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Ngmoco VidDoc of NewToy’s “We Rule”

Ngmoco have released a video blog where Matt Roberts walks us through a preview of the game. My first impression is that it looks very similar to the Farmville genre – “Social gaming” on Facebook. With We Rule you’ll have much greater control than just planting and harvesting crops, theres building management and the ability to visit other kingdoms and trade merchandise. While it should be noted the game does require a persistent (always on) data connection it should be great to play casually when your on the train or bus for instance. Coverage depending of course!

Take a look at the VicDoc below to see what its like:


Halo Wars Dev Blogs (page 2)

  • How to Build a Base in the 26th Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dave Pottinger, Lead Designer

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

  • Artists Blog: Map Environments

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Under The Hood of the Halo Wars Combat System


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

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


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


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

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

    Wrap up

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

    Some base Armor types in Halo wars

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


    Some example damage types

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

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

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

      • Rebel snipers
      • Jackal snipers
    • Sniper attacks

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

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

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

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

  • “Five Long Years”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Chris Rippy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Unit Categories

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

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

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

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

  • Halo Wars Ranks and Skill Levels Explained

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

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

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

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


    Rank Score Needed
    Recruit Play 1 Game
    Lieutenant 80,000
    Captain 200,000
    Major 400,000
    Commander 800,000
    Colonel 1,600,000
    Brigadier 2,400,000
    General 3,200,000
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    NewToy announce new iPhone game “We rule” in collaboration with Ngmoco

    Budding iPhone developers NewToy lead by ex Ensemble programmers has announced a new iPhone project in collaboration with Ngmoco a well known publisher on the iPhone platform. The new game titled “We Rule” sees players creating thier very own unique kingdom where they can heavily customise the kingdoms realms, shops, businesses, buildings, banners and crops. The official blurb from the Ngmoco website continues:

    You will collect taxes from your citizens and manage a variety of shops and businesses – from bakeries and inns to lumber mills and ore mines.

    There do not seem to be any screenshots of the game yet, but stick around and we’ll try and dig some out. Meanwhile check out what you can from the the graphic below. Certainly seems to be a big project but no doubt the Bettner brothers at NewToy are up to the task. For more information on the game the press release follows below and a link to the website.

    ngmoco has a new social game, We Rule, in the works. We’re excited to share it with you.

    In We Rule, you will govern your very own kingdom. You will act as a city planner and landscaper—customizing your realm with buildings, banners, and botany. You’ll decide what crops to plant and ensure they are harvested on time. You will collect taxes from your citizens and manage a variety of shops and businesses – from bakeries and inns to lumber mills and ore mines.

    We’re also pleased to announce we’re collaborating with App Store star Newtoy to create this innovative, next-gen social game. Newtoy has a strong development pedigree on a host of platforms – before iPhone and iPod, the team helped create Age of Empires and Halo Wars.  More recently they’ve engineered smash mobile hits Words with Friends and Chess with Friends.

    Soon you’ll have a chance to build a kingdom of your own. We’ll be revealing more about the game soon. And if you’d like access to exclusive info and screens, chat with gamemakers and help us make We Rule better, join the ng:community.


    How do Robot programmers boot up?

    Robot Blogs

    Ever wondered how Robot programmers start the day, or boot up in the mornings? Well Rob “Xemu” Fermier the Lead Programmer for Robot’s next IP details the morning start in depth. As the morning begins and charged over night Robot’s make their way to the pods for work they first gather round and exchange communication in the form of Morning Syncing. This is a 15 minute process where programmers talk to each other about what they did yesterday and what they are going to do today. Keeping in sync so that everyone knows whats happening. It sounds like a great idea as it enables programmers with particular talent areas to focus in on what they are good at and ensuring no overlapping of jobs. As this syncing happens every single morning its important to have some ground rules. Lead Programmer Rob Fermier details these below:


    • Short:  Each person has to be short and to the point, and the whole thing usually takes 10 to 15 minutes.  It’s never allowed to go over 15 minutes, period.  Discussions that crop up as a result of the morning sync are usually resolved in ad hoc meetings immediately afterwards.
    • Easy: We sync right in the same pod where we are working, so there’s very little organization required.  Everyone has a good sense of what they are doing and never has to “prepare” anything.  One advantage of a daily meeting is that it can be pretty casual and folks fall into a routine with it easily.
    • Reliable: The sync always starts on time, regardless of who is there.  People can plan on it and it doesn’t drag on by starting late or hanging around.
    • Open: Anyone is welcome to listen in on the sync meetings.  But they don’t talk, since the meeting is focused on the people doing the work.  By having them out in a common space, it promotes the idea that we want to share information to anyone who wants it.


    Programmers engaged in the morning sync

    Read more in the full blog:  Robot Coders.


    Remember: Never share your ESO account details with anyone


    The ESO team at Robot Entertainment ban hundreds of players at a time for account stealing and people logging into shared accounts. Make sure you NEVER log into any account other than your own or you will be banned and you will lose your rank.

    The number of threads on the Age Community website about account stealing has increased recently and I encourage readers to be vigilant about thier ESO account usage.

    Dont get caught out, play by the rules and enjoy the ESO expierence.



    Halo Wars Strategic Options


    In case you haven’t already noticed.. Halo Wars strategic options DLC has been released! The community is buzzing at the community and you can check out all the action in the official thread. Be on the lookout for comments from Robot developers and rest assured they are watching, gathering feedback.

    My thoughts? The DLC is fun and is entertaining, its very enjoyable to play for fans of the game and introduces some new play styles which really make you think about new tactics and strategies in order to win.

    Unfortunately though there is no multiplayer online except for party games for a majority of the new modes. Alot of players have expressed some sadness about this so I wanted to highlight comments made by Dave Pottinger about the issue:

    “None of the DLC was on the disc when it shipped.  The game modes are a small download because they are rules.  There is some new content, but it’s obviously a different type of content compared to a map.  Also, the recent patch added a bunch of missing support/engine groundwork for both DLCs.

    We are limited in the number of matchmaking buckets we can use due to Live.  We left a bunch of buckets available for the DLC, but perhaps we made too many team oriented buckets.  We’ll evaluate changing/modifying that as we get feedback.  FWIW, since the DLC modes are generally more team-based than the default game, we skewed the new hoppers to be team-focused as well.” – Dave Pottinger.

    Hopefully Microsoft might be able to extend the number of multi player buckets available for their first party game. If not it is possible based on feedback that Robot will be able to mix and match modes as per gamer feedback.

    So.. if you want to make your voice heard head over to the thread!


    Robot is making its own IP; 45 ex Ensemble veterans on board


    GamePlasma reports that 45 members of staff have been recruited from Ensemble Studios to form Robot Entertainment and Tony Goodman is quoted as saying:

    “The video game industry is in a state of upheaval,” said Mr. Goodman, “not just games, but the entire landscape. Everything is changing:  where we buy games, how we buy games, how much we pay, how long we play, who we play them with. As a fast-moving independent team of game developers, industry leaders and market experts, Robot Entertainment is ideally positioned to play a transformative role in the industry’s future.”

    The article goes on to mention that Robot is the studio which will provide support for Halo Wars and Age of Empires. However the studio will be working on new IP which may rule out Age of Empires 4 (for the moment).

    It may be possible that the studio is exploring some old prototype ideas discussed here: . Or it could be a whole new project.

    We look forward to finding out more.


    Ben Donges page 1


    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



    Bruce Shelley page 3


    Bruce Shelley

    Asian Dynasties in Polish Mode


    Asian Dynasties in Polish Mode: We recently got a look at box covers to be used in different parts of the world and a new version of the trailer. Big Huge Game is completing the content and polishing what is there. We are waiting to hear how much of a presence the Asian Dynasties will have at the Leipzig Game Show, the year’s biggest European trade show for games.

    Our internal balance test team reported recently that in their opinion Asian Dynasties is on the right track and is reasonably balanced. There are no known critical bugs or balance issues blocking progress. They are aware of a number of smaller issues that need attention but feel that the condition of the Y pack is comparable to both Age of Empires III and The Warchiefs at a similar time.

    Patch 1.04/1.12: This patch for The Warchiefs and Age of Empires III has been tied off for balance and feature coding. It is now going through hardware testing and localization into languages other than English. Sometime during the week of July 30th we expect to post notes previewing the patch, which we hope to publish a few weeks later. Check out our community site for the latest news.

    Halo Wars Nominated for E3 Award: Congrats to our Halo Wars team for creating a great demo and to Chris Rippy and Graeme Devine for keeping their energy up through all those presentations. That work has paid off with the game being named as one of the five nominees for Best Strategy Game at E3. It is nice to see that the X360 led all platforms with 38 nominations and that Microsoft had a good showing with 8 nominations. Check out the other nominees here at Kotaku.

    Peter Moore Leaves Microsoft for EA: Peter was the executive at Microsoft who ran the games and Xbox group, two down from CEO Steve Balmer. We were part of Peter’s organization. We were as stunned as the rest of the gaming world when news came out that he was moving to EA to take over their sports game group. We have a lot of respect for Peter and were happy with his leadership. We wish him the best.

    Microsoft’s XNA at SMU’s Guildhall: Microsoft is partnering with this academic institution in our home town to experiment with and improve XNA, a tools and technology program especially targeted toward game developers. XNA was created with amateur game designers in mind, but this new relationship opens the possibilities of it becoming a useful tool for teaching and professional game development. Several people at Ensemble Studios have offered support to the Guildhall since the inception of its game development curricula.

