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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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,JPaultheir 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Boardgamegeek.com 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 himfrom 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
HaloWars.com: 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 goodthings) 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.
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.