[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.