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Ensemble Disassembled

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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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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