    Global Growth of PC Installed Base: Patrick Hudson, the guy who watches the numbers for us (among many other roles), recently passed around links to stories about the explosive growth now underway in the number of PCs in use around the world. Forrester Research predicts one billion PCs in use worldwide by the end of 2008 and 2.25 billion by 2015, up from 775 million today. Most of that growth will be coming from China, India, Brazil, and Eastern Europe. These same areas are showing big growth in online gaming, as well. Catching this wave will be a big challenge for game companies, but Blizzard has demonstrated already that it can be done (we hear there are 9 million WoW accounts worldwide now).

    Mountain Dew Game Fuel: Pepsi has announced a new soft drink by this name that it plans to launch in partnership with the X360. I like the Dew, though I drink sodas rarely these days, but I think it is cool that sharp marketers like the Pepsi people want to brand up with my company’s game machine.

    Guess What Book ES’ers Are Reading? Certainly not everyone is reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but quite a few are. Within three days of publication Dave Pottinger passed around his opinion that he was happy with the book half way through but that the last 100 pages made it one of the best final books of a long series ever (“Really. Read it.”). Paul Jaquays read it straight through (with a break for sleep) and concurred with Dave’s opinion. Karen Swanson found the book very moving in many places. My wife and I are good for maybe 2-3 chapters a night, obviously way behind Charles Tinney and . Anyone in game development or another creative enterprise shouldJhis fiancé  be considering what makes these stories so entertaining and popular.

    Germany’s GameStar Magazine Turns 10: While PC magazines fade away in some parts of the world, they’re still big in Germany. GameStar, Germany’s largest PC game magazine by circulation for 7 years, turns 10 in August and we sent them a congratulatory note. Their reporters have always been prepared and knowledgeable. They are the only magazine that asked to take video of our studio at work. Many of their articles on the Age series are framed on our walls. Their GameStar Awards for games are prestigious and they recently started a magazine about game development called /GameStar/dev. Our games and their magazine have grown up at the same time. We wish them the best for the next 10 years and beyond.

    Drive to Work/Get on CNN.Com: Justin Randall was approaching an acetylene gas storage facility in Dallas when it started exploding and he was quick to get some video with his cell phone. When pieces of flaming debris the size of car mufflers started falling nearby he tossed the phone aside and wove his way to the office. His experience made it to the front of page of together with other eye-witness accounts. Patrick Hudson chastised him for not getting Halo Wars mentioned in the story or at least splicing a screenshot into his falling debris video J. Here’s a phone interview with his video.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Thursday, July 26, 2007 7:02 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: HaloWars, Asian Dynasties, Books, CNN, Moore

    Halo Wars Web Site Live


    Halo Wars Web Site Live: Our community team, lead by Oscar Santos, got our site up recently and it is just in time to provide links to the incoming E3 coverage. We like the site a lot and will be using it to keep you informed of progress on this big title.

    Halo Wars at E3: This once huge industry trade show may be a shadow of its former self but it is still a key opportunity to get new games in front of the world game press. Our team worked hard preparing a special demo for the event. After a wow preview for the entire studio last week, it was carried to Santa Monica by Producer Chris Rippy and Lead Designer Graeme Devine. Their brief reports so far suggest they put in long hours showing the game to a steady stream of media reps. Our community team is trying to list the many links to comments on the game published so far (see the link above).

    Graeme and Chris sent us several messages over the course of the show. After the opening night Microsoft Game Studios press briefing, Chris and Graeme rushed back to the hotel suite to be available for demos. Microsoft’s PR team brought up Electronic Gaming Monthly first and a steady stream followed until about 1 AM local time. They went on to do more demos from 1-6 Wednesday, Thursday 9-6, and Friday 9-2 (Chris told us that he believed that over 300 journalists stopped by, mostly in groups). That is a lot of meetings, but Graeme and Chris both reported the demo was being very, very well received. We hope that shows up in the coverage. Graeme’s big complaint was that the nearest Starbucks was a mile away.

    Here is a photo Graeme sent us of the demo set up. The extra dev kits were a precaution but were never needed.


    Asian Dynasties News: There is lots of news about our Y pack of late, including an interview with Brian Reynolds of Big Huge Games (developers of Asian Dynasties), the box art, a trailer for the game, and some reports on E3 from Producer Brian Lemon. You can out check all of this at our Age of Empires community site. We continue to be very positive about this expansion to Age of Empires III. It is coming together well and is a real Age of Empires game.

    Halo Wars Controls: A big concern when moving the real-time strategy genre to the X360 is how the controller will replace all the input available on the PC from the mouse and keyboard. We have designed Halo Wars from the ground up to be a console game and work effectively with a controller. At E3 Chris and Graeme demonstrated the new control system as a key feature. We were pleased to read that Gamestop and others were picking up on the basic control system.

    Harsh on Paul Barnett: A few blogs ago I called attention to some of Paul’s web videos related to working in the game industry, but I completely missed that they were made with tongue firmly in cheek (“flippant, irreverent, anecdotal, British styled humor”). Paul has put me straight and I promised to correct my error. Paul was concerned that his mum might think he was an idiot. I made the mistake of taking the videos out of context from his pod casts and video diaries, that you can check out here.

    The Warchiefs Mac Version: Graham Somers pointed out that the version of the X pack is now available. All of the Age of Empires games have been converted to the Mac so far and I believe they are some of the more popular games on that platform.

    Age of Empires III User Education Award: The Quick Reference and Manual has received an Excellence Award from the Society for Technical Communication’s International Publications Communication Competition. We understand that only four software guides in the world received awards this year (three Excellence and one Distinguished). Our publishing team puts a lot of effort into making these aids easy to use yet informative and it’s nice to see them get recognition. Congrats to Brent Metcalfe, Jack Turk, and their colleagues in publishing, plus our people who provided much of the content and reviewed the materials many times.

    Inline for IPhones: You would expect to find some hardware fans among 100+ game developers and we have our quota at Ensemble Studios. Programmer Paul Bettner and Studio Head Tony Goodman were both in line all day at a Dallas Apple store to get their IPhones, and offered by email back to our offices the second one they were allowed to buy. Both were taken J.

    Games Outside of Work: Getting a lot of comment lately is the new Xbox Live Arcade game Pacman Championship Edition. In Dave Pottinger’s opinion, it’s pretty close to a perfect single player XBLA game. He finds it “just flat-out superior to the original game” and a terrific example of how to make a sequel totally different without complicating it too much.

    Pro Gaming Presses Start Button: A professional gaming league, The Championship Gaming Series, recently started its season. There are six teams of ten players each and they will compete twice a week on DirectTV channel 101. Players are guaranteed $30k for the season but they are eligible for substantial bonuses.

    I first became aware of professional gaming in South Korea where there have been Starcraft leagues and televised matches with commentary for many years. I have my doubts that this will be a big success in North America or Europe, mainly because young people there have so many entertainment options that I doubt that a sufficient audience can be built to support the enterprise. It is cool that people are trying this, however. If it is the next big thing it could put even more emphasis on competitive multi-player for future games.

    Game Developers Aren’t Immortal: I guess that most of the people at Ensemble Studios would chart plus or minus 5 years of 30 years old. With that demographic you rarely think of retirement, much less mortality. But Shane Kim, head of Microsoft Game Studios, last week informed us that Lee Burns, an artist at our sister studio Rare in Britain, had just passed away after a courageous fight with illness. We work at play to a certain extent, but this news should be a reminder that our opportunities and longevity are not unlimited.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, July 20, 2007 4:57 PM | (Comments Off)

    You need balance in your life like a game needs to be balanced


    Brian Reynolds on the Asian Dynasties-India: IGN has posted an interview with Brian Reynolds, studio head at Big Huge Games, discussing the Y pack for Age of Empires III. I had the Indian civilization in mind a while ago when I mentioned that I thought one would be a surprise to most of you. I am happy to see India make an appearance in one of our Age games. It has been considered before and was a reasonable candidate for inclusion in both the original Age of Empires and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. One reason we left them out in the past is that their architecture is so unique. We didn’t want to invest the resources to create a building set for just the Indians and they would have looked strange using buildings created for the Middle East or China/Japan/Korea. Our reading of history didn’t show them in conflict with neighbors in any way similar to how the Europeans have gone after each other for millennia, or the countries in the Middle East, or east Asia. So there wasn’t a natural enemy to present with them, although you could make a case for India being an empire in its own right, being made up of many smaller kingdoms. Big Huge was willing to invest in Indian buildings and they look very cool to me, so the Indians are in and so are their elephants.

    Asian Dynasties Code Complete Milestone Next: Code complete sounds close to finished but actually there is a lot of work yet to do once this milestone is passed. This means all the major features are in and working, but a lot of testing, balancing, and polish is yet to go. I had a glitch in my testing where some economic buildings were failing to work, but it turns out I had just copied over a new build rather than erase and copy over fresh. When I got the build properly, everything worked as it should.

    Age III on PBS NOVA: A documentary program shown recently on this program used the Age of Empires III scenario editor to portray some historical events. The program was titled The Great Inca Rebellion and discussed battles around Lima, Peru, in which the Inca tried to expel Spanish conquistadores that had occupied the city. A Baltimore graphics studio used our software, aided by the skills of our own designers Karen McMullan and Vance Hampton, to recreate some scenes for the program. Ensemble Studios was not mentioned in the credits and should have been.
    I found the show interesting, as I do most NOVA documentaries. I was surprised at how many times Age of Empires III graphics were employed. I thought they fit in very well, except they did slow down a little with FPS (frames per second refresh rate) when they had a thousand units on screen.
    The show considered the question of how a relatively small band of conquistadores could possibly conquer and then hold a huge empire. The proposed answer is that the Spanish had powerful Indian allies who wanted to overthrow their Inca rulers, much as Cortez was able to recruit Indian allies wishing to overthrow the Aztecs. In addition, the program presented forensic evidence of the earliest known gunshot victim in the Americas. PBS often makes these programs available for viewing online and if they do that for this one I will try to let you know. Learn more about the program here.

