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Ben Donges

Building a Community, Paragon interview, and more pics from Ensemble


Building a Community: Common Goals

Creating a community from scratch is a hard task and it is even harder if you do not share a goal.  There are plenty of very human reasons that prevent a group from acting as a community.  Selfishness, irrational fears, dispositions, jealousy, – the list of human errors that make it hard to get along is pretty big.  When you break it down this means that individuals have a hard time getting along for an extended period of time.  I guess it is human nature, and that is fine; if we got along all the time things would never be very interesting. 

However if you are trying to build a community where people need to interact and contribute you have to get past all of those human tendencies.  If there is a common goal or vision shared by a community it is easier to get past the normal human fallacies.  The community becomes a kind of buffer if the bond is strong enough between people.  For instance I might be jealous that I always get beat by certain players, and that might even make me mad, but I know that it would be foolish to act like a jerk and curse someone out online because I could be ostracized by the community.  Now of course some people just don’t care about being ostracized or rules in general but there is still a large number that do.  I am assuming that there is at least some common morality shared by individuals in this case.

The best shared goal is often just having fun together.  In fact that is the best goal in my opinion.  If we were not put on Earth to have fun, well I don’t so many people would stick around.  Playing games with people you know or people you don’t know is a great way to socialize and spend your time.  Games are actually an easy thing to build a community around compared to something like sorting trash, or breaking rocks.  When having fun is the goal you can focus people to come together and overcome some of those human errors, and start building a community. 

When it comes to our community we are lucky because most of the people are already there with the goal to have fun.  Not only that put RTS games in general work better when people communicate and work as a team.  These are 2 great bonuses when building a community.  Even when the game is not out yet, such as Halo Wars, fans get together and do Fan Fiction, Forum RPG’s, and find other fun ways to pass the time.  All of that builds the community into something better.

Meet your Moderator: Paragon

If you have posted on the forums at it has been under the watchful eye of Paragon.  He keeps the peace and keeps thing organized on the forums, which is no easy task considering the amount of traffic we get.  To get a closer look at the man inside the forums, I asked him some questions.

How long have you worked for Ensemble Studios?
I have worked for ES for over seven years in two blocks.  The first block I was a tester on Age of Mythology the Titans expansion, and early versions of Age of Empires 3, before I took a break from the game industry.  In 2005 I returned to ES and have been working with the Live team ever since.

Tell us about your gaming past.  What are some of your favorite games?
We had an Atari 2600 for while, but I don’t think I was really hooked on games until I started playing text adventure games on my Atari 400 computer.   Since then I have played hundreds of computer and video games some good – some bad, some terrible, and some great.  

I have always been fond of computer RPGs and have probably played more hours of that genre of game than any other.  A few of my favorites are; Ultima 3, Star Flight, Wasteland, Baldur’s Gate, Fallout , Planescape:Torment,  Everquest, and World of Warcraft.

Tell us about an average day moderating here at Ensemble.
Most of my day is spent reading; emails, forum posts, and chats.  I usually start the day by looking for chat logs from the previous evening, checking for abuse offenders.  Then move on to private messages and email, which I can simply cannot reply to all of.   After that is time to start reading and reacting to forum posts; this is where I spend most of my time.

What has been your weirdest experience here as a Moderator.               
I cannot recall any weird experiences, there have been a few funny ones. 

One example is when I suspended one our programmers for spamming in the chat channels.  It was early in the morning, he was logged in with a non-employee account and was doing some testing, aka. Spamming.  When he did not reply to me after I asked him to stop, I suspended the account.

A few seconds later I get an IM from the actual person asking if the servers just went down because he cannot log in.   We then spent the next several minutes trying to troubleshoot the problem, before we put together what really happened.

How do you try and make,, and ESO a safe and fun place to hang out?
First, on all of them I try to not just be a “rule keeper”, but one of them.  This is has become more difficult as Age 3 has grown and as Halo Wars moves toward launch. There are simply so many more posts to read and issues to react to.

Second, I try to quickly react to abusive situations by removing/locking the posts, and issuing a response.  This, of course, reduces the time I have to simply post and interact with the members.

Which is why, I also try to encouraging these communities to help police themselves, by using the reporting options available.

Do you have a philosophy about moderating?
I started with the idea that these communities should be places to discuss the games they are built around and if something would have offended my grandmother, it should not be on there.

You started helping out banning cheaters recently.  How do you like that?
It is interesting and sort of sad.   

I have always been helping, by guiding people to abuse and forwarding reports, so hearing about cheating is not new.   Though now I am the one of those whom all the reports come to, and I am shocked at two things; the number of people that accuse others with no evidence at all, and the number of people trying to cheat.

