Live Blog: DICE 2009 - Bruce Shelley, Ensemble Studios Post-Mortem


Posted February 19, 2009 - By bleahy

It's time for the legendary Bruce Shelley to talk about the shutting down of Ensemble Studios and hopefully the creation of Robot Entertainment. Bruce has been in the industry for 30 years and Ensemble ran from 1995 to 2009.

Here we go.

4:00 PM - Post-mortem on a half-billion dollar studio.

What was Ensemble? It was a Dallas-based studio founded in 1995. It were acquired by Microsoft in 2001 and closed in January 2009. It has sold over 20 million games including Age of Empires. It will posthumously release Halo Wars for the Xbox 360 in March.

At its peak, Ensemble employed 120 employees. Now he's just reminiscing about the good times at the studio. Parties and Halloween. Ensemble had fun.

It selected real-time strategy as its genre and chose to differentiate from its competitors by embracing a historial setting. All of the other games were science-fiction or fantasy.

4:05 PM - All of Ensemble's published games were successes. It had a very high internal bar for what worked. It also tried to keep creating innovative gameplay, not imitating successful games.

It also built games that appealed to gamers in Asia and Europe, as well as hardcore and casual gamers alike. The employees put in a lot of overtime and Microsoft would accept delays because the game would end up being better.

As far as its process goes, Ensemble designed by playing. This is a "board game approach" and created "deep, innovative, polished, broadly successful strategy games." It had everyone in the studio participating in playtesting and feedback. It tried to reach a studio-wide consesnus and would drop features that only 50% of its studio approved of.

It also stopped several games that it didn't feel met the quality guidelines, internally.

Ensemble had a good studio head and good managers. The theme of this presentation so far is... with so much going right... why were they shut down? It had a very low turnover rate. 60% of the people that finished Age of Empires were still with the company when it was shutdown.

Although Ensemble knew it was being shut down six months ago, only a few people left before Halo Wars finished. Its studio reputation was good and it tried to create a profile for the company in the industry's and public's eye.

4:11 PM - Okay, what didn't Ensemble do so well? It tried to do too much with each game. Large feature lists with a lot of features being cut all the time. This made long hours necessary. With Halo Wars, Ensemble learned it could do a smaller game and keep the quality high.

It never diversified outside of the RTS genre. I believe this is the biggest thing. With the market shifting toward the console for hardcore gamers, the RTS tends to be the forgotten genre. It had a few games in the pipeline outside of the RTS genre, but all were cancelled. Ensemble bet a lot on a dream game that got cancelled, which led to a lot of top talent leaving the company.

Ensemble was trying to get to be a multi-team studio exploring multiple generes, which Bruce feels that would have been good for morale. Perhaps the company was seen as a studio that could only do an RTS game.

The studio also had trouble adapting over 75 members. Teams were crated for new titles and it led to fragmentation. They lost studio unity. At 40 people, they had a sense of community. Now, the studio was too long to know everyone on the job.

Ensemble stopped hiring people as the result of a studio consensus and would let teams make its own hires. It stopped aggresively fighting cynicism. It was tough to find skilled leads for each craft for each team (art, design, programming, music/sound, etc.).

On Halo Wars, they had to replace several leads over the course of the project. Ensemble allowed the more experienced people to work on "dream projects," but both dream projects ended up being cancelled. This failed to create a new IP.

4:17 PM - Why was it shut down? Some possibilities:

  • Resources we represented to be reinvested by the company strategically didn't work.
  • Were the studio and Mirosoft out of sync?
  • Relationship with new corporate leaders too eack?
  • Should we have downsized when two projects cancelled?

Ensemble believed that it was being strategic. It was profitable and hoped to bring RTS to the console Halo Wars.

Is the end? No. Out of the Ensemble staff, two companies are being created: Bonfire Studios and Robot Entertainment. Bruce believes the good things at Ensemble will be carried forward by these two new studios.

Live Blog: DICE 2009 - Bruce Shelley, Ensemble Studios Post-Mortem


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