About Ensemble Studios
Ensemble Studios was formed in 1995 by brothers Tony Goodman and Rick Goodman along with legendary game developer and visionary Bruce Shelley who had previously worked for Microrose. Ensemble’s first game was Age of Empires released in 1997 which was a real time strategy game. Age of Empires gained critical success and launched Ensemble into the limelight. Bruce Shelley described the success for Age of Empires to be “innovation, rather than imitation of its peers”. Following the release of Age of Empires an expansion pack “Rise of Rome” was released. By this time Ensemble was fully established as a successful studio and had launched a website engaging fans to what goes on inside Ensemble.
Above: Ensemble’s website in the 2000′s showing how Ensemble kept in constant communication with fans with developer diaries and blogs. Click to enlarge
Following the success of Age 1 and its expansion pack Ensemble got to work on Age of Empires 2 the Age of Kings. Microsoft who acted as publisher for both Age 1 and Age 2 announced in 2000 that they had shipped more than 2 million copies of Age 2 making it a mammothly successful game. An expansion pack was produced lead by the genius of Sandy Peterson an ex iD software programmer. Around this time Ensenble Studios had attended many trade shows and events including E3. Dave Pottinger and Bruce Shelley would often visit conferences to discuss AI and play testing respectively. By Age 2 Ensemble was recognised by the AIAS (ACADEMY OF INTERACTIVE ARTS & SCIENCES) and in the 3rd annual awards the Age of Kings won “Computer game of the year“. The game also won awards for “Strategy game of the year” and “Outstanding Achievement in Character or Story Development”.
Taking the Age series elsewhere
Ensemble had decided to mix up the Age of Empires formula for their next game which was titled “Age of Mythology”. This game was based on myths and legends in the greek, egyptians and norse time periods. The game was once again a huge success and sold over a million copies in just the first 5 months of its release. All of the success Ensemble were gaining following the releases of their games gained attention of their publisher Microsoft. On May 3rd 2001 Microsoft entered in an agreement to acquire Ensemble Studios.
From Age of Mythology onwards Ensemble Studios were now a first party developer of Microsoft Game Studios. Under this banner they would go onto release Age of Mythology and its expansion pack “The Titans”. Both games were very successful and gained high reviews. Ensemble’s first game under the MGS banner gained a metacritic score of 89% – impressive.
Following what was considered to be the spin off game of the Age series Ensemble announced that they would return to the Age of Empires series and create Age of Empires 3 a sequel to Age 2. Age 3 boasted some impressive new game play elements including the idea of a Home City where a player can return to their city and have shipments of resources, troops or technologies shipped out to the battlefield. The game was also developed on a high modified engine of Age of Mythology called the “Bang” engine. The game supported the Havok physics engine so that building destructions were highly animated and realistic. Shader Model 3 allowed for bloom and high detailed graphics effects. At the time Shader Model 3 was only available on high end graphics cards so depending on a users hardware would greatly depend on the visual quality
Above: Screenshot showing the different levels of graphics detail available. Click to enlarge
After a number of teasers on the Ensemble Studios’ website Age 3 was released on October 18th 2005 and was the eight best selling PC game of 2005 and 2 years later in 2007 it was the seventh best selling PC game. Along with winning Gamespys strategy game of the year award 2005 Age 3 went on to ship a huge 2 million copies - another golden success from Ensemble Studios. Sandy Peterson once again paved the way for an expansion pack “The Warchiefs”.
Much to the surprise of many Ensemble fans on September 27th 2006 it was announced that Ensemble would be working on a new RTS based on the Halo universe dubbed “Halo Wars”. A pre-rendered trailer closed the show at the X06 conference and can be viewed on gamespot. Halo Wars will be the first game developed on a platform other than a PC as it will be Ensemble’s first Xbox 360 exclusive game. The move from “Age” games to something new signified that Ensemble was changing as the studio grew and was starting to work on new franchises. Through-out 2007 and 2008 Bruce Shelley made many references to projects going on within Ensemble but never gave out information detailing what these projects were. Stephen Rippy audio and music wizard at Ensemble had posted snippets of music on his personal website which may provide an indication for what these projects could of been.
Above: Cinematic trailer of Halo Wars shown at X06
End of an Era
Development of Halo Wars continued into 2008 with initial release dates penned to point to a spring 2009 release. Many fans of the game and Ensemble were sat back reading the many developer blogs on the Ensemble Studios website when suddenly out of the blue rumours began to spread across the Internet suggesting that Microsoft had informed the Ensemble team that the studio was to close after Halo Wars was complete. Unfortunately these rumours were very quickly confirmed. Ensemble had always been known as a community friendly studio which always kept fans involved. Bruce Shelley soon updated his blog describing the reasons why Microsoft might have taken the action they did. An extract from Bruce’s blog read:
“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.”
Immediately posts flooded the community websites for Age of Empires and Halo Wars as fans bombarded in anger and sadness that Ensemble was to be closed. Since the announcement there has been much speculation about the reasons behind closing Ensemble considering the company had been so successful. With lots of awards under the studios belt along with very high selling games it remains even now a mystery. Some have said that the closure signifies movement away from the PC platform. Others have said that it indicates Microsoft wanted to make games cheaper to make and Ensemble cost more to run than other MGS studios.
Projects shut down, focus on Halo Wars
With closure looming Ensemble shut down work on all of its other projects and the studio was focused onto completing Halo Wars. Images were leaked of a Halo MMO which were later to be confirmed as the other Halo project Ensemble was working on. People from Ensemble began to give details about the images and confirmed that it was indeed a project in active development and that the design of the game had in fact been green-lit by Microsoft months before the cancellation. In fact, Ensemble had a team of over 50 people working on the game until the game suddenly had the plug pulled by Microsoft. It could be assumed that the projects cancellation may have indicated Microsoft had plans early before its announcement to close Ensemble Studios.
Above: Screenshot from cancelled Halo MMO
Halo Wars goes gold, Ensemble bows out
On the 23rd January Ensemble Studios announced that Halo Wars had gone gold and was entering production. A demo would be forthcoming on 5th February and the game will be released on Feb 26th. With this announcement of course also meant that Ensemble would soon cease to exist in its current form. The studio had confirmed that the week beginning 26th of January would be its last as an MGS studio. The community is currently awaiting the final blog by Bruce Shelley to appear on the studios’ website. Ensemble leaves behind over 20 million Age fans and will be missed greatly. Plans do remain with Ensemble founder Tony Goodman to start a new studio though information on this has not been forthcoming and it is not expected until after the closure. However Bruce has confirmed in his blog that he will not be joining any entities forming out of Ensemble. It is currently unknown where the majority of Ensemble people will be placed following the closure. Stay tuned for updates here and on the Ensemble Studios website.
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