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Ensemble Studios: From Beginning to End, An Excerpt from Gamers at Work

April 23, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next
 

[In this extract from Morgan Ramsay's Gamers at Work, which explores the challenges of starting and building developers and publishers of video games with 18 of the industry's most successful entrepreneurs, Gamasutra presents a conversation with Tony Goodman about the history of Ensemble Studios, creators of the Age of Empires series for Microsoft. The book also includes discussions with Warren Spector, Jason Rubin, and more.]

In 1991, Tony Goodman cofounded Ensemble Corporation, an information technology company, with longtime friends John Boog-Scott, John Calhoun, and Thad Chapman. The company later made the Inc. 500 and was recognized as one of America's fastest-growing companies. Ensemble Corporation was acquired by USWeb Corporation in 1997.

Two years before, Goodman cofounded Ensemble Studios with John Boog-Scott and his brother Rick Goodman. With the introduction of the Age of Empires series, Ensemble Studios became the leading developer of real-time strategy games. Microsoft acquired the company in 2001. Age of Empires became the bestselling strategy game franchise of all time.

But as Microsoft's Xbox business was growing, the Windows game business slowed. During the development of Xbox 360's Halo Wars, which also became a bestselling title, Microsoft enacted plans to close Ensemble Studios and lay off all of the employees. By January 2009, Ensemble Studios was reduced to the pages of history.

Ensemble Studios left behind a tradition of entrepreneurship. Goodman founded Robot Entertainment the next month. Several startups arose from the ashes, spearheaded by former employees, including Bonfire Studios, Newtoy, Windstorm Studios, Pixelocity, Fuzzy Cube, and GRL Games.

You started Ensemble Studios in 1995, two years before the USWeb acquisition. Why video games?

Tony Goodman: I've always loved computer games and had been keeping an interested eye on the game industry. At that time, PC games were about to undergo an important change: from running on DOS to running on Windows. I saw an opportunity in this.

Up until 1995, creating computer games required an onerous investment in writing hardware drivers. There were no standards for DOS peripherals, so game developers had to write their own mouse and sound drivers. To make a game stable, developers would have to write and test special code for every different mouse and sound card available. Since new products were always being released, developers had to continually update and rerelease their game's mouse and sound drivers. It was a technical nightmare, and none of this code had anything to do with making games. Developers had to do all this in addition to creating great games that were better than the competition.

This was a significant barrier to entering the video game market, but Windows-based games were about to change all of that. The Windows operating system was quite sophisticated when compared to DOS. Windows handled all hardware at the OS level, so game developers would no longer have to develop drivers. That meant that developers could now devote 100 percent of their efforts toward making great gameplay.

It also meant that legacy game developers would lose any advantage that they had gained from their years of investment in hardware drivers. That was going to level the playing field! It was at that moment that I felt the industry was about to explode, and it was time to jump in.

In the midst of all your success, why did you pursue something so vastly different from enterprise software?

TG: I loved the business of developing software, but I wanted to create products that everyone would tell their friends about. I wanted to create a pop-culture phenomenon. If you want to create software that people really want, developing video games places you at the center of the universe.

Creating video games seemed like a crazy change of direction to my friends, but to me, it was inevitable. I could have continued to pursue the business that I had been successful in, but I realized that you don't create passion by pursuing success. You create success by pursuing your passion. After years of developing business software, I decided it was time to finally pursue my original passion: video games.

While I maintained my management responsibilities as president and chief executive officer at Ensemble Corporation, I developed a plan for a new venture. Angelo Laudon, one of my key programmers, was also obsessed with games. We would talk about games until the early hours of the morning.

In 1995, Angelo and I began to develop a prototype engine that could be used to produce multiple games. Once we began developing the engine, there was no going back. My exhilaration for games could no longer be contained. The floodgates were opened. We were creating something special and could feel it.

How far along was the company at that point?

TG: Early in 1995, while still a part of Ensemble Corporation, Angelo and I began experimenting with graphics code in the new WinG library, the technology from Microsoft that would make games possible under Windows. We began formulating our ideas about creating a historical strategy game, inspired by Sid Meier's Civilization.

Our greatest need at that time was to hire our first artist. I looked over dozens of resumes and interviewed 13 candidates. Finally, I decided on an artist who I thought was really talented. I offered him the job, and he happily accepted.

The next day, I got a call from a young man, fresh out of art school. Brad Crow seemed very eager to interview. I told him the position was filled, but he came in to speak with me anyway. Within 15 minutes, I thought, "Holy crap, this guy is amazing." I knew that I had hired the wrong guy, so I offered Brad a job on the spot. I called the first artist and made my first ever "job offer retraction". It was an unpleasant thing to do, but you can't afford to make any compromises with early employees in a startup.

By the end of the year, we had a working version of Age of Empires that we were calling "Dawn of Man." The gameplay was in the early stages of development, but it looked remarkably similar to the final product. Units could run around the screen, fight, and chop wood. It was a sophisticated sandbox. We had a fantastic level designer and a first cut of rudimentary gameplay. But we hadn't figured out whether the game was going to be a strategy game like Command & Conquer, a simulation game like SimCity, or a turn-based game like Civilization.

I had remained in contact with a longtime friend, Bruce Shelley, who had previously assisted Sid Meier with the design of Civilization and Railroad Tycoon. My brother Rick and I had met Bruce Shelley at a board game club at the University of Virginia, where Bruce was attending graduate school. I was young at the time, but had remained friends with Bruce. Bruce had a quiet yet professional presence as a designer in the game industry. Later, he came aboard as the official spokesperson for the Age of Empires franchise.

As our prototype really started taking shape, we decided to incorporate. I incorporated Ensemble Studios in February 1996 with John Boog-Scott and Rick as cofounders. Rick took on the role as lead designer and project manager. I served as CEO and art director. John and I together headed both corporations.

We remained within the offices of Ensemble Corporation and shared expenses with them. We hired six people to start: a few programmers and three artists. Angelo Laudon and Tim Dean were Ensemble Studios' first programmers; and Brad Crow, Scott Winsett, and Thonny Namuonglo just graduated from the Art Institute of Dallas. Brian Sullivan came shortly thereafter to help with the design, implementation, and management. That was the beginning.


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