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Exclusive: Ensemble Studios' Canceled Project Was  Halo  MMO
Exclusive: Ensemble Studios' Canceled Project Was Halo MMO Exclusive
September 23, 2008 | By Staff

September 23, 2008 | By Staff
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Following the recent announcement that Microsoft-owned Age Of Empires creator Ensemble Studios would close after the completion of Halo Wars, Gamasutra has discovered that a now-canceled Halo MMO was in development at the studio, unearthing prototype UI and level screenshots of the Ensemble-developed project.

The prototype art, which was at one point made available on an Ensemble-linked online artist portfolio website, further confirms previous rumors that the studio was working on an MMO based on the Bungie-created sci-fi franchise.

Notable, rumors reported in Game Informer magazine in early 2006 claimed that Bungie and Ensemble were teaming up to make a Halo-themed MMO. And, although it was not clear that it was Halo-specific, websites such as 1UP did point out that Ensemble was hiring for an MMO project as early as April 2006.

The title seems to have been in development in 2006 and some of 2007 -- though it's by no means clear that it was the only MMO-related title in development at the studio at that time.

What is clear, however, is that Ensemble's Bruce Shelley mentioned in a June 2008 blog post that they "...set up three prototype teams out of the staff of a major project that we cancelled. After six months of very interesting work, we have now stopped two of those prototypes, with one getting more time to demonstrate the value of its concept."

Thus, it appears that the Halo MMO project was likely internally cancelled some time in mid-late 2007, without any formal announcement from Microsoft that it was ever in development. The below UI mockup and concept/level screenshots also date from the 2006-2007 period.

Gamasutra had a chance to ask lead blogger Michael Zenke about the MMO-related elements in the prototype UI screenshot (click through for a higher-res version):

Massively's Zenke explained the following on the prototype UI (of which there were several posted): "The character pane shows a health bar and 'mana' -- or Psion, as is referred to in this title... The upper right icons are for basic character functions. The one on the far left would most likely be inventory, represented by the outline of a man.

Moving right, I'd guess that's a 'talent tree' screen for customizing your character, most likely a powers menu (a brain to represent the Psion?), a titles or achievements screen represented by the trophy, and a support ticket system represented by the chat bubble icon.

There are many obvious tips of the hat here to the World of Warcraft interface. Simplicity and streamlined play appear to be the object of the game, but it's interesting to see so many strange icons on the hotbar.

From the choice of abilities, it's easy to surmise that that the game would have been some sort of melee/magic brawler. The upper bar has some similarities to the WoW UI modification Titan Panel - a favorite amongst players."

Also included were a number of in-game level pictures, both concept art and in-level shots, and Gamasutra asked 'Louis Wu', webmaster of the unofficial Halo website to interpret them.

Wu simply noted of this concept screenshot: "None of those [specific] characters or creatures were EVER included in a Halo game."

Of this shot and others in the same series that Gamasutra has not yet printed, Wu commented: "Clearly broken Halo Warthogs, dead marines, a color palette last seen in Halo PC multiplayer levels like 'Infinity'. The presence of an actual Halo in the background of the last shot is also a dead giveaway [as to the game setting]."

Of course, the cancellation of the Ensemble version of a Halo MMO doesn't necessarily preclude other Microsoft-sanctioned developers from working on Halo franchise titles.

And with Microsoft's Phil Spencer recently mentioning: "There are more than two or three teams building Halo things right now", it could be that a Halo title with similarly expansive online options is now being tried at another studio. If so, there has been no public information about it to date.

[UPDATE: The 'Gone Is Gone' weblog has posted a full Flickr gallery of the concept art and UI mockups for the canceled prototype, sourced from the same art portfolio as Gamasutra's original story.]

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I'm enjoying WHO quite a bit, but I'm tired of the same orcs and trolls and... I am definitely ready for a sci-fi MMO, and this would have been perfect. Another reason to hate MS for closing Ensemble, although considering MS's track record when it comes to MMOs, it's probably a good thing if this never comes out.

Logan Foster
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Screw post-mortems on finished games, Gamasutra should do post-mortems on stuff that never saw the light of day. Its way more interesting to pick apart designs like this to see what was going right and what wasn't and in the end learn from someone elses painful trials and failure.

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Can I have the source?

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I can't stop laughing at this. I thought the screenshots were photoshopped mock-ups of one Halo character on a WoW background. Then they actually had the audacity to put in what appears to be a dark elf priestess...healing the tank.

Hey, if anyone else wants to sink a company here's the magic formula:

Step 1 - add franchise game past its 3rd release

Step 2 - try to turn it into WoW

Step 3 - Shake

Step 4 - Close down studio

I like seeing in the screenshot that they struggled with the use of guns in Halo and how that would create a non-leveling loot connundrum (you can't level up bullets) So they made a space-sword...Hahahahaha, awful.

Just in case anyone else thinks they'll get rich by being the next "genius" to come up with a big MMO idea, I'll list out several obvious bad MMO ideas that will tank any company, and you can decide which one is yours.

- Guitar Hero MMO

- Grand Theft Auto MMO

- Ninja Gaiden or Solid Snake MMO

- Street Fighter MMO

- Mario MMO

- Sonic MMO

- Tony Hawk MMO

- Madden MMO


- Resident Evil MMO

- Half Life MMO

- Fallout MMO

If you got excited after reading any of those "ideas" you're ready to lose $20 million dollars, congratulations.

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Thank God this will never see the light of day. There's no magic (or psion?) in the Halo universe. If this came out, it would just ruin everything about the Halo storyline that Bungie has so carefully built. Kudos to MS for closing down this shit-storm of a studio.

Brad Wiggins
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I'm sure there must have been a lot more politics involved, maybe even coming from microsoft as far as the "wowish" direction.

I had great respect for Ensemble having created the age of empires series. Each of those games was excellent and had fantastic polish. Age 3 in fact grew the series dramatically in new directions that hadn't been done in games of the same genre before. As terrible of a concept as this appears from what we can see, I'd hardly think a "shit-storm of a studio" is an accurate description.

Jeroen Ruigrok van der Werven
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Strange, those user interface screenshots look very much like customized WoW UIs where they used things like Pitbull and ButtonFacade to customize the UI to make it look a bit more sci-fi, but other than that it is just a duplicate, I mean just look at this one:

It even includes the same minibar as World of Warcraft has.

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"Kudos to MS for closing down this shit-storm of a studio."

Wow, good job on not reading the article at all.

Ensemble Studios is/was a very respected and profitable company.

The article says Ensemble stopped work on the MMO mid 2007, this is after they spent about 6 months protyping stuff and then apparently decided they didn't have anything solid so they canceled the project themselves.

Chris Ryan
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Ensemble was a powerhouse of a Studio. theyll be missed. I'd like to hear an official announcement on this someday soon.

Test King
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Thanks a lot, I never thought about that Microsoft owned empires creator ensemble studios would completion of Halo Wars and easy for me. I am learning much more about Studio. I am needy to lean more information by you site but at this time my exam N10-003.. CompTIA Network+ Certification. After done, I will lean more.

Thanks again