Skip to content

Search results for 'playtesting'

More art from the art bots and playtesting from David Leary

 Robot Blogs

Its been a busy week so apologies to readers for the lateness of updates here at Remember Ensemble Studios. Good news is though if you haven’t already been on the Halo Wars and Robot Entertainment websites youve been missing out on some juicy blogs and art. Kicking it off we have Robot and Ex Ensemble designer David Leary talking about playtesting which Ensemble was quite famous for in its development cycle. As always theres some cool pictures of the old Ensemble office in comparison to the new Robot play testing labs.


One of the Ensemble playtest rooms on the 16th floor


The new Robot Entertainment play test room

David Leary’s blog post is an informative look into just how Ensemble executed its much talked about play testing and is a good read over on the website. Or here’s a little snipped of the action:

“Managing a Halo Wars playtest session was a lot like herding cats. Some of the playtests were scheduled, but late in the project, a lot of sessions would get called on an as-needed basis. I’d page for testers over the intercom, but since everyone had other responsibilities, I’d often only get four or five people on the first call. Usually a second page would fill the rest of the seats. If that didn’t work, I’d start walking around the office – it was hard for my co-workers to turn down a personal request, especially if I groveled.”

Mean while over in Art Bot corner the Clash of the Titans is continuing with two entries from grand artists Won Choi and Bart Tiongson. First up we have Won’s Poseidon and Perseus almost painting look a like art below:


Bart Tiongson is next with his take on Medusa:


She’s looking much more “chilled” than she was in Chris Moffit’s scary picture!

If this outstanding series of art is anything to go by we can expect grand things from Robot Entertainment’s currently un announced game. But will it be mythology.. or something else all together?!?


Bruce Shelley on Game Designer Attributes

Legendary game designer Bruce Shelley has taken to the BonusXP blog to summarise some of the most important attributes a game designer should have when working particularly at smaller video game studios. Bruce has long been encouraging of a studio wide playtest, where everyone in the studio regularly takes part in playtesting the game throughout the whole development process. This can be called a design by playing approach. Read moreRead more


Ian Fischer’s Gamesauce presentation + blog on AOE-O play testing


Readers may remember that a little while back Ian Fischer did a talk at Gamesauce which is a place for people in the games industry to take some time out and talk to other like minded people in the industry about game development, strategies and analysis of the gaming industry. Robot Entertainment’s Design Director, Ian Fischer attended the conference and gave a presentation titled: “The role of emergence in gaming and the part it plays in the future of the medium.” Certainly an interesting title! A video of the talk has been made available as below. Ian compares many aspects of the early video gaming days to the early days of film and suggests that in the future we should expect games and graphics to become far more advanced and realistic as we move away from linear games. Its an excellent and insightful talk and should be of interest to those in or looking to get into the video games industry.

Ian Fischer at Gamesauce

Over at the Robot Entertainment website Ian has been putting on his blogging hat under the slightly strange alias “Mother”. Ian “Mother” Fischer talks about the play testing involved with the recently announced Age of Empires Online. As we have always known the Ensemble Studios attitude about game development has always been play testing, play testing and more play testing so it is no surprise these values have been taken across to Robot Entertainment.

Age of Empires games have always been built by play testing.  At Ensemble before and at Robot now, our basic development philosophy remains unchanged – get a playable version of the game up and running as soon as possible, then play the living hell out of it.

This approach has massive advantages.  Everyone on the team knows and contributes to their game.    If something is broken, all of the most capable eyes are looking.  If an idea isn’t going to work the way you saw in your head, the reaction in play test makes that obvious.  And nothing is better for guiding fast, impactful changes – a few weeks back, there were people literally making realtime fixes to Age of Empires Online based on problems players in the alpha were chatting to us while they played.     

The blog continues into a very interesting discussion talking about what key values make an Age game and how they fit in with what people want. The blog also looks at where AOE-O fits into the series taking parts of the Age of Kings with parts of more recent titles like Age of Empires 3. Fans will be pleased to read that alot of iconic Age game features will be present in AOE-O including the classic villagers carrying resources and as rumored from the blog the classic “wololo” sound! Ian summarises the development as ““Age of Kings style game play in an Age of Empires setting”. 

Read more on the Robot Entertainment website courtesy of “Mother”.


Halo Wars Dev Blogs (page 2)

  • How to Build a Base in the 26th Century

    Halo Wars had its fair share of challenges. We were trying to bring the strategy genre successfully to the consoles for the first time. We were working with someone else’s IP. We had never done a console game. The list could easily be bigger than that, but you get the idea.

    Now that Halo Wars has shipped and everyone’s had a chance to see, play, and evaluate it, we have the opportunity to discuss more about the process of making Halo Wars. For example, everyone knows how base building works in Halo Wars. Each base has a fixed set of slots (though you have to upgrade to get access to all of them). You click on a building site, make a deft move with the left stick, and tap A. Presto, here comes that Barracks you ordered. Nifty. It’s fast. It’s quick.

    But is that a good thing? Most strategy games are noted for their deep city building and economic elements. WTF Halo Wars??? Why don’t you have an Age of Empires-like infrastructure game where the truly skilled players can “out econ” the newbies? The fairly un-sexy answer is that we just wanted a faster game with a larger focus on combat. Okay, fair enough. Let’s look at the iterations that base building went through to achieve those goals.

    When we started Halo Wars, we had the relatively simple idea of bringing the “Age Experience” to consoles. The longer we worked on Halo Wars, the more we realized that we were doing something else: bringing a new strategy experience to consoles. Age is a PC game with PC sensibilities. Halo Wars needed to be something else given its platform. The games needed to be shorter. The action needed to be faster.

    So how does that affect bases? Well, given our background with Age, the first base building system we implemented on Halo Wars involved placing buildings wherever the player wanted. Just like Age. For us, this was a logical starting point. Over the years, we’d fought hard to hold onto the idea that nothing invests a player in his base more than building it himself. And, most designers will tell you that base investment is a good thing for a strategy game.

    After we got farther, though, we ran into problems. Players were spending too long building out their bases. At one point, we were even letting players rotate individual buildings. That made the problems twice as bad, not to mention exposing some brittleness in our new engine’s placement code. Players would agonize over the decision of where to optimally place a barracks instead of spending time watching their troops. On the one hand, that’s good. We want folks to care about that non-combat stuff. On the other hand, every second spent in your base was a second not spent in combat.

    So, we tried to simplify building placement to make it simpler and faster. We made the buildings all the same size, so it was easier to visualize/control the layout. Yuck. The buildings all ended up being on the “big” side of the spectrum to accommodate our need to drive tanks out of them. That was a lot of wasted space. So, we made them all smaller. Too hard to tell them apart. So, we went back to varied building sizes. But, we took out buildings so you had less to build. Blech. That was definitely too far. It was clear that players didn’t have enough to do in their bases when we did that. All the time we were struggling with this issue, players weren’t having fun. Building placement was frustrating and it was killing the game.

    Halo Wars has a really cool terrain system, perhaps the best we’ve ever built. It needed it, frankly, to even compete on the console. The game had to look hot. As we moved away from our random map heritage, though, things got more complicated. The terrain was more varied, so simply plopping a building down anywhere was harder because the ground was never really very flat. The code to dynamically raise and lower the terrain hadn’t turned out as well as we wanted, so we had problems just letting you build anywhere. As we looked at our options for fixing building placement, we decided to live with those limits and build the design around having players only build in “mostly flat” spots.

    As you might expect, our next iterations were played on exceedingly boring, flat maps. Not good. After a while, we couldn’t take it anymore and the maps went back to having height variation. That was really a blessing in disguise. That issue pushed us over the edge on finally accepting that we needed to keep our bases “collected” in small areas. This turned out to be great for helping people parse and learn the maps quickly, which suited our faster play goal. But, that also sucked royally with our placement system. Things were too cramped.

    As the playtest feedback inevitably started to re-suggest making buildings smaller again to work around the cramped towns, we stepped back. Something big had to change. After what turned out to be a couple of months of hemming and hawing, we left behind our “place anywhere” traditions and adopted the so-called socketed building model.

    In hindsight, I think this was one of our best decisions. It instantly made the gameplay in bases quick like we wanted. The bases also looked a helluva lot better, too. The random, ramshackle hodgepodge was gone. There was some order, which sorta suited a heavy military game anyway. Design-wise, it was also a clear system that visibly presented you with your tradeoffs. You knew how many sockets each base had. You didn’t have to play Building Tetris only to find out that there wasn’t any space for the building you wanted to place.

    It was somewhere during this 5th redo of the buildings that we realized the next problem. The bases were still too big. They looked awesome, sure, but they were too big. We couldn’t have enough bases on our 3v3 maps with the base size as it was. I think the only time I’ve ever truly feared for my life was when I had to tell the artists that we had to redo the buildings again. If only that was the last time.

    The next (and last) big problem on base building and building size turned out to be the need for the units to exit their buildings. We really wanted to showcase that. It had been received very well in our E3 2007 demo. We had gutted that base scheme during the various un-fun iterations of the “place anywhere” systems, so most of the E3 2007 stuff was gone. But, we were determined to keep the units exiting their buildings. But those tanks are so f’ing big. Each building site had to be big enough to accommodate the Vehicle Depot, which was killing our attempts to reduce the base size.

    I honestly don’t recall who suggested that we have each unit exit from some building. I do recall that it was met with the burning hatred of 1000 suns when I pitched it to the team. It wasn’t a popular idea. It was another piece of the vaunted “Age gameplay” that we were taking away. But, taking it away was the right thing. We could make the central building bigger and the outlying buildings smaller, which fixed our base size issue. Plus, design-wise, it made gather points much easier to manage since players only had one. Another “win” for ease of play on the console.

    Okay, I lied. We actually had to redo the buildings one more time after that because the Design Department kinda goofed on some calculations with the turrets. But, let’s not go into that one.

    Dave Pottinger, Lead Designer

    Posted Monday, May 18, 2009 1:10 PM by Aloysius

  • Artists Blog: Map Environments

    While working on Halo Wars I focused on creating the initial environments used throughout the skirmish maps and scenarios.The early phases began with our concept artist to get the look and feel of each world and working with designers on how these would be a part of the overall storyline. Also, brainstorming with programmers for terrain tools and understanding aspects of the new game engine to develop something we had never achieved before. Here are three of the major steps I would go though in creating our environments, although there were many more along the way.


    The first step of creating a world would start with the terrain textures. This process was a definite change from the work I had done on the previous Age games. Halo Wars was a totally new game engine and our blend system had much more flexibility. Less textures were needed but the end result was much more dynamic and even the normal map generation had improved greatly. The number one obstacle for creating terrain textures was the vast difference in hue/saturation and compression from the PC monitor to the Xbox 360. What you see was not what you got. In an RTS game there is a fine balance in the complexity of textures and how the game units will read once placed on them. You have to make sure they are just the right brightness and saturation that add to the game experience and not distract from it. This part of the process is my favorite, because I enjoy making textures. Other artists like to make fun of my image files for having dozens of layers but I know what they all do. When I need to change the color of a single rock on the texture or the length of a grass blade I know just where it is at… well most of the time 😉


    The second step was sculpting and using the tools to manipulate the new powerful terrain mesh for the game. Before our games only used displacement on the Y axis, in Halo Wars we could move terrain vertices in all axes. While this gave us more freedom to create overhangs and more complex canyons and mountain ranges it did add more time to the sculpting. This step took the longest in our schedule and sometimes was the most difficult. To help us with the initial roughing out of the map we used a terrain generator that would create a displacement map and give us a nice starting point. Now that we had a mountain range or canyon we would go in with the finer tools and add the detailed characteristics for that particular environment. There were limitations though, and with all the new complex sculpting and higher tessellation we had to be efficient and optimized for game performance.


    Some of the final steps were tweaking the lighting to create the mood of the world. Lighting for RTS games can be an ongoing hair pulling ordeal. As an artist you want to have the most realistic, colorful and dramatic lighting. But also as a game developer you have to make sure people can tell what the hell is going on. Some units that appear smaller on the screen could come out looking unreadable black blobs if your sun direction, inclination, ambient light and shadow darkness settings were not correct. The big difference in an RTS and other genres of game lighting is trying to pull off a night time scene, we always want to do them, but have to pull back a little. Player color and unit recognition go out the door when you turn the sun off. Scenario 2 was probably the closest we did to a night time setting. I had to add a lot of local lights but that would hurt performance. Sometimes without anyone looking my artist instincts took over and I would add a few lights here and there to get it just right. Whether I created a bright and vivid mountain valley or a dark and cold wasteland, with the lighting done right, it pulled in the player that much more into our environments.

    Artists, programmers and designers all played major roles in creating the Halo War environments from look, tools, layout and storyline. I feel these environments are some of the best in a console RTS that have been done.

    Bryan “bimbosoup” Hehmann
    Environment Artist Posted Thursday, May 07, 2009 2:29 PM by Aloysius

  • “Board” to Death: A Day in the Life of a Concept Artist

    When I was first approached to write something for the website from a Concept Artist’s viewpoint, I thought that I would just do a generic, “day in the life of an artist”, type of write-up that we’ve all seen before. I thought about it. I figured I could sum up in a few simple sentences how concept art gets created and eventually put into the game. I could write about how we receive a written description of a unit, building or environment; how we create rough drawings of what we think a unit might look like; and then when one “thumbnail” is approved, we polish it so that the 3D modelers can build it, animators can give it life and then that unit can get put into the game.

    In a nutshell, that is what a concept artist does. Quick, clean and summarized in a tidy little paragraph with enough time to spare to go watch the NBA playoffs.

    Then I thought about it again. And I realized that it wasn’t that simple; at least not on Halo Wars and definitely not at Ensemble Studios.

    You see, in order to create artwork at the highest level, you not only need a team that is talented, dedicated and stays on schedule, but you also need a team that meshes with each another. For that team to be successful in what they do, they need to have chemistry. So instead of writing about our daily tasks and attaching images of artwork, I decided to talk about what the team did that wasn’t on the task list and include photos that illustrated the “chemistry” that we had.

    Throughout the studio there are white boards that are used for a variety of things like jotting down tasks and ideas, descriptions of units and keeping track of deadlines. The artists, on the other hand, had a different use for them. The concept guys would draw caricatures and create “inside joke” drawings on a daily basis. I would walk in the office and at the end of each day there would be new and often inspiring drawings on the white boards. While these boards’ original purpose was to have drawings, diagrams and written statements to help keep the team on track, the random imagery, humorous and often non-work-related material, probably kept the team more focused than unit descriptions or schedule dates and deadlines. It wasn’t long before other artists joined in on the fun as well. It wasn’t unusual to poke fun at each other, or crack a joke at someone’s expense. The ratio of laughing and having fun to drawing was probably an even 50/50. I absolutely felt that this dynamic was essential to create the top notch artwork that was done on the project. There were a lot of late nights and long hours, and without a sense of humor the team probably would have driven each other insane.

    I’ve always felt that if you enjoy what you are doing and who you are doing it with, success will ultimately follow. Take a look at the art-work in Halo Wars and I think that you’ll agree that we were successful in what we set out to do: create a beautiful looking game. Laughing the whole time.

    During my short time leading the concept guys on Halo Wars, I realized something- I did a heck of a lot more learning than I did teaching. Thanks to the Halo Wars concept team.

    Below are some examples of the crazy pix that these guys did… I’ve “edited” a few of them. 😛

    Posted Tuesday, April 28, 2009 3:02 PM by Aloysius

  • Under The Hood of the Halo Wars Combat System


    The simulation system of any RTS can at times be hard for the players to unravel exactly what is going on so today we are taking a quick look at the core systems comprising the Halo wars combat system. 

    In Halo Wars every combat unit has an armor type and at least one weapon (often more), while each weapon has its individual damage, damage type and accuracy stats.  Every attack in halo wars has a specific weapon associated with it even special attacks such as grenades or canister shot have separate specific weapons just for that special to use.


    The first item we will look at it is the accuracy system in halo wars and how individual projectiles are directed when fired at the enemy.  Every weapon has individual accuracy ratings that determine how accurate the attacks it makes are; the first rating is a straight chance to have the projectile be fired true while the second rating is used to determine how far off the aim is if the attack is not perfectly accurate.   After the projectile is fired all that is left to find out is what unit is actually hit as a weapon can “roll” a miss and the enemy can move into the projectiles path.


    After a projectile actually hits a target comes stage two of combat where the armor type of the unit being hit and the damage type being applied are used to look up a damage modification.  The final damage is calculated by multiplying the base damage by this damage modifier. 

    A simple example of this is a marine firing on a scorpion with his rifle which for this example we will say does 10 base damage, now then the scorpion is armor type “Heavy armor” and the rifle does damage type “small arms fire” so we cross reference small arms fire and heavy armor on the table and get 0.4 modifier.  The final damage will 4 damage done to the scorpion tank, calculated by taking the base damage (10) and multiplying Is by the modifier (0.4).

    Wrap up

    Overall the damage system is relatively straight forward with the main complexity coming from the number of armor and damage types but where feasible like type weapons share like type damage types.  The machine gun on a scorpion does the same damage type as on the warthog for example.  Also most game units have a fairly straight forward armor type except for a few special cases I will not be covering (but they are not important for this article).

    Some base Armor types in Halo wars

    • Light infantry:                    Marines, Grunts, Jackals, brutes, Elites
    • Heavy Infantry:                 Flamethrowers, Hunters, Cyclops
    • Medium Armor:                     Warthogs, Ghosts, Choppers, Wolverines, Cobras
    • Heavy armor:                     Scorpions, Wraith, Elephants, Scarabs
    • Aircraft:                                Hornets,  Banshees, Vultures, Vampires
    • Building:                               Bases, Buildings, Turrets


    Some example damage types

      • Plasma pistols and rifles
      • Plasma cannons on ghost, banshee and wraith
      • Heavy machine guns on warthog, scorpion and hornet
    • Heavy MG and plasma

      • Wolverine anti air missiles
      • Turret anti-air missiles
      • Vulture anti-air missiles
      • Vampire heavy needles
      • Turret anti-air needles
    • Anti air missiles/ needles

      • Marine grenade/ RPG special attacks
      • Grunt plasma grenade special attack
      • Warthog grenadier
      • Wolverine grenade mortar
    • Grenades

      • Rebel snipers
      • Jackal snipers
    • Sniper attacks

      • Flamethrower
      • Flame mortars
      • Covenant anti-infantry plasma mortar turret
    • Flames

    Damage type/ armor type lookup table (real numbers from the Halo Wars database)

      Light infantry Heavy infantry Medium Armor Heavy Armor Aircraft Buildings
    Heavy MG and plasma 160% 120% 120% 40% 180% 40%
    Anti air missiles/ needles 120% 120% 100% 60% 300% 60%
    Grenades 80% 60% 160% 120% 80% 160%
    Sniper attacks 400% 300% 40% 20% 40% 20%
    Flames 300% 200% 40% 20% 40% 40%

    Posted Monday, April 27, 2009 2:37 PM by Aloysius

  • “Five Long Years”

    The last few weeks of working on Halo Wars were quite a blur. Actually, the last several months of working on Halo Wars were quite a blur. I think if you were to ask most folks working at Ensemble Studios to describe an event in their lives from the last year, they’d have a hard time remembering what season the event took place in. For us, it was all Halo Wars, all the time. Blurry days.

    Today, I’ll do my best to remember the final steps of getting Halo Wars out the door.

    The final months of a project are all about taking the previous years of work, mashing it all together into something cohesive, testing the game, and fixing bugs. It’s also a time of very difficult decisions. In the name of getting the game out the door, we’re forced to eliminate several features, many of which already had months of work put into them. This can be costly (literally), but it helps provide focus to the most important aspects of the game, and gives us a better chance at hitting our target release date.

    Now would probably be a good time to detail out all the features we cut, but maybe that’s best left to everyone’s guesses. Or maybe those features will show up again somewhere else…

    Back to it. As we approach the last 6 weeks or so of the project, we begin thinking about something called “Release Candidates”. These are complete builds of the game that we believe are good enough to make it to the retail shelf. On December 1, 2008, we created “RC1”(Release Candidate 1). Cool, we’re done! Not so much. “RC1” never makes it all the way through the testing process, and in fact, our designers run a contest for everyone of our games trying to guess the actual number of Release Candidates we will create. Guesses for Halo Wars ranged from “RC2” (yeah!) to “RC426” (no!). For a build to be considered “the” build, several parties must sign off on it from Ensemble Studios, Microsoft Game Studios Test, the Localization team, and a Production team at Microsoft. In the end, RC11 was “blessed” by this crew. Halo Wars build number 1169.

    We’re almost home at this point, but we still have a crucial step in front of us, called Certification. For Halo Wars to be “certified” a team at Microsoft takes the game and runs it through a battery of very specific tests to make sure it lives up to the quality and experience expectations of the Xbox360. Tests range from making sure Achievements work, to seeing how the game responds to people yanking out their memory cards while the game is running (never a good thing to try 🙂 ).

    Going through Certification is a very strange experience. It can be a multi-week process, and you can go days without hearing from the Certification team on how things are going. Ensemble had just gone through months of crunch, and we suddenly found ourselves in a waiting game with very little to do but hope the game makes it through successfully. Work hours returned to normal and people passed the day working on the demo or playing board games. Weird.

    Finally, on January 8th, 2009, Halo Wars passed Certification and was declared “gold”. From there, the game was sent off to manufacturing plants all over the world, packaged up, and put on a shelf at a store near you. Good times.

    Chris Rippy

    Developers Playtesting the DLC Posted Wednesday, April 22, 2009 2:27 PM by Aloysius

  • Rock, Paper, Spartan and what it means in Halo Wars

    Tim “Timotron” Deen, Lead Technical Designer on Halo Wars, is here today to give more insight on the “Rock, Paper Scissors” aspect of the Halo Wars combat system.

    Coming into any RTS (and Halo Wars is no exception) can be a daunting task for new players as they learn the relationships of the game units, especially game units that are not direct counter or game units that are just soft counters. As such this article will attempt to delve into a more detailed look at the Halo Wars counter system and dissect it for the players into a set of discrete rules and show how the rules apply to the game. Finally before we start a term used often in this article is “RPS” which is shorthand in a RTS for “rock paper scissors” and is used to describe the rule sets that govern which units win fights.

    Now then a detailed look at the Halo Wars RPS reveals that it is a layered system of 3 RPS systems with a specific order of priority in application. Also each RPS system provides a different flavor to the game and serves to provide a specific combat flow purpose. Additionally the RPS relationships are split into the two separate buckets of “soft kill” and “hard kill”, “soft kill” relationships are where the units have a medium advantage in combat and “hard kill” is where units have a very strong advantage in combat.

    • Highest priority RPS
      • Counter unit RPS
        • Counter units hard kill their countered unit type
        • Counter units are soft killed by mainlines that they do not counter
    • Mid level RPS’s
      • Scout unit RPS
        • Hard kill counter infantry
        • Soft kill air
        • Soft killed by mainline infantry
        • Hard killed by mainline vehicles
      • Spartan RPS
        • Limited hard kill normal vehicles and air
    • Lowest priority RPS
      • Basic unit RPS
        • Infantry beat Air
        • Air beats Vehicles
        • Vehicles beat Infantry
        • Mainlines are better than counters against buildings*

    Note: * the cobra and wolverine has a minor siege counter role as a special bonus for UNSC.

    The counter unit RPS provides hard counters to punish players who attempt to run a single unit army and is the highest priority counter system. Next the scout unit RPS provides balance in the early game against counter infantry and air before their main counters come online, while the Spartan RPS provides a specific counter to vehicles in tech level 1. Finally the basic unit RPS provides a low level bias to the combat so that the units not directly involved in a higher level counter system will still have a rule that applies to them.

    The final item to cover in this article is to go over just what categories units fall into in halo wars for defining what they are. First all units have a role category assigned to them such as mainline or counter, and second they have a unit type assigned to them such as infantry or vehicle. The combination of those two items defines the unit’s base combat relationships to other units.

    Unit Categories

    • Role
      • Mainline unit
      • Counter unit
      • Scout unit
      • Special unit
    • Type
      • Infantry
      • Vehicle
      • Aircraft

One caveat before concluding is that results will vary in actual game play due to players employing micro management of units and in situations where the opponent has superior upgrades or numbers. Now with that caveat said hopefully this article will give everyone an idea of how RPS design is expressed in Halo wars and why many of the units have the combat advantages that they do.

p.s. I included a handy chart of Hard and Soft Counters below. Click for huge:

And since the first one was so popular, here is the Covenant Chart: Posted Wednesday, April 15, 2009 4:35 PM by Aloysius

  • Halo Wars Ranks and Skill Levels Explained

    Halo Wars has a couple different ways of tracking our players history from matchmade, public games. Some we use primarily to get you good games, others are more oriented to helping players rank themselves against the community. Lets go through each of them:

    Player Trueskill™
    This is the standard Xbox LIVE Trueskill™ tracking value that rates players to help match them in competitive games. We use this only for matchmaking and we use it for all matchmade games. We track a separate Trueskill™ value for each of the different Halo Wars hoppers you can play in. So you if are great at 1v1 Standard but just getting started playing 2v2 Deathmatch games – then you will be matched with similar skill level opponents in those different games. Also for team games, we average your skill with everyone else on your team – so you don’t have to worry about the skill level of the party host versus everyone else on the team – everyone’s skill is taken into account. These Trueskill™ levels are meant only to help get our players the best matched game for all our different hoppers – but if you are ever curious about your level, you can always check it out under Multiplayer | Leaderboards. Select a Leaderboard Type of “MP Skill” and set the Filter to “Pivot” (that means “Find me in the list!”). You can also see the Trueskill™ value being used during matchmaking – right after the countdown starts you will see in the middle of the screen “Party TrueSkill™ Rank X”. X will be the Trueskill™ level averaged for the entire party (if the party is just you, then that is your exact Trueskill™ level). If you are interested in more detail about how this is calculated, here are the details: TrueSkill™ Ranking System

    Skill Level
    While the Xbox LIVE TrueSkill™ values are what help us get you good matches for each hopper, we also have our servers track a global skill value for you as well. If you look up on the website, the Player Stats for yourself (or any other player), right under your gamer tag is your Skill Level . That is a value between 1 and 50 for how skilled you are at playing competitive Halo Wars games. We calculate that on the Halo Wars servers with the stats from each matchmade game you play. Note that just like for the Player Trueskill™, if a player leaves early through any means (turning off the box, exiting the game, resigning, etc ) then the system will count that as a loss.

    Skill level isn’t always the best way for tracking a player experience with the game, so we also keep a total running score of all multiplayer, matchmade games you have played. As this global score for a player goes up, we award the players various ranks to reflect their experience with the game. See the Rank section below to see what total score is needed for the various ranks. To find your score (and rank), in game go to the multiplayer menu and select Service Record | Skirmish. Note that one of the best ways to boost your score per game is to complete the game (as opposed to resigning or disconnecting). While you get a 40% bonus if you win, you also get a 20% bonus if you just complete the game. On team games if you are defeated, the award happens right then – not at the end of the game – so you don’t need to wait around in that game unless you want to watch the action.