Lastly, who would win in a fight, you or a gorilla?
I am not ashamed to admit, the gorilla. Hands down.

The Wilhelm Scream and Halo Wars

Watching movies as a kid I would pick up on odd details, sounds particularly.  When I was watching the latest Indiana Jones movie in the theaters I noticed that when the doors opened on Hangar 51, it was the same sound effect from the very first Star Wars when Darth Vader appears in the doorway.  This sound has been used before in other movies as well (most of the Star Wars and Indian Jones movies have it somewhere as well as some of the Lucas Arts adventure games). 

Well Halo Wars is no exception to the rule.  While I was watching the 5 Long Years trailer I noticed a peculiar sound about 47 seconds into the movie

The Wilhelm scream has a very fun and interesting legacy in film.  It is nice to see it make the transition into games.

Pictures from Ensemble

This is our Play-Test guardian.  He makes sure everyone is playing games and having fun or at least that they are faking it enough not to anger the other players. 

The Artist Hall has a bunch of awesome art hanging in it, as well as having a cool open door design.  You can seal yourself into the individual art caves but you can also leave the cave door open to yell at the other inhabitants in this bizarre hallway.  Fun fact – Most artist are nocturnal only leaving the caves for food and recreation at dusk.  


Next Time : Temporary Communities, more moderators and being anonymous

Posted Thursday, September 04, 2008 12:51 PM | (Comments Off)

Filed under: Ensemble Pictures, Moderator

Community Bans, Photos from ES, and an interview with MrMilo


Community Bannings

We had our largest set of banning ever last week with close to 300 accounts banned in one day.  Most of the account we banned where due to account theft and identity theft, which is why you should never share personal information about yourself online. 

Watching our servers and talking with security professionals, identity theft definitely is one of the fastest growing crimes.  Unfortunately videos games are a ripe target.
Too many people trust players that they have never met before online.  Use caution, stay away from spyware that might contain Trojans, and be careful what mods you use.  Never create an account where the username is the same as the password.  More importantly, never share information about your self online.  If someone is asking you what the name of your dog is, or your mothers name, they could be fishing for account information.

Photos from Around Ensemble

We are going to be moving offices in the near future to a new super double secret location.  In memory of our current office I am going to take a few photos of our offices between now and when we move and share them here with everyone. 

Here is a photo from one of our music and sound studios.  We have 2 other smaller sound studios in the offices but this is the largest.  This is where all of the music for Age of Empires, Age of Mythology, and Halo Wars has been put together as well as many of our sound effects.  It is Chris Rippy’s primary office as well. 

The photo below is part of the arcade on our 16th floor.  We have birthday parties, and holiday parties here.  There may have even been a wedding reception or 2 held up here.  As far as arcades go we use to have 14 machines on the floor including one I was lucky enough to purchase.  Now the number of machines is lower but we also have an console gaming area that we go to challenge each other to different games..  

Age on wikipedia

Age of Empires was the featured topic on Wikipedia 3 weeks ago.  Digging through the site there is quite a bit of information about Age of Empires and Ensemble Studios on Wikipedia.  I have added some of the information myself, but most of it has been generated by our fans.  It is really cool to see that much information on Wikipedia about our studios and games.

Milo Interview

MrMilo is a relatively new employee here at Ensemble Studios and the youngest member of our team, but he makes up for that with enthusiasm and a professional attitude.  He is not only one of our moderators and he is also a professional player.  I sat down with him to chew the fat a bit about working here at Ensemble and professional gaming.

How long have you been playing Ensemble Studios games?

M: Since I was about ten years old. I first played AoE on a computer of one of my mom’s co-workers with a list of all the extra resource cheats and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Have you always wanted to make video games or is there something else you wanted to do? 
I’m still at an age where it’s hard to say what I really want to be doing in the future, but being a part of the process – and particularly the creative process – that goings into making video games is definitely appealing to me.

Have your thoughts changed at all about how games are made since you have started working here?

M: Definitely. I’ve learned a lot more about the patching process and all of the steps that anything in game development has to go through in order to be OK’ed. I’ve also developed a more aware eye of what is valuable to me in gameplay and how I can articulate that to others so that my ideas are understood.

If you could sum up your time last week at the WCG, what was the best part of the United States event?

M: As cheesy as this answer may be, it’s meeting the people you play online with and playing with them in person. Because this tournament was only one day, I didn’t get to talk with people as much as at past tournaments, but that element is still definitely the highlight of the event. =)

What are your thoughts on the future of competitive gaming?

