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Ensemble Studios: The Last Tour

February 2, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[As Age Of Empires creator Ensemble Studios closes its doors, Gamasutra visits one last time to discover what's next and what might have been for the studio.]

Today, Ensemble Studios closes: not as a failure, like many studios that are forced to shutter, but as a success -- something very rare in the games industry. Its Age of Empires franchise sold over 20 million units, and having gone gold, its final game, Halo Wars, will be on store shelves on March 3.

I'd last been assigned to tour the studio three years ago. And at the end of an interview, I asked Tony Goodman what made the company he'd founded great.

He paused to consider. "I think I said it at the first, and I really believe it -- from the very beginning we've always said, 'The mission of our company is to make a great place to work... and to make great games.' We'd always say it in that order."

Two weeks ago, I returned to Dallas for a final tour of Ensemble Studios. Everything was the same as I remembered: the darkened landing on the 15th floor, the express elevator to the 16th floor, the waiting room looking into a room of servers, and large covers of the games on the walls, autographed by all the people that made them.

I was greeted by a designer I hadn't seen since E3 who guided me as deftly as Virgil through Ensemble's three floors. Cardboard boxes and bubble-wrap clotted the halls. Each room contained a developer or two, and we'd stop to chat.

Leaning against his desk, a designer named Jeff Brown spoke for himself and his colleagues when he summed up the last eight years working at Ensemble Studios.  "It's been an amazing ride, and sad now, too."

He pointed across the room to a colleague. "It was his dream job." That colleague had worked at other Dallas developers, but found that Ensemble was the only one that managed projects and crunch well. Plus, he was a Halo fan, and enjoyed working on the franchise.

"We see a lot of good things coming of this," added Brown. For one thing, the team was given an excellent severance package by Microsoft, and some team members will take some time to recharge batteries.

A couple of programmers are going to do iPhone games. And half of the studio's employees will follow Tony Goodman to a new company.

Everyone knows the games that Ensemble has developed -- but what most people don't know about is the company's undeveloped history of games that never saw the light of day.

Internally, the studio would prototype new game ideas. After that stage, the best results would be developed, then pitched to Microsoft.

They included: a fantasy-adventure RPG called Sorcerer; Nova, a "Diablo in space" game; a pirate-themed take on Diablo; a game called Wrench; a Ratchet & Clank-style platformer called Bam

Most detailed was a game called Agent, with an art style and universe inspired by Pixar's The Incredibles, and using gameplay elements from Tomb Raider. As the concept art shows, the game was instantly iconic and unique.

Another title was Graeme Devine's Phoenix -- an RTS game featuring earthlings versus Martians in a War of the Worlds-style conflict. The game changed over time, and would eventually become something different entirely: Halo Wars.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Jake Romigh
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... why, Microsoft? ... why?

Eric Scharf
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"Most people say great games are their mission," he'd said.

"Ours is to make a great place to work, and for the good games to come out of that."

Talk is cheap, but if these remarks by Goodman are true to how Ensemble was assembled to operate from beginning to end, then, everyone throughout the games industry should not only applaud them for their staying power in a topsy-turvy business . . . but encourage them to do it again in their next incarnation . . . and for others to adopt their practices.

Doing so can only be a positive for the place our business holds in today's national and global economies.

Jonathon Walsh
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The Ensemble guys always seemed like top notch folks to me. As a long time Age fan I spent a good deal of time in the community and the ES staff was always great about being friendly and helpful to the community. I was even lucky enough to get to play with ES staff on several occasions and it was always a blast. Oddly enough my only complaints about ES come from being owned by Microsoft. Microsoft really hindered the speed at which ES could implement new patches from what I heard which is a big issue for RTS games that tend to need constantly tweaking and adjustments to play well. Though I do like that their authentication to Age of Mythology gave me an account I could use for MSN with an domain.

Anyways I'm going to really miss this studio and hope all the guys (and girls) have good luck in their new adventures.

John Palamarchuk
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It's a tragedy that a good studio like Ensemble has to close like this, but other studios are ramping up their team sizes for next-gen development and need good, talented developers. These guys should have no problem finding jobs.

Right now I know of a cinematic environment artist position open in our studio (Sony - God of War team), so if anyone from Ensemble is reading this, send in the resume!!! :)

Kareem Harper
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Seeing this is heartbreaking....

Mike Nuber
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This is really sad, much like Bruce's final blog post. Is there a reason the whole blog is gone now?

And, oh what I would give to see a better picture (showing titles) of the books on that bookcase... I always loved the Age series in part because of the bibliographies included with the games.

Gabe Carter
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As I look at my shelf full of Age games, this really does make me sad. They should call the new studio "On Somble Studios".

Mike Shiratti
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Long time age series fan and this is absolutely heartbreaking (as said above). This company should never have been shutdown and I hope Tony comes back strong with the new company; no matter the game I'm buying it lol.

Andrius Kavaliunas
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Great article, sad true.

Remark to the author: using a tripod next time would do a great deal in the quality of pictures :)

Alex Meade
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All great things come to an end.

Matthew Oztalay
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I feel a deep and profound sadness at the loss of the studio. AoE2 was the second RTS I had ever played, and it made a deep impact on my life.

The studio itself will be sorely missed. I wish the folks at the studio the best of luck in their new endeavors.

Nitin KD
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Good luck Goodman....

Rex Guo
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My wife and I spent countless hours playing the AoE series. Ensemble Studios will always have a special place in our hearts and the original boxsets will have a special place on our shelves.