipped the forthcoming 360 RTS Halo Wars Ensemble Studios will close its doors. Microsoft Game Studios have confirmed this with a statement…

Microsoft has decided to close Ensemble Studios following the completion of Halo Wars. After the closure, the Ensemble leadership team will form a new studio and has agreed to provide ongoing support for Halo Wars as well as work on other projects with Microsoft Game Studios

Hmm. Rest of the statement and some initial thoughts beneath the cut. UPDATE: Gamesindustry Biz claim to have a leaked e-mail from Microsoft Game Studio’s head Phil Spencer about the closure. Full text here.

The team at Ensemble has made invaluable contributions to the games industry with their Age of Empires and Age of Mythology games and with the highly anticipated release of Halo Wars. This decision does not reflect at all on Ensemble’s talent or the quality of Halo Wars. in fact, many people who have had a chance to test drive Halo Wars agree that it is on track to being a fantastic game.

This was a fiscally-rooted decision that keeps MGS on its growth path. While the decision to dissolve Ensemble was not an easy one, Microsoft is working to place as many Ensemble employees who do not move to the newly formed studio into open positions within Microsoft as possible.

As to our overall strategy at MGS, it remains the same. We are committed to growing MGS with world-class talent both internally and with our external partners around the globe. We have recently added some well-known developers to our team and will continue growing the team.

We’re particularly excited about the titles we have in the pipeline and continue to evaluate additional opportunities to bring incredible games to life with the industry’s best. Our investment in games has never been greater than it is today.”

To be honest, even as someone who was only an admirer rather than a fan of Ensemble, it’s a particularly aggravating corporate statement by MGS: kind of like turning up at a funeral to do the Eulogy and spending all the time talking about how you know you’re going to press on and survive, and that life is going to be better than ever despite this loss. It’s basic lessons in corporate spin to pacify investors and similar, but enormously aggravating to anyone who actually cares about games.

It’s also an interesting one elsewhere – following Bungie’s split from Microsoft, a new team by the primaries running off to do their own thing strikes me as a sign that there’s a distinct corporate change at Microsoft regarding their studios.

Finally, from a PC perspective… well, if a developer whose last game sold two million isn’t worth keeping around, you have to wonder about Microsoft’s commitment or interest in the format. The next PC Gaming Alliance press conference is going to have some fun questions from the floor, I suspect. That said… well, I recall when I was having Age 3 demoed to me well before it came out. Talking about sales generally, the gent who was demoing it to me – who I can’t be completely sure was the person I think it was, so I’m not going to mention the name – mentioned they’d be disappointed if they didn’t hit 5 million sales. In those terms, while Age of Empire III may have been a success, it perhaps wasn’t a success to the degree that Ensemble expected or was used to. If that’s true of Ensemble, it’d be true of Microsoft too.

It’s also interesting to look at what they’ve been up to recently. Take a post from Bruce Shelley back in June about what they were up to…

Prototypes Coming and Going: I mentioned previously that we set up three prototype teams out of the staff of a major project that we cancelled. After six months of very interesting work, we have now stopped two of those prototypes, with one getting more time to demonstrate the value of its concept. In exchange we have started two new prototypes. We feel that putting excellent people on this work gives them valuable experience as creative leads, regardless of what happens down the road. And we fully expect great games to eventually result from this experimentation. We believe working on these prototypes, while most of our studio focuses on a major project like Halo Wars, supports the mission of our studio – create great games and a great place to work.

Certainly a lot to speculate about here, regarding the fate of the prototypes, what they were working on and the primaries future desires. We await the first interviews with interest.

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49 Comments »

  1. McTecman says:

    I find this rather strange. And sad, really, as I’ve always loved their work. I wonder what the *real* reason is.

  2. Ian says:

    I had an awful lot of fun with Age of Empires 2. This is sad times. :(

  3. Heliocentric says:

    first FASA and now this. Ms are going away from internal development. And i think away from pc. Looks like they can’t get strategy games to work on consoles, why would you need a strategy dev.

  4. Heliocentric says:

    age 2 spainiard peasant rush to success. I still play this over hamachi to this day. Age 3 had nothing on it except being more generic with its peoples and higher system requirements. Games designed to work on 56k can be buttery smooth over cable.