M: I really hope that the field of competitive gaming continues to grow, especially in the United States. I’m partial to RTS, so I think it would be very cool to have a high awareness across RTS, and “Age of”, communities that their games are being played at a really high level that can provide even more entertainment to them then they’re already getting playing the games.

If there was one thing you could tell our fans about Ensemble Studios, what would it be?

M: Just what a positive and fun place to work it is. And no, all you cynical readers out there, this is not a required answer. I’m continually surprised, although at this point I really shouldn’t be, at what a loose and encouraging atmosphere we’ve got going. I hope this shows in the games and I try to keep a similarly light attitude when I go about my moderating work.

Tell us about the first time you came to ES.  What where your impressions?

M: I think my first impression was simply awe. It was really exciting to just be at the office, which for those of you who don’t know is decked out like a space ship, where the games I’d loved to play for so long were made. After I settled in a bit, I’d have to say (at the risk of sounding like a broken record) everybody’s friendliness really made an impression on me. I had come down to do testing on The War Chiefs before it was released, and I knew that the ES guys with whom I was working were definitely under pressure to get things done and make progress, but the atmosphere was still a really fun one to be in.
Mainstreaming the Meme

Some of you might ask, “What the heck is a Meme”, and the quickest answer I can give you is any piece of cultural information that can be transferred via repetition through audio, video, or word of mouth. For more detailed information here is a link to a Wikipedia article.  They have been compared to cultural viruses, kind of like the song you can’t get out of your head (by the way if you can’t get a song out of your head try singing it in your head but changing the notes,  it sounds crazy but it works for me). 
With YouTube giving everyone the ability to create their own audio and video content there has been an explosion of meme’s in the last few years.  To continue the infection metaphor, if Meme’s are a virus then YouTube is Typhoid Mary. 

Now that we have been living under a constant meme barrage for the last few years something interesting has happened.  These short viruses have evolved beyond YouTube and are now part of mainstream culture.  How did this happen you might ask?  Well these videos get millions and millions of views.  They get shared and stored and sent to friends, and eventually become a common part of the culture. 
Once a meme makes that jump, from cultural irrelevance to water cooler conversation piece, it has become a part of the culture.  To make the jump to mainstream it has to make an even bigger jump into popular culture.  In the last 2 months there have been 2 major break outs to popular culture. 

South Park who created an Emmy award winning episode based on World of Warcraft has created a new episode this season with the major theme of meme’s.  The episode Canada on Strike has a great 2 minute fight scene where all of the most popular meme’s fight it out in a battle royal.  It is bloody and over the top.  You can check it out on the site.  It is mature content, so you have been warned. 

The band Weezer, which I used to listen to on my way to Junior High in my friends beat up Geo Metro., has created a music video that not only features Meme’s but has most of the original creators from these Meme’s in the video.  It is pretty sad that I knew every single reference they had in the video.  As I write this the video has almost 6 million views.
Weezer – Pork and Beans

So where does that leave us?  Will our diet of Pork and Beans be healthy for us in the long run?  Is this the height of video entertainment, able to travel around the world quickly infecting everyone that watches them? Or is the main streaming of these short video clips simply just another way we parody our own behavior? 
Small disclaimer: As I write this I am wearing a blue T-Shirt with the famous Dramatic Prairie Dog on the front. 

E3 blog within a blog

Graham Devine was sending us photos from E3 every day while he was at E3.  There are some really nice shots of our team showing off Halo Wars.   A few old friends dropped by as well to say hello.

Next Time – Getting to know your moderation staff and more post E3 news

Posted Thursday, July 24, 2008 7:50 PM | (Comments Off)

Filed under: Bans, E3, Photos

The Next Patch and More


The Next Age of Empires 3 Patch
Patch 1.01a has proven to be one of our most popular patches ever.  Mostly due to the large variety of balance changes that boost most of the civilizations.

We have had a few players ask if we will do a new patch for Age of Empires 3.  Some are worried that the latest patch (1.01a) was going to be our last.  We have received the emails, forum posts, and online chats. 

Let me assure you that we are working on a new patch. 

I cannot go into great details on the patch right now, but I don’t want our fans to worry.  Once details are out on it they will be on and in Bruce’s Blog.

Let Us know what you think
We would like to know how you feel about our game and how we could make it better.  I created a thread for you to respond to
these questions.

1.  What are the signature things that you consider to be an essential part of an Age of Empires game?
2.  What are the things that you like the most about an Age of Empires game? Why?
3.  What are the things that you dislike the most about an Age of Empires game? Why?

