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

April 23, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 5
 

So, you weren't at all fearful that Microsoft would take over and run your firm into the ground?

TG: I wasn't worried about that. I never got the impression that they would try to take over. Ironically, any difficulty between Microsoft and us working together came from a lack of involvement, rather than too much.

Microsoft underwent a difficult time in the first decade of the 2000s, trying to find a good strategic plan for PC games. They had a tenuous time with trying to define their PC game strategy. They ended up with a vague PC plan, while relying more and more on PC games to generate revenue for their budding Xbox business.

One sign that things were a little off-balance at Microsoft was their meeting process. I never knew who would show up to a Microsoft meeting. We had a monthly studio manager meeting.

There were seven studios, so one would conclude that seven studio managers would attend the meeting. I would walk into a room with over 20 attendees. I never knew who all of the attendees were or why they were there. I rarely even knew the agenda. It's difficult to accomplish anything with a room crammed full of random people and no agenda.

But you personally stayed with Microsoft?

TG: I had a contract for only two years, but I stayed for eight years until Ensemble closed. I was proud of staying longer than my minimum two years. I valued loyalty as an employer, and I believed that I should value it as an employee as well. Over the years, Ensemble had a very low rate of employee turnover. However, Microsoft Game Studios saw increasing turnover in high-level management. With each management change came a new and disruptive strategic direction.

You had various projects in the pipeline before the closure. What were these projects? Why were they canceled?

TG: Some of the games we canceled ourselves. Other games were canceled by Microsoft. Some projects were discontinued after Microsoft management changes. The projects were determined to be too expensive and risky or not "in our area of expertise". Thus, we would start over on something new.

It was frustrating for employees to invest so much time on projects that never shipped. The end result was that we ended up doing a lot of Age of Empires sequels. This was fantastic, but we wasted half of our efforts on starting and stopping other new projects which were never brought to fruition.

One great game we had in the works, and in which we had invested two years, was a massively multiplayer online game set in the Halo universe. After multiple prototypes and demos, we finally achieved buy-in from Shane Kim, the general manager at Microsoft Game Studios. The game was bold and beautiful, and I was sure that this product would be a massive blockbuster for Microsoft. It was a very exciting time at Ensemble.

Did that excitement last?

TG: After another change in management, Microsoft shifted their direction, killing the Halo project in the process. Soon after that, I flew from Dallas to Redmond for a private meeting with Shane to assess the situation. It was during that meeting that he told me that Microsoft decided to "internalize" the development of Age of Empires and close down our company. While this was difficult news to process, Shane asked me if I was interested in buying Ensemble back from Microsoft. He indicated that they would come to terms on a price with some type of deal to develop the next Age of Empires.

While Microsoft may have been in the position of power to close the studio, I told him that I wasn't interested in reacquiring my company, but that I would entertain starting up an independent studio. I suggested to him the possibility of a new studio that would develop the next game in the Age of Empires series. Shane expressed interest in that, so we began working on a deal to do the next Age game as new independent studio, now known as Robot Entertainment.

What was your vision for this new company?

TG: The short-term vision was to capitalize Robot Entertainment by reinventing Age of Empires for an online, free-to-play social-game world. Our long-term vision was to develop original properties that would take Robot into a new era of games. Our intent was to shape Robot into a creative, employee-owned company.

Robot was a company born from extraordinary circumstances. When Microsoft informed me that they were going to close Ensemble, I set my mind to turning this devastating event into a great opportunity. We formulated a plan that would allow us to create a new, progressive game company with the remarkable talent of Ensemble.

The objective was to strike a deal with Microsoft to develop the next version of Age of Empires as an independent company. Our plan was bold. We had to create a design that was so compelling they would be willing to hire back a team whose studio they had just shut down. This strategy relied upon our greatest strength: our reputation as world-class designers of real-time strategy games. By leveraging what Ensemble did best, we funded and launched Robot.

Are you still oriented toward creating phenomena? Or has your experience tempered your more youthful aspirations?

TG: My experience has reinforced my youthful aspirations! I believe that creating a phenomenon is more important than ever before. With the rise of mobile and social games, there are more games than at any time in our history. The question is: why do some great games become blockbusters while others remain unnoticed?

Making superior gameplay is only part of the equation. To create a phenomenon that is a runaway success, one must create a powerful group perception. People move in groups. They want to be part of something greater, and this is what a phenomenon is all about. For example, the social phenomenon of The Beatles was just as important as the music itself. Alone, one might listen to an album, but a phenomenon can turn a group of listeners into screaming fans.

Creating a phenomenon is an art form.

What do you want to do going forward?

TG: My tenure at Robot was shorter than I planned. Despite my love for Robot and its employees, it was soon evident to me that my talents and Robot's needs were not a perfect match. In the early years at Ensemble, I hired each new individual according to my own personal criteria.

Robot employees are close friends who I had worked with for up to 15 years. In that time period, our relationships had evolved. I was no longer their mentor and father figure. Time had inevitably changed that. It also became clear that my aspirations were not the same as Robot's aspirations. It was difficult to accept at first, but Robot and I are on separate paths.

My contributions as CEO at Robot were completed after we successfully transitioned from a vision to a flourishing game studio. I've handed the reins over to extremely capable individuals who had been waiting for their opportunities to run a great studio. I remain the largest owner of the company and a member of the board. I stay close at hand to advise on important matters.

After spending a decade and a half creating, building, and guiding the team that shaped the Age of Empires phenomenon, it's again time to follow my passion and produce a new phenomenon.


Article Start Previous Page 5 of 5

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Comments


Jose Resines
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Shouldn't that be "From Beginning to Shameful Execution"?. Because that's more like what Microsoft did.

Chapter Two should be "Pissing on Ensemble's grave with Age of Farmville Online".

Geoffrey Kuhns
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As a fan of the Age of Empires games (and Empire Earth) back in the day, I appreciate hearing the business side of the story now. Most valuable were the three breakdowns of how to's: creating a phenomenon, creating a successful game, and establishing the value of a company.

Best of luck with your new phenomenon.


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