    Mexico’s President Plays Age of Empires: Kotaku reports that President Felipe Calderon is a gamer and that his favorite is Age of Empires. Based on my experience from talking to gamers in Mexico City, I would guess his . Oscar Santos from our community teamJfavorite civilization is the Aztecs  tells me that the comments by the President were significant mainly because he supports the idea that gamers should be free to play what they wish. This is in contrast to the governor of the State of Chihuahua who blocked the sale of a Ghost Recon game that portrayed Mexicans from a border city as insurgents and terrorists.

    Thanks IT: We lost power in our entire building one day and we were told that it would be restored sometime that evening. Dwayne Gravitt of our IT department went back to our offices at 10:30 PM, climbed 15 flights of stairs, and waited in the dark until power was restored. At that point he made sure that our servers and all other critical resources were functioning properly before heading home in the early hours of the next day. We are working toward some important milestones for Halo Wars and having everything ready to go that next morning was a good thing.

    Age of Empires Board Game Published: The long awaited board game, based on Age of Empires III, has been published and is in game stores now. The early reviews on are very encouraging and the game is currently rated very high. We will have to see how the rating holds up as more people play it and voice their opinions. Ensemble Studios ordered a copy for everyone who works here, so I expect some feedback from our own people soon. Check out reviews and other information about the game here.

    Video Games Addiction Revisited: A policy group within the American Medical Association (AMA) recently proposed that video game addiction be listed as a disorder in a mental health manual to be published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 20012. But addiction experts within the AMA strongly opposed the idea. The Entertainment Software Association aligned itself with the APA position that “this so-called video game addiction is not a mental disorder,” although the APA said it would consider the proposal if the science warrants it. Of special concern are the online role-playing games that are particularly immersive and compelling. Until some definitive evidence backs up the AMA concerns I continue to believe that games themselves are not the problem, but too much playing may be evidence of other issues the individual needs to deal with.
    At Ensemble Studios we recruit passionate gamers when we can, but we also want reasonably well-rounded people who can fit it. We have a large WoW interest group for sure, and many Xbox Live accounts, but also groups that together go skiing, hunting, and bar-hopping. There is a morning basketball group, a flag-football group, and golf outings are popular. I believe we include people who played inter-collegiate lacrosse, basketball, and football. We have comic book fans, film buffs, and musicians. One of our guys is an accomplished woodworker and makes his own furniture. Most of our people are married and many are raising families.

    You need balance in your life like a game needs to be balanced.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, June 29, 2007 4:06 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Board Game, Asian Dynasties, Video Games Addiction, NOVA, President, PBS, Mexico

    Y Pack Testing and Random Map Contest


    Y Pack Testing: Brian Lemon recently organized a large playtest of Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties in our offices and he seemed very pleased with the response and feedback. The test was intended to get people from our other projects involved, most of who had worked on Age of Empires III itself and even earlier games. These included several of the Age of Empires III scenario designers.

    The overall opinion of longtime Age veterans seemed to be that while the expansion pack has a way to go it is in a good state and is moving in a good direction. We continue to feel very confident of the choice of Big Huge Games to develop this project for us.

    There is a lot of new content and features in the Asian Dynasties. It feels like a very new experience to me because there are a number of new things for me to understand and use effectively, in both the economic and military areas.

    Random Map Contest – The Dakotas: We have announced the first random map contest for Age of Empires III: The Warchiefs. Our internal panel of judges will choose the submitted map that best fits the theme “The Dakotas” while providing a good balanced setting for both single and multiplayer games. The key point here is that we are looking for a map, not a scenario. The winning map may end up in a future patch of the game and the designer may get to name a building used on the map (after himself/herself or ?). Check out the details on our Age of Empires III community site here.

    Age of Empires III Banned Accounts: We had a flurry of cheating at the end of the quarter as a few people tried to boost their ladder ratings by point trading (starting lots of games with the same partner and taking turns quitting right away to give victories to each other). We won’t accept that and when we can identify players abusing the system they suffer the consequences. Our own staff is watching this and a number of people in the community who hate seeing it are reporting it to us also.

    I find this cheating in online gaming very disappointing. If you are playing games online you probably live in an advanced nation, you have access to the latest technology, and you probably have an excellent education. Your position in life is envied by half the people on Earth or more. But seeing your name at the top of a gaming ladder is so important to you that you are compelled to find ways to cheat. Where’s the winning in that?

    Ensemble Studios After Hours: When not working on games at work, a lot of our people are playing games. I hope this isn’t a shock. Recently we had a flurry of emails to our non-work email alias about skins for Forza2 cars. Here is a sample that Artist Dion Hopkins says took him several hours to create.

    How to Get into the Game Industry: If you are in this industry you get asked on occasion by those who are not in, how to get in. For those of us who have struggled with a good answer to the questions, help has arrived, sort of, in the form of some videos by Paul Barnett, Creative Director of EA Mythic. He has some general advice and then more specific advice for each main craft (programming, art, design). I watched the design video and agreed with some of the stuff he had to say. It was amusing at times, but it falls really short of actually offering good advice about how to get into the industry.

    Ensemble Studios Artist Paul Jaquays, who is involved with the SMU Guildhall graduate program in game development, had this comment about the videos: “The specific skill discipline videos descend into a mix of valuable insight liberally seasoned with pure crap for the sake of humor.” That was my impression of the design video, as well.

    The path into the industry is pretty clear if you have excellent graphics or programming skills. You check out studio web pages showing jobs open and apply where you think you would fit and want to be. If your skills are good you will find a job.
    Getting into design is something else again for someone with no professional experience. Our designers with no previous experience got started by demonstrating skill in making scenarios, by being superior players and starting as balance testers, or by being able to demonstrate a passion for games, knowledge about what makes them work, and other important skills (communication, writing, leadership). It is also possible for people who start in another craft (programming or art especially) to move into design once they demonstrate an ability there.

    The curious can check out the videos here:

    New Office Planning: If we get multiple projects into full production our studio may have to grow beyond our current office space limits. Trying to plan ahead for that possibility, Studio Head Tony Goodman recently polled the company about what they would like to see incorporated into a new space. That triggered a flood of helpful and amusing responses (weight room, child care, pet care, Space Invader carpets, etc.). Programmer John Evanson summed up where he thought the plan was going with this graphic.

    Online Virtual World Embassy: In one of the latest “firsts” for gaming, the Reuters News Service reported recently that Sweden opened an online embassy inside the virtual world of Second Life. The opening was attended online by Sweden’s foreign minister in the form of an avatar, while being announced at a press conference in Stockholm. The embassy was created to promote Sweden’s image and culture, and includes an art exhibit and a room dedicated to diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who helped save thousands of Jews during World War II. I wonder if this is the start of many such “embassies” in virtual games that promote all kinds of products and services.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, June 15, 2007 1:34 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Random Map Contest, After Hours, New Office, Y Pack, Banned Accounts

    Warchief’s Treaty Games, The Asian Dynasties, and Game Design Methods


    Warchief’s Treaty Games: The innovation of the Treaty Game, in which players are unable to attack each other for a set period of time, seems to be working very well. Players wanted to be free from early rushes and we forced that in the Treaty Game. We hear from our community team that over 10% of Warchiefs games use this mode. The only complaints we get now about rushing come from people playing the original Age of Empires III (Age 3 Vanilla) who can’t get other players to play correctly under agreed conventions like No Rush, No Blockade, No Towers, and Half Map. We are hoping that these irritations will subside when we publish custom multiplayer scenarios because the desired rule set can be hard coded into the scenario and prevent people cheating on their agreements.


    Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties: This project keeps moving forward. Big Huge delivered a major milestone recently and testing is going on to confirm that what is supposed to be in and working is so. We are very actively involved in this project and want to be sure that it is a worthy addition to the series in every way. There is a constant flow of email back and forth between our studios and test teams, and occasional visits one way or the other.


    Our test group played some head-on-head games with the testers at Big Huge and our guys won these first matches handily. Our team is very strong and has a lot more experience with the series. It was bolstered recently with the addition of Donnie Thompson, a world class player, who has supplanted Zeke Marks as our best (at least temporarily J).


    Age of Empires Heaven Turns 10: Our friends at this site are celebrating the tenth anniversary of their launch by Mike “Archangel” McCart. Mike told us later that he had been working on a Civilization site but was looking around for something new when he spotted some screenshots from Age of Empires I and took the plunge. We were so impressed with AoE Heaven that we hired Mike to be our community relations representative, which he did very well for many years. Now Graham Somers does a lot of that work for us and he too is an AoE Heaven veteran.


    There are now many, many sites around the world devoted to the Age series, but AoE Heaven remains one of the best. We continue to work with them and greatly appreciate all they do for us and fans of the series.


    First RTS Game?: A conversation with Bill Jackson, one of our Assistant Producers, drifted to the topic of ground breaking games and he brought up an old favorite of his, Herzog Zwei, which he had heard was being called the first true real-time strategy game. He later sent me a Wikipedia link on RTS games that seems to back-up his position. Herzog Zwei (means Duke 2 in German) was a Sega Genesis game released in 1990. It’s very interesting to learn that a console game may have been the progenitor of a genre that found its greatest success on the PC. Now that RTS games are returning to consoles, including our own forthcoming Halo Wars, the circle is being completed.