    Rank Score Needed
    Recruit Play 1 Game
    Lieutenant 80,000
    Captain 200,000
    Major 400,000
    Commander 800,000
    Colonel 1,600,000
    Brigadier 2,400,000
    General 3,200,000
  • Share

    Halo Wars Dev Blogs page 1 (most recent)

  • Halo Wars Unit Stats

  • A lot of fans have been asking for the behind-the-scenes numbers for the units in Halo Wars.

    This Excel Spreadsheet has all of the Unit Stats, but they are a bit complicated, so I’m going to do a walk through for a UNSC Unit and a Covenant Unit so that fans can get an idea of how much damage each unit does to another. Right click on the link, and Save to your computer. Then open it up in Excel or you can download the Microsoft Excel Viewer here: Microsoft Excel Viewer 2003.

    It looks a bit complicated but I’ll try to break it down for everybody. I’ll start off with explaining some of the terms: At the top of each section is the name of the unit, for example Marine Squad. Below that, in this example, Infantry is the kind of Armor the unit has. (See the third tab for the Weapon Type vs. Armor chart). Bounty is how much Experience (XP) the unit gives to units that kill it. This Bounty is shared by all units that destroy the enemy unit.

    Hitpoints are how much health a unit has.

    DPS stands for Damage per Second. This is how much damage the unit’s specified weapon does without any upgrade. The Weapon Type is what type of damage that Weapon does. (See the third tab for the Weapon Type vs. Armor chart).
    Some weapons have a Damage over Time effect (DoT) that affects a unit after it has been attacked in addition to normal damage.

    Upgrades are the techs you research that affect each unit. They usually have a damage or health multiplier in addition to their main effect. Multipliers stack, that is, the 2nd upgrade builds on top of the first in terms of hit points or damage.

    Veterancy is the stars that appear over unit’s heads after they gain a certain amount of XP from killing units. Each unit has its own Veterancy table, and they do more and take less damage for each Star they gain through killing other units.

    Below is the math for the Marine and Banshee, hopefully it will give players a guide on how to calculate the units health and damage at a given level.

    An un-upgraded marine squad has 5 members.

    Assault Rifle
    11 x 5 = 55 DPS
    280 x 2 = 560 DPS (Only 2 marines throw Grenades)
    Hit Points
    720 x 5 = 3600 Hit Points.

    Getting the New Blood Upgrade adds a new marine to the squad, giving them an additional marine and upgrades damage dealt by their grenades. This upgrade has no HP Multiplier.

    Assault Rifle
    11 x 6 =66 DPS
    280 x 1.25 = 350 (x2 = 700 DPS (Only 2 marines throw Grenades))
    Hit Points
    720 x 6 = 4320 Hit Points.
    Getting the RPG Upgrade gives the marine the following stats, adding 25% to health and all damage.

    Assault Rifle
    11 x 1.25 = 13.75 (x 6 =82.5 DPS)
    350 x 1.25 = 437.5 (x 2 = 875 DPS (Only 2 marines shoot RPGs))
    Hit Points
    900 x 6 = 5400 Hit Points.

    The Medic Upgrade, in addition to providing the medic for the squad increases RPG Damage by 25%. It does not give an HP Multiplier (although it does add a Medic to the squad, increasing over all HP).

    Assault Rifle
    13.75 x 7 =96.25 DPS
    437.5 x 1.25 = 547 (x 2 = 1094 DPS (Only 2 marines shoot RPGs))
    Hit Points
    720 x 1.25 = 900 (x 7 = 6300 Hit Points.)

    The final ODST Upgrade (only available to Cutter) changes the entire squad to ODSTs, giving them a 25% bonus to health and damage.

    Assault Rifle
    13.75 x 1.25 = 17.2 (x 7 =120 DPS)
    547 x 1.25 = 684 (x2 = 1368 DPS (Only 2 marines shoot RPGs))
    Hit Points
    900 x 1.25 = 1125 (x 7 = 7875 Hit Points)

    So, as you can see, upgrading can make a huge difference in the game. The base Marine Squad does 66 DPS with 4320 hit points, and the ODST Squad does 120 DPS with almost 8,000 hit points. Pretty awesome!
    If you have an ODST Squad that happens to have gained 3 Stars of Veterancy, they’re even more powerful:
    Assault Rifle
    17.2 x 1.15 x 1.25 x 1.35 = 33.4 (x 7 =234 DPS)
    684 x 1.15 x 1.25 x 1.35 = 1337 (x2 = 2674.5 DPS (Only 2 marines shoot RPGs))

    But Wait, there’s more! A 3 star unit takes a lot less damage from incoming fire as well! Using fourth order vector calculus, we can see where that gets us:
    1125 x (1/.87) x (1/.8) x (1 / .74) = 2183 hp (x 7)= 15282 effective hit points with 3 stars

    Here are the stats on the Covenant Banshee:

    A brand new banshee with no upgrades has 3258 Hit Points and does 90 or 60 DPS depending on which weapon it uses.
    With the Boost upgrade:

    Plasma Cannon
    90 x 1.25 = 112.5 DPS
    Fuel Rod Cannon
    60 x 1.25 = 75 DPS
    Hit Points
    3528 x 1.25 = 4410 HP
    The Repeating Cannon upgrade adds health and increases the damage of only the Fuel Rod Cannon (It has no effect on the Plasma Cannon).

    Plasma Cannon
    90 x 1 = 112.5 DPS
    Fuel Rod Cannon
    75 x 1.25 = 112.5 DPS
    Hit Points
    4410 x 1.25 = 5512.5 HP
    The Sacrifice Ability adds the 1500 DPS suicide dive as well as health and damage to everything else

    112.5 x 1.15 = 129.3 DPS
    Fuel Rod Cannon
    112.5 x 1.15 = 129.3 DPS
    Hit Points
    5512.5 x 1.25 = 6890 HP

    So by the end of the day, upgrades can make a huge difference in the combat effectiveness of units.

    The third tab of the spreadsheet has the Weapon Type/Armor table. It details how much damage each Weapon Type does against the various armor types in the game. Each weapon’s type is along the top, and its damage multiplier against each kind of armor is in each column. I hope that this guide has been helpful and players can use it to help them with their strategies and tactics.

  • Lessons Learned

    Lessons Learned. Those two words usually strike fear into the hearts of many steely-eyed game developers. Synonymous with the dreaded ‘Post Mortem’, many regard those exercises as a feel-good-love-in-trip-fests-of-hate-and-venom.

    Post Mortems feel right, though. We’re supposed to look back on what we’ve done and talk about how it can be better, right? Unfortunately, we never feel good at the end of a project. We’re tired. We’re angry about some feature that had to get cut. There’s no regular Red Bull left in the fridge, only that Sugar Free crap. It’s hell! We’re in no mood to think logically or be constructive.

    And what comes out of Post Mortems? That’s right. Lessons learned. Thus, by crafty logic, any so-called learned lessons are similarly indictable offenses. What chance do we have to get any decent feedback on improvements when all we want to do is drink until we throw up in the corner of our favorite German beer establishment? Or sleep. Take your pick.

    Final Bier Garten Day

    Despite all my blustering, three guesses as to what we did after Halo Wars finished. You’ll only need one if you’ve been paying attention. Yup, we did a post mortem! Hell, we even did a two-fer. One on Halo Wars, one on Ensemble. Fun incarnate, I tell ya.

    I hope someone has read those post mortems because I haven’t. Instead, I’ve been trying to focus on what we’ve been dealing with on Halo Wars over the last 6 months. Where has our patch time gone? What are the fans saying? What cut feature do I really miss? THAT’S THE STUFF TO REMEMBER. That’s the stuff to focus on first, in my opinion.

    So, without further ado, here’s a rambling list of the things that have been grafted into my brain regarding Halo Wars.

    1. Good gameplay can work on any platform. If something is fun on one platform, it stands a really good chance of being fun on another platform. Sure, you’ll spend a lot of time finding the perfect control scheme and making endless tweaks to the game. But, good gameplay is good gameplay. Start with good gameplay you know and then go from there. If you’ve followed Halo Wars, you know that we started the project by making Age of Mythology playable with a gamepad. Once we had that, we knew we had solid basic gameplay to rely on. That was essential.

    2. Halo is HUGE. It’s hard to understate or underestimate this. Everyone knows Halo. Admittedly, not nearly as many know the difference between Halo and Halo Wars, but that’s beside the point. It was a surreal, humbling experience working on something associated with Halo.

    The Chief never reminding us what was up on the way in to playtest.

    3. If you’re going to work on someone else’s IP, you have to immerse yourself in it beyond just being a ‘fan’. This sounds kind of obvious when you read it, but it took us a while to figure it out. Most of us were pretty hardcore Halo fans, but that wasn’t enough. We had to understand the motivations behind the existing characters in order to create compelling new characters. We needed to realize where the canon was flexible in order to squeeze in the things we needed. And, in a few cases, we decided to go against canon to make a better game/experience (e.g. the Spartan’s shield and sound). I don’t know how we would have made those calls without tons of research, chats with Bungie, etc.

    4. Sex appeal still wins. Be it an E3 demo or getting dragged into your bud’s living room because “YOU GOTTA SEE THIS”, cool graphics are always sexy. Doubly so because it’s a console game. Triply so because it’s a Halo game. While there are healthy debates about the relative balance aspects, no one forgets seeing the Arbiter ride a smashed Hornet into a cliff or MAC’ing that enemy Scarab. People crave memorable game moments; graphics are a critical tool in that proverbial box.

    5. Console cert processes are a confusing black hole. We finish. We think. The discs get sent off. Time passes. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Sometimes it’s a good answer, sometimes it’s not. We were lucky that the Microsoft Game Studio testers we had were so good; they saved us countless headaches that would have killed us in cert.

    The banner still flies high.

    6. Balance is never over. Ever. Well, maybe if the Arch of Time collapses and the continuum implodes. But, then the Lord Foul is probably still pissed about those OP Gremlins.

    7. Passion beats Talent. Team beats Individual. Finishing Halo Wars was the hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally. For so many reasons, the project was just a ton of work to get out the door. Amid uncertain futures, the Ensemble team pulled together in a way that exceeded every possible expectation I had. I’m proud to say I worked on Halo Wars just because of that.

    We tried to avoid this.

    Well, there you go. Those are the big ticket items I’m going to remember from Halo Wars. I suppose you can call them Lessons Learned if you really want to. 🙂

    Dave Pottinger
    Lead Designer on Halo Wars

  • Halo Wars Playtesting

    David Leary, one of the designers at Robot Entertainment looks back at his work on Halo Wars, and specifically the playtesting that went in to it:

    One of the great Ensemble traditions that we’ve carried forward to Robot is universal company playtesting. We try to get our games up and running as soon as possible, get an early version into playtest, and iterate based on feedback. Everyone is expected to help test and offer constructive criticism, find bugs, and be familiar with the high-level concepts of the game.

    I was a late addition to the Halo Wars team, joining up for the last six months. Halo Wars had been a long project, and needed an “all hands on deck” approach to get the game to the level of quality we wanted before it went out the door. As a designer, I wasn’t as important an addition as the extra programmers and artists that were rolling onto the game, so my job was to pick up secondary tasks from other designers who were overloaded. I ended up with a grab-bag of responsibilities, such as writing a bunch of the battle chatter for the Covenant units and organizing the game’s many text assets for voice recording sessions.

    The 15th Floor Playtest Lab.

    In addition, along with Kevin Holme and a few other folks, I ended up running a bunch of playtest sessions. This was something I’d done a lot of back on Age 3 and Warchiefs, though I was out of practice. Justin “Bear” Rouse had been handling most of the playtest sessions for Halo Wars, but he was busy fixing bugs on the multiplayer maps. The end of the project required us to keep our fourteen playtest seats busy all day long, so running playtest was a full-time job in itself.

    Managing a Halo Wars playtest session was a lot like herding cats. Some of the playtests were scheduled, but late in the project, a lot of sessions would get called on an as-needed basis. I’d page for testers over the intercom, but since everyone had other responsibilities, I’d often only get four or five people on the first call. Usually a second page would fill the rest of the seats. If that didn’t work, I’d start walking around the office – it was hard for my co-workers to turn down a personal request, especially if I groveled.

    Often we needed to test specific game features. An artist would come down, excited to take on their office mate in a 1v1 multiplayer match – only to be told that I needed him to run through scenario six on easy difficulty level. A group of testers might get asked to keep playing the same map over and over again with one particular Covenant leader, trying to find an elusive out-of-sync. For traditional QA folks, this was familiar ground – their primary job was to find bugs and play the same content over and over again. But for the rest of the team, the playtest process often felt like a grueling slog.

    The 16th Floor Playtest Lab.

    Toward the end of the project, Ensemble faced the closure of the studio. We wanted to make Halo Wars a great game and go out with a bang, but we were also under enormous pressure. The studio’s imminent demise definitely made for a few grumpy playtest sessions, but everyone remained totally professional throughout the difficult process. The feedback we got from those final sessions proved to be invaluable in helping us make the last few tweaks to the game.

    Though we’re slowly developing our own identity at Robot and re-evaluating our old ways of doing business, we always assumed we’d continue to playtest our games early and often. Our new test lab may be eight seats instead of fourteen, and it may not have mood lighting and fancy automatic window shades (or, in fact, windows at all), but it’s still where the development magic happens.

    The new Robot Entertainment Playtest Lab.

    But before we could turn over the test lab to Robot’s new games, we had some Halo Wars business to attend to. About a month after we settled into our new office, the playtest kits were humming and the first cut of the Halo Wars DLC was ready to go. One afternoon, I was in the middle of working on a design problem when I saw Justin heading in my direction.

    That day, it was his turn to herd the cats. I’ve been in his shoes. I immediately knew what he was going to ask me. I knew what exactly what I had to say to make his afternoon just a little bit easier and help make the Halo Wars DLC just a little bit better.

    “Sure – I’ll come playtest!”

  • Halo Wars Dev Blog: Leader Powers Part Four

    This is the 4th and final part of the Halo Wars Leader Powers Dev Blog. Marcin Szymanski wrote parts One and Two, and this is Vijay Thakkar’s second and final Dev Blog. Part 3 is here.


    The Rage power started with a pretty simple idea: the player should feel like a badass while killing things with the Arbiter. Easy enough, right? Having just come off of getting the basics of Cryo done and understanding some of the nuances of our code based powers system, Rage became a prime example of prototyping a radical idea really quickly to evaluate how fun it was before investing serious effort into it. I really wanted the player to feel like they were in control of the Arbiter, that they could steer him around and direct him to attack. I felt like it was necessary to try a much more direct control scheme, something closer to the traditional console experience.

    It didn’t take much time to get something up and running, showing the Arbiter running around and teleporting to attack by flicking the right analog stick. It turned out that controlling the Arbiter like this and hopping across the battlefield in a matter of seconds was just crazy fun. I knew we were getitng somewhere when I could bring a coworker over to my desk to try it out and the result was a giddy smile on their face and a thirty minutes of brainstorming ideas on how to improve it. That process of just excitedly throwing ideas around with fellow gamers is absolutely one of the best parts of game development.

    Arbiter’s Rage power is the only way he can hit Air units.

    There were certainly a lot of difficulties with Rage, not least of which was the fact that our simluation was made for indirect movement of units via commands, not at all for direct control of a unit. Plenty of complications arose around our pathing and obstruction systems, such as how to address pushing up against static and dynamic units, what to do when the unit got stuck, etc. Additionally, we started to question how asychronous we could make the control of the Arbiter on the local player’s machine to make input tighter (check Marcin Szymanski’s dev diary about how this was solved for Cleansing). This was a very complex problem, since there was more state to simulate with the Arbiter than there was with a beam. Given where we were in the lifecycle of the project and what we felt it would be irresponsible to take on work that we couldn’t polish, and instead work inside the system we had in place. In that regard, we actually solved the problem of the Arbiter’s movement in the opposite way of the cleansing beam (a little ironc, since the Arbiter has more complex movements). The Arbiter is actually controlled the same as any other units in the game: the controlling player sends movement commands to all connected machines, and each machine simulates that command in a synchronous manner. There’s a little bit of delay there, but I think the compromise was worth it.

    The power only improved in quality as we added in camera shake, controller shake. particle effects, impact decals on terrain, sound effects, and serious area of effect damage. The initial versions of all of those were a little overpowering, but they certainly were fun. A good amount of custom code went into pacing the actual movement of the Arbiter, and really nailing the speed at which you could jump from one target to another. It needed to be quick enough that you felt powerful, but not so quick so that you felt totally out of control. Throw game balance into the mix, and adjusting that speed and pacing became very important. Because of those pauses between jumps, we focused on making each individual jump feel as impactful as possible. The Rage power actually had quite a few complex code systems interacting within it, marking the first power that had variable cost based off of the action that was executing, as well as the most elaborate upgrades within the leader powers. (the final upgrade of Rage is just so powerful).

    There are lots of interesting edge cases with the Arbiter’s Rage power.

    The final piece of the Rage puzzle happened during what I can only describe as the “final weeks before all polish features are done, so if you have any pet polish items you really want to get in, you *** well better do it now” phase of the project. I was pretty happy with how Rage was coming along, but when attacking air units the Arbiter would jump towards them and strike the ground underneath them, dealing damage in a clearly unfinished manner. We were at an turning point where the Arbiter either wouldn’t be able to deal damage to air units in Rage mode, or we needed to find another solution. Enter a little excitement and support from an animator, and we managed to find a way to reuse some of the code systems created for Spartan jacking to allow the Arbiter to jump onto and destroy air vehicles. It’s something that literally came together in a matter of a day or two to prove the concept. It took a while after that to polish it all up and find a good balance of the physics impacts to the aircrafts when he hit (an initial impusle when landing on the unit, and another each time he struck it). When it all came together, It was pretty awesome to see the Arbiter destroy a unit and ride it in down into the ground, reminscent of riding a bomb down to impact (Dr. Strangelove, anyone?). After all that came together, I think I could watch people destroying hornets with the Arbiter all day long in playtest laughing maniacally.


    Vortex was the final power to come online. Rage was finished enough to where we needed to seriously figure out what the final power would be, and I was ready to go with two power’s worth of implementations under my belt. I remember sitting around an office with a few other people throwing out ideas on what direction we wanted to take the Brute’s power. Inspired by some of the modal controls from Cleansing and Rage, we had ideas all over the board – a wave attack accomplished by swinging the thumbstick, a ground slam attack that split the ground underneath units, and even a mode where the player controlled two different gravity wells, each moved by an analog stick. We settled on a starting point: driving one gravity well around that gathered debris until it reached critical mass and exploded for massive damage. As an interesting aside – the Brute’s power was originally called Wave in all our in game text, until we came up with a new idea during implementation it, at which point Vortex seemed somewhat more appropriate and we had to go back and re localize a bunch of strings.

    The initial version of Vortex did nothing more than instantly kill infantry units and snatch them up into a ball, in which they immediately disappeared (certainly quite rudimentary). Kind of like what it would look like if you dropped a black hole onto the battlefield. As we iterated on it a little more, we were fortunate enough to reuse some code in the building and vehicle destruction system added in for the Cyclops’ throw ability, specifying what pieces were able to be torn off to be used as projectiles. Prototype Vortex also involved finding the perfect amount of force to apply to the objects, somewhere between comically sending them into orbit and sadly nudging them along the ground. These first implementations were racked with bugs as we dealt with entire buildings that would go flying around the screen and even a case where the Brute got pulled into his own Vortex (a side effect of being rammed by a Warthog while casting). However, through all the chaos it showed us one thing with certainty: a power with physics effects can be *** fun.

    The Vortex Leader power had its own problems as well, this situation would be very bad for the Brute Chieftain player.

    One of the most interesting tidbits of information when it comes to physics in games is that a real world physics simulation is very rarely what you want in a game context. More often than not you want something that appears to be a real physics simulation, but is carefully crafted to create the effect you’re looking for. In this case we had a very specific effect we were trying to accomplish: a swirling mass of objects, not under complete control. Needless to say, many different attempts and approaches were taken to try and get the orbiting behavior we were looking for in the most general case. There were plenty of times when pieces would launch across the map, or where every piece conglomerated into a blob of polygon soup in the center of the Vortex. The final solution involved remove all object to object collisions inside of the vortex and completely disable their gravity. The ideal distance from the center and the initial force used to pull the object to the center of the vortex were dynamically scaled based off of how many objects the vortex had currently picked up, which allowed the chaotic swirling mass to very gradually grow each time a new piece was picked up. Tweaking those values and finding some creative solutions inside of the physics simulation was certainly one of the most challenging part of the Vortex power, and without a doubt the source of the most bugs.

    It became important to have Vortex stand out from the other powers: it needed to have its own chaotic nature and feel in its camera and controls. We prototyped a variety of potential solutions, from a fixed camera over the shoulder of the Brute looking forward onto the Vortex to directly controlling the Vortex the same way as Cleansing. There was even a version where the player controlled both the horizontal and vertical movement of the swirling death ball with both analog sticks. As we iterated, freer camera control stood tall and I’m quite glad that we could find something in the middle, controlling similarly to Cleansing but with some unique twists. In the final version, the camera is focused on a point between the Brute and the Vortex, effectively keeping both in the player’s visibility, and the Vortex’s vertical movement is automatic in a sinusoidal pattern (which also helped to give the internal objects some more motion). Finally, Vortex employs a similar system to Rage in that its cost changes based off of the state that it is in. It is the only power that costs nothing to maintain, (only taking resources when dealing damage), and is also the only power that actually improves its potential damage the longer it is active. As the Vortex picks up more and more pieces, the power of the final explosion increases to devastating amounts, which combine with the damage inflicted by the thrown debris, providing an effect that was a bit more chaotic in nature.

    The Vortex power also had the ability to throw other leaders around, getting this Arbiter stuck.

    Even after all of this work, it was pretty cool to see a multitude of your enemies swirling helplessly in a wild gravity induced mass and blow them to kingdom come, but it still didn’t feel as badass as it could be. There are a lot of little polish features that really brought the effect from cool to over the top and really awesome. We gave the lightning bolts that strike down enemy units intelligent behavior to find the most effective target unit in its area of effect and added the slightest rumble of the camera and controller on each blow. We again found that adding a delay to cascade the objects that were picked up off of the field gave the visual effect a much better pacing. As each piece is picked up (or gloriously ripped off a vehicle), there is a distinctive controller rumble, a quick bolt of lightning, and a physics impulse applied lateral to the ball which starts the piece off in a perfect orbit around the Vortex. It’s a lot of little meticulous work that it seems like noone would notice, but the sum of all the parts add up to make the power just feel better when playing. It all comes together to really make the player feel like they can dominate the battlefield with a little bit of controlled chaos. One of my personal favorite illustrations of the Vortex power came from a playtest where a player started spiraling the power around in circles until the pieces got enough momentum orbiting the vortex horizontally, and he managed to time the explosion perfectly to effectively shotput a spray of tank pieces and marines into an enemy base. Not exactly the most practical attack, but you have to give the guy points for style.


    It was certainly a challenge to try and create all the experiences we wanted to illustrate with the leader powers, especially under the gun of the inevitable deadline. We quickly learned that in order to make any of the powers live up to the intensity they needed to portray, a high level of polish was necessary. The meticulous details like adding a tenth of a second delay to an effect, a subtle controller shake, or Spirit of Fire chatter in the targeting UI may not have been overtly noticeable, but they were absolutely pivotal to taking the powers over that last step from pretty good to really great.

    This early Halo Wars Development Screenshot, shows some temporary art of BorgTim, and the Orbital Bombardment Leader Power, as well as some early UI.

    Being sure we had the time to add that polish meant that we were always evaluating the cost and benefit of the work we were doing. Not many people know, but there was actually a point where we were short on time enough that we talked about the potential ramifications of giving all three of the Convenant leaders the cleansing power! Fortunately, I’m very happy that a little passion and some hard working late nights from all of our disciplines let us create and finish the Rage and Vortex powers, which in my personal opinion, feel pretty *** great and added a lot of depth to the Convenant side.

    Taking point on creating and polishing the leader powers on Halo Wars was a spectacular experience for me personally – rewarding because of the end result as well as the process in which we got there. The excitement that came out of the team during brainstorming and the cross discipline work while creating the powers is really the passion that comes together to make a great game in this industry. I know that I was excited to make the player feel like a badass on the battlefield in an RTS, and I feel like we accomplished that.

    This other early Halo Wars Development Screenshot shows the Orbital Bombardment power in action, as well as very early base buildings.

    Probably my favorite part of working on the powers was watching people play during our company playtests. Each time a new power went in or had a new feature added, it was awesome to see it immediately become the “power of choice” for everyone playing. It was easy to tell how well we were doing with the current version by seeing how many people said, “Holy crap that’s awesome!” or were laughing maniacally while devastating their opponent while trying out the new power. I hope all of you have had a similar experience when you used the powers in Halo Wars; I would certainly consider that a victory. Thanks for reading, See you on Xbox Live!

  • Halo Wars Dev Blog: Leader Powers Part Three

    The Creative Process:

    Good news everyone! I’ve decided to give you a little insight into the leader powers in Halo Wars. I’m Vijay Thakkar, currently a programmer at Robot Entertainment and was a programmer on Halo Wars at Ensemble Studios. I spent a good deal of my time working on many parts of Halo Wars, most notably the leader powers. Hopefully you after reading this, you’ll have a more insight into how we got to the powers we have in the shipping game and the game development process in general. Enjoy!

    The leader powers in Halo Wars had a variety of roles to fill: they needed to illustrate the identity of each of the leaders, to stand out as different gameplay than the traditional RTS, to break stalemates in games, etc. Most apparently to me, they really needed to make the player feel powerful and dominating on the battlefield. All this needed to, of course, fit inside of an RTS world and be balanced. Quite the challenge we had ahead of us.

    I personally took the reigns on the power system during the latter portion of the project. We had a few of the powers implemented via our scripting system and had recently created a code driven power system (see Marcin Szymanski’s dev diary for some history there), but we still had over half the powers to create and all of them to polish. We were in a pretty great place at that point: lessons learned from previous powers and a new system that made prototyping simpler, it was a rich breeding ground for some awesome out of the box ideas.

    The actual process of creating the powers in Halo Wars was something that depended on strong collaborating from all disciplines: art, design, programming and sound. All the departments needed to work closely together through the entire process to get them right. The environment that we fostered at Ensemble Studios made this process a blast – ideas that anyone on the team had could be a source of inspiration (not just design). This made for a flexible environment where even a programmer had opportunities to contribute to the design and prototype ideas. Trying out new ideas is one of the best parts of game development, hands down.

