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Ensemble Studios: The Last Tour

February 2, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

But the company was moving in a single direction: the Halo MMO. It started in 1998, soon after Ultima Online came out, when a designer named Ian Fischer started pitching a sci-fi MMO. He loved the genre, and felt it was underserved -- so development started on Titan.

There were many iterations of the design, and then the relationship with Bungie began, and the license was incorporated in the game, subsequently codenamed Orion.

Fischer remembers going back and forth on the finer points of the world's fiction. "Halo is in Joe Staten's head," he says, referring to the man who penned the story for the first two games in the series.

Everyone at Ensemble expected this MMO to be the new focus of the company. Work was started on a brand new facility -- a campus -- that could support the development and administration of a major massively multiplayer online game.

But one day, the work on the new building stopped, and later Microsoft informed the company that it would be closing down operations. But when I toured Ensemble, collective resolve was high as the developers prepared for a company tradition -- their last wrap party at a North Dallas beer garden.

They knew they'd just shipped a game to be proud of. And I'm told that people in the studio have been going back in time, playing the old titles from start to finish, discussing the design all over again -- the old memories bring new ideas for the future.

I decided to ask executive producer Harter Ryan about the relationship with Microsoft, which purchased the developer before entering the console business. He recalled creating tech demos for the Xbox, saying "They were fully focused on the Xbox. They had to be."

Halo Wars, the company's final game, is an Xbox 360 exclusive. Designer Graeme Devine describes working on a console as "quite refreshing," adding that since the machines are identical, you don't have to worry about a player's technical specifications.

One developer told me he would be returning to the mothership in Redmond, to keep the servers working, and make sure that Ensemble's multiplayer legacy was maintained.

I'm introduced to Angelo Laudon, the lead programmer, and second employee at the company. Originally, he'd worked for Tony Goodman at an IT firm. They did consulting together. "We also liked making products," he says. "We thought, what's the coolest product we could make? We both wanted to make games, so..."

And so they did. "The first years were the most challenging," reflected Laudon. With the first game, the question was: "Can the company survive or not?"

The success of their first game was a surprise. "The second game, we thought, would do good," said Laudon, "but it did way better than anyone expected."

In the end, Age of Empires would become a monument, earning a place in history by launching a series that would go on to sell over 20 million copies.

Not everyone gets to work on a billion-dollar franchise. But as I bid farewell to my guide, I knew that the employees of Ensemble will always remember what it was like to work at this unique company.

Descending in the elevator, I remembered Goodman's comments to me some three years previously. "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." It was obvious that Ensemble lived by that mission statement. And for nearly fifteen years, Ensemble Studios achieved that goal.

[For an excellent, detailed history of Ensemble Studios to remember the studio by, Troy Goodfellow's three-part series for Crispy Gamer talks to many of the principals. The next page of this article is an appendix, including more of the pictures from unreleased Ensemble titles.]

Article Start Previous Page 2 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.