  5. Ian says:

    Age of Empires 2 was the first PC game I played as multiplayer. Me, my German flatmate at uni and his buddy hooked up our PCs and played a fair bit. I had to play as the Huns as they could grind out cavalry without houses, though I invariably still lost.

  6. Taxman says:

    Microsoft seem to be removing their internal studios
    Fasa, Bungie now Ensemble how long have Rare got ??

    I dont think its related to sales but rather the internal workings of Microsoft and how it pays its employees which is whats driving this.

    I think Microsoft would prefer an internal MGS were they can create/disband teams quickly though that introduces doubts about the quality of titles which is the calculated risk they are betting on (they have been doing this for a while now at MGS so it looks the the trigger has been pulled to remove/dissolve the externally purchased studios).

    It looks like some of the Ensemble employees will join MGS & the founders are starting up their own independent studio but I bet they will retain links to Microsoft as publisher.

  7. faster snail says:

    Yeah, the Age of Etcs have sold over 10 million copies between them. That makes it Microsoft’s biggest franchise after Halo (and maybe Flight Sim). After losing so many studios it seems like MS is getting out of the games business and is only keeping around devs that will have something out in the remaining lifespan of the 360. They’ve already pretty much given up on PC anyway.
    They are apparently getting started on Halo 4 though so perhaps not.

  8. Kieron Gillen says:

    Faster Snail: Actually 15 million circa Age of Mythology: Titans. Even if any of the originals and the Age III add-ons sold nothing, that means they’re on at least 17 million for the series by now.

    KG

  9. The Sombrero Kid says:

    looks to me like ensemble bosses didn’t want to farm out RTS based on Halo for the rest of their lives and split and microsofts trying to stop the rest of the team haemorrhaging with them and making it look like it’s all their idea by shutting down the studio and reassigning people who want to stay not that there’ll be very many

    ohh and imo bungie was a case of appeasing the studio defiantly not microsofts choice they’d have them making halo 9

  10. faster snail says:

    Cheers Kieron. No comment on MS not making a new Xbox? Do you have any insider info on MS projects in development that are more than a couple of years out? e.g. does Lionhead have something lined up post Fable 2?

  11. Kieron Gillen says:

    No extra insight over the rumours on that. It’s certainly an interesting one to speculate over.

    KG

  12. Carra says:

    I’ve spent 9 months playing AoE2 in multiplayer mode, sure was a great game.

    And even if their later games weren’t such a succes as those, AoE3 was one of the best selling games of its year and AoM sold over one million copies which is good for a pc game.

    But yeah, it looks like Microsoft doesn’t give a damn about pc gaming, not since they’ve started making their own consoles.

  13. Bobsy says:

    Incidentally, to leap on the nostalgia train as it pulls out of the station, I can claim the original Age of Empires as a Game What Changed My Life. Seriously!

    It was the help file that came with the demo of AoE. It was a lovely detailed document, and had not only descriptions of units and buildings as they appeared in game but the historical information on which they were based. It was very compelling, a window into ancient history which I quickly fell in love with, and it began my lifelong affair with the ancient world, which decided my degree for me, which prompted the following years of hedonistic wastrelness. Joy!

    So, er, thanks Ensemble.

  14. The Sombrero Kid says:

    @Kieron Gillen

    why aren’t you yellow!

  15. ScornfulPanda says:

    Age of Kings is one of my all time favorite RTS games. Played it more than any other too.
    I wasn’t too impressed with the latest Ensemble titles so maybe it ain’t so bad if they regroup.
    Still I feel sadness inside.

  16. subedii says:

    Finally, from a PC perspective… well, if a developer whose last game sold two million isn’t worth keeping around, you have to wonder about Microsoft’s commitment or interest in the format. The next PC Gaming Alliance press conference is going to have some fun questions from the floor, I suspect.

    “It was piracy.”

    “Piracy?”

    “Yep, Piracy.”

    “Could you expand on that a litt…”

    “Nope.”

    Jokes aside, it’s a real shame. I wouldn’t necessarily say that they’ve given up on the PC side, but I suspect it’s no longer as profitable a usage of the resources as it used to be to keep them around. Given that they were expecting 5 million units shipped for the last title and only got two million, that wouldn’t be too surprising.

  17. Dreamhacker says:

    Ensemble didn’t really catch up with the times, to be honest. Big Huge games did, along with a select few others.

    Blizzards RTS’s, on the other hand, survive solely because of South Korea.