    Heal / ODST

    The secondary powers (powers shared between leaders) were some of the first that actually made their way into the game, because of a necessity to demonstrate their influence on the minute to minute gameplay. They were simple in their concepts and involved a fairly basic input system – fire and forget, for the most part. Fortunately, this was an excellent illustration of the strength in our visual scripting system. Our designers were able to jump and implement a simple version of the effect they needed without lots of programmer support. Embracing the attitude of being able to quickly experiment with and try out an idea in game became pivotal to iterating towards some amazing powers.

    The Healing Power went through many different iterations on whether or not it worked in combat.

    Heal and ODST are great examples: they were added into the game very early and actually stayed in their initial state until fairly late in the lifecycle of Halo Wars. However, as the edge case bugs started to appear (dropping ODST squads inside of buildings, oh no!) and as we entered the polish phase of the project, it became evident that we needed to move their implementations to code. This allowed us to tailor the timing and effects to each power, gave us the chance to more easily reuse parts of the codebase that were not exposed to the scripting system, and to maintain consistency between the other powers that had been implemented in code. Inevitably, a single code path for one system produces significantly less bugs than trying to maintain multiple systems.

    Early ODST pods may have been a bit strong and broke the ground.


    Disruption was actually one of the powers that was on the chopping block until the absolute last minute. In a technical sense it wasn’t a necessary power to balance the game, but not including it would have required us to scale down the strength of the other powers (especially the Covenant) dramatically, since the game would lack a direct counter. Personally, the concept of lessening the impact of any of our powers hurt me down to my gamer core. Needless to say, I was very happy to see that quick turnaround on the concept and implementation allowed us to include it in the end.

    Cryo was so good at one point, it even stopped Disruption from working.

    Disruption was probably the fastest power to go from concept to final implementation in game. We relied heavily on reusing pieces that we had built for the other powers: the fly by of the Shortsword bomber, the targeting UI, the Spirit of Fire sound effects, and much of the basic structure were lifted almost directly from Cryo. The unique elements were only finished in time because of fast work from everyone involved. We used a custom animation for the motion of the bomb’s arc and its explosion, the sound crew contributed to really getting the effect of the lightning crackling and the ticking down of the bomb, and programming added in the decaying radial pulse and the bolt of lightning emitted when a power was diffused (when a Covenant leader came into range, for example). Some great teamwork and intelligent compromises late in the process are what let us keep Disruption in the game, and helped keep the other powers as strong as they are.


    Cryo was the first of the major leader powers that had a high level concept where I was able to work with the design team to try out some ideas out and see inspiration took us. The concept behind Cryo was to create something that illustrated the very scientific nature of Anders’ character via a freezing effect. On the surface, Cryo doesn’t appear to be as powerful compared to the other powers, and that is because it was coined as a support power. It was designed to really shine when combined with an army or with another player’s powers (the exception being air units, which it can be particularly devastating against). Armed with some ideas on how to make freezing feel awesome in an RTS, I cracked my coding knuckles and jumped right in.

    Cryo also froze entire Firebases into blocks, sometimes unintentionally.

    The first implementation of Cryo felt astonishingly bland, however. The first design dropped down a persistent whirlwind-style area of freezing that gradually froze any units that got stuck inside of it. Unfortunately, this presented as a pretty confusing mess to the player, not fully understanding why their units were sometimes freezing and sometimes not, and not fully understanding what the penalty was. For a variety of reasons, it just didn’t work. We had to iterate on the design of Cryo quite a bit to get the effect somewhere that really felt as good as it needed to.

    We really started to get there when we took a fundamental shift to making the power closer to an instant effect. Even with that change, something didn’t quite feel there. Once we tried cascading the freeze effect on the unfortunate units that were to be frozen is what really started to make the effect shine. Essentially, the instant the power goes off (with that oh-so-satisfying ice explosion sound), all units that will be affected are found, and we freeze each one individually from the center to the outer edge with a very slight time delay between each unit. The whole effect happens in under a second, but that heartbeat between freezes helped tremendously to give the power a better execution time line.

    Cryo is the bane of every air unit, even Pelicans on your side far away from the bomb.

    However, the complexity of the power quickly started to spider web out because the Cryo power was created after the wide majority of the units were completed. It became evident that many different pieces of the simulation would need to be touched to really support the concept of being frozen. What happens when you freeze a spartan that is in the middle of jacking a vehicle? How about if you freeze a reactor? Or a unit that is in the middle of walking out of a base? (Sadly, the first implementation answered the last question by having the unit permanently stuck inside of the building. Doh.) All of those problems needed to be solved and then implemented. Before we were finished, we actually customized our entire building and unit destruction system to include the concept of a ‘frozen’ part, containing slightly different behavior than parts that were normally thrown off. That is what allowed frozen tanks and frozen air units to break apart into chunks of ice that felt heavier and more dense instead of sending their parts everywhere, in the case of a normal explosion.

    Once the larger pieces were solved, a little tightening up of the visuals got the power up to a level that really made it feel awesome. By that point, another programmer had finished the necessary code work to render an additional material layer on the units (an effect we also used for the Mac Cannon’s targeting system) which let us put an ice texture on frozen units giving a stronger effect than cold particle effects alone. Frozen air units were given the appearance of struggling to fly via physics impulses, and their instant kills were cascaded over a short period of time (similar to the initial freezing effect) , and the power really started to tighten up. I think we knew we finally hit the mark when it felt awesome to see a flock of banshees attacking your base, because you knew you could send them to the ground to shatter under the force of a fully upgraded Cryo bomb. Beautiful.

    Well, that’s all for this week. Tune in next week for more about the Arbiter’s Rage and the Brute Chieftain’s Vortex. Thanks for Reading!

  • Leader Powers Part Two

    This is Part Two of the Halo Wars Dev Blog, last week Marcin Szymanski wrote Leader Powers Part One. Read on for the Second of Four parts in the Leader Powers Series.

    MAC Blast

    This was a really fun power to work on. Ok, I actually liked working on all the powers, but how awesome is it to fire a giant sniper round from orbit? This actually brings me to my first point: the initial version of this power, while very impressive, wasn’t quite differentiated enough from the other powers. It also lacked a certain feeling of impact and focus. Finally, the size of the blast was so large and overwhelming that it didn’t work very well for a design that called for shooting multiple MAC blasts in a short period of time.

    An Early Minigame version of the MAC Blast, hitting the buttons at the right time improved the power of the MAC Blast.

    We decided to compact the effect into a smaller area and speed up the overall visual. The faster the visual appeared to slam the round into the terrain, the better the power felt (see sniper rifle comparison). The final iteration had a near-instantaneous effect that dealt damage right away. I think that this really distinguished it from the other powers, and made it very satisfying to use!

    There was one thing missing after we got this far: the impact of the MAC round didn’t seem to leave enough of a footprint; it didn’t feel like it did enough damage to the terrain. Without going as far as to demolish half the planet with a single shot (I’m lookin’ at you, canon holders ;), we decided it would be cool to try throwing boulders out of the impact point. I had spent a great deal of time working on Age of Empires III’s building destruction system, so I hacked together a quick test to see whether we could make a rock break apart in a similar way on impact. To my surprise, it worked on the first try! The boulders flew out, they shattered into pieces, and KABOOM, the game crashed! Ok, maybe it didn’t quite work on the first try. Regardless, we thought it looked cool enough that I spent the time to polish it up into a shipping version. So now, when you see those rocks breaking apart, you’ll know that they’re just buildings masquerading as rocks.


    Transport may not be the flashiest power in the game, but it probably took the largest amount of development time overall. It was passed around among a few programmers, went through several design iterations – you used to control the transports directly! – and it had to work seamlessly with many other game systems.

    The Covenant at one point had Spirits to transport their units, and their Powers were more similiar to the current UNSC than the Leader based ones they have now.

    The initial implementations weren’t quite robust enough to account for many edge cases. For example, what happens when you try to transport a vehicle, but that vehicle is commandeered or hijacked by a Spartan while the transport is en route? What should the transport do when it reaches its pickup targets and they’ve all been Cryo’ed? Many of these questions had no obvious answers, so a few times we just went with the faster and easier solutions.

    Transport always had lots of interesting edge cases, and sometimes they were quite unexpected.

    One of the common cases where Transport failed with some frequency was when unloading troops into a congested battlefield. It was essential that this worked, because several scenarios relied on Transport working every time. Scenario 6, in particular, had many bugs due to Transport breaking in some way. I tried several tweaks to address the unloading problems, but eventually decided that the code would need a partial rewrite. I had hesitated because this was very late in the project, and it was risky code to change at that point, but we decided that it was still the best avenue of attack. Thankfully, we had some code from the Age engine that did a very good job of finding empty spaces for units. I retrofitted Transport with this code, and the vast majority of our unloading bugs disappeared.

    Closing Thoughts

    One major element that we wanted to add to the leader powers was some sort of arcade-style timing. We actually brainstormed some cool minigames, unique to each power, that would allow a skilled player to add a small boost to each power. For example, we prototyped a “golf swing meter” input method for MAC Blast that allowed an expert player to crank out a perfectly timed series of max-quality shots. Unfortunately, the realities of scheduling meant that we had to cut this feature – implementing the full array of minigames, in a polished and fun way, would simply have taken too much time.

    After I finished my work on the Halo Wars power system and several of the powers, I went back to working on Top Secret Prototype Team™ (the last prototype Ensemble would do, actually). Another programmer, Vijay Thakkar, took up the mantle and implemented several more powers. He will talk about his experiences in his very own blog entry.

    Just like with Age of Mythology, working on the leader powers was extremely gratifying for me. Developing these kinds of gameplay systems relies on a well-oiled feedback loop that incorporates input from art, design, sound, and programming. It also requires a very broad kind of thinking, and when all cylinders are firing, progress on iterating cool new ideas is nothing short of astonishing. I hope this blog has provided you with a little bit of insight into how this process works. Thanks for reading!

  • Leader Powers Part One

    Hi, my name is Marcin Szymanski, and I’m a programmer with Robot Entertainment. I worked on several systems in Halo Wars, and one of my main contributions was in the area of Leader Powers. This was a very interesting gameplay system that presented a unique set of challenges.

    Script vs. Code

    Halo Wars is a game about tactical control of dozens of military units, but we decided early on that we wanted to have a series of over-the-top “signature” abilities for the various leaders. These would serve a dual purpose: amping up the console nature of the game, and adding a way to help break stalemates.

    We initially prototyped most of the powers in Halo Wars’ strong visual scripting system. This allowed us to get the powers up and running very quickly. It also helped us quickly iterate on the gameplay, because designers could jump right into script code to modify each power.

    There were some areas, however, where the scripting system was slowing us down. It didn’t allow for very precise control over power execution, it didn’t support cool programmatic effects, and it was very difficult to debug. Being the greedy developers that we are, we decided that we wanted more! We could have retrofitted the scripting system to support the needed functionality, but it became clear that the right direction was to move everything into native C++ code.

    I had a lot of experience working with the god powers in Age of Mythology, so I was asked to help out with the Halo Wars leader powers. When architecting the new power system with another programmer, I applied several of the lessons I learned years ago. For example, the system would need to allow for a lot of data-driven customizability for rapid iteration of each power’s gameplay and visuals. I also knew that it would need to support a variety of user interface modes to address each power’s unique needs. So, I opened up a blank sheet of code and dug in.

    Once we got most of the fundamental systems in place, we began moving the powers from script into code. By the end of the project, I touched practically all of the powers in some way. In the following sections, I talk about a few of the powers where I spent the most time. Enjoy!


    The script-based version of this leader power did its job well enough, but it wasn’t very satisfying to use. The beam was controlled like any other unit: you scrolled over to a spot on the ground and gave the beam a move command. This felt very indirect and just not badass enough. I decided to give the player direct control over the beam.

    One problem: Halo Wars is a peer-to-peer synchronous game. When a unit begins to move on your screen, it’s after the move command has bounced across the internet and back. This meant that the beam still felt too sluggish to control.

    An early version of the Cleansing Power, and a mock-up Covenant Base.

    The solution? Split the beams! This is sort of like crossing the streams, except in reverse, and it doesn’t cause every molecule in your body to explode at the speed of light. The way it works is that the player controlling the power only sees a fake beam that reacts immediately to controller input. This fake beam exists only on the caster’s Xbox and deals no damage (if it dealt damage, the game would immediately go out of sync). However, there’s also a real beam that follows the fake beam. This real beam exists on every machine and is updated synchronously (i.e., it’s in the same place on all players’ machines), but is invisible to the casting player. The second beam is responsible for dealing the power’s damage to enemy units, and trails the fake beam by a meter or two depending on network latency.

    The split described above is why it works so well to lead a moving target with the Cleansing beam – the real beam is just a touch behind the beam you see on your screen.

    Cleansing was always one of the harder things to get to look right.

    Carpet Bomb

    This power illustrates one of the main advantages of going to code: we were able to have very specific input handling and UI feedback for targeting the power. The arrow that you use to target the power would have taken significantly more time to implement if we’d tried to go through script.

    The bulk of the work for the power’s delivery was spent on customizing the blast pattern. We didn’t know right away what kind of pattern we would want for the cluster bombs, and we didn’t know how it should upgrade. My approach here was to make a very customizable pattern, with the ability to configure everything from its length to the size of the intro “wedge” for the pattern’s shape. It was pretty basic stuff, but it allowed the designers and me to experiment with several different looks for the power as it upgraded through its stages.

    The aiming arrow for the Carpet Bomb.So, I had this blast pattern worked out, but the initial version still didn’t feel very cool. In that version, the bombs dropped down and exploded instantly, dealing damage right away. It felt bland, as if there was something missing about its tempo. Maybe it was too slow? Too fast? Eventually, I started experimenting with a dual-stage approach – bombs impact, then explode a few beats later — and that started to feel tons better. By splitting the impact from the explosion, we got a cool little chunk of tension after the bombs drop, but before their explosion sends everything flying.
    The carpet bomb’s devastating effect on Warthogs.

    Tune in next week for the next part in our Leader Powers Dev Blogs. Marcin talks more about the Mac Blast and the Transport Powers, along with more never seen before screenshots, including ones from Halo Wars Development.

  • The Birth of a Halo Wars Mission

    In a lot of ways the missions in a game are very important. For a lot of players they are the first part of the game they see, and for some the only thing. When we learned that we had gotten the go-ahead to use the Halo Universe for our game, the pressure was on to do something great.

    The first thing we do when we start a new campaign is to do some research. Instead of hitting the history books like in our Age of Empires games, we grabbed anything we could from Halo and absorbed it. We read books, played through the games, and talked with Bungie to make sense of any questions that arose. I personally spent a few days doing nothing but playing the Halo campaigns in the office to refresh my memory and get some inspiration. This helped more than I even hoped… people would stop by my office to watch me play and learned some things they may have forgotten about the games – or to yell at me to turn it down!

    The content designers got together and brainstormed. At this point the story was still in the works, so we threw out crazy ‘what-if-we-could-do-anything’ ideas. For example, I really wanted to do a mission where two Scarabs were destroying a city, and the player’s job was to stop them before a certain number of buildings were destroyed. That ended up on the cutting room floor with a bunch of other cool stuff, but the process gave us a lot of good gaming fodder – we ended up morphing that idea into the Super-Scarab in mission 07. So, once the story started becoming more concrete we found places to use those ideas.

    Unfinished Super Scarab in Mission 7

    The missions don’t live alone though, they have to work well within the campaign as a whole. Through a series of designer meetings we made an outline of all the missions for the whole game. We decided how many there will be, what the story is for each, and hashed out the gameplay. We also went through the Ensemble tradition of “the scenario auction.” We list all the missions on a whiteboard and “barter” over them. The idea here is that the designer who has the most interest in any particular mission will fight for it the most and will end up doing a better job in the end – basically “do what you love”. We looked at the missions on the board and made sure we had a good mix of gameplay without being repetitive.

    Once the mission ideas are set and assigned to designers, it’s time to start production. The designers go off and write what we call “Tear Sheets”, which are quick and dirty summaries of the gameplay with the art and sound requests for the mission. These get reviewed for sanity, then we make drawings and quickly sculpted versions of the missions in our editor.

    A “Tear Sheet” and a quick editor mockup.

    Usually the missions are the last things to get “done” in our game. They are mocked up, triggered, and tested, even in this very preliminary stage, by select people that can handle the hacked-in nature of them. We got here very early and had to wait for the rest of the game to catch up, not to mention dealing with any rewrites or game design changes that derailed our mission designs. I used to joke that being a scenario designer is like being on a submariner’s schedule – 6 months of not much to do then 6 months of bone-numbing work in the last months of the project, when the pressure is on to polish up the missions to their final state and ship them.

    The mission designers also affected the game’s story during this time. The story was written by the lead story designer, but the mission designers are the ones that have to make it feel real when you play the game, so they requested changes to make the playable part of the story seam up to the cinematic part. In this case, we had the benefit of working with Blur on the game’s awesome videos so we got to use their stuff for inspiration as well. For example, the Spirit of Fire’s hull was used in missions 11 and 12, which Blur had a big part in designing – we actually requested the upper deck of the ship be redone so Marines and Spartans could walk on it. Blur did this on the high resolution model for the ship, and our artists matched it in our missions.

    Spirit of Fire Model in Mission 11 and 12

    In previous games, the designers had to do a lot of the texture painting and beautification in the missions, but for Halo Wars we decided it was time to let the artists loose on the missions, and the results were awesome. First they did concept paintings based on our designs, then once we had tested the missions to a point where we knew they were not changing, we handed them over to the artists.

    An artist’s mockup of mission 15.

    Concept art for the Relic object in mission 03.

    Now we’re in the home stretch. And that means “test, test, test, and test some more.” Although we don’t change the missions drastically during this step, we do thousands of little tweaks based on feedback. We run round the clock playtest sessions and beat on the missions, finding every possible way we can find to break them and ways to make them more fun. It’s a cool time as a designer because you baby is starting to walk here. The art, programming, and design all [hopefully] come together into a fun, interesting, and memorable experience for our customers.

    I, and all the other designers on Halo Wars, hope that you really enjoyed them.

    Joe Gillum, Designer

  • What it takes to make Halo Wars art, look like Halo?

    It’s always hard to emulate someone else’s art work and style, regardless what industry or product you’re working on. We all play different games and hardly ever stop to think about the amount of work, ideas and processes that went into creating the look and feel of a game.

    I have to admit that when I heard we got the Halo IP for our first console RTS, I had never played Halo or Halo2. Mainly because I never owned the original XBOX and my 360, that Microsoft handed me for free, was still in the box! Now, I had nothing against consoles, but when you’re married and you only have one TV, not many wives want to watch their husbands play games, so I was stuck with playing on my PC. Turns out many of our artists had not played either, so we had a lot of catching up to do with those games.

    First thing we always do is start gathering as much reference material as we can find; downloading screenshots from the internet, getting marketing material from Microsoft, and the most obvious one, asking Bungie for all their art files. That last one seems like a no brainer right? After all we are both part of Microsoft and they own everything, right? Nope. As it turns out it’s really hard to get in contact with someone at another studio to provide assistance, when that company was behind schedule on their latest installment of Halo AND we had no idea about the negotiations they were having with Microsoft about becoming an independent studio again. It didn’t take long to realize that our concept department would be on their own in figuring out this art style.

    So the big question was: What makes Halo, Halo? Well you have to start making mistakes to learn from and it didn’t take me long. I got the concept for the Covenant DropShip, modeled it, textured it, and got it in game, but since I still had not played any of the Halo games yet, I had this thing flying in the wrong direction! Yeap, I had my home 360 setup with Halo2 that night.

    We had a lot of iterations early on trying to nail down the look of our models and materials, but with time we put some simple guidelines in place that kept all our artists following a consistent process. In fact most of our iterations on the art came more from design changes than style flaws.

    The UNSC and Forerunner had to maintain the same geometry angles throughout their structures and vehicles while the Covenant had to maintain the same curvy organic look in theirs. The UNSC vehicles and Spartan armor all had a similar green metallic look that we tried to emulate with our materials. Using a similar Army green with a broad, gold, specular highlight worked really well for our camera distance and sun angle.

    To get the Covenant right, we broke down the look of the alien armor by creating a purple base color, with a tighter, orange specular highlight that included a honeycomb pattern and then added a blue, inverted honeycomb pattern for the reflective property. We then added the trademark tiny, blue lights and that was pretty much it.

    As we finished models and exported them into the game we always had to ask the question: Does this unit look like it belongs with all our other units? We had scenarios saved which contained every single UNSC/Covenant building and unit, so it was fairly easy to spot the units that needed more work to get the look correct. Most of the problems we had were more related to our memory limitations verse what the concept actually looked like on paper.

    One thing we did that worked out extremely well was the decision to define and limit each races player color. I think this mainly came about because it just didn’t seem right to play the Covenant as the green player, because everyone knows that color belongs to Master Chief. So to get back to the question, what makes something Halo? I believe the answer applies to any IP someone would try to recreate; break things down to the smallest details, derive a process to keep those small details throughout, and always keep comparing your current progress with progress already completed.

    Paul Slusser, Artist

  • Animation Exploration

    Charles Tinney, Animator on Halo Wars, talks about his work on some of the cool animations that went in for the Arbiter and Spartan.

    There are two animations I want to focus on in this production diary. I want to highlight these because I took time to thumbnail and choreograph them; which is typically something I don’t have time to do at a video game studio. So, I really tried to get it right. Both of these are exploratory animations developed to have a loose visual guideline for what the fatality system would look like. Fatalities in Halo Wars happen when one awesome melee powerhouse, such as the Arbiter, kills one of the other infantry units.

    The first exploratory animation I was tasked to do was the Arbiter taking out a squad of marines. I soon got the idea that I would portray the Arbiter as an unstoppable shocking killing machine. And the marines would be dumbfounded and unable to react because they were paralyzed by fear and the ferocity of the Arbiter.

    I was going to do a lot of drawing/thumbnailing to plan out my shot and I wanted to make sure that I knew how to, at least, crudely and quickly draw the Arbiter. That’s where this first page comes in as it was my attempt to understand how to produce quick gestures that I could read.

    The next set of drawings was a loose choreographing of the massacre. I had the Arbiter twirling, twisting, spinning, and all other sorts of acrobatic movements that would make him appear graceful and bloodthirsty.

    As thumbnails go, they are just a guide, and as much as I adhered to the drawings I also strayed from them. The Arbiter is pretty much pose-to-pose animation, and the marines are all straight-ahead animation. Here is the result:


    From this animation we learned that all fatalities will be done one on one: person killing person rather than person killing a squad or groups of people. It would have been too much unique work to animate the fatalities in such a way where multiple people are killed. The fatalities also locked the attacker and victim in game while they played their animations. And only once they finished could the attacker be selected and moved by the player. (Which is really the only way you’re going to see the animation.) So, on average, we limited fatalities to three seconds, but never going over five seconds. This gave us enough time to create something worth seeing, and thus, losing control over your character for 3-5 seconds.

    The next task in fatality exploration was to pit hero against hero: Arbiter versus Spartan. I wanted to make the Arbiter as swift and savage as in the first animation, but this time, his foe would prevail. Portraying the Spartan as instinctual and reactionary rather than purely dexterous: he moves fast and hits hard.

    Once again this first image was done to get to know the subject, and to be able to draw him to quickly plan out the fight sequence.

    Again, these thumbnails were a loose choreography guide to follow while animating.

    The attacker is pose-to-pose and the victim is straight-ahead reacting to the blows. Here’s the result of the planned work.


    Unfortunately, the animation workload over the course of the project never allowed us to do special case (hero vs. hero) fatalities. Rather, we had to reuse the victim’s animation and copy it on to the different heroes. Though, if we did have the time, animating hero vs. hero would have been really cool to do!

    Neither one of these exploratory animations was ever taken to a true final stage. I only took them to a certain quality level of animation; setting the bar as high as I knew I could reproduce under actual production deadlines.

  • Share interview Bruce Shelley “Closing Ensemble was a mistake”


    Bruce Shelley has been interviewed by a German online magazine Most of the interview talks about Settlers 7 and Bruce’s role in the games development. It looks like he’ll be bringing accross Ensemble game design philosophies such as playtesting and making the game easier to play for gamers. However if you listen to the first few minutes of the interview Bruce talks about the closure of Ensemble Studios where he believes it was a mistake and says that the studio was closed due to Microsoft thinking it wasnt a strategic studio anymore. He goes onto say that Ensemble were making different games outside of the genre but those games kept being cancelled by Microsoft. Clearly Microsoft did not give the studio a chance to explore titles outside of the RTS genre,  a big shame on Microsoft.

    Check out the video below:


    Justin Rouse & Duncan Stanley complete the last of the Halo Wars skirmish map information pages – Frozen Valley


    Justin Rouse and Duncan Stanley talk us through the last of the Halo Wars maps to be detailed on the skirmish map page. Frozen Valley the 3v3 map which was one of the first maps to be designed can now be found on with top tips from designer Justin Rouse and Community Manager Duncan “Aloysius” Stanley.


    “Frozen Valley was the first 3v3 map designed during the development of Halo Wars. After Chasms, this was probably our most played map through internal playtesting. The layout went through one major tweak throughout development and that was the opening down between the teams that runs along the bottom edge on picture shown here. The first iteration had the hole as well as the mount near that bottom edge of the map extend all the way to the edge. Leaving a pocket only access through the middle by land units. It allowed the two bottom player on each team to build up safely. “

    Take a look!


    Five long years. Chris Rippy ex producer at Ensemble Studios discusses the last few months working on Halo Wars


    Chris Rippy discusses in the latest developers blog on the website what the last few months at Ensemble Studios felt like as the Halo Wars game started to go through its final stages of quality testing. The post provides a valued look into the life of the studio during this time and what the developers felt knowing this would be the last game.

    The blog post as obtained from follows:

    “Five Long Years”

    Published Wednesday, April 22, 2009 2:27 PM by Aloysius 
    The last few weeks of working on Halo Wars were quite a blur. Actually, the last several months of working on Halo Wars were quite a blur. I think if you were to ask most folks working at Ensemble Studios to describe an event in their lives from the last year, they’d have a hard time remembering what season the event took place in. For us, it was all Halo Wars, all the time. Blurry days.

    Today, I’ll do my best to remember the final steps of getting Halo Wars out the door.

    The final months of a project are all about taking the previous years of work, mashing it all together into something cohesive, testing the game, and fixing bugs. It’s also a time of very difficult decisions. In the name of getting the game out the door, we’re forced to eliminate several features, many of which already had months of work put into them. This can be costly (literally), but it helps provide focus to the most important aspects of the game, and gives us a better chance at hitting our target release date.

    Now would probably be a good time to detail out all the features we cut, but maybe that’s best left to everyone’s guesses. Or maybe those features will show up again somewhere else…

    Back to it. As we approach the last 6 weeks or so of the project, we begin thinking about something called “Release Candidates”. These are complete builds of the game that we believe are good enough to make it to the retail shelf. On December 1, 2008, we created “RC1”(Release Candidate 1). Cool, we’re done! Not so much. “RC1” never makes it all the way through the testing process, and in fact, our designers run a contest for everyone of our games trying to guess the actual number of Release Candidates we will create. Guesses for Halo Wars ranged from “RC2” (yeah!) to “RC426” (no!). For a build to be considered “the” build, several parties must sign off on it from Ensemble Studios, Microsoft Game Studios Test, the Localization team, and a Production team at Microsoft. In the end, RC11 was “blessed” by this crew. Halo Wars build number 1169.