The ES8
One of our best kept secret for Patch 1.01a was a group of expert player called the ES 8.  They offered great advice from professional players and spent time each day play testing the game.  It would have taken a lot longer to make quality balance changes without them.

Our testing process at Ensemble Studios uses iteration.  We used that to our advantage with the ES8.  Suggestions are made and debated in the forums.  These would eventually be put into the test patch that players could play and test.  They would then give feedback again in the forums and the process would begin again.

We had some really good tools that made the whole process easier.  We created secret forums for the ES8 to use and we just finished a tool that will give the team builds quicker and easier.  Constant communication between our balance team and the ES8 was key to the success of the patch as well. 

We look forward to working with these players again in the future. 

Saying Goodbye to Mr. Ruessler
Today we said goodbye to our good friend Tim Ruessler.  We did this fueled on lots of red meat and fine liquors surrounded by friends.  This was his third going away lunch of the week.

One of the good things about Ensemble Studios is that we do not lose people very often.  We have a very low turnover rate, because honestly this is a great place to work.  The only bad thing about that is when someone does leave you tend to feel it slightly more. 

Autism and Games
This is a sensitive subject, so before beginning I wanted my intentions to be clear.  I am writing this with the best intentions and if you are offended feel free to write in and tell me that I am an inhuman monster.  Just write in to and have blog in the subject line and I will get that email. 

My wife is a Speech Pathologist and works at a local school with many special needs children.   She uses lots of different therapies to help children and I am very proud of her and the work she does.  One of the cooler therapies she uses is basically a video game that she made for her students.  The idea behind the games is to break through normal communication barriers and teach her students a different way to communicate.

It is a very simple game using a touch screen and some supervision.  The player is shown a series of images and is rewarded for picking the correct corresponding image with a sound.  This may seem simple but by using visual stimulation and video games as a way to teach better communication with autistic and special needs kids seems to have potential.  If combined with newer technology such as this system there is no telling what kind of interactive learning tools the future holds. 

Games have been used in the past for therapy for a variety of illnesses and ailments, including bio feedback for post traumatic stress disorder and some paralysis therapies.  Seeing Autism is not really one illness, but a family of illnesses, I would think that using a wide variety of technologies would be a good strategy for finding what works for the individual patients.  I hope that video games will continue to help out and fit that roll. 

Age 3 Mobile Gaming
Age of Empires has done well in the mobile gaming market.  We released Age of Empires: Age of Kings for the Nintendo DS and cell phone versions.  We have a new Nintendo DS version of Age of Mythology coming out soon as well.  Glu mobile just released a cell phone version of Age of Empires 3 as well. 
You can check out the full features and play the
free demo over on the Glu Mobile website.

Cell phone addiction
Mobile gaming in Asia is far larger than it is in the United States. There are quite a few nontraditional games that do well in Asia as well.  There are interesting mobile games that never even make it over here in the United States. 

Cell phones are becoming such an issue in Japan that the government is starting to step in.  I don’t really know what they hope to accomplish with the program and it makes me wonder what other laws are coming down the pike. 

Xtreme Supreme Court Justice: The Vengeance!
Chris Baker over at Wired Magazine has a
great article on Sandra Day O’Connor, Supreme Court Justice and now a game designer.  Feel free to use my game title if you want. 

I just wanted to say hello to Justice O’Connor and welcome her to the brotherhood of game designers.  If anyone can teach kids about the legal system it does not get any better than a Supreme Court Justice.
There are also some perks that Justice O’Connor can now enjoy.

  1. The simple dress code.  No black robes, unless you are LARPing it up with others in the office, or checking out the new D&D 4th edition rules. 
  2. No due process.  If you don’t like your office mate, simply throw desk junk at their head until they leave.  It is not like they can plead the Fifth Amendment when they are bleeding and unconscious anyway.
  3. Hardly any lawyers.  There are still a few though, unfortunately.  Although I am working on fixing that…
  4. Cool offices.  When was the last time you saw a Supreme Court Justice come into the court room on a fire pole or with a smoke machine and a laser light show.
  5. Video game groupies.  All of the nerds you can handle!  Hot!

PS: If Justice O’Connor is reading this, I need some legal advice with some tickets I got.  Apparently burning an effigy without a permit is looked down on locally.  What is up with that? 

Helpful Online Tips
Do not report that someone was not following your no rush rules or other arbitrary game rules.  If you choose to play with “No War Ships” that is fine, however you can’t expect others to play with the same rules and it is definitely not cheating.  There is a reason we created treaty games for everyone.  

Next Time:  Mainstreaming the Meme and More!