    Ian Fischer, Lead Designer on both Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology disagrees with this position, asserting instead that the Ancient Art of War is the first true RTS.


    Check out what 1UP has to say about Herzog Zwei in their list of 50 essential games here:


    Shadowrun- Technology Changes: I have mentioned previously the rapid technology changes in our industry that create both challenges and headaches for developers and fans. Now here comes Shadowrun developed and published by our parent company, which for the first time allows players on both PCs and Xbox 360s to play together online. We don’t know how compelling this connectivity is going to be in this first iteration and we don’t know at this point how great a game Shadowrun is in its own right. But the technology of our industry shifts slightly once more with this capability and we expect to see more games support this functionality, especially those published by Microsoft, probably, because the company wants to increase the value to customers of Xbox Live. Congrats to our friends at FASA and Panorama for pulling this off.


    Game Design Methods: Over most of my experience in this industry I have seen two principal methods for designing games. The most common was sort of an engineering problem where everything was planned and specified early on, and then it all came together near the end to be published. I respected this method for its organization but I felt it was almost a matter of luck if a good game resulted.


    The method I learned first in board gaming and later at Microprose was the iterative method, or design by playing, where a game would be prototyped as quickly as possible and then the design would be shaped by testing and revising until our instincts told us it was fun. I have a lot of confidence in this method, which has been used for all of Ensemble Studios’ games. I believe it is the way Blizzard makes their games also.


    Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo employs a third method in which he tries to create new experiences that are fun. I see this as an organic method that starts small and grows a game. He mentioned this recently in an interview with Geoff Keighley of Gamehead. He commented that he thought he could design a game like Halo but chooses not too. He said he never looks for what people want so that he can make that game for them. His method of creating experiences, moving a character and interacting with a world, has similarities with design by playing.


    Considering these three methods, the degree of planning is highest in the first and decreases going toward the third. Probably budget and milestone constraints are highest and decline in the same order. It would be tempting to say that fun and entertainment probably increase going from one to three, but that would depend on who is actually doing the work (studio and lead designer). We certainly consider what gamers want and try to give it to them, and I would suggest that others like Blizzard do also.


    My take is that our method, design by playing, is a reasonable compromise. We want to create games that are fun and successful within a limited development time and budgets. And maybe there are only a few Shigeru Miyamoto’s out there who have the ability and support to take their time creating experiences that are fun.


    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Friday, June 01, 2007 6:47 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Age of Empires III, The Asian Dynasties, Treaty Games, Age of Empires Heaven, Warchief’s

    Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties


    New “Age of Empires III” Expansion Pack- “The Asian Dynasties”: A second expansion pack to “Age of Empires III” has been in the works for many months now and was announced just recently. This “Y” pack (as opposed to an “X” for eXpansion pack) is being developed by Big Huge Games of Timonium, Maryland, the developers of “Rise of Nations” and “Rise of Legends”. It will add several Asian civilizations and takes its name from that setting. More details on what is included will be forthcoming over the next several months. I will say that one of the civilizations being considered for inclusion might be a surprise.

    We decided to go ahead with a Y pack for several reasons. First, we think there is a business case for it. “Age of Empires III” and “Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs” (the first expansion pack) continue to sell well and we expect another expansion will sell and be profitable also. Second, we believe “Age” fans will be ready soon for some meaty new content since “The WarChiefs” is already eight months past release. Third, we believe that releasing more content increases the value to our customers of the entire brand and helps all the components sell. We anticipate it will be a win for everyone. We had considered a second expansion pack for “Age of Empires II” many years ago but felt constrained by our resources at the time and wanted to devote them instead to “Age of Mythology.”

    Why Big Huge Games: We have had a good relationship with our friends at Big Huge Games since they popped onto the scene. Microsoft has published all of their games to date, as well as all of ours, and several of us were colleagues together at Microprose in the early 1990’s. They have been avid “Age” players for many years and the “Age” series was part of the inspiration for their first game, “Rise of Nations.” They have demonstrated repeatedly that they are top-flight developers of high-quality real-time strategy games based on historical themes.

    It was a major decision for Ensemble to give the go ahead for someone else to create an official “Age of Empires” game but we are very confident that Big Huge Games is going to deliver. We have gone through many reviews of the project as it has moved forward and no hurdles have impeded it for long.

    “The Asian Dynasties” expansion is being co-managed by Microsoft Game Studios Publishing and Ensemble Studios. A number of Ensemble staff members are contributing to the project, led by Brian Lemon acting as the external producer. There is a lot of work involved in syncing up the art styles, programming, and game play. We want the Y pack to be a worthy addition to the “Age” series and will remain very actively involved to help reach our shared goals.

    “The Asian Dynasties” Status: The game is in regular multiplayer testing now. Many of our in-house expert testers play the game daily, and are working on gameplay and balance issues. Everyone at Ensemble has been invited and encouraged to play it as well. It is still rough in terms of balance and we are at the stage where we uncover big screws frequently in both combat and the economies. Content has a long way to go (parts missing). Overall, however, it is clearly an “Age” game and the design by playing process, which Big Huge Games also endorses, should get it to a good place.

    Patch Update: Interest in the next patch is huge thanks to the coming of multiplayer scenarios. We want to get that capability into player hands as soon as we can. Because the next patch is to be Windows Vista compliant and sync up with the coming new expansion pack it has to go through extra test regimes, not just our normal gameplay, hardware, and balance testing. We are working diligently on the patch and will have it to you when it works as you and we expect it to. This patch is an extra big effort.

    “Age of Empires III” Board Game Published: The board game should be on store shelves on May 11 or soon thereafter. Look for it in hobby game stores. It should also be available online from these sources:,, and We had several goals for authorizing an official board game. A high quality game based on our PC game would be an excellent way to extend our brand. We have a lot of board game players at Ensemble Studios and we wanted to see a game created that would appeal to them. We thought it would be a cool thing for everyone who works here. An excellent board game sitting on store shelves and being talked about by gamers would assist in spreading awareness of the entire “Age” series.

    “Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery” is designed in the “Euro” style with an emphasis on the play rather than the rules. The components are top-notch. We were involved in testing it from almost the start and we think it will be a great addition to the “Age” family. We look forward to seeing reviews and hearing what people think of it.

    Four Million Pre-Orders for “Halo 3”?: This amazing number of pre-ordered games has been reported on the site Xbox Evolved, based on conversations with game retailer Gamespot. In comparison, pre-orders for “Halo 2” are reported to have been 1.5 million. Since the game is still months from launch, the number is likely to grow. We hope all of those “Halo 3” players will be interested in trying “Halo Wars” also.

    Bruce Shelley


    Posted Thursday, May 24, 2007 12:39 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Age III, Warchiefs, Patch, Age of Empires, Halo 3, Asian Dynasties

    Official Halo 3 Web Launches


    Official Halo 3 Web Launches: Great to see this long awaited site up. We should have news of interest about Halo Wars soon also.

    ESO Accounts: Our community team reports that we recently went over the 500,000 mark in ESO accounts created. That seems like a big number to me. I remember when we were hoping to sell that many copies of Age of Empires I. Our community team tells that we also are nearing 16 million Age III games played online and more than 1.6 million WarChiefs games played. That is a lot of entertainment created without counting the solitaire games played.

    Games Outside Work: X-Box Live Arcade (XBLA) games are very popular with us and there was a lot of favorable comment recently following the news that Puzzle Quest from the DS was coming to the Arcade. In the words of one of our guys (who shall remain nameless), “my wife is level 31 or 32 in this game and has not done the dishes or fed our children in two weeks. But I love it!” Other people are looking forward to the Settlers of Catan on XBLA. That is one of the all-time favorite board games at ES.

    PS3 Has Lost This Round?: A recent article on asserted that SONY has already lost this round of the console wars (to Ninendo’s Wii) and that Ken Kutaragi, the driving force behind their twelve year run atop the console game industry, was leaving the company on a sour note. The writer seemed to base his assertion on the relative sales of the major consoles in Japan only and extrapolated that to the world market.

    I don’t believe that success or failure in Japan will determine necessarily who will win or lose in this competitive business. And I think making the call a little over one year into the current cycle is probably premature. The current console cycle has years yet to go and counting SONY out this early seems very aggressive. The independent game publishers are happiest when all the platforms are competitive so they can sell the products on each. They don’t want to see one manufacturer in the driver’s seat.
    However, if Microsoft is going to continue pushing the technology side of this business and bring a new X box out in a couple of years, the pressure on the PS3 might be heavy.

    WoW Visa Card: You know games are going mainstream when one offers its own Visa card that accrues points toward monthly fees every time you use it. Our people wanted to accrue WoW gold instead of credit toward their fees.

    Playing Shooters for Real Money?: ES’r Chris Van Dorn noticed recently that developer Valve is working with a group called to establish an official Counter-Strike/Half Life 2 multiplayer game competition service. Basically players ante up a small amount for each game and the winner takes the pot. You win $1 for a kill and lose $1 for being killed. When you are out of money you are out of the game. The set up now is for small stakes (six players with a total $18 pot), but if takes off and tests out okay, high stakes games could be coming.

    But John Evanson pointed out some potential problems with this model. First person shooters (FPS) have a lot of possible client-side hacks. If people use them when playing for free then they will obviously try them when playing for money. Also, to continue playing for money people have to think they have a chance to win. It helps for a game to have a luck element. In a FPS game it is possible that really highly skilled people would drive out the average players without some way to fairly balance player skill. Every competitive online game is already wrestling with that problem, without having money involved.
    People have been monetizing their skills as game players now for some time. There have been professional Starcraft players in Korea for years, playing on sponsored teams in leagues.