  18. cliffski says:

    people need to stop spending a billion dollars to make an RTS and expect it to sell 5 million copies. RTS is niche. spend a million dollars maximum.
    and will someone PLEASe make a new Company Of heroes?

  19. Gap Gen says:

    I tried the AoE3 demo and hated the interface, although this was after playing Rise of Nations, so I was frustrated that the peasants didn’t just harvest on their own, or that soldiers didn’t stay in friggin’ formation without being told.

  20. Valhoss says:

    @The Sombrero Kid

    I dunno why, but Gillen often comments without the yellow.

  21. rocketman71 says:

    Microsoft keeps shitting all over PC Gaming.

    And destroying a profitable studio with a great reputation, no less!. All the Ages combined sold 20 million, according to a recent post from Bruce Shelley.

    Bastards, that’s what they are. Of the worst kind.

  22. Kieron Gillen says:

    Re: Not yellow. I often post from a PC where I’m not logged in. If I’m not logged into RPS, I’m not yellow.

    KG

  23. Plinglebob says:

    “Taxman says: Microsoft seem to be removing their internal studios. Fasa, Bungie now Ensemble how long have Rare got ??”

    Hopefully not long so it will free them up to re-release their N64 catalog.

    Back on topic, Age of Empires was the first game I bought when we upgraded the PC to Windows 95 and have been a massive fan of the series ever since *strokes collectors editions*. Such a pity this has happened but considering some RTS released recently compared to AoE, I’m not surprised. They are either more complex (Company of Heroes) or more simplistic (Universe at War).

  24. Mogs says:

    I have heard a quote from one of the MS suits involved in this decision to the effect of “PC games aren’t lucrative and RTS games on consoles aren’t lucrative”. Don’t ask me to PPOR because it’s something I heard in passing. May be complete bunk, but knowing MS, I doubt it.

  25. The Hammer says:

    Age of Empires 2 was the first PC game I ever played, and that was at LAN! And I don’t even have it! Was superb fun though.

    Age of Mythology remains my third favourite RTS, after Rise of Nations and Dawn of War. There was so much brilliance in that game. It was glossed over with some really lovely presentation, and the setting was very unusual after a whole load of history based titles, especially with all these neat units.

    Real shame to see them go…

  26. darthpugwash says:

    I can’t tell you how much fun I had with Age of Empires 2. Sad news.

  27. Jigglybean says:

    Sad news indeed. There is so much money in the industry, so we are told but cleary studios are suffering. Publishers seem to be either keeping things in house, or just focusing on creating generic fps titles rather than actually try something new.

  28. Nimic says:

    AoE2 was a fantastic game. It’s one of the strategy games where I’ve actually been comfortable playing against people. Usually when we play strategy games, we play together against a lot of AI’s, but not with AoE2. I used to win too.

    Teutonic Knights ftw.

    Age of Mythology was a great game too, one of my favorites.

  29. MeestaNob! says:

    Clearly the warning for any (remaining) independent developers is clear: If you don’t want to risk getting shut down, DO NOT sell out or you’re on borrowed time.

    Especially true in the current climate. Good luck to everyone who has just recently been gobbled up by a large company…

  30. Saflo says:

    I grew up with AoE 1 & 2 and loved AoM. I’ll pour a little something on the curb tonight for our fallen homies.

  31. Anthony Damiani says:

    Thank God for Korea, and World of Warcraft– at least Blizzard’s still safe in the bosom of their massive corporate overlord.

    Man. ENSAMBLE. Not a house I expected to see go down.

    A sad day in Dallas.

  32. Lunaran says:

    @MeestaNob: right, because independent studios who never know where their next paycheck is coming from after their current project are so much more well off.

  33. Mogs says:

    Exactly MeestaNob.

  34. Someone says:

    I still play aoe2 almost once a week with a bunch of friends @ hamachi, I win in 99% of the times but one of them is close to my level, we play FFA mostly and it’s great fun.

    I think aoe2 was the first rts I played (not sure) but it’s 100% the one I played the most.

  35. DSX says:

    It’s a good sign. The more quality developers that leave the MS umbrella the better. Here’s hoping the the core group gets rallied under a new corp and pulls off a winning new formula based on their background and talent, ala Stardock and Ironclad.