Ben “SOLUS” Donges

Posted Monday, June 09, 2008 5:34 PM | (Comments Off)

Filed under: Autism, Patch, ES8

Hello, Hallo, ???????, Ciao, ???????????!, and Hola People of the Internet!


Welcome to this small corner of the intertubes.  Here I will try to give you an inside look into the goings on here at the Ensemble Studios Live Team.  Hopefully you will be able to get inside our heads a little bit and gaze into the twisted maze that we inhabit.  This will be a series of blogs and philosophical thoughts on online communities and our live team.  This will be the first of many blogs that will come out hopefully about twice a month.

My name is Ben Donges, sometimes known as SOLUS online.  When I first started working with the Ensemble community I was originally involved with monitoring and looking for issues and troublemakers.  My background in software testing and customer support helped get me started on my journey.  Part of my job was to monitor the servers for downtime and help out players in the community as much as possible.  Now almost 3 years later I am part of a much larger team with much larger goals.

The Evolution of the Live Team

To understand the Evolution of our team you have to understand more about what we do. 

The live team is a people team.  We deal in the commodity of emotions and opinions, which is to say we live and work in what is sometimes, a very chaotic space.  What makes it even more interesting is that we deal with many of our hard core players daily, so you have to add in a small amount of obsessive compulsive disorder and fanaticism.  However those of us on the team like this niche that we have carved out and would not trade it for anything in the world.  We want to make all of our players as happy as we can with support, patches, and policing.

It is a very organic process if you look at the big picture.  We care for a community that is ever changing and which interestingly enough mirrors a small village.  You give the people in the village a voice and a place to communicate their intentions, their will.  We provide our community with simple services and the space to communicate and interact with each other.  The only difference between our community and a village is there are no taxes on our servers.

Mike McCart was the main man in charge of the websites and community relations here at Ensemble for many years.  He kept the torch burning through Age of Empires I all the way to Age of Mythology.  During that time there was a small number of employees that oversaw the needs of the community.   This was part of the job they did here at Ensemble but not their full time job.  We would have regular fire drills when we needed to patch and take people off the jobs they were doing just to get a patch out the door or restart the servers.  It was not efficient or good for our community and the powers that be in our company saw that.  It was clear that we needed a group of full time employees to take care of the needs of the community.

Where we are today

In a nutshell, we are a team providing the space for all of you guys and girls to play, communicate and grow.  We take care of the patching on Age of Empires 3 when we need to.  We try and keep the bad people offline and the good people online.

There are now 8 full time members that work hard to make everyone happy.

We take care of the communication between developers and the community with reports to the company and posting news on our multiple websites.  We are the bridge between the gamers and Ensemble Studios.  No loads over 2 tons please.

Looking Ahead

The Halo Wars community is a new one for Ensemble.  We want it to grow and flourish just like our Age of Empires games and community’s.  Actually that is not true.  We want it to do better.  Every time we start a new game there is a major focus for us to do better with the next one and our community’s are no different.

This being Ensembles’ first foray into a Sci-Fi setting instead of a historical one, it is a rich and fertile ground for us to grow a community.  The problems with historical settings are they are based in fact.  People get hung up when your African Elephants tusks are too long, or if your catapults have license plates (yes they do), or if your Winged Hussar does not display his feathers correctly.  It is harder for some people to make the leap and suspend their disbelief.

The Halo Universe is a great opportunity because Bungie has done a good job of creating a place where our developers and community’s imaginations can run wild without being too hindered by facts.

Right now we are under a news embargo (to use a better mans words) when it comes to Halo Wars.  Hopefully this embargo is will be lifted soon and our glorious ships can sail forth with information to the eager ports of your imagination.

Age3 will continue to be a part of our focus as well.  There is a great commitment to Age3 and our other games and our team will continue to support them as much as possible.

WCG and Future Tournaments

The WCG regional tournaments are going to begin shortly.  These will give all of our players a chance to get involved in an international tournament and win some good prizes.  If you are curious about what it takes to be a part of the WCG simply read the how to created by our own MrMilo.

I am trying to get a few more tournaments involved with the Asian Dynasties as well.  As soon as I have more information I will post it here, and we will put it up on

Things not to do on ESO

Helpful common sense tips of what not to do when playing Age of Empires III

Tip Number 1: Don’t give out your information to anyone.  Ensemble Employees are the guys with the blue names, and we don’t ask for your account or personal information.  If someone tells you they need your password to join a clan they are lying.  Just take a screenshot and send it in to

Next Time

Autism and Games

Ben [SOLUS] Donges

Posted Thursday, May 15, 2008 6:38 PM | (Comments Off)

Filed under: Halo Wars, Live Team, WCG



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