    There are more cash tournaments each year and a few top players earn a good living. There are the people farming gold for MMOs. We have recruited top Age players to work with us, as have other studios. But this new model reaches out to players who are not at the highest skill levels and is accessible to anyone with a broadband connection. It will be interesting to see if it becomes popular and spreads to other genres besides first person shooters and to other platforms beyond the PC.

    Ensemble Studios Acquisition Anniversary: This past week marks the sixth anniversary of our acquisition by Microsoft. Our studio has probably doubled in size since that event but for those of us who were here then it was, and remains, a good thing. And with the sales of our games approaching 20 million units worldwide I am pretty sure our colleagues in Redmond feel the same way.

    Vista Games to Blow Console Games Away?: Fox News reported recently that forthcoming Vista platform games supporting DirectX 10 will have graphics far superior to current generation consoles and thus have a competitive advantage. I am not getting too excited about this idea. There is no doubt that PC technology improves rapidly and continually, while console technology is mainly a snapshot of the best current technology around the console launch. But console games have other advantages, particularly tray & play, which give them a huge advantage with casual gamers. High end graphics are critical mainly to first adopters and really hard core gamers, and there aren’t enough of those people who have to have the latest technology right now to outspend the average gamers buying consoles for their family rooms.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Monday, May 07, 2007 3:28 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Vista Games, WoW Visa Card, ESO Accounts, PS3,, Anniversary, Halo 3

    Scenarios Coming Soon


    Scenarios Coming Soon: The next patches for both Age III and The WarChiefs will include support for custom designed scenarios for multiplayer games. This should open the door for lots of new content from fans around the world and bring a new dimension to really competitive play. A tournament, for example, might be played on a series of custom designed maps released ahead of time. Players taking part would have a chance to practice on the tournament maps prior to the competition.

    We stand behind our randomly generated maps as a great feature in most situations. But for really top competition a custom designed may be superior because it can be designed to be supremely fair for placement of resources and terrain and player position. Fairness is a higher priority than how good a map looks for high level competitions. Age III becomes something like a chess match. This feature has been on our wish list for a while and we’re very excited to be able to make it happen.

    Strategic Objectives Challenge Concluded: Moshe Levi reports that the single player scenario contest he designed for Age of Empires Heaven Games went very well and he has hopes of doing more. He forwarded to us many positive comments from players who took part. Several mentioned looking ahead to the day when they can play a similar contest online in multi-player.

    Halo Wars Trailer Day: The Halo Wars team regularly hosts events to show off where their project is or refresh our understanding of the Halo universe. Last week our Halo Wars team hosted a showing of all the cut scenes from Halo 1 and Halo II for the whole company. Material like this keeps the story and characters fresh, and is a good introduction for new employees.

    Top 25 Video Game Cinematic Moments: Having just watched the Halo series cut scenes, it was cool to see this list published by Gamespy and find our Halo Wars trailer at #25. There are at least four Halo related trailers in the list of 25.

    Halo Fan Movie: Check out this fan movie put together using clips from a variety of Halo trailers and other film parts. There is some borrowing of ideas from The Matrix, but for a home made film it is pretty remarkable. There is certainly a lot of energy here.

    Halo Wars Testing Update: Assistant Producer Karen Swanson announced that next week there will be open company playtests for Halo Wars. Most testing now is done within the team only, although when a seat is available anyone is welcome to join. These new sessions are intended to get a much broader involvement from people not working closely with the game already. We will be testing multiplayer only but eventually there will be other types of testing also.

    Curt Shilling Seeking $48M for Game Company: A website devoted to news about private equity (venture capitalists and non-publicly traded investment companies) reported recently that Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Shilling and his new game company, 38 Studios, have been pitching private equity groups trying to raise $48 million. The new studio is planning to develop online multiplayer games based initially on storylines from author R.A. Salvatore and visuals from comic book creator Todd MacFarlane. There is no word on topic or era, but Curt had a strong interest in the tactical World War II game Advanced Squad Leader at one time. We also hear he is a huge Everquest fan.

    The article noted the unusually large amount of money being sought up front (the first round). Apparently new companies raise single-digit to very low double-digit millions in the first round, and then come back for more once they have something underway. One example give was RealTime Worlds that was launched with $3 million in 2004 and later obtained $31 million more in a second round.

    We’re interested in how this works out. If we were venture capitalists we would be more inclined to support a WoW-like model (casual and hard core gaming) rather than the EQ model (more for hard core gamers only). The difference is 8 million customers versus 200 thousand, or close to that.

    Native American Exhibit at the Field Museum: I recently toured a major new exhibit on Native American cultures at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. If you live in the Chicago area, or plan to visit anytime soon, I recommend the exhibit strongly. It concentrates mainly on a selection of pre-Columbian cultures, including those that are best known (Aztecs, Maya, Inca) and others less well known (Cahokia, Hopewell, Mississipian).

    There are many impressive scale models of ancient cities that make it very easy to grasp the magnificence and technological advancement of their architecture. There is also a wealth of amazing artifacts, including very early Clovis spear points of the big game hunters, mundane stone choppers and grinders, beautiful stone pipes, jade amulets, pottery, textiles, religious items, copper ceremonial items, and incredibly intricate gold castings. Exhibits go into detail on how people in different parts of the Americas lived and how they adapted over time (hunters gradually became farmers; seacoast people learned to hunt whales and large fish).

    It was interesting to consider what we borrowed from this period to make Age III and how much we skipped over in the interest of making an entertaining and successful game. The places and people we touch on in our game were real. The exhibit brought home why basing strategy games on historic periods can be a big differentiator, and often an advantage for creating broad appeal, over sci-fi or fantasy.

    ES Work Life- Starbucks In: A big Starbucks coffee machine has been installed in one of our break areas to wide acclaim. The share price of SBUX was up only $.03, which probably doesn’t represent the long term effects of the installation on their company profits.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Monday, April 23, 2007 6:02 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Multiplayer Scenarios, Testing, Native American Art, HaloWars, Movie, Curt Shilling

    Play Age of Empires – Study History in College


    Play Age of Empires – Study History in College: We got an inquiry recently from a college student majoring in history who is writing a paper on how and why history was used in RTS games over the last two decades. He tells us that he believes playing Age I and Age II is what got him interested in history as a field of study. I have said many times that we are in the entertainment business, not the history business, but we do believe that our history based games could be a good introduction to the eras we have portrayed. This fellow seems to be proof of that.

    The Relative Success of the Age Series: One of the questions our history major asked was why did we think that our games sold so well in comparison to other RTS games in general and historical ones in particular. I don’t think there is a clear or obvious answer to that question but there probably several factors at work. Here are some we think are important.

    • We were the first to really do a historical RTS and we did a good job with that first game (at the time everyone else was doing fantasy or Sci-Fi RTS).
    • Our games look beautiful; the sun always shines in an Age game and that helps make the worlds inviting.

    • We provide a lot of different gaming experiences inside the same box (single player campaigns, skirmish games, multi-player, randomly generated maps, different map themes, levels of difficulty, different play modes). Players of different skills and tastes can all find a satisfying game to play.
    • Our games are polished; they are well-balanced and run with little technical difficulty.
    • We provide a huge amount of content and value for the price.
    • Microsoft has been our publisher (but that did not guarantee success for all games in their portfolio over the years).

    Age III Board Game Coming Soon: We recently got a chance to review the box art for the game, which is a close replica of our software cover. We also got a look at the cool plastic pieces, the colorful map, and other components. Everything looks to be of very good quality. We believe most of the business-side hurdles have been overcome now and the game should be on store shelves in May.
    A number of ES’ers were involved in testing and giving feedback on this game. We think it came out very well and look forward to trying the published version shortly.

    Best New Studio: Congrats to Brian Sullivan and Jeff Goodsill, colleagues at ES for many years, on their start-up studio, Iron Lore Entertainment, being selected Best New Studio in the 7th Annual Developer’s Choice Awards. Brian was one of the earliest employees at ES and was credited with co-design on Age of Empires 1. He and longtime friend Paul Chieffo founded Iron Lore, investing their own money in their dream. Their first game, Titan Quest, got great reviews and is considered the best of the many games that attempted to follow in the footsteps of Diablo. Their expansion pack to Titan Quest just got a very positive review in Games for Windows magazine. It’s great to see good guys (and old friends) win and get recognized.

    Mark Rosewater on Creativity: A link to an interesting paper on creativity by the designer behind Magic the Gathering was passed around this week by Rob Fermier. The paper discusses what creativity is and how one can become better at it. A creative person has the ability to generate and act upon new ideas with regularity. Creativity flows from seeing connections between things that others do not. Mark lists five attributes in people that lead to creativity and then also a list of 10 things to do that will improve your creativity. He has obviously given this a lot of thought and the paper is well worth reading.
    When I consider the design staff at ES I see a lot of the attributes in my colleagues. Our brainstorming sessions are very lively and productive. We recently had a thread going for coming up with ideas for games on an entirely new kind of platform. We quickly generated a lot of ideas that I would consider creative. The 10 things that Mark lists for improving creativity (play games, do puzzles, read talk to others, etc.) I see going on every day in our teams.
    I have written before that I see our industry gradually establishing a foundation of learning and science upon which we are building the art of our craft. I see this paper as more bricks in that foundation. Check it out here.

    Resignation at Atari: Word has reached us that Bruno Bonnell has resigned as chairman and chief executive of Infogrames Entertainment and all of its subsidiaries. He was the founder of Infogrames almost 24 years ago and until his resignation was the chairman, director, acting chief financial officer, and chief creative officer at Atari.