    We’re almost home at this point, but we still have a crucial step in front of us, called Certification. For Halo Wars to be “certified” a team at Microsoft takes the game and runs it through a battery of very specific tests to make sure it lives up to the quality and experience expectations of the Xbox360. Tests range from making sure Achievements work, to seeing how the game responds to people yanking out their memory cards while the game is running (never a good thing to try 🙂 ).

    Going through Certification is a very strange experience. It can be a multi-week process, and you can go days without hearing from the Certification team on how things are going. Ensemble had just gone through months of crunch, and we suddenly found ourselves in a waiting game with very little to do but hope the game makes it through successfully. Work hours returned to normal and people passed the day working on the demo or playing board games. Weird.

    Finally, on January 8th, 2009, Halo Wars passed Certification and was declared “gold”. From there, the game was sent off to manufacturing plants all over the world, packaged up, and put on a shelf at a store near you. Good times.

    Chris Rippy

    Developers Playtesting the DLC  (click to enlarge)


    Bruce Shelley page 2



    Bruce Shelley

    Rumors of Trojan in Age Related Hack


    Rumors of Trojan in Age Related Hack: Our community team is investigating rumors that downloadable software that supposedly allows you to cheat in Age games has a little bonus inside. We are trying to confirm rumors that at least one of these hacking programs places a Trojan on your PC and then steals your account information. The hack gives a losing player a chance to take a losing game and turn it into a win. Apparently enough people are looking for a fraudulent edge that a market exists for this software, but the price might be unexpectedly high.

    Age III Ladder Reset: At the end of April we are reset all of our ladders. Players collected any medals for which they qualify and the ladders have been restarted. The civilization ladders are being dropped and being replaced by a new set of Treaty ladders. Treaty games, which set a time period at the start during which there can be no attacks, have become very popular, but they were lumped together in our rankings with Supremacy games. Supremacy players, especially, disliked this. As for both Supremacy and Death Match, the Treaty ladders rank total wins, wins in each of 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3 games, and power rating. We believe the new ladders will make Treaty games even more fun and attractive to play, and we believe the Supremacy players will like their undiluted rankings.

    Play Age III like an Expert: Top Age III player Parfait has posted some video strategy tips on the web site that may help you raise your skill level a notch or two. Parfait took second place in the World Cyber Games last year so he is one of the best and most experienced Age players in the world. There are currently three video guides available on the site- Attack Move, The Art of Espionage, and Crossbow Contain (how Germany can contain the Dutch). You watch a video of a game in action while Parfait himself describes the strategy as it unfolds on screen. These are very cool and a great example of how players can invest in a game and make it a better value, far beyond what a developer can ever anticipate. It will be interesting to see if more guides appear. Check them out here.

    Halo Wars Update: This game makes progress every day as testing and revising proceed, and new content goes in. I saw archive build #620 go by today. There are some rumors about this project floating around but we can’t comment on them at this time. We believe we have a great game in the works and hope to be able to tell you more about it soon.

    ES Family Picnic: Our studio held a spring picnic at a Renaissance Festival near Dallas on a recent Saturday. The company arranged our own picnic area with food and tickets to the jousting event. Watching the mock battles and seeing so many people in period costumes brought back some Age of Kings memories. There was a large turnout of families and at least one ES alumni stopped by to visit. Here are a couple of photos thanks to Paul Bettner. The first shows the jousting at the festival. The second shows Dusty Monk on the left (wearing his Age of Empires III t-shirt) with his family and Ian Fischer on the right. You can see all of Paul’s photos here.



    Office Design Input: Studio head Tony Goodman solicited feedback from the entire studio on some aspects of the new office space we are considering. He was interested in themes for individual office areas and a cool art piece for our foyer. Art piece ideas included actual historic aircraft suspended from the ceiling and dinosaur models. The theme thread was one of the longest I’ve seen at ES, and that is saying something, but I know Tony loves doing stuff like this when it gets so many people involved.
    Theme ideas were all over the place, including the wild west, modern minimalist design, swamps, historic periods from our games, natural landscapes, open skies, video game favorites (PITFALL with the coffee machine on the far end), industrial/institutional looks (pig farm, landfill, seat shop, meat packing, prison), underwater, tree house, mountain lodge, Tuscan villa, favorite cities (Tokyo), and other company spaces (Pixar was popular). I believe some of these  and it will be interesting to see
    Jchoices have a better chance than others  what Tony decides.

    What ES’ers Are Playing: We’re in a crunch period right now for Halo Wars, but that didn’t keep people from buying GTA IV. It is being played during lunch or other break periods, and drawing interested bystanders, and I’m sure many of those new games will get playing time over the weekend. Early opinions are that it is amazingly content rich. An email thread about the games pros and cons went over 25 messages very quickly. Meanwhile WoW is getting some new life as several people who gave it up for a while have gone back for more.

    Muffin Bandit Mystery: Our studio has provided snacks and drinks since our earliest days, and each week we get delivery of sodas, energy drinks, beef jerky, fresh fruit, vegetable trays, nuts, candy, yogurt, cookies, etc. A popular item is packages of muffins, with one package usually delivered to each of our three floors. Several months ago someone started ripping off the tops of muffins, leaving the rest behind. The depredations of the muffin bandit have continued intermittently ever since, providing a lot of amusement. We don’t know if we are dealing with one muffin bandit, or several imitators of the original. So far no one has been caught, or at least publicly exposed.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Thursday, May 01, 2008 5:14 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Muffin Bandit, Picnic

    TAD Patch Update


    TAD Patch Update: It didn’t take long for the community to find and exploit a bug uncovered by Patch 1.01. The bug allows players using the French Home City team Church card to obtain an unfair wood advantage at the start of a game. Basically we intended that the card drop the cost of team Churches by 80% from their original cost of 250 wood. Instead of an 80% drop we mistakenly set the card in the original Age III to drop the wood cost by 200. Then, when Patch 1.01 reduced the cost of the Church to 100 wood, the door was opened to create a ploy where players could get 100 free wood for every Church they built, destroying game balance.

    We are seeing players with 2000 wood before the 6 minute mark. A British player on a team using this ploy and a Manor boom can get to 40+ villagers a little after hitting Colonial Age.

    We were able to quickly identify the problem when it came to our attention. We will be issuing a hotfix patch shortly, using our new plan to bypass the normal rigorous patching process to correct issues like this very quickly. The correction will be patch TAD 1.01a.
    We continue to be amazed at what the community can find in such a short period of time. Congratulations, I guess 🙂

    Patch Well Received: Despite the problem noted above, the community seems to be happy with the patch overall. The response in the forums is positive and the number of games played has been jumping. It may be receiving the best response ever for a patch of our games, which is a tribute to our community, design, and test teams who put in the work to make it happen. The patch also benefited very strongly from the involvement of our E Team, a group of top Age players who worked with us throughout the process. We remain committed to improving the game as necessary and making it as good a multi-player experience as we can.

    Banned Accounts: Our community team reports that the number of banned Age III accounts went over the 1800 mark recently (not counting banned CD-Keys). We know that cheaters can spoil the online experience for others so we try to keep after them aggressively.

    New Halo Wars Swag: We recently passed out to the entire studio new Halo Wars ball caps and t-shirts featuring the logo of UNSC ship Spirit of Fire. The hats are black and the shirts are gray. When I visited the community team recently half of them had on the hats. Lizette Atkinson, our office manager, provided shirts in small sizes for the growing number of children in our studio family.

    Halo Wars News: The game just went through a major review at MGS headquarters in Redmond, and feedback from our team is that the game was very well received. We continue to run at least two test sessions each day and new builds are coming rapidly. I saw archive build #591 announced recently. Designer Dave Pottinger is conducting this week a series of feedback sessions from everyone on the team and anyone else in the company who has opinions.

    Books on Game Design Theory: Matthew Goldman recommended a book he has been reading, Prisoner’s Dilemma, by William Poundstone. Rob Fermier suggested another book outside traditional game literature- Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.

    Innovation Lessons from Blizzard: This blog post passed around our office and is worth a read if you are interested in the game development process. It lists 11 lessons from this premier game development on how to achieve successful innovation in games. The lessons could well apply to any organization required to innovate. I am happy to say that Ensemble Studios does all of these things more or less, employing them ourselves independently over the last 13 years. We too have cancelled a number of games along the way. Blizzard has been much more open of late about their internal workings after years of being secretive, or at least non-communicative. I remember trying to get them to speak at game development conferences and being told that was against their policies. Apparently that has changed and I think that can only improve their already well-deserved high reputation and benefit our industry as well.

    Goodbye Stormfront Studios: Another month and another fine game developer closes down. Don Daglow, Stormfront studio head, is one of the pioneers of our industry and this excellent studio had been around for 20 years or so. Apparently they could not fill a pipeline of sufficient quality projects to keep going. Examples like this, and the recent closing of Iron Lore, make me skeptical when new studios pop up with limited experience and big expectations.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Tuesday, April 15, 2008 4:13 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: TAD Patch

    Age of Empires III Patch Update


    Age of Empires III Patch Update: Oscar Santos from our community team tells me that the patch is getting very close to shipping. We are waiting for the localized versions (international languages) to be tested and for our counterparts in Redmond to sign off on the work.

    Response on the forums has been among the most positive for any patch we have done. Keys to that response seem to be twofold. First, the patch team addressed the single unit strategy where a player could succeed by building a single unit, say Crossbowmen. By reducing the Crossbow basic damage and increasing its bonus against the unit it should beat (infantry in this case), we made it very risky to use only this unit when other enemy units (specifically cavalry) were used against it. Now counter-units and combined arms armies should be much more useful, as we originally intended.

    Second, the patch addressed what some have called “laming” strategies, where certain civs got overwhelming advantages from a game feature, often a big button technology. An example is a big button tech that gave the Aztecs boats that outranged land buildings in the second age. In the right situation, using this ploy was unstoppable. With this patch we hope to have addressed similar game features that imbalanced the game.

    The Asian Dynasties in World Cyber Games: We were pleased to learn that this Age of Empires III expansion pack will be an event in the 2008 WCG, with the finals to be held this November in Cologne, Germany. Ben Donges from our community team worked with the WCG to make sure our game met all their conditions and our web site provided the support required. Last year 700 participants from 74 countries took part in the WCG. It will be interesting to see if the number of participating countries continues to grow, as it has each year since 2000. I found a list of the events and some statistics from past years here.

    Iron Lore Entertainment Closes Down: One of the founding partners of this studio was Brian Sullivan, one of the earliest Ensemble Studios employees and one of the designers on the first Age of Empires game. Another colleague, Jeff Goodsill, became their chief operating officer. Their game Titan Quest got a lot of good press, but launched into down PC game market and never sold as well as they anticipated. Their next two releases got good reviews as well, but also posted disappointing sales. I am sorry to see the studio go and hope it is not the last we hear of them in our industry. Check out their farewell message here.

    Piracy and PC Games: Michael Fitch, one of the managers at Iron Lore, posted a rant recently touching on the problems the studio had in the PC space, especially piracy and hardware issues, which contributed to the disappointing sales of their games. Hardware issues have been a pain for PC developers for a long time, while piracy was usually considered more peripheral. But piracy is getting a lot more attention now, possibly because it is starting to effect console game sales. Check out the comments here.

    The conventional wisdom once was that piracy was 10% of gaming activity and this wasn’t a problem. Pirates weren’t going to buy your game anyway, was the thought. Now some are thinking piracy is much more of gaming, maybe a huge percentage. Fitch compares sales figures of games released on both the PC and consoles and suggests the wide bias against PC sales is due largely to piracy.

    We know that Age of Empires III is one of the most popular games downloaded from pirate sites. Here is a snapshot our community team took of pirates downloading Age games at 1 PM in the afternoon of a recent weekday. Each of the “leechers” is a person downloading all of our games and each “seeder” is a person providing the copies. Almost 7300 people are downloading pirated copies of Age games at the moment this image was captured.


    Our customer service people say that in the last several months they have received over 500 email inquiries from people trying to get online with pirated copies. The strength of the Age online multiplayer experience is what saves our business and our jobs, and keeps us going so we can make more games. You can’t play Age online without a legitimate copy, and that helps the game remain in the list of top twenty best-selling PC games for the fourth year. It may be that PC games without a strong online component requiring a legitimate copy are doomed to modest success at best.

    A bigger question for me is whether game piracy and its cousins (music piracy and online game cheating, for example) are becoming so socially acceptable and widespread that they are changing our culture. Will a society that finds it increasingly okay to steal and cheat online find it similarly acceptable to lie, cheat, and steal in all aspects of offline life?

    ES Gets a Snow Day: We shut our offices down Tuesday, March 4th, due to snow in the Dallas area, something that very rarely happens. Some of people reported snowfalls of 4 to 7 inches around their homes to the north and northwest. For people living in the northern half of our country this doesn’t sound like much but consider what your winter driving would be like without plowed and salted roads. The Dallas/Fort Worth area is simply not prepared to deal with icy roads and snow, and most drivers are inexperienced in this type of weather. We took the safest course and encourage people to leave early as they wished, but not early enough for one of ours guys who totaled his car in a snow related accident that was not his fault.

    E. Gary Gygax R.I.P.: With sadness we noted at work the passing of the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, with many sharing tales of their D&D days. I remember playing the original rules at the university game club where I met ES studio head Tony Goodman and his brother Rick. For many ES’ers RPG games in one form or another are still their favorite genre. Gygax helped launch not only the genre of role-playing games, but computer games as well. MMORPGs are just the latest iteration of the original concept. I don’t believe I ever met him but I’ve known many people who worked with him, including current colleague Paul Jaquays. He must rank as one of the most influential people in our industry’s history.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Thursday, March 20, 2008 6:43 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Patch, Piracy

    The Asian Dynasties Patch Update


    The Asian Dynasties Patch Update: Oscar Santos, head of our community team, has told me that the design and balance changes for the long awaited first patch for The Asian Dynasties (patch 1.01) have been finalized. From this point, the patch will be built, playtested by ES and Microsoft, and verified by our Quality Assurance team and our beta playtesters while the localization teams are doing the translations. If no serious bugs are discovered, we expect to release the patch sometime “before the end of winter” as mentioned in a previous blog post. The patch notes will be posted soon by Thunder on the AgeCommunity site, so watch for those.

    For this patch we recruited the help of 8 top players from the Age community. They were given beta versions of the patch and we set up a private forum for discussion. They played the beta against each other and our balance team. They did a great job of being objective, responsible, and mature about the whole process. If they lost a game, they were able to distinguish between being outplayed and running into imbalances. This type of feedback is invaluable and often difficult to collect. We think the patch is going to be excellent and a lot of that will be due to the help of The ES 8.

    Crunch Music: The Halo Wars team is working extra hours this week and that reminded me of one of our crunch time traditions– playing music over the intercom at 10 PM before thanking everyone for their efforts and sending them home. Around quitting time, we hear the intercom sound and then music starts, and then the producer makes a short announcement officially ending the extra long work day.

    I believe crunch music was initiated by Harter Ryan, then Producer on Age of Kings. He says he liked to play songs like Devo’s “Working in a Coal Mine” and Paul Hardcastle’s “Nineteen” at the end of long days to remind people that “well, it could be worse.”  He recalls that people didn’t think much of his 70’s and 80’s music, and would try to preempt his songs with their own 1990’s stuff.

    Producer Dave Rippy (Age of Mythology and Age of Empires III) doesn’t recall any rhyme or reason to his choices. One night it might have been a cheesy 80’s hair band (okay most nights), the next night a hardcore rap song, or something off-the-wall like the “all your bases” remix. His goal was to keep it fun and interesting enough to encourage people to stay until the end of the crunch day to hear what was played.

    Wally Wachi, Producer on The Warchiefs, who is not a musician like Dave and his brothers Chris and Stephen, often let others on the team suggest a song. He started letting one person pick the music for an entire week until one guy played Chipmunks versions of popular tracks every night. He wasn’t picked again.

    Chris Rippy, Producer on Halo Wars, tries to pick something different every night, usually with a hidden message. Last night, for example, he played a request by Dave Pottinger dedicated to Jerome Jones– “The Flame,” by Cheap Trick.

    Halo Wars Builds: Every day a variety of builds, or versions, of Halo Wars are created and saved. There are four of these: Archive, Playtest, Work, and Tools. The Tools build is a completely different application that we use to create content for the X360 game. It is not the game but the software that designers use to create scenarios, maps, and other content that will then be added to the actual X360 game builds.

    The Work build is the work in progress version of the X360 game that virtually anyone on the team can work in and save off. This includes not only the game itself but source files such as 3DSMAX files, photoshop files, etc. The Playtest build is a subset of the Work build. It includes only files needed to run the game on the X360 and none of the source files. The Archive build is also a subset of the Work build, but again no source files and everything is optimized and combined into archives for fast loading on the X360.

    If you aren’t confused yet, we actually use the Archive build now in playtest and the Playtest build is kept around for debugging and troubleshooting (easier since it is not optimized). The actual Halo Wars game we ship later this year will be a final Archive build.

    The Asian Dynasties in the World Cyber Games?: Not yet, but we are hopeful. Ben Donges from our community team is working to convince the WCG that this would be a good thing for them. Again, keep checking the Age community site where we’ll let you know as soon as we know.

    New Elevator Floor: As we discuss a possible new office site, the conversation often heads to odd places. One of the oddest recently was elevator décor, especially for the floors. Here is an idea that I predict we’ll pass on.

    ES at GDC: About 15 of our people went to the Game Developer’s Conference this year and I don’t think any of them gave presentations. That is relatively low attendance for us, partly due to the push on Halo Wars. Besides the DICE conference held earlier in February, some of our people will also go to Siggraph and the Austin GDC.

    Good Luck Greg Street: In the last blog post Greg shared a little about the typical day for him as the Lead Designer on Age of Empires III. I gave him credit incorrectly for being in charge of the campaign in AoM. Jerome Jones oversaw the creation of that campaign; Greg oversaw the campaign in Age of Empires II. For AoM Greg was in charge of the database (balance, etc.) and random maps, plus he worked with Lead Designer Ian Fischer on the writing of the story.

    I am sorry (for us) to say that Greg has left Ensemble Studios to pursue a dream of working on a major MMORPG (so great for him). We wish him the best with appreciation for his friendship, insights, and excellent work over the years.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Monday, March 03, 2008 1:53 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, World Cyber Games, Asian Dynasties Patch

    Age of Empires III 2007 Sales Ranking


    Age of Empires III 2007 Sales Ranking: Gamasutra published sales rankings for PC games recently and it was great to see my favorite RTS set in the Age of Discovery in the top ten at #7. That is an impressive performance for a game published in 2005, but it may also point to a weakness in the PC market overall. They credited the game with sales of 313,000 units. Check out the list here.

    Sales- Exxon Mobil Versus the Game Industry: As gamers and game developers our industry has a high profile in our lives, but where does it ).Jrank against other businesses? We are still a blip, apparently (but growing  For perspective, note that Exxon-Mobil reported in early February fourth quarter sales $116 billion and profits of nearly $12 billion. According to the NPD Group, retail sales of computer and video games reached $9.5 billion in the US last year. If we double or even triple that figure for the rest of the world (and throw in monthly fees for online games), we still come up way short of the oil giant’s quarter.

    Halo Wars Archive Builds: These have been coming at a furious pace; the last one I saw was #464.

    Date of The Asian Dynasties Patch: By mentioning the coming patch recently we set off a friendly contest for trying to guess when it will actually appear. The truth is we don’t know at this point and it depends on what we find that we think needs work, how soon we can get everything we want fixed, and when it can all be tested and cleared for release. We want it in your hands as soon as we can, but we want it to be a quality effort. Check out the opinions of those guessing when it is coming on Age of Empires III Heaven, here.,0,0,10&st=0

    Age of Mythology Artificial Intelligence Study: Brad Robnett found and shared an interesting study on the AI in AoM conducted by the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence. The authors programmed four AI agents to play the game in single player mode, each with a distinctive style: aggressive, defensive, normal, and neurotic. The neurotic was ostensibly handicapped with irrational assessments of resource value and a tendency to resort to extreme playing styles. The four different AIs won 26 out of 28 games against the game’s Hard AI, with both Aggressive and Neurotic going 7-0. The neurotic AI won its games faster than any other style, however (in under 32 minutes versus second best of just over 35 minutes). Dave Pottinger, Lead Programmer on Age of Empires III, commented that there were some cool ideas in this study that might help make future AIs feel more human, but he questioned some of the thinking, as well. Check out the study here.

    Day in the Life of Lead Designer Greg Street: Greg was in charge of the single player campaign for Age of Mythology and then Lead Designer on Age of Empires III. I asked him to share with you what his typical days were like, especially as a lead. Here are Greg’s comments.

    • I tend to get in early. I find that the rest of the day is going to be constant interruptions so I can really only get work done when nobody else is here. On AOM and AOE3 there were days I would get in before sunrise, and man that sucked. When things aren’t in crisis, it’s more like 9 AM. This is the time of day when I can get my own bugs fixed and deal with anything else that has been neglected.
    • Around 10 AM most of the rest of the team is here and the rest of the morning becomes non-stop emails and people dropping in.
    • The artists want to know if the War Wagon is still in the game, and how many upgrades it gets.
    • I need to look at the latest proofs of the manual.
    • There is probably an interview request from a fan site or magazine.
    • One of the designers wants to know if I have any ideas to troubleshoot a random map bug.
    • Another can’t make a unit use his special attack (it’s probably a tactics or anim file bug).
    • MS says we need to change the name of Constantinople to Istanbul. Wait, didn’t we make the opposite change three months ago? Am I trapped in a song?
    • A programmer wants my feedback on the multiplayer game setup UI.
    • Some of these things I can answer through email. Others require a quick office visit. I learned quickly that a team wants to see the lead designer. Stay locked in your office at your own peril.
    • Too much of that, and you get the reputation of a holy figure handing mandates down the mountain. The game starts to become your game instead of Ensemble’s game. This is Bad.
    • In the spare moments between all of those mini-meetings, I constantly refresh the bug database. I assign any bugs to the other designers working on the campaign, random maps, text or the unit database. I close out any bugs that I entered that have come back to me as resolved. I enter any new bugs that I haven’t had a chance to enter yet. Copious amounts of coffee are consumed.
    • Ensemble tends to eat lunch at 11:30 to beat the Dallas traffic. However, when we’re in hardcore production I tend to have a lunch meeting four days a week. There just isn’t enough extra time.

    After lunch, more meetings. These tend to be:

    •  A sync with the leads. Are we on track for the milestone? Are there any big features coming unglued? Are there any programmers or designers coming unglued?
    • A sync with the designers. What is everyone working on? Who is being held up? What problems are people having?
    • A design meeting. This would be to figure out something like a feature that isn’t implemented yet, or a feedback session for something just implemented. These tend to be multi-disciplinary meetings with all departments represented. It’s tough for them to be big enough to involve everyone who needs to be there and small enough so that everyone can still talk.
    • A balance meeting. Our balance team will prepare a top 10 list of problems with the game. Sometimes they have ideas to fix the problems and sometimes we have to brainstorm a bit. I try to balance their feedback with the other needs of the game. No, we can’t cut that feature. Yeah, I see your point, but that solution is really confusing. Oh, good idea – let’s go with that.
    • In the afternoon, I might have more fires to put out. Though if I’m lucky we have an hour for a playtest with just the designers. I live for these. We can generally screw around and insult each other more in designer-only playtests than we can with the rest of the team. Sometimes we’ll make quick changes to the game, spit out a build, then try it again. I try not to address balance too much in these sessions, since we have a team for that. (Though I do confess to tinkering with those tricky Russians and Ottomans quite a bit.)  Instead I try to iterate on things that aren’t yet fun, are confusing or just broken.
    • At the end of the day (assuming we’re not in crunch) it’s time for a company playtest. We’ll probably get 8-16 people who are on the team and on other teams to play the game. We always try to have a designer present, and I go whenever I can. We’ve learned that people just have a better time when they know their feedback is getting to the designers unfiltered, and some people want a little more back and forth discussion where you can explain why a feature was implemented in a certain way. Copious amounts of coffee are consumed.
    • After the playtest, I make some changes to the game, enter tasks into the bug database for things I can’t change myself (like art, sound or code) and write up a gigantic email summarizing the feedback and the proposed changes (if any). It’s important to close the feedback loop but I won’t pretend this solution is an ideal one. Not everyone wants to read a giant email, and if you get a few responses to the original message, suddenly you might have a gigantic thread of emails with more people piling on. Arguments might start. Feelings might get bruised. Ensemble is still searching for a better way to get this design info communicated back to the team.
    • I usually head home between 6:30 and 7:00 depending on how long it took to summarize the playtest feed. The commute home is actually some of my most productive time to think, and I’m always trying to scribble down notes while navigating the horrors of Dallas traffic. Once I get home I often dash out an email (much to my wife’s chagrin) and will probably check email 3-4 more times that evening. 

    Now, when we’re not in production, replace almost everything above with brainstorm meetings and lots of email. We do get to eat lunch out more often though. The copious amounts of coffee – that never goes away. You need a strong stomach as a lead here. I’m not sure if the coffee is the cause or just an added bonus of the iron constitution you develop.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Monday, February 18, 2008 7:30 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, Greg Street, Asian Dynasties Patch, Age of Mythology

    The Asian Dynasties Patch


    The Asian Dynasties Patch: After several months on the market the China civilization is the most popular, especially in any tournament where prize money is involved. Expert China players are able to get a sizable army engaged within six minutes and are hard to stop at that point. If China is not available to play, then the Dutch or the Sioux are popular alternatives, which is interesting because that gives us one strong civilization at this point from the original game and each expansion pack.

    Addressing the balance issues that favor China will be a major focus of a forthcoming TAD patch. At this point we have no critical technical bugs in the game. We anticipate releasing a combination balance and technical patch near the end of this winter season. Thereafter we will split the process into patches for either balance or technical problems, as needed. That will help us get any needed balance patches out faster.

    Day in the Life of Concept Artist Bart Tiongson: The great graphics that are the face of games today are the end result of a lot of work by an art team. We are long past the day when one or two people could create all the graphics for a game. For our games any finished piece of art begins with the sketch of the idea by one of our concept artists.

    These artists have particularly good hand skills, can sketch an idea quickly, and have a flare for creating expressive and engaging art. Once a concept sketch is okayed, it goes to the 3D artist who builds the object in a computer program like 3D Studio Max so it can be put into the game. The finished object is then handed off to an animator who brings the character (or vehicle, or creature) to life, making it move and act believably. Textures will also be created based on the original concept.

    I asked one of our best concept artists, Bart Tiongson, to share with you what a typical day is like for him. We recruited Bart and several of his classmates out of the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto, Canada.

