The Death of Ensemble Studios

Bruce Shelley reveals where the studio succeeded and where it fell.

In a few short weeks, Halo Wars will hit store shelves. It is the last game that Ensemble Studios will ever make. Microsoft shuttered the development house in January.

Ensemble is almost exclusively known as the maker of the Age of Empire series. Since the studio started in 1995, it's sold 20 million games and was worth an estimated $500 million. Microsoft acquired it in 2001.

At the DICE Summit, Bruce Shelley, senior game designer at Ensemble, quickly walked through the studios' qualities: It was a great place to work and it made great games. It had good benefits, a cool office, and good morale and communication. It's games--five major projects and their expansions--were good. They offered new twists to the real-time strategy genre. They were innovative instead of imitative. And they were historical instead of science fiction or fantasy themed. The studio's goal was to squeeze exceptional value into each title while maintaining a high quality bar.

"They were different from everything else out there," says Shelley. "We delivered on our promise."

But he suggests that part of Ensemble's downfall was that it tried to do too much. Its feature lists were too big. The other failure is that the studio never created new intellectual property for the company. It never managed to diversify, and as a consequence was seen as an RTS shop.

The problem, says Shelley, was Ensemble ended up canceling a lot of projects internally. It made a big bet on a new genre, but when that "dream game" was cancelled, the studio lost a lot of its top talent. "People had been doing Ages games for a long, long, long time," he says. Some alternative games would have been a chance for them to extend their wings.  Shelley also points to the studio's trouble adapting to growth, its lack of unity, and its tendency to spread itself too thin.

Ensemble's mission was out of sync with Microsoft because its relationship with new corporate leaders were weak. Shelley wonders whether the studio should have invested its resources more strategically or if it should have downsized after two of its projects were cancelled. Ensemble, he says, didn't see the closure coming.

The one ray of hope he offers, however, is that from Ensemble's ashes rise two new development studios: Bonfire Studios and Robot Entertainment, two Texas-based studios made up entirely of ex-Ensemble staff.