Following the recent final closure of longtime strategy-focused developer Ensemble Studios, key designer Bruce Shelley gave a "studio postmortem" at DICE 2009 that reviewed the history of the Dallas-based company.
Since its founding in 1995, the company has shipped nearly a dozen real-time strategy games and expansions, mainly in the Age of Empires and Age of Mythology franchises it created -- franchises which sold a total of over 20 million units -- "and that number is increasing every month," he added.
Most recently, the company completed Halo Wars, based on Bungie's successful first-person shooter series.
What Went Right
One of Ensemble's key mandates was to create a great place to work, Shelley said at the Gamasutra-attended Las Vegas conference, and he included that goal in the list of what the studio did right over the years.
Shelley was proud to note that 60 percent of staffers who shipped the original Age of Empires in 1997 were still with the studio when it finally shuttered more than a decade later, which demonstrates the positive work environment that was maintained.
"I think our published games were good choices," he said -- the company put new twists on the real-time strategy format, differentiating their games from Blizzard's WarCraft series and other contemporaries. "I think we did that partially on accident, but it turned out to be a really smart decision."
"There's an opportunity in any genre to do something different," he said. "It's not that you're just imitating a successful game -- you can incrementally be better, and I think we did that well."
Even before it was an industry trend, Ensemble put emphasis on making games that could have worldwide appeal in markets like Asia, with appropriate localization -- opening up a broad user base.
Playtesting was also key, said Shelley. Ensemble always stuck to an iterative design approach, where the entire studio became involved in design decisions.
Amusingly, when the studio was split down the middle on one particular feature or design choice, frequently it would be determined that the feature is too contentious for inclusion in the first place, and it would be pruned.
What Went Wrong?
"I think we may have tried to do too much with each game," Shelley admitted -- he said designers tend to suffer from that mentality across the board. The company used its last game, Halo Wars, as a chance to try and take a more stripped-down design approach.
"We never diversified out of the field of real-time strategy," Shelley added, pointing to that decision as one that limited the company. It had other projects in the works at various times, but frequently those games would be canceled by Microsoft.
When the team was developing in a diverse number of genres, it actually ended up being positive to internal team morale and creativity, he said, which made it all the worse that the company was, in the end, unable to fully execute outside of strategy.
The company also never adapted well to growth past 75 employees, Shelley said. Veteran staff were frequently nostalgic for the "old days" when the entire studio would rally behind big decisions -- something that becomes harder and harder as the organization becomes large and more unwieldy.
Shelley painted a dismaying picture of a workplace "where you'd get on the elevator, and run into someone you obviously worked with, but had never met."
Eventually, Ensemble started to better understand how to set up multiple teams with relative autonomy -- but that understanding came late.
Resources could also have been "reinvested more strategically," Shelley admitted -- Ensemble's mission as a studio was sometimes out of sync with parent Microsoft's mission as a company.
Near the end of his talk, Shelley tipped his hat to two new studios that have sprung up from former Ensemble Studios employees, Bonfire Studios and Robot Entertainment.
"I believe the good things, the things we did right, will be carried forward by both these teams."
"It's a sad day, but this is business," Shelley concluded. "Maybe we didn't do some things very well, but we were shocked and disappointed. I think we've gone through those stages of shock and grief, and we're looking for new opportunities."