    • Early morning for me starts off with coffee, tea or “power boost” drink of choice.  I will also bring 2 or 3 bottles of water to my desk to try and make myself believe that I’m being healthy. I probably won’t drink these.
    • I check my email (email and meetings take up a good portion of my work day).
      From 10:00 am until noon I start on my tasks for the day; these may be anything from conceptualizing a cool vehicle or building, or creating unique creatures, environments, or characters.
    • At lunchtime a lot of artists here will grab a quick bite and do a speed painting on the computer. We usually pick a random topic (although warrior, vampire, robot…  um …  warrior, comes up a lot) and start painting. This is purely for fun and it helps us stay passionate about our craft, while keeping our “pencils sharp”, as we say.
    • After lunch it’s back to the drawing board, literally. Some artists do thumbnails and concepts traditionally with markers, pen and ink, or graphite; others will do their designs solely on the computer using a digital painting program like Photoshop.
    • The ideas for art concepts are based on written descriptions from the designers, backed up by references to photos, movies, other games, and the work of other artists. We try to meet the game needs while creating a cool look.
    • Our sketches are reviewed regularly by the project’s Lead Concept Artist.
    • A lot of the scheduled daily meetings will be with game designers to discuss the look of the game. We discuss the color palette or mood and lighting, and just the overall visual appeal of the game.
    • At least once a week all the concept artists sync up to be sure our drawings are staying on track with the game’s design and art style, often with the game’s Art Vision Lead, Art Producer, and Lead Designer also giving input. It usually takes multiple adjustments or complete redraws to get the image to look just right.
    • At some point during the day I’ll play our game; it’s a good way to stay in tune with changes that are being made on Halo Wars in both on the visual look and game play. 
    • When not in meetings or playing Halo Wars, most of my time is basically spent drawing, drawing, and redrawing. If there’s free time after that then you draw.
    • Drawing for a living is absolutely amazing.  I’m surrounded by like-minded and exceptionally talented individuals. There is really no other job that I would want — aside from rap artist, or maybe NBA player…  
    • Around 7:00 I’ll wrap things up and get ready for home.  There are still 3 or 4 unopened water bottles sitting on my desk.

    Age of Empires III Concept Sketches: Here are two examples of Bart’s work, the concept sketches for the Mayan Spearman and Russian Oprichnik.




    Halo Wars Moving Along: We are still keeping the details on this game under wraps but it progressing very well. I got in several games this week and they were fun. I thought there were lots of interesting things to consider, like in any good RTS, but not enough time to do everything. The early game was a nice mix of economy, exploration, and combat. The maps encouraged me to get out and do things. It all felt like a game progressing well, though a lot of work remains.

    I noted in a message posted by programmer Sergio Tacconi that he had assembled build #394 for our archive. We are saving about one archive build every day now, with many more playtest builds.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Tuesday, January 22, 2008 3:35 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, Age of Empires III, Asian Dynasties Patch

    Age of Empires in Uruguay


    Age of Empires in Uruguay: Patrick Hudson is one of our two Executive Producers and in a past life he spent some time working in Uruguay. He was recently invited to return to Montevideo and be a judge in Uruguay’s second annual game development competition (there were sixteen entries). The contest was sponsored by one of the local game companies (Powerful Robot), the Uruguay government, and the US Embassy. Gonzalo Frasca of Powerful Robot was the chairman of the competition. While there Patrick was asked to give a presentation about Ensemble Studios to the attendees (about 120 people). He was amazed at the welcome he received and how knowledgeable the game community there was about our studio and our games.

    For most gamers in the advanced nations of the world Uruguay sounds like a very exotic place, but Patrick’s photos and account of his trip made it appear like a game conference anywhere in the world. The city itself is located on the beaches of Rio de la Plata, the widest estuary in the world, and looks very inviting. Although proficient in Spanish, Patrick spoke in English with translation, but says most attendees listened to him in English. Here are photos of his visit, one of the audience, one of game developer Batovi Games, and a third of the recreation room at Powerful Robot (office is a converted home).




    Best Microsoft Games of 2007: Last year was maybe Microsoft’s best year for publishing games and some (my local newspaper, for example) say it was the best year ever for video/computer games. One of the perks associated with working in games for Microsoft is receiving a copy of everything they publish. Since many of us worked in the past for companies that threw nickels around like they were manhole covers, these regularly appearing gifts are pretty sweet.

    I did an informal survey asking everyone at Ensemble Studios to list their favorite games that our parent published last year, other than Halo 3 and The Asian Dynasties. Seven games got mentioned by at least one person and many people added comments on what made their choices favorites. Here is the result of my unscientific survey, in order of most popular, with some of the comments that came with the votes. (Disclaimer: Viva Piñata and Gears of War released originally on the X360 in 2006, but the PC in 2007. Most of us played the X360 versions.)


    • My whole family got to play together over Christmas vacation (we played with 4 teams of 2);
    • Was fun to actually have a game that my mom could play with us and compete in;
    • A fun game that anyone could enjoy;
    • Get a drink, some chips, and sit down and play;
    • Perfect game for movie nerds, groups, and family (wives).


    • Easily my favorite game from any publisher in 2007;
    • Awesomely fun to just navigate the world and full of quests you could give yourself through a really clever use of achievements;
    • Dizzying heights, spectacular jumps;
    • Incredibly visceral ‘platforming’ and combat that made you feel like a badass;
    • The way your character upgraded his abilities, and the way this increased your options while traversing and exploring the city, was very well executed;
    • It was clear that someone loved the idea of making jumping cool;
    • It’s fun beyond belief to jump around that city;
    • Best game ever for achievements;
    • Great sensation of power and freedom, and the whole orb-collecting RPG mechanic was a blast;
    • Great co-op;
    • Generally just great mayhem and a fun game to pop in and just screw around;
    • Played with my daughter in sandbox mode and we laughed more in that game than we have in any game in a while.

    Mass Effect:

    • I liked the universe;
    • It hit all the right notes to feel like epic science fiction, but was still something new that was fun to explore;
    • The music was particularly fitting- it had a really retro sci-fi feel without being too campy;
      The various races, for being of the bumpy-headed alien school from Star Trek, had recognizable traits, characteristics, and histories
      ? I hope there is a chance to visit the universe again;
    • Great plot, wonderfully detailed world, and haunting music;
    • Great RPG and development of the ideas started in Knights of the Old Republic;
    • Overall experience was very enjoyable to the point of me starting over to explore choices not taken the first time through;
    • Delivered on story and setting.

    Forza Motorsports 2:

    • Like it so much I bought the Forcefeedback wheel and a Playseat chair;
    • The car physics and driver AI is unmatched in the car sim racing world;
    • The car customization/painting feature delivered much more than anyone anticipated, allowing the user to paint “anything” on their car and share it with the world;
    • The auction house was also something not realized in console games previously;
    • Beautifully detailed simulation, great graphics, and a matchmaking system that generally kept me in competitive games.

    Viva Piñata:

    • The depth and polish on the game were very satisfying from the piñata ecology to the encyclopedia of all critters and their behaviors;
    • Excellent sounds and animations throughout;
    • A more freeform, creative, and less competitive game that spanned all age and experience groups.

    Gears of War:

    • By FAR my household’s favorite.


    • My 11 year old son found it the PERFECT multiplayer game;

    Age of Empires Collection Charity Auction: The large set of Age of Empires products we offered on e-Bay last month sold for $720, with 25 bids. The proceeds after e-Bay fees will go to Child’s Play, a non-profit group that donates toys and games to children’s hospitals. Thanks to the winner and other bidders.

    Shooters Blues: We noted that two first-person shooter (FPS) titles with substantial expectations launched near the end of last year without making a big splash in sales. Rob Fermier, one of our Lead Programmers and a very active gamer, shared his opinions on what is going on.

    • Great graphics are no longer enough to propel PC game sales; Crysis was positioned as the best looking FPS ever but that was not enough.
    • FPS is a brutal market to be in; they aren’t cheap to make, there is a lot of competition, and even the best don’t sell well or have long shelf lives.
    • The “old” PC market is in pretty serious shambles compared to the sales of console games. Casual games, WoW, and a handful of older PC franchises still can move reasonable numbers, but no new intellectual property has been launched on the PC for years.
    • Way too many games are coming out in the holiday season; some games that came out recently might have done much better if not part of the huge glut; our industry needs to develop additional key release seasons, like Hollywood has.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2008 4:09 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Age of Empires, Shooters, Charity Auction, Microsoft Games, Uruguay

    Charity Auction & Balance Tester Interview


    Child’s Play Charity Auction: The guys at Penny Arcade have been raising money for a charitable program called Child’s Play for a while and this year we got on board. The Halo Wars team donated some original artwork for the live auction at the Child Play dinner next week in Seattle.

    We are also auctioning off a group of 14 Age of Empires/Mythology items in one e-Bay lot that is live right now. Included are copies of all of our games and expansion packs, some “making of” DVDs, sound track CDs, and even the DS version of Age of Kings. We tried to get everyone available in our offices to sign most of these items. The proceeds from the sale, minus some minor fees, will go to children’s hospitals. Follow the links on our community page to learn more about Child Play and Penny Arcade. The e-Bay auction is here.

    Halo 3/Halo Wars Slurpee/Dorito Sweepstakes: We had in our offices this week the winners of a contest sponsored by 7-11 Stores and Mountain Dew. We believe several hundred thousand people entered the contest with the winner getting the opportunity to provide some voice acting for Halo Wars. A very thrilled young man from Oregon accompanied his mom to our offices this week. He had encouraged her to enter, as only adults could do the voice parts because of some legal requirements. They got a tour of the office and visited with some of the Halo Wars team, and then mom stepped up to the microphone for her video game debut. We think they had a great time.

    iGames The Asian Dynasties Tournament: Check out the Age of Empires community site for more info and a link to this contest with a $3000 first prize. We will be following this tournament to see how the game is playing.

    Day in the Life of Balance Tester Donnie Thompson: For those of you interested in what goes on inside a game development studio, I thought I would talk to some of my colleagues about what their typical day is like. For example, our balance team is responsible for testing our games for balance and fun, particularly at the high skill levels. We rely on them to tell us when the game is not working well and to uncover strategies that break the game. As you can see below, they are often in the front lines with gamers around the world, learning what people like and don’t like, which helps us with adjustments down the road.

    This might sound like a particularly fun way to make a living so I asked Donnie if that was true and what his work life is like. Here is what he had to say.


    • The start of the day is typically spent either browsing community forums for Age of Empires III or playing it over ESO. I sometimes play on my ES tag, but more often I ‘smurf’ so I can get a game quicker and easier.
    • There are meetings constantly whether formal or informal. We typically have 2 formal meetings a week to discuss Halo Wars. The informal meetings are typically just us discussing things in either Age of Empires III or Halo Wars. I’d wager we spend the same amount of time debating things as we do playing .Jgames
    • We of course play games a lot, sometimes back to back to back; other times we play games then discuss them immediately afterwards before going back to playing. There are plenty of talented gamers here, as well as completely different play styles, so coming to an agreement can often be difficult.
    • A really cool thing to me is being able to see the people that when I was younger I could only read about (Greg Street, Kevin Holme, Ian Fischer, etc.). Being able to have conversations, and discuss game design with the people who created my favorite games of all time has been an awesome experience.
    • Lunch time generally involves a board game of some sort; it’s a good way for us to feed our competitive nature but in a way that doesn’t involve sitting at a computer desk.
    • There is plenty of bug finding/reporting going on, which in my opinion is the only part of the job that feels like ‘work’.
    • I constantly monitor Age of Empires III forums through the day and read people’s different opinions on the state of the game. As such I’ve almost become .Ja lightning rod for criticism and flaming
    • In my short time here (11 months) it seems there is a constant struggle between design and balance. We (balance) are usually pushing for things that would make the game more fun for the hardcore multiplayer community, while design remains very concerned about keeping the game fun for the larger casual gaming community as well. This debate comes into play in both Age of Empires III and Halo Wars almost daily. I never considered that there were trade-offs between the two camps before working here, but I understand now how these issues come up and why we work hard to find a good balance between them.

    Ensemble Studios Gift Exchange: We held our Christmas gift exchange and office party last Friday. As is traditional now, whiskey (especially Crown Royal) was a popular gift and each bottle unwrapped was “stolen” the maximum three times before someone got to keep it.
    The Osbourne’s Trivia Game was re-gifted for the umpteenth year in a row. I can trace the provenance back three years and thankfully each year we have newer employees who don’t recognize the box shape. The lucky owner for the next year is Andy Gotcher, a user interface artist on Halo Wars.
    We set up Rock Band and the pounding of the drum pads was the background music for the event. There was a gingerbread house decorating contest, won by Josh Powers (Doug Marien and Woody Smith were runner-ups).

    Here are a couple of pictures of the party. The first shows the proud Andy and his “special” gift. Our more formal Christmas party is coming up at a hotel downtown.



    Happy Holidays,

    Bruce Shelley 

    Posted Friday, December 14, 2007 5:27 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Age of Empires III

    Vacation Clues


    Vacation Clue #1: Here is one photo I took that is a first clue to where we went. A second hint is that the country we visited has been a playable civilization in several of the Age games.


    The Asian Dynasties: Our community team tells us that the Thanksgiving weekend was a very busy one on ESO, with lots of games being played. For the first time we saw TAD numbers slightly higher than for Age of Empires III vanilla (the basic game) and The Warchiefs.
    We also learned that The Asian Dynasties was ranked as the 16th best selling PC game in October, despite being for sale for just a few days in the period. Age of Empires III held in there at 15th, now in its third year after publication.
    Our internal balance testing team is offering strategy tips on our community site. If you haven’t checked them out yet, go here.

    Vacation Clue #2:


    Halo Wars: Playtesting of Halo Wars continues every day and the game is going through our design by playing process. We hope to have more to say about its progress early next year.

    Buckeyes for Age Stuff: A while ago Woody Smith requested we all sign some game posters, which he sent on to his mom who works for a bank in Columbus, Ohio. The signed posters, some Age t-shirts, and some Age games were all placed in a charity auction the bank runs each year to support the United Way. Woody reports that the Age items raised $1400. As a token of appreciation, people at the bank sent us some buckeyes (chocolate and peanut butter candies). Real buckeyes are hard round black seeds found inside round seed casings on buckeye trees; apparently the seeds look like deer eyes.

    Vacation Clue #3:


    Very good, everyone. Yes, we went to Egypt for about 10 days, part of these in Cairo and part further up the Nile at various places. Overall it was an excellent trip and we learned quite a bit about both ancient and modern Egypt. This is the first of the ancient civilizations featured in the Age games that I have visited and it was amazing to see the well preserved artifacts in person.

    My first OMG moment came as we drove across the modern city of Cairo to the west bank called Giza, through palm trees and buildings, when suddenly the Great Pyramid of Cheops loomed out of the haze, dwarfing everything nearby. I was blown away by how big it was and that sensation only grew as we walked up to it. This pyramid and its nearby companions are staggering man-made piles of stone and remarkably well preserved. It is hard to believe that they were built nearly 5000 years ago with no metal tools, no wheel, and no mortar. They truly are Wonders.

    Photo number 1 above is the burial chamber entrance to the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, located a little upriver from Cairo. We were able to enter this pyramid and it was something I won’t forget soon. We climbed down backwards because of the steep and low shaft. We could stand up to our full height in two vaulted chambers inside. The powerful smell inside was of urine. You can check out what we saw here.

    The second photo is of the Nile from the town of Luxor, looking west. In this photo you can see how dramatically the land changes from lush farmland watered by the river to the harsh Saharan desert. Located in those distant hills are both the Valley of the Queens and Valley of the Kings, the burial grounds for Pharaohs after they stopped building pyramid tombs. We were able to enter King Tutankhamen’s tomb and his mummy had just recently been returned there. It was very cool to walk down the passages excavated by Howard Carter, enter the rooms where he found the king and his treasures, and see the actual body of the boy king with our own eyes in his tomb. We had seen the treasures themselves at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo earlier. We got to Luxor by cruise ship after boarding at Aswan and sailing south for four days.

    The third photo is of the smallest of the three major pyramids at Giza. I liked this picture the best because you can make out the city in the background and because of the tourists riding camels in the foreground.

    If you get a chance to visit Egypt some day, I recommend the trip.

    What ES is Playing: The game that a lot of Ensemble Studios people seem to be playing and enjoying right now is Rock Band. Guitar Hero has gotten a lot of play time in the past so it is understandable that the same crowd would jump at the chance to be other parts of a band. We have had a variety of messages arranging groups to meet online after hours. Two ES band names that I noticed were the Metric Frijoles and El Stealer de Kibbles.

    Empire Earth III: We looked over some of the reviews of this new RTS release and note that overall the response is not very positive. The first edition of this game was developed by Stainless Steel Studios founded by one of our ex-colleagues, Rick Goodman, who had been the lead designer on the original Age of Empires. Empire Earth I did very well worldwide and it looked like it was poised to launch another quality RTS franchise. Rick and his studio lost control of the game to their publisher, however, for reasons not clear to us, and the game was turned over to other developers.

    The apparent decline of the Empire Earth franchise must be a disappointment to everyone involved, although mediocre reviews don’t necessarily translate into mediocre sales and it is early yet for the third version.
    I was a guest at Stainless Steel twice and they seemed like talented and passionate team, but now they are gone. Considering the plight of their promising studio and the franchise they created should encourage everyone at Ensemble Studios to be thankful for the colleagues, leadership, and partners we have, and to feel good about how together we have kept our franchise moving in a positive direction.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Monday, December 03, 2007 4:44 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: The Asian Dynasties, Empire Earth III, Vacation

    The Asian Dynasties Launches


    The Asian Dynasties Launches: Jim Ying of our marketing group sent us the official launch news last week and the reviews have been coming in since. First, a big thanks to the Big Huge Games guys for making a fine addition to the Age series. We think they worked fast and efficiently to bring this to conclusion and put together a nice mixture of old and new ideas. We think all Age 3 fans will enjoy giving it a try and exploring the new content. The Japanese remain my favorite of the new civilizations to play, and that opinion seemed to be supported by two of our balance team, Zeke Marks and Donnie Thompson. We’ll have to see what you think when you start playing.
    Our community team told us that by October 29th ESO showed over 3000 TAD accounts and 400 TAD players online.

    The Asian Dynasties Reviews: Our community support guys are trying to keep up to date with reviews as they appear. Check out the Age of Empires community site for links. The ones I have read are very positive and I hope they will encourage you to give it a try. Go here to get the links.

    Age of Empires 10 Year Anniversary: This October marks the 10th anniversary of the original Age of Empires launch, a big day in the lives of everyone then working at Ensemble Studios. In commemoration, we are posting some interviews with colleagues who were working here at the time. You can read these at the community site link above.

    I have been asked about the creation of the first game a lot recently. One thing that stands out for me is how many aspects of that game we got right without really understanding their importance. One of these was choosing a history based topic rather than fantasy or science fiction like our competitors. Another was the bright and realistic look pushed by Studio Head/Art Director Tony Goodman. Another was committing ourselves to making a really quality game. We were lucky to have Microsoft’s support to take the extra time to do that.

    We also built a strong feature list that was a blend of what was expected from RTS and some new things. I remember making lists of the key features in Warcraft/Warcraft II and Command & Conquer, and these features were our minimum bar to attain. We had to be as good as those games in most of the areas where they were strong. Then we made a list of good game features that were not in those games and these were our opportunity to innovate in the genre. Features on this list included randomly generated maps, levels of difficulty, a more robust economy, a non-cheating artificial intelligence, wonders, and multiple paths to victory. We know now that taking these various steps set up Age of Empires to be recognizably different at a high level, and an innovative and fresh experience at the gameplay level.

    Even though our plan was good, we still had to deliver and make a quality game. The last nine months were a tough slog that would be unthinkable today, but key people worked incredibly long and hard to make the vision a reality. Tony did an amazing job of filling critical holes in our staff with people who could do the job. Most of the people who had a key role in creating Age of Empires in 1997 are still with the company and continue to fill important roles for us.

    Age of Empires Anniversary Image Contest: Check out our Age community site for details on a new contest in commemoration of the 10 year anniversary. We believe the contest is so broad that anyone can enter. One of the prizes is a copy of the Age of Empires board game.

    Home City Creation Change: We have just implemented a change in the way that players who have been playing online for some time create new Home Cities. The idea is to avoid much of the slog to take a new city from level zero up to a competitive level. The new system allows you to create a new Home City at a level very close to the highest one you currently have. There is also an increase in the amount of XP you get in games. We hope these changes will remove some tedium for experienced players and encourage people to try more civilizations. Check out the changes in this forum post.

    More Driving Adventures for Justin: A while ago I mentioned Justin Randall driving by an explosive fire on the way to work and how the story made CNN. Earlier this month he and Vijay Thakkar found a funnel cloud in the rear view mirror, not far from our office.

    Halo Wars Television News Coverage: A local Dallas television program, the CW, recently sent a crew to our studio for a story on Halo Wars, following up the recent headlines about Halo 3. The film crew spent some time with Graeme Devine and Colt McAnlis. The story was picked up by other network stations around the country. If you missed it you can check it out on the website of Denver’s ABC affiliate here.

    ES Halloween Party: This was a fun afternoon event of “food and fellowship”, in the words of our IT head, Roy Rabey. Thanks go mainly to our office team, led by Office Manager Lizette Atkinson. Yes, there were some costumes. Here is a photo of the Mike Coker and his family, who really got into the spirit of the party, and a second photo giving an overall view. Thanks to Roy for getting me the images.



    Posted Friday, November 02, 2007 12:40 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Age of Empires, Asian Dynasties, Halloween

    The Asian Dynasties Trial Version


    The Asian Dynasties Trial Version: We had over 26,000 downloads of the trial version from our community site in its first four days. There are maybe a dozen different sites where you can get it. Check out our site forums for opinions of the trial version as people try it out. The game itself has gone gold and is working through the duplication and packaging process.

    The WarChiefs at World Cyber Games: Our expansion pack to Age of Empires III was one of the competitive events at this year’s WCG and our own Greg Street was there. He had not been at one of these major competitions in a while and was very impressed with the changes he saw:

    • Korean, Italian, and Mexican teams in matching team jackets and warm-up suits.
    • Big matches being played on a huge stage with the competitors in soundproof booths draped with their country’s flag.
    • Three 70 foot video screens were available for the audience supported by play-by-play commentary in various languages.
    • Lots of cheering and national flag waving for exciting game events.
    • When someone typed “gg” (good game) and quit, fireworks went off.
    • Excellent facilities at Qwest Field.

    Congrats to iamgrunt from Korea (South), who defeated the US representative, parfait, in the best of three final of The Warchiefs competition. Iamgrunt is a past WCG champion in other Age game competitions. Greg says our game was played off the main floor and accessible only to competitors. But he noted that Microsoft had a significant presence as a sponsor, including a half dozen Forza cars on display and The Asian Dynasties available for playing by visitors. Overall, Greg thought the entire event was very polished and professional.
    Next year the WCG moves to Germany. Go here to see all the events and photos from 2007.

    The Warchiefs Championship Replay: Our friends at have posted a replay of the first game from the WCG final. One of our moderators, Milo, a highly ranked player in his own right, was on hand to watch the game being played and stepped in to give better commentary than originally being offered.
    Both finalists were playing as Dutch, but employed different strategies. Parfait went to the Fortress Age and began making cannons and Ruyters, while iamgrunt made mostly skirmishers and did raiding in the Colonial Age. I hear the game was somewhat slow reaching a conclusion, as both players jockeyed for advantage while being careful not to risk destruction of their main army. One of our guys who watched the replay to completion was not sure what compelled parfait to resign. Maybe you can figure it out.,34545,0,10

    Greg Street on Age of Empires III: Greg was the Lead Designer on Age of Empires III and he was invited to speak at a conference in Seattle tied to the WCG. He gave some background on Ensemble Studios, the history of the Age of Empires franchise, and our development philosophy, but the bulk of his remarks centered on the design of Age of Empires III, and the many changes it went through during development.

    Pre-Design: Greg noted several of the challenges he and the team faced up front.

    • The press had recently said that real-time strategy (RTS) was dead as a genre with no significant innovation in sight.
    • Our team was somewhat burned out on historical RTS, even though Age of Mythology had been a departure.
    • Was the Age of Discovery interesting enough as a topic?
    • How do we handle Native Americans and slavery?
    • How do we hit Studio Head Tony Goodman’s sweet spot: a combination of familiar old Age play with innovation to make the game fresh, but not too much of either?

    Proposed Design Solutions: Greg and his design team came up with several ideas for these and other challenges in the design proposal.
    • Make a really revolutionary RTS (this did not work out; too unlike Age).
    • Emphasize what is cool in the time period (cannons, pirates).
    • Native Americans as allies, not obstacles.
    • Ignore the atrocities (we’re making entertainment, not teaching).

    Big Design Features: As the design plan came together the team settled on six main features, only three of which made it to the finish.

    • Out: victory points (studio split about 50-50 in favor or against)
    • In: Home City
    • In: Native Americans to augment your civilization as allies
    • Out: Formation based combat (too difficult to polish in time left)
    • Out: Grand conquest meta-game (low priority)
    • In: Best-looking game ever (self challenge set by programming and art teams)

    Greg mentioned examples of other innovations that did not stand up once they got into our design by playing process. These included changing the first 15 minutes of play, which had been comparable in all previous Age games. Changing this moved the game too far from being an Age game. Having players start on a ship and then land/explore/start was too risky and made losing early too easy. Allowing fighting early also meant losing early was too large a possibility. Building cities on a grid may have resulted in prettier cities, but was confusing, hard to implement, and less personal/fun for players. Innovations that did stick included allowing the training of soldiers in batches (appealed to hard core but casual gamers could ignore it), no drop sites for resources (less micromanagement), passable forests, story based campaign (more interesting), and personalities for the computer players (artificial intelligences).

    Critical Reaction: After Age of Empires III got into the hands of reviewers and millions of gamers we got feedback on the decisions that we had made. Things we learned included these.

    • The user interface was too big and blocked too much of the playable screen (optional minimal screen was quickly implemented).
    • The Home Cities were fun (took us over a dozen iterations).
    • More game modes and options would have been better.
    • We really wanted a new combat look and feel.
    • The story based campaigns were a good idea.
    • Despite a changing PC game market, quality RTS games still sell well and have a long shelf life when supported with expansion packs, patches, and additional content.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Thursday, October 18, 2007 5:59 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Warchiefs, Asian Dynasties, Greg Street, World Cyber Games

    The Asian Dynasties News Coming


    The Asian Dynasties News Coming: Stay tuned to the Age of Empires community site for breaking news about release dates, etc. It’s all good.

    The Asian Dynasties in Japan: While in Tokyo for a conference related to the Tokyo Game Show I also got an opportunity to show The Asian Dynasties to key Japanese media. I’m happy to say that they seemed pleased with the way Big Huge Games had represented their country’s history in the expansion pack. Japan is in the top 15, or so, of the markets for Age of Empires games. As part of my presentation at the conference I gave a brief demonstration of the game. I got the biggest response when I ordered villagers or soldiers to move. When they spoke in Japanese the audience found it very amusing.