    My first introduction to Infogrames was back in the 1980s when I was just getting into the computer game industry. I tried several Infogrames games on the Atari-ST (as I recall). They were beautiful for the time (PC games had four colors), but they seemed to come up short in fun (especially compared to games from Microprose at the time, like Pirates! and Silent Service).

    At the Australian GDC several years ago I took part in a panel discussion that included Bruno and I was a little taken back by the philosophy he espoused. Basically he said that he preferred to make a lot of inexpensive “B” quality games and hope that enough of them would turn out great and carry the rest. That was completely different from the philosophy at ES where we set out to make games of the highest quality. When I look at the really successful studios and publishers, I believe they too push for quality.

    I don’t know the details of the problems that Infogrames/Atari are having but I believe that setting out to deliberately cut costs by publishing lesser quality games, at least for a period, had to cause some of them.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Monday, April 09, 2007 6:42 PM | (Comments Off)

    Office Reorganization


    Office Reorganization: Last week over 50 people in our studio changed offices. This happens periodically at the start and end of major projects when people move to something new. In this case we were just getting our teams together and looking ahead for when those teams might be growing. Each project now has pretty much its own floor in our building with space available for growth.
    We try to make these moves as painless as possible and hire professionals to help us get it done in one day. The most harried people are in our IT department; they have to make sure all the machines are set up properly, with Internet and Intranet connections, and all phones are working. We probably average about 4 PCs per employee. We hope this is the last of these reshufflings for a while.

    Buzzed by a B-17: I was sitting in my office looking out over the expressway below when suddenly a real B-17 bomber flew by my window heading north. Then another bomber went by on the same heading. I thought it was a B-24 but Ian Fischer tells us it was a B-25. Harter Ryan confirmed a B-24 did go by later. (There is an air show in town and you can pay for rides on these planes). For the history buffs in our group this was cool.
    I began to think immediately of two personal experiences. The first was the research I did on the 8th Air Force years ago when I prepared a board game about B-17s for publication. Secondly, around that time I got to climb on board a real B-17 at an air show. I was amazed at how small it seemed compared to planes of today. The fuselage was very narrow and cramped. I thought the whole aircraft could sit on the wing of modern passenger jet. I gained a deep respect for the very young men of my parent’s generation who served in those planes.

    The 100 Best Hobby Games: ES colleague Sandy Petersen and I both participated in the creation of a book discussing the best hobby games of recent time. Mostly board, paper, and card games were considered for inclusion, not electronic games. We both were assigned one game to write about from a list that we helped compile. We couldn’t write about a game that we had been involved with personally in design or publication. We have been asked not to reveal at this point which game we wrote about. The book is titled Hobby Games: The 100 Best and is being published by Green Ronin Press of Seattle. The editor in charge is James Lowder and the book is targeted for release at Gen Con 2007.

    Hockey and Age of Empires: An interview with Craig Conroy of the Calgary Flames brought up teammate Jarome Iginla, who is into computer games, especially the Age series. A few years ago we invited several of the Flames to our office for a visit when they were in town for a game with the Dallas Stars. We recall that Jarome wiped the floor with all of us in the Conquerors. The interview is here:

    Designer Lunch: The designers at ES get together for lunch usually each week. Work is discussed but it is also a chance for people on different teams to meet semi-socially and discuss stuff outside of work, including games we did not make. What is good and not so good about new games is a popular topic. Last week’s meeting took us to a different part of town so the group could look at new office space the studio is considering. Our long term plans call for multiple teams and growth related to that. Our current space won’t hold us if we are able to deliver. The discussion at my end of the table ranged from NCAA basketball to the paper on game design I mentioned last time to whether you put your console in the family room (yes if you have children) or the office with your PC.

    Raise $150M- Make 60-100 Games in Five Years: No problem. A news item that caught our eye reported that the executive producer of the film 300 was partnering with a entrepreneur to launch a new game studio. They are apparently looking to raise $150M and already have 20 people at work in Atlanta. The games are to be based on big brands from film, literature, and other media. Our first thought was this was another misguided attempt by the Hollywood types to double down on their intellectual property by cranking out hit games. This gets tried fairly regularly but rarely with success. If a blockbuster game today takes $20M to make with 30-50 great people over 2-3 years, we don’t get the math. But colleague Rob Fermier pointed out that you could probably push one casual game onto seven platforms (DS, PSP, 360, PS3, PS2, PC, Wii). So creating 60-100 games in five years would really require 10-15 original moderately sized games over the period, or 2-3 each year. And that is within the range of what some studios can do, especially if they are able to effectively use outsourcing, as they plan to do.

    What ES is Playing This Week: Of course it is Halo Wars every day and some Warchiefs as we keep an eye on balance. But after work or at lunch there are other options.

    The newest game being discussed is God of War II; the consensus is that it is excellent. People are amazed at how good it looks on the PS2. WoW’s Burning Crusade is generating a lot of mail regarding how it plays and the new stuff. Our WoW email alias usually has a weekly report on a new instance experience. One of the board game groups is looking to try Ticket to Ride or Metro this week. At lunch there are usually several WoW card game battles going on.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Tuesday, March 27, 2007 7:10 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Playing, outsourcing, Hockey, Hoby Games, B-17, Age of Empires, 300

    WarChiefs Competitions


    Age III and Warchiefs Patches: Patch 1.11 for Age III and patch 1.03 for the Warchiefs have both been released. The big feature is the new Ozarks map that I mentioned previously. Other changes are mostly behind the scene bug and exploit fixes and several balance changes for the hard core gamers. Balance changes are based on the advice and experience of Kevin Holme and Donnie Thompson. Donnie is new to our balance team. He was a participant in our Warrior’s Path tournament and test group last year. He is an expert player and a welcome addition.

    Freeze Hacking: One of the behind the scene fixes in the patch stops a cheat that exploited playing in Windows mode, an exploit known as freeze hacking (although no hacking of a player’s computer is actually taking place). If a player in Windows mode paused a game, the other players had no recourse if the pausing player would not restart. This would force everyone else to quit eventually, thereby preventing the addition of a loss to the pausing player’s record. Programmer Michael Capps has inserted new code in the patch that opens the drop screen when a game in Windows mode is paused too long or repeatedly. This allows the other players to drop the offending player from the game. That player is given a loss as soon as he or she is dropped in this manner.

    Age III Cheaters Beware: Cheats like the one mentioned above are a fact of life that every developer in the online gaming space has to deal with. The freeze hacking exploit was not the only one that was fixed in the patch. There are other hacks and cheats out there that we are working on and watching being used. Accounts that are using cheats and hacks will be banned. If being banned is going to spoil your gaming, we recommend you cut out using any hack or cheat. Play fairly. There probably won’t be any warning before bans are implemented.

    Strategic Objective Challenge and Give Away: At the Age of Empires III Heaven site Moshe Levi has presented a contest based on new solitaire scenarios for both Age III and The Warchiefs. Prizes will be awarded for best scores at both Normal and Hard difficulties. Ensemble Studios has contributed some of the prizes. A new feature for the scenarios is being able to capture AI buildings and receiving economic or military bonuses for doing so. Players will also be able to build Fixed Guns anywhere on the map.

    The scenarios are based on the Russo-Turkish Wars (Imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire went to war nearly a dozen times from the 1600′s to World War I). Moshe has provided links to historical information on the conflicts.

    This is a great alternative contest for players still a little uncomfortable with the pressure of multi-player gaming. Check out the details and prize list at the Heaven site here: Strategic Objectives Challenge

    Age III in the World Cyber Games: Word reached us last week that the Warchiefs expansion will be an event in the 2007 WCG. We owe some thanks to our colleagues in the Games for Windows group for helping to make this happen. Real-time strategy games have been popular in the Games since they started. It is great to have one of ours be a competition again.

    I remember attending several of the early WCGs in Seoul, usually as a speaker at the game development conferences they held in conjunction with the Games. Age II was a competition in the original games, as I recall. One year I joined several game developers for a lunch with Korean businessmen sponsoring the games, including the chairman of Samsung.

    ES Work Life- Skiing, Biking, “300″: A couple of things going on at ES recently reflect the spirit of getting people away from their work stations on occasion and having balanced lives. A small contingent of ES’ers went skiing up at Whistler in British Columbia and shared some humorous photos of their trip on our internal site. A new thread on our internal non-work related email alias discussed good places for trail biking. The studio sponsored a field trip to catch the opening day of the film 300, which portrays an event that was actually incorporated into an Age of Empires I scenario.

    Congrats to Grunt: Byeong Geon Kang, better known to RTS players as Grunt, won the Rise of the Ultimate Champion/Rise of Legends tournament in early March. First prize was $40,000. This is the same fellow who won our Age II tournament last year. He has to be the early favorite for the WCG Warchiefs competition.

    Age III Version for Phones: At GDC last week Glu Mobile, a leading global publisher of mobile games, announced an agreement with Microsoft to publish a mobile adaptation of Age III. It is obviously too early to know how the game will play. It is scheduled to appear in 2008. Glu launched a mobile version of Project Gotham Racing earlier this year.

    A Recommended Presentation from GDC: Designer/programmer Dave Pottinger passed around the link to a GDC presentation by Clint Hocking of UbiSoft. Dave said he thought it was one of the best game oriented presentations he had ever seen. If you think you might want to get into game development someday, or if you want to delve a little bit into the philosophy behind game making, check it out.

