Remembering The Fallen: Ensemble Studios/Age Of Empires(Pt. 3)

This is the final part in the Ensemble Studios series of Remembering the Fallen.  Remember to check back here at Platform Nation every Wednesday for a new edition in the series!

Rest In PeaceWhen we left our developers, they had just released The Asian Dynasties expansion pack for Age of Empires III.  This expansion pack was developed in a partnership with Big Huge Games.  This is important to note, because it shows that by this time Ensemble Studios was hard at work on it’s next project.  That next project shocked fans of the studio, as Ensemble Studios went boldly where no RTS has gone before…to the console.
Officially announced in 2006, this new project ended up becoming Halo Wars, available exclusively for the Xbox 360.   This was a huge shock to most of the gaming industry, as previous RTS titles on consoles did not fare well in terms of sales and in terms of reviews. Ensemble was not deterred however.  They set to work on making one of the best RTS games to date.  And they had a couple of things going for them.  Firstly, they knew they were designing a game just for the Xbox 360.  This allowed them to tailor the control scheme just to the Xbox 360 controls, unlike previous games which had used complex hotkey functions and groupings.    They also planned on utilizing the Xbox 360 hardware and Xbox Live to its fullest potential.  They also worked closely with Microsoft and Bungie to make sure all the units and the story was in line with Halo canon (although at first, it wasn’t even going to be a Halo title).  Halo Wars had all the markings of a great RTS when disaster struck.

In September of 2008, Microsoft announced that they were closing Ensemble Studios.  This came as a huge shock, since Halo Wars hadn’t been finished at the time and Ensemble Studios was a profitable studio.   The fans went into an uproar, but their pleas fell upon deaf ears.  The most logical reason is that Ensemble Studios was simply in the wrong genre, and Microsoft wanted to take a new direction with their game developers.  Whatever the case, all nonessential staff was laid off at Ensemble, and the rest soldiered on to finish the game.

Halo Wars was finally released in March of 2009 to much fanfare and speculation. It had been in development for four long years, and everyone wondered if the hard work would pay off.  Everyone wanted to see if the “little RTS that could” had done it; if Ensmeble had finally released a RTS title that could be played with a controller, especially in the face of so much adversity and the fact that this would be Ensemble’s last title.

The reviews came pouring in, and the critics were shocked.  Once again, Ensemble had proven that they were one of the premier developers in the RTS world, and proved it by releasing a good, no, GREAT RTS for the console.  The critics raved about the gorgeous cutscenes, graphics, sound and the variety of game modes.  However, some critics complained about the clumsiness of the control scheme and the limited tactical options available.  It also quickly became apparent that balance tweaks were needed for online play.  However, despite its shortcomings, Halo Wars ended up selling over a million copies in one year, becoming the largest RTS on a console.

The release of Halo Wars was bittersweet.  The game was a success, but Ensemble Studios was no more.  Some ambitious projects, such as a Halo MMO, died with them.  However, a few studios rose out of the ashes of Ensemble Studios like a phoenix. The most prominent of these was Robot Entertainment.  They are the ones responsible for the continued updates being released for Age of Empires III and Halo Wars.

Now, when I first started this article, the Age of Empires franchise appeared to be all but dead.  Then all of the sudden, a miracle happened.  A new Age of Empires title was announced at Gamsecom.  The title?  Age of Empires Online.

The cartoon style is evident in this promo image.

While details are slim, we know that the game will be a blend of Age of Empires and Farmville. This has divided the Age fanbase, as players are torn over this new direction.  You now have a “home city” that you can develop and that grows and produces resources even when you aren’t online.  You can then use items and money earned from your home city to upgrade your items.  Also, there will be quests you can go on with friends, similar to World of Warcraft.  Of course, there will also be a PvP mode as well, although who knows how balanced it will be wit the addition of the home city.  I love Age of Empires (as you can probably tell), so I will always keep you guys up to date on new news about this new game.  Just keep checking back here at PlatformNation!

Well, that’s where this series ends.  I hope you enjoyed it.  If you have an idea for a game title or a developer that is no more, drop me a comment and let me know.

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  • Goran

    Hey any news of the Real age of Empires, Age Of Empires IV?….Fans deserve an update! Would be awesome to see where AOE III left of from 1850 AD to the Digital Age…including WWI, WWII, Cold War, Modern Times and the Digital Age of the 21st Century…Age of Empires Online a great idea but appears that it would appeal more to children and graphics are very kiddie looking??? I Love Age of Empires any news on number IV would be great!

    • Steven Buccini (pickanumber123)

      I agree, I would have preferred a “true” sequel, as in Age Of Empires IV, over Age of Empires online. But I am just happy to see that Microsoft hasn’t given up on the Age series just yet.

  • ex-ager

    A miracle happened?. More like a disaster. Robot Entertainment and Microsoft are doing a travesty. They should have called that POS Age of Farmville.

    • Steven Buccini (pickanumber123)

      I wasn’t too happy with the “Famville style” approach they are taking. It seems like just a continuation of the Home City concept from Age III however, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on how you liked that addition.

      I am taking a “wait and see” approach, because I think it has promise, it just wans’t exactly what I wanted.

    • Steven Buccini (pickanumber123)

      I wasn’t too happy with the “Famville style” approach they are taking. It seems like just a continuation of the Home City concept from Age III however, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on how you liked that addition.

      I am taking a “wait and see” approach, because I think it has promise, it just wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

  • Ex-ES

    A few of the facts are a little bit off, but that is still a nice write-up. The one issue I want to point out is that the studio, to their massive credit, did not lay people off prior to the last day after we shipped Halo Wars.

    Theoretically they could have axed half the studio and pushed a crap-tastic game out the door with a skeleton crew. They did not do that, and almost everyone stayed until the very end, some of whom worked extremely long hours despite not knowing what their future held, or having time to properly job search, and so on.

    A very small handful of people left of their own accord prior to finishing the game, but they were a very small percentage of the studio (maybe 2%). It was quite an inspiring thing to see everyone tough it out, even though the situation completely sucked.

    • Steven Buccini (pickanumber123)

      Hey man, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my article. Means a lot, especially since you were in the thick of it.

      Sorry for leaving out Bonfire (I didn’t forget, just ran out of time).

      I got most of my information from online sources, which said all non-essential employees got laid off. I see that is not the case.

      I just want to thank you for sticking with it. I don’t even want to know what the feeling must have been like. But you guys toughed it out, and you put out a quality release in the face of defeat. That takes a lot of guts.

      I really miss ES. They provided me with so many memories that affected me in ways I never thought possible.