    Tokyo Game Show: I got to the show for the first day when crowds were light. The Microsoft booth was popular, with many people watching trailers and stage shows, and reasonable lines for the 10 Halo 3 machines. The Asian Dynasties was available for play in the Game for Windows area with staff available there to help people get into it. Our colleagues there are already working on the localized version, so I had some fun playing with Japanese text while trying to remember what everything did. The multiple show halls were warm and hand fans were favored give-away items. No Nintendo or EA presence, which has been the policy of those companies for a while now. Here is a virtual tour of the Microsoft booth, courtesy of IGN.

    Playing Japan: In The Asian Dynasties I am most comfortable right now playing Japan for several reasons. First, I like the way their Shrines (houses) provide a trickle of wood, food, or gold. As a casual gamer, it is easy for me to find myself short of one resource or another and the Shrines let me address that quickly. Second, I like the Japanese Wonders. The Toshogu Shrine, for example, supports population itself and improves the resource generation of all Shrines, which helps me with my economy and pop cap. The Shogunate wonder decreases the training time and cost of land military units, and provides a Daimyo. The Great Buddha wonder has the power to reveal for a short time all enemies. It is also the only wonder that I have personally seen. I believe the Great Buddha is based on the massive bronze Buddha monument at the temple of Kamakura, which I visited in 2002. Kamakura was briefly the capital of Japan, some time ago.
    Third, I like the Japanese units, especially the Samurai. They just seem tough against anything, especially in quantity (surprise). Their elite Hatamoto Samurai, available only during Isolation, seem particularly tough. Fourth, their Home City cards can be sent twice in most cases and there is at least one good cavalry card that can be sent unlimited times. Finally, I like the Daimyo units as leaders that can build new units and to whom Home City shipments can be sent. They are like mobile Barracks that provide reinforcements at the point of battle, another useful feature for a casual player. Daimyo units also boost the effectiveness of all nearby friendly units. They will probably have short lives in multi-player games because they are so valuable.

    Embargoed in Iran: We recently received a plea from gamer in Tabriz, Iran, who wanted help obtaining a legitimate copy of either Age of Empires III or Age of Mythology. He has been playing all of our games thanks to pirated copies but could not get online for multiplayer without legitimate discs. He has a friend with a credit card but can’t find any business that will ship a game to his country. We read about trade embargos and never think of how they affect little things like wanting to buy a computer game. A situation like this is another reason to be thankful for living in free and open democratic society.

    Age of Empires III in Top Ten: Voodoo Extreme’s list of the top twenty best selling PC games had Age of Empires III #7 for August. We believe that the popular MMORPGs are pushing down on the sales of other PC games right now, but we’re happy to see ours holding up well years after initial release. Strategy games or expansion packs made up 25% of the top 20, with MMORPGs strong and even a few shooters present. The new Bioshock was #1.

    Halo 3 at ES: We received our copies of Halo 3 and were playing on launch day. The consensus is that Bungie did a great job and really nailed this game. Our guys were having fun playing the campaign in co-op mode in particular. Dave Pottinger commented that the second half of the final mission was fantastic in co-op (“a good 30 minutes of constant laughing and flat-out fun”). Bryan Hehmann was in the same four-player group with Dave and reported that taking part in that game was his best experience so far on the Xbox 360.

    Hobby Games/The 100 Best- Sandy Petersen: I read my copy of this book during my flights to Tokyo and back. The authors had just recently learned who else was writing and what games were covered. Not only did Sandy write one of the essays (on the Avalon Hill card game Up Front), but two games he designed or co-designed (both role-playing games) were in the 100: Call of Cthulhu and Ghostbusters. He was in the credits for two other games on the list, but not as a designer. Sandy has been with Ensemble Studios for over 10 years and was the Lead Designer on both The Rise of Rome and The Warchiefs expansion packs.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, September 28, 2007 4:22 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo 3, The Asian Dynasties, Sandy Petersen, Iran

    The Asian Dynasties Wrapping Up


    The Asian Dynasties Wrapping Up: Big Huge Games and our testers, both here and in Redmond, are working through the final testing of The Asian Dynasties. Our test regimens are very rigorous and the standards at Microsoft are very high for shipping software, so publication is not imminent, but soon. It’s looking and playing great.

    The Asian Dynasties Campus Visit: The Games for Windows group in Redmond invited several key media outlets to their campus to see first hand the latest update for the coming expansion packs for both Flight Simulator and Age of Empires III. Brian Reynolds and Ike Ellis of Big Huge Games were there to discuss The Asian Dynasties specifically and I was asked to talk about how the expansion fits into the Age series. Ike was the lead designer for Big Huge. The journalists present were Jason Ocampo of Gamespot, Thierry Nguyen of GameTap, and Andy Mahood from PC Gamer. Ike gave a brief demo of the game, while Brian and I talked about the overall plan, how our studios came to work together, and how we felt about the project now that it is coming to conclusion. I reiterated our position that the business case for another Age of Empires III expansion pack was strong, but we didn’t have the people to do it.

    Fortunately, Big Huge Games was still near the beginning of their next big project and had some resources available. Plus, they were big fans of the Age series and obviously skilled in the real-time strategy genre. The journalists got in some hands on play and then had an opportunity to ask us all questions.
    At one point we were asked if we each had a favorite civilization and we replied completely unrehearsed, India (Ike), China (Brian), and Japan (me). Ike’s short answer for why he liked the Indian’s was elephants. I don’t recall Brian’s reason for choosing China. (I like Japan because their economy just seems powerful with their Shrines [houses] generating the resource of your choice; my Samurai units seem to be able to fight anything; and I like the fact Japanese Home City cards are repeatable.) So, based on this small sample, The Asian Dynasties appears perfectly balanced J, despite my bias. While Big Huge and our balance test team have worked hard to get the new civilizations into balance with the existing ones from the original game and The WarChiefs, I won’t be surprised if we have to make some adjustments after the game gets into the hands of the gaming public.
    You can read comments from two of the journalists here.;title;1

    Halo Wars on Spike TV’s Gamehead: The Gamehead program is doing a one hour Halo 3 launch special, plus scattered additional interviews, on September 25th and Halo Wars will be part of this. A Gamehead crew visited our offices and spent time with the team, particularly lead designer Graeme Devine. We don’t know how much mention our game will get but they got a lot of material to work with.

    Halo Wars in Vegas, Baby: Bill Jackson of our team and Josh Goldberg from our marketing group in Redmond traveled to sin city to present Halo Wars to about 5000 Gamestop store managers at their annual convention. Our game was part of a larger keynote from Microsoft Game Studios, led by Shane Kim. Also represented were Halo 3 (obviously) and Mass Effect. Bill reported the crowd was big, loud, and scary (in a good way). Bill drove the demo while Josh described the action. The crowd apparently responded positively and loudly to exploding methane tanks, grunt bowling, details like grenades, and the Scarab. Our guys got an awesome applause when they finished. The MGS show finished with a Halo 3 multiplayer demo, which rocked the house. Our company message was that Halo 3 is coming and will be the biggest game launch ever (and the Gamespot people agreed), but that we have great games coming next year also.

    ES Chatter This Week: The longest work related email thread this week concerned the forthcoming Halo 3 ad campaigns. Some liked them and some hated them, but most seemed to watch them, which I guess is the idea. There was also a lot of interest in the Halo 3 diorama (12 feet tall and 1200 square feet in area) and cartoons making fun of in-game advertising. Halo 3 is not going to be surprise to people with a pulse. The longest non-work related thread concerned melting arctic ice caps and the effects of that on weather and sea levels. Many people got engaged in a serious conversation about the phenomena and its effects, but we have our jokers. We’re nothing if not hip around here and our threads usually end up with Photo Shopped cat pictures. Paul Bettner noted that he wasn’t impressed with the arctic ice cap thread’s “start to cat” time of almost two hours.

    A Thinking Gamer’s RTS Wish List: A funny (and adult language) list of things one gamer would like to see fixed in real-time strategy games was recently spotted online by our Chris Van Doren and he passed the link around. This particular list is focused on the forthcoming Starcraft II, but the comments have been given some thought and are relevant to all games in the genre. Having struggled with some of these issues, we understand that there are not easy solutions to some of them. Check the list here.

    Hobby Games-The 100 Best: The book of 100 best hobby games (board, paper, card) that several us at ES contributed to has received the first review that I’ve seen, and it’s very positive (A Wonderful Book). I got my copy this week and look forward to reading it.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Tuesday, September 18, 2007 4:46 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, Asian Dynasties, Spike TV

    Halo Wars Demo Download


    Halo Wars Demo Download: You can get it here. Narration by Lead Designer Graeme Devine. The demo gives some information on the control system, built from scratch to make RTS come alive on the X360.

    RTS Console Controls: Our Halo Wars team has put a big effort into the controls for this game because we want playing an RTS on the X360 to be easy and intuitive. We started the research on this project several years ago by actually reprogramming Age of Mythology to be playable with a console controller. When designer/programmer Tim Deen proved he could play Age of Mythology faster with the controller than with a mouse/keyboard, we felt confident we could create a full-blown console RTS.

    Asian Dynasties Popular in Leipzig: Our producer on this project, Brian Lemon, says that whenever he checked our Asian Dynasties stations at the Leipzig game show were busy. This show is open to the public so anyone attending could walk up to a machine and start a skirmish game or play one of the early scenarios in the single player campaign. Most of the show feedback will probably be posted on the Internet in German, unfortunately.

    Vote Your Prediction for Halo Wars Sales: At a website called the Simexchange site members can vote on the number of sales they predict for Halo Wars and other games. Voters are currently predicting sales of 2.2 million for Halo Wars (and nearly 10 million for Halo Wars 3), for example. The Halo Wars numbers may have gotten a boost from the recent E3 and Leipzig PR campaigns, plus the imminent release of Halo 3. This site is a variation on similar sites used to predict a variety of things, including most famously, political elections. These experiments support the phenomena called the wisdom of crowds and when enough people take part they are often uncannily close to what really happens. Go to this site and search for Halo Wars.

    Age of Empires R-P-S Combat System: During the German Game Developer’s Conference I got into a number of discussions that recalled the development of the first Age of Empires game, including one about the rocks-paper-scissors combat system. For combat in that first game we used a system where infantry (rocks) beat cavalry (scissors) beat archers (paper) beat infantry. The question we had to resolve then was how badly rocks broke scissors, etc. We felt that if rocks were two or three times better than scissors, for example, that would skew the game more toward hard core gamers, since they would really benefit from understanding the relationships and achieving favorable combat situations in play. In contrast, a very low advantage, say only 25 percent, would make the game easier for casual gamers since they would barely notice that rocks were beating scissors and didn’t have to carefully match their units against opponents.

    In the end we decided that the advantage would be around 30 to 50 percent. We felt this would not greatly penalize the casual gamer but was enough of an advantage to pay off for the hard core gamer who could micro-manage his battles. This was a good decision looking back now, as it fell in line with our goal of building a game that had wide appeal. Discussing other RTS games at the conference many people thought that many were too hard for casual gamers and that difficulty limited their success. As the Age of Empires series went forward, we expanded the R-T-S system with counter units but never let the system skew too far toward hard core games only.

    Age III Board Game Development Team: I got together with the people mainly responsible for creating the Age of Empires III board game for our first game together since the game shipped. The creative team is in the photo below. Left to right they are Keith Blume (marketing, plus responsible for rule and outside playtests); Glenn Drover (designer of the game and President of Eagle Games until it folded); Paul Niemeyer (artist responsible for most of the art in the game); Jack Provenzale (friend of the company very active in testing and suggesting rules changes). I took three photos and Glenn’s eyes were closed in all three.

    The board game continues to rank very high at and the first print run is close to selling out. ES designer Sandy Petersen tells us that he has been playing the game quite a bit lately with friends and considers it the best of the Eagle games.


    100 Best Hobby Games: Green Ronin Publishing released at Gencon their new book listing the best hobby games of all time (board, paper, and card games). Each game is described in an essay written by people from the industry. ES’ers Sandy Petersen, Paul Jaquays, and I contributed essays, Paul’s about Runequest, Sandy’s about Up Front, and mine about Acquire. I was not aware of who else was writing or what games were included until recently. I doubt I have played even half the games on the list, which give me something to look forward to. Check out the list of games included and the authors here.

    Scouts: August 1 was the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts, started at Brownsea Island, England, by Lord Baden Powell. On a whim I took an informal poll of our studio and learned that nearly 20% of our employees were Cub, Boy, Girl, or Explorer Scouts and some are active in the program as adults. That’s a lot of exposure to outdoor adventure and leadership training for a group that might be expected to have been spending their free time with game consoles and PCs.

    We have at least two Eagle Scouts, Artist Pete Parisi and Designer Sandy Petersen, and Sandy’s four sons are Eagle Scouts also. Most respondents have very good memories of their Scouting experiences (for Tim Deen, hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim in five days, for example).

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Tuesday, September 04, 2007 6:13 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: HaloWars, Asian Dynasties, Leipzig, Scouts, Eagle Games

    Asian Dynasties at Leipzig Game Show


    Asian Dynasties at Leipzig Game Show: Microsoft has set up four stations at this show where press and the public can walk up and play. They expect to have tens of thousands of consumers pass through here over the next few days. My camera quality is not great, but here is a photo of the Asian Dynasties stations. In this photo the station to the left is actually showing Settlers VI, but it was changed over to the Asian Dynasties.


    Halo Wars at Leipzig: Harter Ryan (Executive Producer) and Brian Lemon (Assistant Producer) are here to give Halo Wars demos to the media. They are set up in a conference room in the business center area of the show, away from the big halls where the companies have their big displays. Here is a photo of the Halo Wars demo room, all set up and ready for the first of 40 odd meetings over the next few days. The X360 development kit that will run the game is out of the picture to the bottom left. In the photo from left to right are Studio Head Tony Goodman and his wife Suzanne, Harter, Brian, and Jim Ying of Microsoft Game Studios, responsible for marketing our games.


    German Game Developer’s Conference: Over the three days leading up to the Leipzig game show there has been for several years now a developer conference. Tony Goodman and I both accepted invitations to speak this year. I gave a solo presentation on designing games by playing them, basically the process we have used since the start of our studio to make all the Age games (prototype as quickly as possible and then play the game daily, make changes based on testing feedback, and rapidly build new versions for more testing). Tony, me, and Brian Sullivan, co-founder of Ironlore Entertainment, took part in a panel that looked back on the development of the original Age of Empires game, published ten years ago. Rick Goodman, Lead Designer of that game, was unable to attend, unfortunately.

    This conference has grown in a few years to become one of the best in the world. There were about 900 attendees, a good mix of speakers, plenty of space and time for networking, and a real international flavor with developers from many different countries.

    Several friends I used to work with were speakers and it was great to catch up with them. These included Doug Whately of BreakAway Games (ex-Microprose), Jennifer MacLean of Comcast (ex-Microprose), Tim Train of Big Huge Games (ex-Microprose), and Brian Sullivan and Jeff Goodsill of Ironlore (ex-ES). I also caught Jeff Strain of (Guild Wars) speaking on the future of MMOs. Jeff and our Greg Street (Age of Empires III Lead Designer) have been friends since childhood.

    Age of Empires Ten Year Retrospective: Our GGDC panel looking back on the start of ES and the development of our first game drew an SRO crowd and was apparently well received, based on feedback we received afterward. It would have been better if more ES’ers from those early years could have taken part. Questions we fielded from moderator Stephen Butts covered topics like how did we decide on the topic for the game, why did the game become such a success, how has the Age of  Empires series changed over the years, and what issues did we particularly struggle with making the first game.
    It struck me later that most of us involved in making Age of Empires were champions of some really bad ideas, but that as a group we weeded those out and ended up with a great game. Here are some of the things that came out of the panel discussions.

    • Topic: Tim Deen had insisted we play the original Warcraft and after that we came up with the idea of an RTS based in history, drawing on ideas from the game Civilization. 
    • Focus: Tony lobbied for a shorter time frame and we decided on the rise of the first great civilizations on earth; my idea of starting the game with the map partially covered with ice that melted off (the end of the Ice Age) was correctly dumped; the early tech tree was multiple pages long and Brian pushed hard for a much smaller one; the original concept was a game that might take 8-10 hours to play but many people pushed for average lengths no longer than one hour for multi-player online.
    • Graphic Look: We went with the detailed, realistic look; Tony forced a brighter palette very late in the project, wanting to create a game that people would want to get into, rather than a dark, forbidding place that people would want to get out of.
    • Broad Appeal: We did a good job of creating a game that included enough different experiences inside the same box that the game appealed to players across world markets and game tastes, with everyone feeling they got a good value.
    • Different and Innovative: At a high level Age of Empires was different from the competition (including 50+ RTS games also in development in 1997) in both topic and look; at the game play level we were innovative enough to be a new experience for RTS players (random maps, non-cheating AI, levels of difficulties, Wonders, multiple paths to victory); we borrowed from other games but did not imitate them.
    • Artist Candidates: When trying to hire our first artist, Tony asked candidates to create an animated walking man; Brad Crow did the best animation and became the first artist hired at ES; Brad is one of our lead artists.
    • Quality: The team kept committed to quality throughout, even though that put a tremendous strain on everyone down the stretch.
    • Management: Tony, Rick, and Brian all had experience managing teams on multi-million dollar software projects and that experience helped us manage the game and studio; many start-up developers suffer for not having equivalent management experience. 

    At least one account of the panel discussion has appeared online that you can check out here.

    Asian Dynasties Blogs: Our friends at Big Huge Games have started publishing some blogs on their experience developing the Asian Dynasties expansion on IGN. These should be interesting reading for Age of Empires fans. Check them out here.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Monday, August 27, 2007 6:58 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: HaloWars, Asian Dynasties, Retrospective, Leipzig



    Bruce Shelley page 1 (recent)



    Bruce Shelley

    Goodbye and Thanks


    Halo Wars Gone Gold: This news was announced on Friday 1/23. The game had gone into certification testing a little while earlier and was essentially finished even earlier, but we could not talk about that before the gold announcement was released. So now the game is really finished and being manufactured to be ready for store shelves by March 3. We see some retailers already taking pre-orders and reviews are being prepared. We can’t talk about the specific reviews until they are published (look for a burst of coverage on and after February 10). We are excited about a few reviews we have seen that rate Halo Wars very favorably with existing games. You can read about the gold announcement and watch the first of several developer diary videos here.

    Halo Wars Site to Remain Online: Our internal web site will continue online after the closing of our studio. News about the game and things related to it will be posted here.

    Demo Version: Also note that a demo version of Halo Wars is announced on that page and it will be available to Xbox Live Gold members on February 5 (Silver members a week later). We put a lot of work into the demo once the game was finished because we know it will be the first hands-on experience for most of you. We want to make a great first impression. It was an important focus of the team’s work during January.

    Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Halo Wars: These were put together by Lead Designer Dave Pottinger and offer some interesting insight into the design of the game. For example, point #1 talks about the creation of the Vampire unit, which the team felt was required for balance and tactical options. Reading these may help you understand the play of the game and give you a look into the thinking behind the making of any game. Check out the list of ten here.
    Hands-On Roundtable: Three editors for played the first three scenarios of Halo Wars and here is their first take on the experience.

    Halo Wars Risk: There will a number of licensed products related to Halo Wars and here is one of the first- a version of the popular board game Risk. Here are two links related to the board game. One major difference from our game is that you can play the Flood in the board game.

    Game Finished Party: It is a long tradition at ES to celebrate the finish of a game at the Bavarian Grill, famous for its schnitzel and boots of beer. The party this time was particularly cathartic because it marked not only the end of the long slog to finish this game, for which everyone on the team takes a lot of pride, but also the end of Ensemble Studios. Here are a few photos from the party. First is Chris Rippy, the Producer on Halo Wars, who carried the load of managing the development from start to finish, enjoying his first “boot.”


    On the right in this photo is Angelo Laudon, Lead Programmer (also lead on Age of Empires 1 and II), together with Oscar Santos, Producer of our community team.

    And here is Lead Designer Dave Pottinger leading the toasts. Can you guess which of our guys was captain of his high school football team?


    ESO Update: One of the new companies being started by ES employees will be picking up support for ESO (and Halo Wars). We had a burst of games being played right around Christmas, suggesting a lot of Age of Empires III and The Asian Dynasties were received as gifts. The number of players online has jumped up to about 4000 now at peak times and the total number of ESO accounts is now over 800,000. The Age of Empires community site will remain online after our studio closes down.

    Closing Down: It is hard to believe that the day has finally come when Ensemble Studios closes its doors and we move on to whatever is next. I was employee #4, starting in February of 1995, and will always be grateful to Tony and Rick Goodman for remembering me and getting me involved in what will probably be the defining experience of my career. There was a genuine caring at ES for colleagues, and the games we made, which was special. The mission of our studio was to create a great place to work and make great games, stressed by Tony in that order. I believe we stayed on mission throughout and often it was a lot of fun. It is worth mentioning that about 60% of the people who worked on Age of Empires I were with the studio to the end. And it was a really special group of people who pulled together for the long hours and hard work to finish our last game to our standards.

    We are working our way through the final week with mixed emotions. We have a lot to be proud of and new opportunities are beckoning, but it is also sad to see this particular great adventure coming to an end. Boxes are piled in the hallways for trash; people are giving away games and other stuff they don’t want anymore; computers are being wiped; and our corporate IDs are being turned in. Although we will be keeping in touch through some alumni initiatives, many of us may not cross paths again.

    There are at least two new studios being formed by ES employees and I expect both to do very well. There were a lot of outstanding game developers here and it will be interesting to see how and what they do, both individually and as new groups, in the years ahead.

    Goodbye and Thanks: My expectation is that this is the final ES blog that I will write. I have enjoyed pulling it together for the past several years and sharing with you what I could about the inside workings of a game studio. It was a pleasure and a privilege to showcase the work and fun side of our group.

    I do not know at this point if the newly forming game studios will be doing similar blogs or even how you could find out.

    On behalf of everyone at ES, past and present, thanks for your support over the years. Your feedback on our games made the next version better. Buying legitimate copies made it possible for us to keep making them. Thanks also to those who wrote us to express regrets about the end of our studio and even the end of this blog.

    Have fun,

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Thursday, January 29, 2009 3:45 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Goodbye and Thanks

    Halo Wars on Schedule – Wrapping up Soon


    Halo Wars on Schedule: Despite some bad weather in Dallas in both December and early January that sent people home early or even prevented them from coming to work (no snow plows or salt trucks means traffic becomes paralyzed when roads are icy) we have hit our milestones as work winds down.
    We believe the game is in good shape and will be available in stores as promised March 3. At CES a release date of February 28 was mistakenly announced and also credit for development of the game was mistakenly given to Bungie, not Ensemble Studios. Corrections are being made where possible.

    Halo Wars Coverage from CES: 1UP has some coverage from seeing the game prominently displayed at CES. We are encouraged to read how yet another journalist believes that our team did a great job with the controls and getting people into what is essentially a new genre of game for the console.

    Leader Profiles: GameDaily has posted the first of the profiles of Halo Wars leaders. Since each of these leaders can have a great influence on your tactics and strategy, understanding the strengths and advantages of each is going to be very useful. Check our Forge and The Arbiter here.

    Halo Wars Achievements: The list of these has been released and you can check it out at the link below. The list may provide some new insight to the game. There are 50 achievements worth 1000 points. One that amused a lot of people is titled “Everything’s Better with Bacon” (5 points). To earn this one you have to destroy 50 Grunts in Mission 1 by ramming them with Warthogs. I understand the name came from Dave Pottinger with a little help with the crew at G4.

    Every Halo Wars Unit, Every Building, Described: You can read about and see images of the units and buildings in the game at our Halo Wars community site. The link below opens the UNSC material. To see the Covenant side go to the Game Info menu and select the Covenant option.

    Sumthing Else Music Works Announces Halo Wars Soundtrack: Stephen Rippy wrote the music for our game that was performed by the FILMharmonic Orchestra and Choir Prague. Read a little bit about the making of the music and the list of tracks here. The soundtrack and additional features will be released on two discs February 17.

    Letters from Gamers: The most noteworthy letter I have received recently came from a 10 year old boy who wanted to point out 10 mistakes he believes we made in Age of Mythology. He disagreed with what roles we had assigned to various gods (“Anubis is not a god of judgment”) and our spelling of a god’s name (Ra or Re). He finished his letter by saying the mistakes he points out may not be absolute but that he believes he is correct and that he hopes we do better in our next game.

    I am going to completely disregard the fact that a ten-year old is playing a game rated T and say good for him for getting so into it that he takes the trouble to contact us. I think it is great that he was so interested in the topic of mythology that he obviously has done a lot of research.

    I did write him back with several lame excuses for our different interpretations, including these. First, I doubt many scholars today completely agree on how the different gods of Egypt were perceived in ancient times and I expect the roles of individual gods may have changed over the multiple thousands of years that they were worshipped. I have been to Egypt and I believe I recall being told that the roles of various gods changed over the millennia as the underlying culture went through changes. And secondly, we were making a game to be entertainment, not educational software.

    When we decided we wanted a special effect or power in the game, we matched as we wished a god to that power, whether he or she was directly correlated or not. Gameplay came first, not mythological accuracy. We borrowed from what we could learn about the different mythologies to make a game that was fun to play. Beyond entertaining people we did hope that the topics of the Age games had the secondary benefit of encouraging people, especially young people, to learn more. In this case it sounds like we succeeded.

    We receive communications from gamers regularly, often suggesting ideas for improving one of our games like the one above, or just saying thanks for games particularly enjoyed. Since the announcement that Ensemble Studios was to be closed by Microsoft, we have received a lot of support and thanks from many of you as email, forum comments, and even actual letters. We appreciate all of this.
    Halo Wars Swag: The team got a few more pieces of memorabilia to take with them to whatever is next, including our traditional Lucite plaque, which has been given out for every game we have made since Age of Empires II. These stand about 8 inches tall and display the box cover or a piece of magazine art for the game. I have six different of these now on a shelf above my desk and just glancing at them brings back a flood of memories associated with each project. I am sure that will be the case as well in the years ahead.

    We also got two final Halo Wars t-shirts. One is brownish gray with the Spirit of Fire emblem on the front. The back says “Restricted Access/Ensemble Studios Development Team/Level 16.” Our address is Suite 16 in our building and access actually is restricted (you have to speak to our receptionist to get passed up the elevator). The second shirt is black long-sleeved, but with the Spirit of Fire emblem on the back. The front says “Dev Team/Ensemble Studios/UNSC.”

    My guess is that over the 15 years Ensemble Studios existed we have passed out between 40 and 50 shirts, most for specific games. The first I recall was a black polo shirt that just had our studio name on the ***, lettered in very computer-language-like font.