    The presentation made me think about game making in new ways (the player as an explorer). I was interested to see Clint credit other books and thinkers. Game development is still a relatively young art, but the foundation of research and thinking continues to expand. I hope to check out the books he mentions soon.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Tuesday, March 20, 2007 4:03 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Work Life, Warchiefs, GDC, Patch

    Warchiefs Patch Coming


    Warchiefs Patch Coming: We are working diligently on a new patch and perhaps by the time you read this there will be details about it published on our community site. I don’t want to speculate on a release date or content, other than the new Ozarks map I mentioned recently. The patch is being tested daily and moving along well.

    Warchiefs Contributers Win IGF Award: Several graduates from the game development program at Southern Methodist University’s Guildhall recently shared an award from the GDC’s Independent Games Festival. The students created the Weekday Warrior mod using the Half-Life 2 engine and it was chosen as the best single-player first person shooter modification in this year’s competition. Two members of the group, Phillip Escobedo and Bobby Simpson, helped us out last year finishing up the Warchiefs.
    The Guildhall is one of several new graduate and undergraduate programs teaching aspects of game development at universities. Several ES’ers have been involved with the SMU program here in Dallas, particularly artist Paul Jaquays. Paul’s son Zack is a graduate of the program and also worked temporarily at ES on the Warchiefs.

    The Weekly Standard on Civilization: I was recently sent a copy of the magazine The Weekly Standard (February 26, 2006 issue) that featured a cover story on the classic computer game Civilization. The author had interviewed me, along with many others, for the article, which is an interesting look at the game, its effects on players, and the mind of designer Sid Meier. I also received recently from Firaxis Software a copy of their boxed edition of the entire Civilization series, The Civilization Chronicles. Again, I had provided some anecdotes from the development of the first edition for their history of the series.
    I think it is great that this particular game has touched so many lives. It is a fine example of the promise of good games, which can do much more than just entertain. At ES we are proud of the Age series for the same reasons.

    Gaming Lives in the Twenty-First Century: This is the title of a new book by James Paul Gee to be published next week. The blurbs say the author explores the relationship between gaming environments and literacy development through case studies of computer gamers today. One of his goals is to examine the claim that computer games can provide better literacy and learning environments than U. S. schools. If you have read recently, like me, that standardized test scores of U. S. students have declined over the past decade while grades have gone up you may have a bias already on Gee’s question.
    Mr. Gee is an academic and published several years ago the book “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.” Whether you find his work interesting or not, it is a sign of the growing importance and maturity of games that they are being subjected to serious academic study.

    Serious Games: The idea of using games for a variety of non-entertainment purposes is a relatively new area of game development called Serious Games. I was a speaker at one of the first Serious Game Summits (SSG) several years ago in Washington DC. That whole event took place in one day in one relatively small conference room with a single track of speakers. Almost all the attendees that I met were from departments of the U. S. government interested in how games might help them plan or answer policy questions.
    At the recent DICE conference, I ran into Ben Sawyer, one of the people behind the SGS. He told me that the SGS now draws hundreds of people from all parts of the world. There were six tracks and 55 speakers over two days.
    Consider that today’s strategy gaming traces back to board wargaming in the 60’s, and those games trace back to the Prussian General Staff’s 19th century Kriegspiel (wargame), which was a serious game. Now entertainment gaming is fostering serious games to complete the circle.

    Halo Wars Forums: I checked out our forums recently and writers seem quite keen on the game. I count almost 20,000 posts in the General Discussion forum, over 10,000 discussing the Halo universe and its inhabitants, and nearly 10,000 more offering suggestions for the game. The team is jazzed to see this interest and takes the input seriously. Thanks and keep it coming.

    GDC Last Week: The Game Developer’s Conference was last week in San Francisco and there a contingent from ES attended. This is the granddaddy of developer conferences tracing back to small gatherings in the 1970s, I believe. There are tons of speakers and there is stuff to learn. Over 10,000 attendees were expected, many looking for jobs, so it has a quite different feel from the smaller conferences. It is also a big social event with lots of sponsored parties, loud hotel lounges, and lots of press representatives looking for stories. I won’t be there but will be interested in what friends who do go have to say.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Monday, March 12, 2007 6:39 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, Warchiefs, GDC, Serious Games, Civilization, Patch

    Age III Board Game Update and More


    Age III Board Game Update: The game is moving toward publication, though not completely clear yet. We reviewed the manual this week and found a few typos and confusing sections. We should be reviewing the other components soon as well. It is still not known when it will appear in stores, but we think it will be worth the wait.

    Age III Further Reading: The historical research behind our games is generally very basic because we want our games to appeal to a broad audience. (The players should have the fun, not the historical researcher, game designer, computer, etc.) We do delve into more scholarly and detailed resources on occasion for story background, names of country specific units, and technologies. Research can be a very interesting part of making history based games and I particularly enjoy learning much more about a period, even if most of that knowledge ends up having little impact in the game.

    The Age of Discovery is a particularly rich and interesting period that has spurred a vast amount of published literature for general (non-academic) audiences. One of the really profound books in this area is Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond, which presents a compelling explanation for why the Europeans arrived in the New World with so many technological and biological advantages. This book won a Pulitzer Prize and I strongly recommend it.

    I recently read 1491 by Charles C. Mann and recommend it highly also. The author’s thesis is that the native cultures of the Americas just prior to their discovery of Europeans and vice versa were much more populated and advanced than previously believed. Based on the latest research (not all completely accepted), he makes the case that much of the Americas was a much more pleasant place to live than Europe. Here are a few of the many interesting positions the book makes.

    1. The Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact. The rain forest population in 1491 may have been equal to that of today, supported then by very clever forest management (agro-forestry) that turned much of the area into extensive orchards of fruit and nut trees. They had developed techniques for greatly improving the richness of naturally poor soils that are being actively studied now for application around the world. Slash and burn agriculture that is consuming the rain forest today appeared after the European arrival with steel axes that could easily cut down trees.

    2. Attempts by the French to settle the New England coast in the early 1600s were easily rebuffed by a dense coastal population of natives that prevented some crews from even landing to get water. Following a devastating three year epidemic starting around 1616, the local population collapsed. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 the natives were largely gone and the colonists were able to occupy abandoned villages for their first winter.

    3. Between 1492 and 1600, the native population of the Americas may have shrunk by 95% due to the ravages of diseases to which the natives were particularly susceptible. The Black Death plague that struck Europe several centuries earlier and killed 30-40% of the population does not compare. The mass death of natives led to the replacement of native cultures by those from Europe and to the importation of slaves for labor. In India, Africa, and other parts of the world the Europeans could not supplant native cultures, despite their technological superiority, because the native populations were not devastated by disease.

    4. In many other areas besides the Amazon the natives did not live lightly on the pristine and primeval land. They were often very active land managers and converted wide tracks to farmland. In the northeast they regularly burned extensive forests to clear underbrush and encourage plants and animals they favored.

    More Games ES’ers Play: Another game popular with a segment of our staff right now is Zelda: Twilight Princess. I haven’t tried it yet but I’m told it is very, very good and is providing inspiration for a potential future product.
    We also regularly download demo versions of games and place them on our network for people to try. This week the game people are trying is Supreme Commander, from old friend Chris Taylor.

    Art Pipeline Wiki: Chris Van Doren was trained as an artist but has managed much of the technology of art for us for many years now. He keeps track of our art pipelines, which can get very complicated. As art pieces go through various steps (concept, model, animation, revision, etc.) he helps us keep the right version in place. His job gets more complicated each day as we ramp up multiple projects and art technology continues to change. He recently created an internal Art Wikipedia to be a central repository for art information. Our artists can turn to the wiki first for answers to questions, hopefully speeding productivity. As new issues come up and are resolved, useful information is added to the wiki. This is a new initiative so it is early to judge its usefulness, but it sounds like a tool that will be very useful, particularly to newcomers who might need help and to our veterans who won’t be called upon as much for mentoring.

    Violence in Games: One of the top German gaming magazines asked me recently to take part in a discussion about violence in games. Apparently this is big topic in their country where games like Gears of War can only be purchased in adult entertainment shops next to the porn. I am not interested in making or playing games that are over-the-top violent but I understand that violence is a dependable way to add gravitas and drama to a story. I am uncomfortable using legislation to prevent others from making or playing the games they want.
    I believe in personal freedom and in free markets. I think the game ratings system in place now is a reasonable guide. If an M rated game sounds upsetting, don’t buy it or let your children play it. If a particularly violent (or immoral product) is really successful, I think the real question would be why are so many people attracted to this subject matter, not whether the product itself should be banned or not.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Wednesday, February 21, 2007 4:41 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Board Game, Art Pipeline Wiki, Violence in Games, Reading

    Age III Warchiefs New Map- Ozarks


    Age III Warchiefs New Map- Ozarks: Karen McMullan and Nick Currie have created this new map that will be released in a forthcoming patch. It is loosely based on the hilly terrain of the Ozark hills of Missouri and Arkansas. The key features are the hills spread around the map, especially down the middle. A Trade Route (TR) runs across the hills from east to west with the Trading Posts on top. The north and south faces of the hills are impassable cliffs giving access to the hill tops only on their east and west edges.

    The design of the map creates north-south choke points along the TR that cross it where it comes down from the hills at low points between the cliff sides. To move north or south you have to pass through a gap between one of the Trading Post hills. We anticipate that these choke points will be a major focus of critical fighting. If one player can take possession of the entire TR and its posts, that would be a dominant and probably winning position. We can see walls being put up at the choke points to tie in with the cliff sides, creating a “great wall” defensive position across the map. The existence of these choke points will possibly allow a relatively secure build up, but players who sit back and let an opponent take total control of the center and the TR will probably lose.