  36. malkav11 says:

    Can’t say as I’ve liked any of their games to date – their approach to the RTS aggressively bores me, even when in concept it should be awesome (Age of Mythology) – but it’s always sad to see a developer go.

  37. Larington says:

    Developers seriously need to get the f**k out of the ‘bought out by bigger company’ and ‘need publisher money to make game’ quagmires, I don’t care how difficult that may be, it NEEDs to happen before the games industry gets killed off in the same way that commercial radio (Not listening to adverts), hollywood, the music industry (You want HOW MUCH for that album?) and television (More adverts… Not to mention promising shows cancelled after 13 episodes OR LESS) have.

    On the subject of this:
    http://www.developmag.com/news/30470/Q-How-do-you-kill-a-great-games-developer-A-Buy-it

  38. redrain85 says:

    @Mogs:

    I have heard a quote from one of the MS suits involved in this decision to the effect of “PC games aren’t lucrative and RTS games on consoles aren’t lucrative”.

    If there’s any truth to that: then I wonder why Microsoft doesn’t seem to realize that the main reason why a lot of their non-business customers stick with Windows as their OS, is because of gaming.

    Without new, high quality game titles, there’s far less incentive for them to keep using Windows as their OS of choice. They can go buy a Mac and use OSX instead, or switch to Linux.

    And Windows is still a far greater cash cow for Microsoft, than anything else they produce (other than Office). In fact, it’s their Windows and Office profits that are helping to subsidize all their Xbox efforts.

  39. Dreamhacker says:

    @Redrain85

    Microsoft doesn’t realize things, Microsoft gets beaten to a pulp, threatened, sued and forced into doing things. And they always fail in the long run.

  40. Nick says:

    I’m not really an anti-MS zealot, but I have to agree with the above – the ONLY thing keeping me on Windows is games. Vista is one kick in the nuts on that front, I can’t run a damn thing without half a dozen issues, and any sign that MS intends to withdraw at least partially from PC gaming leads me to question what the hell I’m putting up with windows for.

  41. Joshua says:

    @Dreamhacker

    I am a big fan of Big Huge Games but Rise of Legends bombed harder than anything Ensemble ever did. And wasn’t Big Huge’s latest release the expansion pack for Age of Empires III?

  42. ack says:

    “Unfortunately, our decision to close Ensemble will adversely impact many of the studio’s team members. Following the closure, the Ensemble leadership team will form a new entity and have agreed to partner with Microsoft to develop future products and provide support for Halo Wars post launch. While the new company will be hiring a portion of the Ensemble employees, its size and resources prevent it from offering positions to the entire Ensemble team. We hope to integrate much of this creative talent into MGS or the broader IEB team, where we have relevant openings.”

    To my ears this sounds like regular down-sizing (sorry, re-organization), perhaps with a hint of “we think some of the people at Ensemble are and this is the best way to get rid of them.” I’m sure Phil et al will see plenty of synergistic effects appearing out of the vapours of this newly disintegrated studio.

    Switching from sarcasm: Anyone else got a chuckle from reading Metal Gear every time it said MGS in that mail?

  43. luminosity says:

    It’s funny seeing how everyone is reminiscing about the original AoE or AoE2. Maybe they would have sold more copies if AoE3 wasn’t such rubbish?

    Hopefully the regroup will lead them back to making good games.

  44. Konky Dong XVIII: The Happy Days Reunion Massacre says:

    I played an unhealthy amount of AoE2, so Ensemble has a small place in my heart. They haven’t grabbed my interest in recent years but they made a couple excellent games in their time and that’s more than most companies. So long mates.

  45. Aftershock says:

    back when i was just a young-un, there was a promotion where you could get AoE 1 and Tony Hawk 3 for PC in kellogs cereals. Me and my friends all had this, and had some good times with the multiplayer, only being able to connect to each others games by swapping IP’s over msn.

  46. LionsPhil says:

    …redeploying those resources to other more scalable ventures…
    i.e. pick top five brands, grind out sequels, repeat.

    (Hmm. Website go bye-bye for a little while. Most odd.)

  47. Natus says:

    Too bad, too bad, though I think ES hit their high water mark with AoM. AoE3, even with its expansions, never grabbed me like AoM did; I always felt like they were recycling ideas to diminishing returns.

    But I was good for AoE IV (Victorian Age?) plus expansions. And now that RoN games have died, what does that leave us with?

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