    Wrapping up Soon: The next blog entry will probably be the last one as we shut down ES at the end of the month.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, January 16, 2009 12:52 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: HaloWars

    Halo Wars Update and Happy Holidays


    Halo Wars Update: The team made great progress and we were able to have a normal holiday with no extra hours. There has been a concentrated effort to isolate and fix bugs that could block the game’s release. Getting the game clean for publication is the main focus right now. A release date of March 3 for Halo War was announced in early December. We believe at this point that date is solid. It should also give you a few months to finish all the games you get for Christmas and be ready for something really new. Keep an eye on our Halo Wars community site for announcements in both January and February about the game.

    Official XBOX Magazine Coverage of Halo Wars: These guys spent some time at our studio a while ago and their preview is in their January 2009 issue. I don’t believe the article itself is available online but some of the highpoints have been published here. You have to scroll down a bit in the forum.

    ES Halo Wars Tournament: As I mentioned last time, everyone in the company who wished to participate was divided into teams of two, one Spartan (skilled player) and one Grunt (not so skilled) on each team. Then a single elimination tournament was played. Players who took part were given tickets for each game played and each game won. These tickets in turn could be placed in prize bags for a drawing. The more tickets you put in the better the chance of having your ticket drawn from the bag. Prizes were mostly $100 and $50 gift cards from places like Best Buy and GameStop, but there was also a Halo Lazer Tag for 4 and a game console not made by our parent company.

    In the tournament itself, the final four teams each included three of our balance team guys: Donnie Thompson, Nick Currie, and Zeke Marks, plus Kevin Holme, one of our designers who started out on our balance team years ago. This was not a complete surprise because they have spent most of the past several months playing the game every day and they were expert RTS players to begin with. Congrats to the team of Zeke and Clare Braddy who defeated Kevin and Stephen Rippy for the championship.

    Graeme Devine Hits the Road for Halo Wars (Again): Graeme has already set a record for frequent flyer miles earned promoting an ES game (and maybe a Microsoft game). He was at it again recently, traveling to Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York to meet with mainstream press (from Playboy, to Entertainment Weekly, to MTV). While he thought most of the people who met with him had little experience with console games he was greatly encouraged that they grasped Halo Wars quickly and easily won the first few scenarios of the single player campaign. Here are some quotes he jotted down, which we hope will be representative of responses from non-hard core gamers.

    “Ramming is freaking hilarious!”
    “It’s kind of like bowling.” (On ramming)
    “This is the least frustrating RTS experience I’ve had. I feel like I’m actually in control.”
    “I’m tempted to sit here and keep playing all day.”
    “The controls are fantastic, the cinematics are awesome, and the Covenant are really fun.”
    “Definitely captures the Halo universe in full.”

    The MTV piece resulting from Graeme’s trip is online here.

    Your Parents Need to Play RTS: Paul Jaquays sent around this link to a study that suggests playing strategy games improves the cognitive skills of older people. As Paul put it, your parents (and grandparents) need to play RTS games.

    Ensemble Studios Holiday Card: Our art team has put together a card for the holidays that features representative graphics from all of our games. Here is a look at the card. The sentiment inside reads:“Thank you for supporting our studio and games over the past 11 years. Farewell.”


    Ensemble Studios Retrospective: Troy Goodfellow has written a retrospective on our studio as our final days draw near. He interviewed several long-time employees, including me, and we believe it is a nice overview of our history and accomplishments. You can read about the early days of the studio, how we came to start making RTS games, some of the decisions we made early on that became part of what makes the Age games unique, some of the issues we dealt with making games, etc.
    You can check it out the three part article on Crispy Gamer here.


    Happy Holidays,

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, December 19, 2008 7:26 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: HaloWars, Happy Holidays

    Halo Wars Previews


    Halo Wars Previews: We sent teams of our people to San Francisco and London to put preview versions of Halo Wars into the hands of the game media. The press were given several hours to explore the game and ask our team representatives questions. Once the embargo on news was lifted by our public relations team in Redmond, previews began appearing online. Overall the previews are very positive and suggest we have achieved our goals of successfully translating RTS gameplay to the console (excellent controls), keeping consistent with the Halo universe, and creating a fun experience. Here are links to several of the previews.

    Halo Wars Update: The team is in the final stretch to completing this game. At this point we will all be focusing on finding any critical problems, like memory leaks or the game going out of sync in multiplayer, that cause crashes.

    We continue running weekly tournaments with prizes to encourage testing and keep morale up. We are in the final slog of the development process where everyone has played the game many, many times, yet we need to keep testing going at high volume. The majority of the team is mainly testing now, with all parts in, and a relatively few concentrating on bug fixing.

    The team has had to work part of a few weekends, and there is a chance that more of that may occur. Producer Chris Rippy has decided that we don’t need everyone working crunch hours every week night, so people are generally being asked to crunch in shifts, basically every other night. There will also be some nights when people are asked to test from home. All that can change if some unexpected problems are discovered. We will be closing early on Friday for our Christmas party later that evening.

    Automation Test Results: One of the tests our games go through is launching the game and leaving it to run to see if it crashes. The most recent of these tests was very positive, with three out of four games still running after nearly two days. One did crash but we isolated the cause and have fixed it.

    Halo Wars Music on Billboard: On December 2 a compilation of music from the Halo Trilogy was released on DVD. Included in the set were four bonus tracks from Halo Wars and a behind the scenes video of the recording of some Halo Wars music. Here is a link to the story.

    Halo Wars Internal Tournament: As has been our tradition at the end of all of our games, we are organizing an internal tournament with nice prizes. Karen McMullan is organizing this event and recently passed out the rules. The basic rules are 2v2 matches, one map per round, single elimination, and wacky team names encouraged. Players will be assigned to two groups, either Spartan or Grunt, depending on their skill playing, with one of each on a team.

    Colt McCanlis on Halo Wars Terrain System: Congrats to Colt for having his presentation accepted for GDC 2009.

    Four Year Old Plays Halo Wars: Woody Smith asked his daughter “Princess Kate” to try the game daddy was working on while she was visiting one crunch night. Even though she is not a gamer she won silver medals playing scenarios one and three on easy (with a reduced scroll speed and some help from Dad), and seemed to have great time. Meanwhile, over her shoulder Juan Martinez and Charles Tinney were playing an epic game in co-op mode against the Legendary AI. Woody thought it was great that our game could stretch across that broad level of playing skill and be a fun challenge for both.

    End of Year Designer Lunch: Ian Fischer and Dave Pottinger are organizing a special lunch for our designers at Fogo de Chao, a popular restaurant with an emphasis on serving meat (in quantity and variety). Ian suggested that attendees not eat for 72 hours prior, in preparation. Dave tells me he is taking the programmer there earlier in the week also. He says he won’t be eating anything else all week.

    ES Veterans: Randall Woodman started a thread on November 11th, Veteran’s Day, thanking any veterans on our staff for their service. The date marks the cease fire that ended World War I (the 11th minute, of the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918). Randall himself served in the US Navy from 1982-1992. Other ES’ers who acknowledged their military service were these:

    • Gene Kohler- US Army 1988-1991; served in first Gulf War in 1st Artillery.
    • Jake Dotson: US Marine Corps (signs his email Semper Fi).
    • Brad Robnett: US Navy Naval Academy graduate 1985; US Navy 1985-1991 (Fighter Squadron 24, USS Nimitz); US Naval Reserve 1991-1996.
    • Ian Fischer: US Navy Search and Rescue swimmer; 1994-1997.
    • Dion Hopkins: US Air Force 1986-1997.
    • Chris Moffitt: US Marine Corps 1993-1997.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, December 05, 2008 4:36 PM | (Comments Off)

    Halo Wars Launch Date


    Halo Wars Launch Date: Microsoft has announced that Halo Wars will be published in February of next year. That will give you a month or more to finish all the games you buy in the holiday season and be ready for something new. Our goal is to be finished with it this year if possible, with some leeway for the unexpected.

    Halo Wars Collectors Edition: This was recently announced also and it looks like a great package for fans of the Halo universe. Here is brief rundown of what is in the HWCE and an image of the content.


    • Halo Wars: Genesis- a new graphic novel by Phil Noto, Graeme Devine (one of our designers and the principal writer of the story for our game), and Eric Nylund. This chronicles the first military campaign against the Covenant and the characters on the Spirit of Fire.
    • Unique in-game Vehicle- “Honor Guard” Wraith
    • Three new Halo 3 multiplayer maps- Assembly, Orbital, and Sandbox.
    • Spirit of Fire patch
    • Six Leader Cards.

    Coverage of the Collector’s Edition: Here are links to several major game sites where you can check out media impressions of the CE.

    Focus on Game Performance: Testing of Halo Wars continues at an intense pace every day as we try to find new bugs, isolate and fix old ones, and work on performance. By performance we mean frame rate (frames per second or FPS), how fast the screen refreshes as you play. Fast frame rates make for a smooth looking game while slow rates are jerky and units appear to skip from place to place rather than move continuously. When there are on screen at one time a lot of objects, animating objects, collision detections, weapons firing, special effects like explosions, etc, they all take up central processing unit time. Too much CPU use can slow the game down to the point that the frame rate creeps.

    Our programmers are diligently examining all aspects of the graphic engine operations to find ways to save CPU time. In our test labs we monitor frame rates, especially in the single player campaign right now, looking for scenarios or situations within them that are causing the FPS to drop below our minimal acceptable standard. We have developer software running during play that shows on screen what the FPS is.

    Improving performance is one of the last steps in polishing a game, because we get a clear understanding of these issues only when everything is in the game and working.

    Scenario Contests: This week we are playing scenarios 7, 8, and 9 at Legendary difficulty in co-op mode. I was teamed up with Paul Slusser for the series yesterday and we achieved gold medals on all three (thanks to ). The reports sent out to the company each day show who was on a team,JPaul  their total score, their individual score, the time it took to finish, bonuses for combat and time, and medal. As of today, contest leaders were Nick Currie and Donnie Thompson of our balance team, with a score nearly 80,000 points above the team in second.

    While waiting for our game to start I could overhear Nick and Donnie chatting about how to maximize their efficiency in a scenario. They had played it so much they knew the triggers, where enemy units would be coming from, what things they should do or not do to direct the action in a favorable way, what units to use, what tactics, etc. I had played this particular scenario many times and not .Jlearned a fraction of what they had. That is why they are professionals

    Bug Counts: Chris Rippy’s daily reports on bugs are encouraging. The net number of outstanding severity 1 and 2 bugs keeps dropping. Yesterday the net drop was 51, slightly above our goal of net 40 per day.

    Tough Times in the Game Industry: The conventional wisdom is that games do reasonably well in bad economic times since they are relatively cheap entertainment. That may be true but publishers seem to be aggressively cutting their costs on the creative side. We heard recently that Electronic Arts is riffing 600 developers and that THQ is cancelling a number of projects and closing 4-5 internal studios. One of the studios being closed is Paradigm, from which we have hired some really great people over the years. This is not a great time to be looking for work in the industry, but we are encouraged by the amount of interest shown by other studios in ES people. We believe that any of our people who want to continue making games will have that opportunity.

    Orphan’s Thanksgiving: It has been a tradition that at Thanksgiving someone local invites anyone not planning to travel for the holiday to join them and friends/family for dinner. In the past Sandy Petersen has often done that and this year Ian Fischer (Lead Designer on Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology) has made the offer.

    Signs of the Times: Several apartment complexes around our offices have been leveled over the past few years and are now park-like open land. The car dealership next door to the north has moved, leaving a big empty pad. The Circuit City store next door to our south will be closed as part of that corporate bankruptcy. Over the weekend a hotel complex just behind the dealership void was demolished in one of those controlled implosions. A lot of our people came in on Sunday for the view from our office and you can check out UTube videos from Roy Rabey and Mike Kidd here. I also included a photo from Justin Randall below. Dust and debris was blow across the highway that had to be cleaned up before the road could be reopened.


    Latest Build: I saw Archive Build #1095 this morning.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Monday, November 10, 2008 5:57 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: HaloWars

    Crunching on Halo Wars


    Crunching on Halo Wars: After getting past an important milestone, the team took a short break of working actual normal hours. We have resumed crunch hours and that will continue to Thanksgiving probably. For anyone new to the term “crunch,” it means we work from 10 AM to 10 PM Monday-Thursday, with lunch and dinner catered (normal hours Friday). This may be our work schedule through the end of the year, with breaks for holidays. The idea is to get a lot of work done in a short period, together with reduced numbers of meetings and shorter meetings. We have answered almost all the questions for Halo Wars and now it is just about execution and completeness.

    Crunching is understandably hard on everyone but we try to break it up with occasional events for relief. We took off a few hours recently to take the whole team to see the new Max Payne film. We have had masseuses come in to give massages. We are holding our last Ensemble Studios Halloween party October 31, with families invited. This will include a costume contest with nice prizes, a pumpkin carving contest, a face painter, and a fortune teller.

    Playtesting Contests: We have turned some testing into contests with prizes, hoping to make the repetitive playings more interesting for everyone and keep the level of participation high. We put the leader board up on some of our hall monitors so everyone can see who is doing well and Producer Chris Rippy publishes standings at least once a day. Last week, for example, the contest was playing Scenario 2 from the single player campaign at Heroic difficulty level for score. Karen McMullan led the leader board for a while, but last I saw Kevin Holme (known as The Sheriff to Age players) had taken over top spot.

    Turning this aspect of testing into a contest is being well-received and the competition last week turned up a few new bugs that required being fixed. Artist Pete Parisi offered to keep playing but not take any prizes he qualified for after already taking one home, but Lead Designer Dave Pottinger encouraged him to keep any prize he might win. We expect to give out over 40 prizes during this testing.
    For this week the contest is speed playing scenarios 3, 4, and 5. Games must be played solo and at Heroic difficulty, with lowest overall time winning. Dave Pottinger noted that the speed playing of Scenario 5 found some significant bugs, which is what the testing is all about. The fixes went in Wednesday but they invalidate all the earlier recorded times for the scenario. So everyone who wants in on the contest and played early in the week is asked to give it another shot.

    Pitch-Car: Another tradition at ES during the final push to complete a game has been some games of Pitch-Car, a fun, three-dimensional racing game where you finger-flick a disk representing your car around a track. This is another way to break up the strain of hard work under pressure. Jeff Brown has been organizing the games that are an opportunity to yell and have some fun. We play with two eight player games, and the top three finishers from each game go on to the championship race. This week’s winner was Vijay Thakkar. If you are unfamiliar with the game, you can check it out here.

    We have our own house rules for Pitch-Car, developed over the years, that we like when we have eight “very” competitive people pitching together. We play the standard rules plus these modifications. The last one is the big change we play with and it makes for much more interactive games.

    1.  There’s no penalty for flipping your car over.
    2.  You’re allowed to skip up to 1/3 of the track in a single flick, so long at you end up in a legal spot. No aiming backwards, though .J
    3.  You can call “Knockoff” and intentionally knock someone off the track. Normal rules say that anyone going off is a bad shot (and you go back to where you were, etc.) We play like calling the 8 ball…. If you call it right and its ends up that way, you’re fine and the knocked off car(s) goes back to your previous spot.

    Halo Wars Bug Counts: We continue on a good pace for fixing things and Chris Rippy sends around the numbers daily for everyone to see. Our goal is to average a drop of 40 bugs a day (new finds minus fixes). On Tuesday the net decrease was only 8, way below our average. Our best day in the last ten was a net drop of over 80. At some point in the next few weeks, we hope to have the list of bugs hovering around zero.

    Game Music: Robert Anderson of our community relations team passed around a message sent in by a fan of the music in Halo Wars- “tell whoever wrote the music for the Field Trip to Harvest to pat themselves on the back; it was amazing. I was humming it for days.” That music was written by Stephen Rippy, brother of Chris (and David), who also did the music for Age of Empires III and some of our earlier games. Artist Gene Kohler responded by saying that he believes the music in all of our games has been “incredible” and that he still listens to the Age III music CD. I remember walking into a hotel lobby in Paris and hearing Age of Empires II music coming over the sound system. Apparently a fellow hired by the hotel to put together sound tracks had borrowed our game music.

    Game Voices: Kevin McMullan passed around word that the final audio mixing process began this week. This will particularly address the leveling of voices and sounds in different parts of the single player campaign. We have had a variety of comments coming out of testing of some chats being to low to be heard easily. I ran into a related problem in one of the scenarios where I captured a power generator. The noise that came up from that object overwhelmed all following voice chats from game characters and I had to guess what they were telling me. We go through this now so you won’t have to 🙂

    Halo Wars Builds: Latest archive build I have seen this week is #1073 from Sergio Tacconi. His notes said that the build fixed a memory leak (usually these are very bad and cause game crashes) and that terrain effect files now get loaded at database::setup time.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, October 31, 2008 3:35 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, Halloween

    Halo Wars Single Player Campaign Cinematic and Halo Wars in Korea


    Halo Wars Single Player Campaign Cinematic: The film that opens the SPC has been released and can be seen on many sites. Here it is on Gamespot.

    Halo Wars in Korea: As part of their Asian PR tour, Harter Ryan and Brian Lemon finished at the International Content Creator’s Conference in Busan, South Korea. There they made presentations to the Korea game media and met with some fans eager to see the game and try it. Here is a photo of Harter making a presentation.


    Halo Wars at Tokyo Game Show: Graeme Devine and Bill Jackson went to this major game show, presenting both a keynote address and then several days of interviews off-site. Showing the single player campaign was new and created a renewed interest for journalists who had seen the basic game already. One of the messages they concentrated on was that Halo Wars is a true Halo universe game with a great Halo story. You can watch five minutes of the game from the keynote with Graeme driving and giving commentary here.

    Or you can see Graeme giving a demo to Kotaku here.

    This was a grueling trip that included doing some voice over edits in LA on the way to Japan. There were long rehearsals in Tokyo, mostly because our guys had to wait while the other presenters went over their parts. Graeme and Bill have been involved in much of our PR work around the world, and Graeme says he went over 100,000 air miles for the year on the way out there. We hope the good showing is reflected in success for the game in Japan.

    Halo Wars Update: We have reached the point where pretty much everything that is going to be in the game is there. The official milestone is called “Content Complete.” For months now every time I played there seemed to be something new, from sound effects, music, animations, to units, etc. I expect to see less new stuff each session, but an increasingly better performance, overall polish, and smoother experience.

    Over the past few weeks the team has pushed really hard, working extra hours, to get the single player campaign finished and all other features working. As part of that process a few things on the wish list were cut, but that is always the case. We traditionally are very ambitious with our games and shoot high, but the reality of getting them done in a reasonable time means some things have to be left out. In the past, those left out things often were part of the next game.

    Our focus in the remaining time we have is bug fixing and the polish already mentioned.

    Halo Wars Bug Counts: Producer Chris Rippy continues to publish daily the number of new bugs found and closed out. I believe every day in October we had a positive count, if not way positive. Bugs are ranked in order of priority with higher priorities being real show-stoppers (game won’t ship with any of them unresolved). We are working toward a milestone called Zero Bug Release, or ZBR. There can’t be any critical bugs for that to pass.

    Some bugs are almost funny. For example, one was logged because a Spartan using a sub-machine gun was ejecting cartridges when he fired. This sounded reasonable to many, but it was pointed out that on Bungie’s Halo Universe site they say the M7 submachine gun fires case-less ammunition. If we had found this one late in the process I doubt we would have held up going gold to fix it.

    Juan Martinez’s Render Farm: Juan has been overseeing the rendering of components into the in-game cinematics and talking heads that occasionally appear on screen during the single player campaign. These appear to be short film clips in play but would actually completely hog down the CPU of any machine running them if they had not be pre-rendered into a short film clip. Juan has organized a “farm” of PCs around the office, all running the correct software, and he has them do the rendering overnight when the machines are otherwise not being used. At one point he had 351 renders to do and had a peak of 40 machines working in concert. That’s 40 very high end PCs working for hours each, which is a lot of processing power.

    Having a Sense of Humor Helps: Here is a thread on a bug from several weeks ago that made me smile. These are the exact messages in order.

    Jerome Jones: “I was playing O5 and the Command Center has no art. It is there but there was no fly-in animation or art after it was finished. I will LYK if I see more.”
    Jerome Jones: “OK the barracks has no anims or art as well. I am going to assume this archive is somewhat busted.”
    Jerome Jones: “Now I am missing units and other objects as well. They are there with selection circle but the art is just invisible.”
    John Evanson: “The first sign of insanity is when you start talking to yourself….”
    Jerome Jones: “Trust me there are many more signs before that.”
    Tony Goodman: “I told myself the same thing.”

    Tammy Hopkins Bakes a Cake: Here is a photo of an amazing cake baked by our Dion Hopkins wife Tammy. I have never seen anything like it. The bottles are caramelized sugar and the edible labels are from a cake specialty shop. The tub, ice, and bottles are all edible. As we focus so much on finishing our last game and putting in all the extra time to do that, we can overlook what are families are going through as well. This was a pretty startling reminder that there is life outside the office.


    Halo Wars Builds: Archive build #1000 was posted by Lead Programmer Angelo Laudon on October 1. His note said it was a “build for user research tutorial testing.” I saw archive build # 142 go by today and we average about 10 work builds a day.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Monday, October 20, 2008 2:49 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars

    Vacation Spots Related to Age Games and Halo Wars Road Shows


    Vacation Spots Related to Age Games: My wife and I again vacationed this year in spots tied in some cases to the Age of Empires games and here are a few photos as clues to where we went. The first photo is a reference to a famous classical music piece by Ottorino Respighi. The second photo is related to an event that took place recently in China. And the third photo clue has a relation to Age of Mythology. I’ll explain all at the end of this blog.





    Halo Wars Road Shows: We sent team members out to several more venues to showcase the game for a variety of audiences and the response continues to be very positive. Graeme Devine traveled to the Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX, in Seattle and gave a number of full house presentations to the gamers in attendance. From his report to the team about the show- “words can’t tell you how much fans loved the game.” He got cheers when showing a Spartan hijacking a Wraith.

    Graeme, producer Chris Rippy, assistant producer Bill Jackson, and Jim Ying of MGS spent two days at the GameStop managers convention. This was a chance to demonstrate the game to a thousand or so retailers who will be on the front lines when the game is published. Graeme reported to us that this went extremely well also, with people showing up in the afternoon after being told they had to see Halo Wars by people who had seen it in the morning.

    Executive producer Harter Ryan and assistant producer Brian Lemon drew the frequent flyer bonus assignment, flying to Singapore, Hong Kong, and the International Content Creator’s Conference in Busan, Korea, to show Halo Wars to local press. In his report back to the studio Harter talked about how most of the press came in with preconceived notions of the game but went away with the idea that “it’s fun, easy to play, and has great potential.” Here is a link to coverage from Jimmy Wartooth (probably not his real name), one of the journalists from Singapore.

    Halo Wars Update: Since I last blogged about the game we have announced that the Covenant are a playable faction. As usual, we go back and forth on whether the UNSC or Covenant is the screw. Then Tim Deen tweaks the database and the argument restarts :).

    The project leads feel good about where the skirmish and multiplayer games is today, and we are concentrating a lot of effort on the single player campaign (SPC). As is usual for our games, the SPC comes together late because it depends to a degree on a complete feature set and a working artificial intelligence, which are difficult to finalize. I got through seven scenarios yesterday and I believe it is/will be an interesting story and challenging series of games comparable to all of our past games.

    The SPC team is working to polish their scenarios so that events go off as they should, the challenge is appropriate for the mid and low level difficulties, and players are properly led and given incentives to reach the victory condition. On top of that we are logging and fixing bugs in all parts of the game.

    Speaking of bugs, producer Chris Rippy is now regularly reporting the bug count. We have extensive testing being done both at our studio and in Redmond. On a good day more old bugs are fixed than new ones are found. I won’t report the numbers because they sound a little intimidating, but we have been through this before many times and there is nothing unusual about the process this time.

    Archive build #983 went by a few minutes ago and we should go past #1000 early next week.

    Vacation Photos: Okay, if you concluded we went to Rome, Olympia, and Santorini, you are a winner. The photo of The Pines of Rome was taken from the rooftop of our hotel, overlooking the Borghese Park. A more representative photo from Rome would be of the Coliseum, which I have added at the end. This arena was built around 80 AD and could seat 50,000 people to watch gladiatorial combat and wild animal fights. The building itself is a shadow of what it originally looked like since it was used as quarry for many years. The brick work is a 19th century restoration. But it is nonetheless very impressive. Walking around Rome you keep bumping into ancient sites like city walls, the Circus Maximus, The Forum, the Palatine Hills (home to the emperors), etc.

    The photo of the Olympic stadium shows what I believe is the original finish line for the ancient equivalent of the 200 meter dash, the premier event of the time. The stadium and its setting are quite beautiful in their simplicity. Beyond the entry arch is an extensive area of temples, gymnasia, fountains, and other sites, all ruins now due to earthquakes and river floods.

    The Greek island of Santorini was probably the most beautiful place we visited. The photo shows the caldera, now mostly under the sea, of a huge volcanic eruption that took place nearly 4000 years ago. The explosion was so violent that most of the island was turned into dust and blown into the air. A resulting tsunami radiated throughout the Aegean Sea, wrecking everything in its path, including much of the Minoan civilization on Crete. The small island in the left background of the photo is the volcano rebuilding again. Many scholars today believe that the Minoans were the basis for Plato’s tale of Atlantis, which is the link between the photo and Age of Mythology. Here is a Wikipedia entry for Santorini.



    I am including one additional photo from the Greek and Roman city of Ephesus on the southwest coast of Turkish Asia Minor. This is the great amphitheater that is still used today for special events and concerts. I believe it seats 24,000 people and the acoustics are said to be excellent. Ephesus is one of the most interesting archaeological sites from the classical era. It was a city of 250,000 people at is zenith and maybe only 20% has been revealed so far. We walked down streets where we were told that notables including Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and St. Paul had also walked.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, September 26, 2008 7:17 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, Age of Empires

    Ensemble Studios Closing


    Ensemble Studios Closing: I have mentioned with regret the closing of several quality game studios over the past several years but I never considered that ES would join the list. Everyone at our studio was shocked, and I think remains very disappointed that this is going to happen. I believe we thought we were immune to shut-down talk because our published games have done so well and have been so profitable. Plus we felt we had built a really stable (low-turnover), talented, hard-working, and creative team, which is not easy to do. We thought we were among the best studios in the world, and that may be true, but we don’t fit in the future plans of MGS as an internal studio so we’re out.

    A senior executive of MGS addressed the studio in early September and gave us the news. He did not go into a lot of detail about why, but basically the decision, as I understand it, was based on several major factors. First, they want to divert the headcount tied up in ES and the costs that are expected to be required to run ES for the next few years into other projects. Second, it sounded like it cost more to run ES on a per person basis than other first party studios (Rare, Lionhead, Forza, Flight Sim) putting us at a disadvantage. (Plus they avoid the expense of a new office that we were planning.) And third, games those studios are expected to deliver in the next few years are expected to be more strategic and profitable to the company than anything we would be finishing after Halo Wars.