    Halo Wars Open House: This week the Halo Wars team hosted a late afternoon open house for all of ES to bring everyone up to speed on the game’s current state. It is being tested every day and cool art pieces get sent around for oohing and aahing, but this was a good chance for the rest of our group to see it running on screen and get some hands on time.

    Producer Chris Rippy hosted the event and had it catered with light food and chilled beer. Then we got a chance to play. There were a series of 2v2 games going on our big screen setup and others going on the eight machines in our 16th floor test lab, which has been converted over to X360 development kits. (This was the lab where we did our internal testing for Age II and The Conquerors). Chris hopes to get some good feedback, for sure, but just as important was helping teams working in other parts of our building keep up with this major project. The event brought a work day to a nice end.

    Halo Wars Design Tools: Real-time strategy games require tons of testing and one of the challenges in development is making these sessions efficient and extracting useful information out of them. The standard process at ES is to have one of the designers monitor the test and gather feedback from participants, which is collated and passed back to the team for consideration and possible action.

    Karen Swanson has been using a tool from Tableau Software to improve our understanding of what is going on in a sample game. The software tool is used to analyze data captured in SQL tables. Shawn Halwes makes sure the SQL tables are populated with the data that Karen wants to analyze. From a recent test Karen was able to quickly extract a list of the units that each player built and plot a game map showing where each unit died. A second map plotted where each fighting building was placed.

    We could see on cool color maps, easily and dramatically, the effect of defensive buildings. In this particular case buildings seemed too powerful as the player with fewest units by far was on the winning side. An opposing player commented that he felt he was fighting buildings all game, not another player. Dead enemy units were indeed piled up around the defensive building locations, supporting the losing player’s fedback. It looked liked the day after a World War I attack by infantry against machine gun emplacements.

    In previous years we might have tasked a test team to play several more games recreating this situation to gather more data. Using the Tableau tool allows us to speed that process and skip those steps. The design team can make quicker judgments about the relationships between defensive buildings and mobile fighting units. This is a good example of how tools can improve the productivity of a whole team. 

    Development Conferences: We are in the time of the year for game development conferences and usually at least a few of us attend the better ones. Examples in our country are DICE (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain), GDC (Game Developers Conference), and the Austin GDC, all held in the US.

    This year I attended the DICE event held in Las Vegas. It is put on by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, of which I am a charter member. This is a smaller conference (500 attendees, versus 10,000 plus at GDC) and it has a single track of speakers. I get to see a lot of friends here each year.

    I was particularly impressed with the remarks of Doug Lowenstein, outgoing president of the Entertainment Software Association, about the work his group has done over the past 12 years (establishing the ESRB ratings, arguing for 1st amendment rights, fighting piracy, helping to move games into the cultural mainstream, gathering and sharing data, creating the E3 show). He also offered some useful criticism.

    I was also impressed with Jordan Weisman’s presentation about alternative reality games (ARGs). He created the I Love Bees marketing campaign for Halo 2 as an alternative reality game. It was very interesting to hear how the gaming public got caught up in the puzzles, solved each in amazing time, and how difficult it was for the designers to keep ahead of them. When Jordan’s team set up phone calls to 500 pay phones around the world, including places like Mongolia, the internet players were there to answer each one and get the clues.

    I’m not sure if this is the next big thing, but I thought it was very clever and innovative. Jordan is the serial entrepreneur who started FASA (Mech Warrior), Battletech, WizKids, and now his ARG company, 42 Entertainment.

    Cool Age III Screenshot: Graham Somers sent this around. What people do with game tools can be amazing.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Tuesday, February 20, 2007 4:54 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Halo Wars, DICE, Map, Screenshot, Design Tools, GDC, Ozarks

    Age III On The Charts


    Age III On The Charts: Voodoo Extreme posted recently NPD’s list of 10 best selling PC games in the US for the last week of December. Age III was #8. WoW ($20) had reclaimed #1 followed by Sims2 and its xpacks. There were three RTS games on the list but only the one MMORPG and one shooter.

    More impressive to me is Yahoo’s list of the top ten PC games of 2006 with Age III at #7. The other strategy games on the list were Star Wars: Empire at War (#4) and Civilization IV (#9). The listed was topped by World of Warcraft and rounded out with four Sims 2 Xpacks and Oblivion. If it is true as rumored that Blizzard is going all MMORPG all the time (no rumored Starcraft 2) and we are serious about no new Age of Empire game for a while, there might be an opportunity for a new RTS franchise to get its footing. Great strategy games are still good business.

    ES Work Life- Hawk on the Window: Our offices are located on the top floors of a building in north central Dallas and the ledges outside our windows attract wildlife on occasion. For a little while last week a red-tailed hawk perched outside Eric Best’s window and Brian Dellinger took photos that he sent around. The raptor was identified by Greg Street, one of our designers with an extensive education in the sciences. A similar hawk munched on a pigeon outside Karen McMullan’s window a few years ago. It is pretty cool to see a wild bird like this within a few feet of your chair and its presence made me think about how we have had birds of one kind or another flying over the Age game maps. If we see more of this guy on our ledges, he may get a role in a future game.

    Warchief Games Pass Age III on ESO: Graham Somers reported to us that over a past weekend Warchief games exceeded Age III games for the first time. It is good to see the new content and features attracting a growing audience.

    Positive Health Effects from Video Gaming: The Reuters web site recently reported on an article that appeared in a journal titled Motivation and Emotion. The original article claimed that the activity of playing video games can satisfy for many people deep psychological needs and therefore improve their well-being, at least in the short term. The researchers felt that gaming could boost a player’s sense of independence, achievement, and connectedness with others. Where research on video games to date has often focused on potentially harmful effects, this research suggested that positive things were happening as well.

    I don’t think this is big news to me or to gamers I know. I have been feeling independent, achieving, educated, entertained, and connected through playing games my whole life. I liked those experiences so much that I pursued a career in the business. But I do find the research interesting for two reasons. First, I’m happy that games are being looked at for what is good about them. I think the harm that have been associated with them is relatively isolated and more a reflection of an unbalanced person’s problems than a cause of those problems. Second, as game developers we may learn from such research how to make games more satisfying and perhaps more successful.

    The art and science of game developing seems crude in comparison to other forms of entertainment like films or the theater, both of which have now an extensive history of being studied and taught in academia. Seeking an education in game development has only recently become possible and probably lags way behind the other arts in its utility. If research into the psychology of game playing can help us understand what makes game successful, helps us train developers, and therefore leads to more and better games, that is obviously good for us all.

    I don’t know how many studios/publishers actively recruit from the few schools now offering game development educations. I don’t think having such an education on a resume is currently considered a huge factor in a candidates favor. I believe it is a very positive factor for newcomers in film and theater, however, and very well may be in games also some day.

    Blog Migration: The original intent of this blog was to report on the progress of Age of Empires III and also occasionally look inside the workings of Ensemble Studios. It has expanded recently to talk about our Halo Wars project and pretty much anything else related to gaming and our studio that I thought might be of interest to our fans. We have decided to move the blog to the Ensemble Studios web site as well, to reach readers seeking news about our newer projects and not necessarily the Age series. There may be other bloggers writing at the new location and there may be an opportunity to ask us questions. We’ll see how that goes. The blog will remain available here as well.

    Gaming for Fun: The most popular game outside of work for ES’ers right now has to be WoW with the recent release of the Burning Crusade expansion pack. We have an email alias for several interest groups here and one is devoted to this game. The mail traffic on it has been heavy with a fairly deep discussion of what people like and don’t like about the expansion. People who have previously tailed off their participation on raid night have their L60 characters out of retirement and back in the dungeons, pushing for L70. Of particular interest is the news reported on Gamespot and Yahoo that the expansion sold over 2.4 million copies in 24 hours (Europe and US combined). That has to be a record for an expansion pack of any kind and you know it is grabbing the attention of developers and publishers around the world.

    Bruce Shelley

    Posted Thursday, February 01, 2007 9:18 PM | (Comments Off)

    Filed under: Age III, Blog, Gaming, Work Life, Health, Warchiefs



    Bruce Shelley page 2



    Bruce Shelley

    Rumors of Trojan in Age Related Hack


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

    Filed under: Muffin Bandit, Picnic

    TAD Patch Update


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

    Filed under: TAD Patch

    Age of Empires III Patch Update


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

    Filed under: Patch, Piracy

    The Asian Dynasties Patch Update


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

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

    Age of Empires III 2007 Sales Ranking


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    After lunch, more meetings. These tend to be:

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

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

    The Asian Dynasties Patch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

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

    Age of Empires in Uruguay


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

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




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

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


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


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

    Mass Effect:

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

    Forza Motorsports 2:

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

    Viva Piñata:

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

    Gears of War:

    • By FAR my household’s favorite.


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

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

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

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

    Charity Auction & Balance Tester Interview


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



    Happy Holidays,

    Bruce Shelley 

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

    Filed under: Age of Empires III

    Vacation Clues


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


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

    Vacation Clue #2:


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

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

    Vacation Clue #3:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

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

    The Asian Dynasties Launches


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

    Filed under: Age of Empires, Asian Dynasties, Halloween

    The Asian Dynasties Trial Version


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

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

    The Asian Dynasties News Coming


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

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

    The Asian Dynasties Wrapping Up


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

    Filed under: Halo Wars, Asian Dynasties, Spike TV

    Halo Wars Demo Download


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

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

    Asian Dynasties at Leipzig Game Show


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bruce Shelley

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

    Filed under: HaloWars, Asian Dynasties, Retrospective, Leipzig