    You may recall that the mission for our studio from the start in 1995 has been to create great games and a great place to work. Overall we think we have built a studio consistent with that mission. But within the framework of a larger organization other stuff matters and perhaps has higher priorities, including costs of operation and overall strategic direction of the larger business. The new leadership of the game group at Microsoft has a new plan for making the game group consistently profitable, especially over the next few crucial years, and we are the odd group out.

    We have had a week now to get over the shock and have begun the process of finding new work, considering relocating, etc. We have heard from many recruiters and other studios with openings. There may be opportunities for ES people in other MGS studios, including the new one in Redmond. Microsoft HR has begun the process of getting us information on what to expect as we leave the company. In the meantime, we still have uncompleted work to finish.

    Halo Wars All Hands: In August we shut down work on everything non-Halo Wars related and now the entire studio is focused on finishing this game by the end of this year. Everyone in the studio has a job until Halo Wars is finished. There have been no layoffs and none are expected. We have received fantastic feedback on the game at a variety of game shows and events, and want to deliver on the promises we have made as our last hurrah. We want a great Halo Wars game to be the final tribute to everything that ES has come to mean to us and perhaps you as well, over the past 13 years.

    Newco: Studio head Tony Goodman has a plan to start a new independent studio following the end of ES and a number of the existing ES employees have been offered a position in this company. He felt he had to get a plan for that in place, even though it will not being operating until after ES closes down, so that all employees can know where they stand and begin making plans for their futures. I believe the spirit and mission of ES will be carried forward in this new company if enough of the key leaders agree to take part, which I expect to happen. There has been no announcement about what the new studio will be working on when it gets going.

    Fate of the Blog: This was a sort of special edition blog focused entirely on the news about the coming closure of Ensemble Studios. I expect to continue with more typical blogs in the coming months through the completion of Halo Wars and my employment with the company. I do not expect to be part of the new company formed after ES is shut down, so the blog will probably end at that point. It was intended to keep our gaming friends informed about our games and give you a look inside the life and processes of a game development studio. I hope you have found it interesting over the years.

    Bruce Shelley 

    Posted Monday, September 22, 2008 12:21 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Ensemble Studios Closing

    Halo Wars at Leipzig


    Halo Wars at Leipzig: Assistant producer Bill Jackson sent us daily updates of how the show was going, together with some photos. On their first work day our team did nine 30 minute demos, each with at least four journalists, before lunch. It was Bill’s opinion that the feedback was amazingly good and that the “strategy crazed” German press was being convinced, one by one, that a strategy game will work on a console. During lunch MTV came to the MS booth specifically to see Halo Wars and pulled designer/write Graeme Devine off for a TV interview. After lunch they did eight more 30 minute slots and Graeme did another TV piece for XBOX Live. Bill was particularly pleased to hear several people who had come in somewhat skeptical completely turn around their opinion. Our guys were also told that Halo Wars was the most requested game at the front desk (the game could only be seen by appointment by credentialed journalists).

    The second day went as well as the first with the exception that more people were allowed in for each session to accommodate demand. For the second half of the day many of the sessions were packed with standing room only. The general procedure was for Graeme to give an introduction to the game and a basic primer on controls, and then let journalists get a chance to play. Bill was very pleased to note that many people needed almost no instruction to get going. It was fun for our guys to just sit back and watch the play. For a few groups they bumped up the difficulty rating. Unfortunately, in many sessions there were too many people for all to have a chance with hands-on play. Bill estimated that over 130 journalists came by during the show.

    Our team celebrated the end of their responsibilities at Auerbach’s Keller, a famous cellar restaurant in business since 1538 and mentioned in the play Faust. They loved the food (wild boar; prepared something like pot roast) and beer.

    Here is a photo Bill took of Graeme in a typical demo setting from the start of the show.


    Halo Wars All Hands: Studio head Tony Goodman has announced that at least for the near term the entire studio will be working on Halo Wars. We have done something like this for most of our games over the years, so this is not unusual. It is not just finishing this game in a timely manner that is important, but also getting the content, balance, and polish to the high quality standard that we expect for all of our games. So for the next several months, probably, work on our other prototypes slows to a crawl. We believe that Halo Wars was very well received at both E3 and the Leipzig Game Show, and we want to deliver on the expectations that we have set.

    Halo Wars Media Coverage: Producer Chris Rippy passed around info on recent coverage. First, the new issue Game Informer magazine puts Halo Wars in their list of “Top 25 Games of E3,” including a full page review.

    Second, there has been some great feedback on the new screenshots we released- “Every time we see a new screenshot of video we’re reminded of how brilliant Ensemble’s Halo RTS is looking.” This type of comment is just more incentive to deliver the goods.

    Age of Empires Board Game: I touched base with Glenn Drover, the designer and publisher of this game, and a colleague from a past life when we both worked for Microprose in Maryland. The board game has been reprinted and will soon be available in international languages in Europe; there will be a total of 28,000 copies in print. On the game site the game is currently rated #26 out of over 4000 games (7.91 out of 10 with 2100 votes). It has maintained that lofty rating for well over a year now.

    ES Chatter: While we focus on finishing Halo Wars, other stuff grabs the attention of people during the day and provides a little break from Spartans, Warthogs, etc. One thread started with some photos of the new Pixar offices. Our guys loved the open spaces and the statues of characters from their films, and several wondered if these were too late to influence design of our proposed new space.

    Another thread was kicked off by designer Dave Pottinger passing on the link to the album list for Rock Band 2. He noted “some greatness” on the list, which . Others wanted albumsJmost of took to mean some heavy metal, coming from him  from Santana, Led Zeppelin, and Tool, and this set off a flurry of YouTube links to some really forgettable performances. Here is the original article at Kotaku.

    Halo Wars Builds: Yesterday I counted nine work builds (first at 4:47 AM!), two editors build, and four archive builds (last was #910). Today archive build #912 has already gone by.

    Vacation Quiz: My wife and I are off soon on a long planned vacation that will take us to places again linked to some of the early Age games (last year we went to Egypt). I hope to have a few photos next time as a quiz about where we went.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Tuesday, September 02, 2008 4:23 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, Leipzig

    Age Series Passes 20 Million Units Sold Mark


    Age Series Passes 20 Million Units Sold Mark: We have learned that the series, including Age of Mythology, has just passed this amazing milestone. I can remember when we started our studio and I thought our goal had to be selling 100,000 copies of our first game (that was the goal of the company where I had previously worked). Then by the time we wrapped up Age I we knew we had to sell nearly 500,000 copies just to break even, and that seemed like a huge number (we made it in less than sixth months) 🙂

    20 million is a big number. Multiply that by the hours each owner spent (and spends) on average playing, and you generate an incredible amount of entertainment. I believe everyone who has worked on those games for us over the years is proud of that association. I believe Microsoft is happy not only with the sales but also with quality, subject matter, and secondary educational aspects to the series.

    Michael Phelps’s Favorite Game: The New York Times reported a few days ago that one of the ways that Michael filled in his time while waiting for his next practice or Olympic event was playing Age of Empires. They don’t say what version. Apparently he and some of his swim team pals play together. Check out the Times story below.
    Lizette Atkinson, our office manager, put together a box of goodies to send to Michael, including a copy of Age of Empires III that was signed by most of the studio. Then we had some fun talking about incorporating this news into our game. Colt McAnlis and Paul Jaquays suggested a new cheat code, “GreatestOlympianEver”, which gives your ships super speed, but only in a straight line.

    Over the years we have heard about several other celebrities who have been fans of the series. I commented here a few years ago that members of the NHL’s Calgary Flames played Age on their road trips. We invited them to our offices when they were in town for a game against the Stars and we had a match against some of our guys. Other Age players better known for their careers in other areas include future hall of fame base ball player Ken Griffey Jr., actor Sean Astin (Sam in Lord of the Rings with time on his hands during filming), Felipe Calderon (President of Mexico), and actress Mila Jovovich (Fifth Element and Resident Evil).

    Halo Wars at Leipzig Game Show: This is the biggest show in Europe and three of our guys are there doing demos like we did at E3 last month. Designer/Writer Graeme Devine, Assistant Producer Bill Jackson, and Sound and Music Director Stephen Rippy are manning our stations this time. Below is a link to an early report on the game from Erik Brudvig of IGN. Here’s a good quote from Erik: “…you can run over goofy little alien critters with a Warthog. I did it and it’s just as awesome as it sounds.”

    And here is photo taken by Graeme Devine showing the conference room setup where our guys will be meeting with the media. That is Stephen Rippy with control pad. He wrote the music in the game and is the brother of the producer in charge of Halo Wars, Chris Rippy.

    Halo Wars Coming Together: The screen shots you have seen look fantastic and the parts of the game we have pulled together for the media are fun and work well, but there is a lot more to be finished, put in, balanced, and polished. Every time I play there is new stuff to see and hear. Today I heard for the first time some funny chatter among the Marines. I wasn’t used to that and it made me pause and listen more carefully. The single player campaign is solidifying and when I won a scenario I got victory message I hadn’t seen before :). I noticed some new tweaks to the user interface, especially for the casual player like me. The skill of the artificial intelligence has its ups and downs, especially related to new stuff that it has not been programmed to understand and take advantage of.

    We held a contest among the team to choose a name for the campaign, but we won’t reveal that for a while yet. I can tell you that “Rise of the Dreadnaughts” and “Age of Empires IV” didn’t make it into the second round of discussion :).
    Goodbye and Good Luck “Thunder”: We lost another great employee recently when Graham “Thunder” Somers moved back to Vancouver, Canada, and landed there a job with a local studio. He has been our community manager for several years but got tired of dealing with US Immigration rules and just really missed The Great North. Now I’ll have to email him to learn about new bands instead of just walking into his office and listening.

    Tough Times in Game Development: Kotaku reported recently that Midway Games shut down one of its projects in Austin, Texas, and was laying off 90-130 people. Game development looks like a great career but clearly it’s not like the careers of our parents who might have worked with the same organization from high school/college till retirement. I have previously mentioned the closing of several well-regarded studios.

    Kristen Kalning, Game Editor for MSNBC, says that while the layoffs look bad the industry is still in good shape and jobs are out there. While one studio is laying off, for whatever reason, another thinks they have a great plan and is hiring. So careers are still possible, especially if you don’t mind relocating fairly regularly.

    Halo Wars Archive Build: #894 was the most recent I’ve seen, posted by Sergio Tacconi.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, August 22, 2008 7:01 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Age III, HaloWars, 20 Million

    Halo Wars Goals


    Halo Wars Goals: We set out a number of goals for the game at the start and continue working toward them each day. We stressed many of these in our E3 presentations and from the coverage it sounds like they are being well received. If you take in some of the interviews, like those I have linked to below or others I linked to previously, you can hear these goals mentioned. We feel very good about how we are doing with these but the real judgment will have to wait until the game is in your hands. Here are some of our goals for Halo Wars so you can decide ultimately how we did.

    • Capture the Halo World: Our game is set 20 years prior to the events portrayed in Halo, but it nevertheless has to feel very Halo in terms of weaponry, units, worlds etc.
    • Bring True Real-Time Strategy to the Console: RTS is one of the last genres to translate to the console. We want to prove that the genre can make that leap and succeed.
    • Console Controls: We believe that the relatively complicated gameplay of the RTS genre can work through the console controller. We have adjusted our control scheme many times throughout development and believe we have achieved a simple and efficient plan that works.

    Halo Wars Demos: Check out this 15 minute interview and demo on Gamespot featuring Designer Dave Pottinger. This is basically what all the editors from the media outlets got to see and hear at E3, so you can compare what you think to what they have written elsewhere. Dave commented to us that this demo showcases how difficult it is to speak clearly on TV and drive a demo while being blinded by stage lights.

    Here is another interview with Dave on IGN, with Designer Justin Rouse driving. You can see the Spartan back flip onto a Wraith and hijack it. Listen to Dave talk about the trade-offs in strategy games between economy and combat. Hear what he says about the difference between a MAC blast and carpet bombing. Note also the Halo Wars team t-shirts our guys are wearing. These were passed out to the company just before E3. If you stay with the site after the interview you can catch some gameplay footage, including a carpet bombing attack.

    Halo Wars E3 Awards: I mentioned last time that our game was voted Best Strategy Game at the show and in the days afterward has received a number of additional awards. Here are links to some of these.

    Planet Xbox 360: Best Strategy Game

    ActionTrip: Best Strategy Game

    Halo Wars Garners Prestigious Nomination: We have just learned that Halo Wars has been nominated for the most prestigious award from the show—The Game Critics Awards, for best games of E3. These awards have been bestowed annually since 1998. They are prestigious because they are voted on by a panel of judges made up mainly of editors-in-chief of major North American media outlets that have consistently covered the videogame industry. These include not only game magazines, websites, and cable channels, but also major magazines (like Newsweek, Time, and Wired) and major newspapers (like USA Today and the Los Angeles Times). Winners will be announced August 5.

    Halo Wars is one of five nominees for Best Strategy Game. Two of the five are to be released on the X360 with the others on the PC or X360/PC. None of the five appear to be scheduled for competing consoles. You can read more about the awards, the judges and where they come from, past winners, and how judges make their picks here. Click on E3 Nominees to see all the games being considered from this year’s show.

    E3 Name Dropping: Most of the people stopping by to see Halo Wars at E3 were from the media, but there were some luminaries from inside the industry as well. Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo (the creative mind behind Mario, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, etc.) dropped by with a posse of VIPs and watched a demo.

    RTS Competition Dropping PS3: As a Microsoft first party developer (part of the company) we develop only for PC or X360, so we don’t have to consider any extra difficulties working with other platforms. We thought it was interesting to read that publisher Electronic Arts is dropping plans for a PS3 version of Red Alert 3, as reported on Shacknews. The problems adapting their game engine to the PS3 architecture must have been really significant to pass on the platform. This has to be a win for the X360. Here is the story.

    Localization Teams: One of the things that go on behind the scenes in making games for worldwide consumption is localization to international languages. Last week we had teams at our offices from Korea and Japan laying the groundwork for Halo Wars versions for their local markets. This will require written translations for any text on the screen and voice acting for dialog we hear in various places. Bill Jackson, one of the assistant producers on our team, was our host.

    Graeme Devine at ComicCon: Designer/Writer Graeme Devine attended this graphic novel convention to take part in a panel discussion about the Halo universe. Also on his panel were Frank O’Connor of MGS (ex-Bungie), three authors of Halo novels, and a representative from McFarlane Toys. Graeme told us the room was filled to its 800 person capacity at all times, with people being turned away. The line to pose questions to the panel ran to the back of the room. He recalls that maybe half of the questions asked were about Halo Wars. After the session the panelists were swarmed by fans wanting autographs. Here is a link to one of the live blogs from the panel.

    Latest Halo Wars Archive Build: #853.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, August 01, 2008 8:41 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, E3, Graeme Devine

    Halo Wars at E3


    Dave Pottinger 1Up Halo Wars Interview: This is an extensive pre-E3 interview with Designer Dave Pottinger that should be very interesting to anyone looking forward to the game. This was actually a 40 minute phone interview, transcribed almost as spoken, into about 7000 words of text. There is a lot to digest, but you can read about the trade-offs the design team has made along the way, how we tried to keep true to the Halo universe, where we had to fill in gaps, the trials of bringing RTS to the console, and much more. This is not only a good look inside the Halo Wars development, but really inside game development itself.

    Halo Wars at E3: Coverage of Halo Wars launched with an extensive interview with designer Dave Pottinger on cable channel G4. While Dave was answering questions, Justin Rouse was driving the demo you see. Our guys were well prepared with stuff we wanted to show, but were thrown off a bit when the G4 hosts had a list of questions and stuff they wanted to cover. Dave and Justin were able to extemporize well and accommodate G4, and we are very happy with how the presentation went. Our hosts seemed impressed, both on screen and off.

    Dwayne Gravitt of our IT team got our auditorium set up so we could all catch the original G4 show as it was first broadcast. So there was a brief pause at work while most of the studio watched Dave and Justin do their thing. (And immediate cheering thereafter.)

    The first day of the show was international media for us so not a lot of coverage we could see, but the second day picked up considerably. We are especially happy to read the stuff from skeptics who come away impressed. Below are links to the G4 video and other important outlet coverage already on the Internet. Our community team is trying to keep current with information appearing on Halo Wars as it pops up and provide one site from which you can link to it all, so check our site to see what other information appears in the days to come.

    The G4 video interview is here:

    The 5 Long Years video news is here:

    Excellent in-game footage from E3 is here:

    Gametrailers in-game footage is here:

    IGN hands-on with Halo Wars is here:

    Gamespot co-op hands-on is here:

    One stop shop for as much of the coverage as we can find is here:

    E3 Demo Stations: Here is a photo of one of our demo stations taken by Chris Rippy (Halo Wars Producer) on Monday, the day before the show opened. At this point everything is set up and running properly, ready to go. We have several of these and press people will be moving between different publisher stations throughout the show. In addition to Chris, the ES contingent to E3 is made up of three designers from the team- Dave Pottinger, Graeme Devine, and Justin Rouse. All four will be doing demonstrations at these machines, giving interviews as the opportunity arises, and helping the media reps get some hands on experience in their own 1v1 and 2v2 games.


    Here is another Chris Rippy camera photo of Dave actually doing a demonstration to the media.


    Halo Wars Release Date: This has been kept under wraps and is still not finalized, but at E3 we are saying we expect to see the game published in the first half of 2009. hopefully the first half of .Jthe first half

    Halo Wars Builds: For those keeping track, Sergio Tacconi just created archive build #816.

    Cardboard Halo Weapons: With over 100 employees checking out the Internet now and then, some amazing stuff related to our games gets found and passed around. Check out the weapons this young man has made out of cardboard.

    Flagship Studios Closes Down: Word is going around that this studio founded in 2003 by several key people from Blizzard North (of Diablo fame) closed down recently. Their big title is Hellgate London, which must not have been a big hit. It is always disappointing to see promising studios go away. This one looked like a good bet being headed up by the creative minds behind one of the great game franchises of recent years. Maybe we’ll learn more about what went wrong. Perhaps the PC market had changed too much under them, or they just took too long to bring their game to market, or the overall Blizzard culture/support was critically important to past successes. Talent and passion are not enough in this industry. Those have to be fashioned into a strong business proposition as well. Here is what Voodoo Extreme had to say about the studio closing.

    Hold the Eulogy for PC Gaming: Gabe Newell is the outspoken head of Valve Software, creators of the Half Life series, the Orange Box, and Steam, their digital download service. He couldn’t disagree more with those who think the PC is on its way out as a game platform and he is investing heavily in businesses aligning with that belief. Read why he maintains such a strongly favorable vision of the PC’s future in this interview with Eurogamer. I think he makes compelling points.

    Final Comment on Halo Wars: I hope this photo taken by designer Graeme Devine sums up how the game did at E3. We couldn’t be happier. All the hard work to date and especially the extra time put in over the last six weeks is reflected in this achievement.


    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, July 18, 2008 5:00 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, E3

    Age of Empires III- 20 Million Games Played and Halo Wars Controls


    Age of Empires III- 20 Million Games Played: Graham Somers of our community team tells us that we are approaching this significant number of games played through ESO. That is Age III vanilla, as it is called, excluding the two expansions. That summation includes standard games, deathmatch, and custom games, all rolled into one number that was 19,291,512 as of June 16. In the week before over 56,000 games of Age III vanilla were played. Last week over 60,000 games were played (school is out). It’s good for us to hear data like this so we maintain an awareness of the amount of entertainment we can create with an excellent game.

    Age of Empires III Back in Top 20: NPD data on PC game sales for May of 2008 show our game at #20. That’s pretty good for a game published in 2005, but there haven’t been a lot of great PC games come out in the intervening years. Many of the other games in the top 20 have also been around for a while, but #1 is a new title, the Age of Conan MMORPG. It has been fashionable, if not prescient, to predict the looming end of PC games. For example, an executive of Nvidia is quoted as saying there is no future for PC-exclusive games. Check out his comments at the link below. We’ll see.
    Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties for the Mac: We expect to have preview copies of this game in our office soon and assuming no problems it should be available in the near future. Keep checking this site as our community team adds more information about the game going forward. Based on our Halo Wars forums chat, the GamePro article seems to have raised more questions than it . As we nail down the answers (still working on manyJanswered, which is good  things) and get the okay to speak about them, we will post on this site.

    There will also be a lot of information about Halo Wars coming out of E3 in a few weeks, so watch for that also. We expect to have several demo stations set up and a large number of media representatives will be getting a chance to play.
    Archive build #786 went by this afternoon.

    Halo Wars Controls: One of the key messages out of the GamePro article was the effort we have put into the control system. I may have mentioned many blogs ago that we reprogrammed Age of Mythology to be playable with an Xbox controller as a proof of concept. Designer/programmer Tim Deen got to the point that he could play AoM better with the controller than the mouse/keyboard. We are very excited about how the new, built from scratch, control system is working. We know that if we do a good job with Halo Wars, especially the controls, it could encourage a much more rich and interesting genre of console strategy games for the future. Ideally we would like to do for strategy games on the console what Halo itself did for first-person shooters on the console.

    Impressions from Testing Halo Wars: Here are just a few comments on my experience playing Halo Wars recently. First, the pace of the action is pretty high. This is not a strategy game where you don’t interact with your opponent for the first 15 to 25 minutes. Many games are over by that point. Second, you have strategic choices. You can invest deep in technology or get into the fight fast. There are unit combinations to try. You can’t build and invest in everything, but you have to be flexible if your current plan is not working. Third, there are opportunities for players to demonstrate skill by matching up the correct units to take advantage of strengths and weaknesses.

    I think there is a lot of fun here for casual gamers but also plenty of depth where really skilled players can elevate their game.  The capabilities of the various units are coming together in a fun framework where each has its role, strengths, and weaknesses. There is still enough stuff being tweaked that a particular strategy seems overwhelming one day and not so much the next. But overall the roster of units and their attributes is getting settled. We still have a lot of work to do in completing content and balance testing.

    Crunch Menu: The Halo Wars team is crunching again getting ready in particular for E3. As I have mentioned before, the studio provides lunch and dinner during crunch, while we put in required extra hours. Here is a sample of the menu for one recent crunch day. After years of doing this, our admin team has found some great caterers and the food is very good.

    • Monday Lunch (Cheesecake Factory): herb crusted salmon salad, grilled chicken tostada salad, Chinese chicken salad, rolls.
    • Monday Dinner (Dallas City Market): lemon thyme chicken, carrot sauté, roasted herb potatoes, rolls & butter, salad, carrot cake.

    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.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Monday, June 30, 2008 4:34 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, Age of Empires III

    The Asian Dynasties


    The Asian Dynasties: Our recent patch continues to be well received. Our community team reports that people seem to be really playing the game rather than raising issues over the changes. We are monitoring how the game is playing and trying to identify civilizations, units, and Home City cards that seem to be out of favor. They are candidates for revision to make them more attractive. But nothing seems way out of balance at this time. Even the amount of online cheating seems to have backed off. So the recent patch seems to be one of the most successful we have done. Thanks again to the group of top players in the community who helped us with it.

    Ensemble Studios Live Team Blog: Ben Donges of our community team has kicked off a new blog to let you know about stuff of interest to our online players and people who come to our sites for information on our games. If you haven’t seen it, check it our here.

    Halo Wars Update: Archive build #703 just went by and on a recent day I saw eleven work builds go by, but we still can’t say much about the game. However, Game Pro magazine was in town recently for a first look (while we were in the middle of a two week crunch period) and there will be an extensive early article on Halo Wars in their July edition. This will be the most extensive media coverage on the game yet. It should appear on newsstands in late June. If you are interested in what is happening with Halo Wars, you need to check out this article. We think it will wet your appetite and as the first major media coverage it should begin to allow us to say more about the game ourselves.
    I got in four multiplayer games over the last two days and they were tense, engaging, fun. This is a real RTS in every sense of the word. There is always more to do than I can manage and figuring out what to do immediately is part of the challenge. Stuff continues to change every day and we have a lot of balance issues to resolve, but we are deep in that design-by-playing process now, smoothing out the edges.

    Roy Rabey Meets Microsoft CIO: Roy, our information technology manager, got to take part in several meetings with Microsoft’s new chief information officer, Tony Scott, including a dinner with eight high level managers. Roy was pretty excited to take part in conversations with such senior people and apparently did a fine job of making everyone aware of the unique cultural, production, and IT support issued that a game development studios has within a larger IT framework. Tony Scott has some experience in game development issues, having previously been the CIO for Disney, and that should help us.
    Roy and his team keep the nearly 500 PCs, Xbox development kits, and Xboxes we run working properly, plus the network, phones, security, etc.

    Game for Windows Magazine Ceases Publication: The April/May issue was the last for this periodical, the longest running PC game magazine in the US (tracing back to its roots as Computer Game World launched in 1981). I believe most of the editorial staff is shifting over to 1UP. I am sorry to see GfW/CGW go (and not just because I recently sent in payment for two more years ). I have been reading it for over 20 years. I remember when founder RussellL Sipe and Johnny Wilson came to Microprose around 1990 to prepare articles about games in development. I remember reading the articles by Scorpia and more recently Greenspeak on the back page. I was in the CGW offices a number of times over the last ten years to show off Age of Empires games and I recall that visiting game makers could not pay for the lunch of CGW staff.
    I didn’t always agree with what was written in the magazine (including a pretty negative review of the original Age of Empires), but it was where I usually caught up on the overall industry. I wish everyone involved the best of luck with whatever is next for them.

    Desperate Housewives and Age of Empires: This ABC television show used our game in a recent episode. At one point a boy in one of the families asks his dad if they would become a stronger family if they learned how to play Age of Empires III together. The dad responded positively saying he wanted to learn how to play the game. We were totally unaware this was going to happen and assume it was just the whim of the show’s writers.

    Age of Mythology for the DS: Publisher THQ has announced that they will be publishing a strategy game inspired by AoM for the Nintendo DS this fall. The game is being created by Griptonite, which is part of Foundation9, which used to be Backbone Entertainment. Backbone created the Age of Kings game for the DS several years ago, so if you liked that, you can look forward to the AoM game. Several ES’ers are helping Griptonite with the game, including Brian Lemon as our producer/liaison, Rob Fermier helping with design, and Don Gagen helping with art. Here is a Kotaku blurb about the game.

    What ES’rs Are Playing: Yes, our people bought a lot of copies of Grand Theft Auto IV. Several voiced the opinion that is the best game ever made, while others find a number of faults with it. It seems to have an amazing amount of content. One colleague is slowly going through it trying to see everything. Another finished it fairly quickly but says he saw only 70% of it. He’s going back to do the things he passed first time. And the WoW fans are still going strong. A number of people who closed their accounts have been pulled back. I hear several people are looking forward to Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Wednesday, June 04, 2008 12:01 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, The Asian Dynasties, Desperate Housewives