Age of Ensemble, Part 1: A Titan Passes
When Microsoft announced that it would be closing Ensemble Studios early next year, a chill went through the strategy game community. You couldn't point to any failures from Ensemble, the maker of the Age of Empires games. You could argue that in an age of belt-tightening and spiraling development costs, every affiliated studio is a potential liability. But Ensemble, responsible for one of the most successful and important strategy series in history, was important to a lot of people.
It deserves a proper send-off.
A franchise is born
The origins of Ensemble Studios are unlikely. In the early 1970s, Tony and Rick Goodman were junior high school students who tagged along to a University of Virginia board- and wargaming club. There, they met a graduate student named Bruce Shelley, with whom they would later create Age of Empires.
Ten years later Tony Goodman started a business software company called Ensemble Corporation. Five years after that, he created a game division that became Ensemble Studios. "It was a real culture clash," he recalls. "Everyone else was in suits, but we game people had this tiny cubicle area and were much more casual."
Giants versus Sphinxes -- only in Age of Mythology.
"We knew we wanted to make games, so a couple of programmers and I broke off [from the company]. Rick came on board a little bit later, and then we got [Ensemble] going. Once we got this little tank game going, as a technical exercise, we decided we wanted to do something serious.
"I had been calling Bruce every year or so to touch base and I always had a secret plan to start a game company. Then, in 1994, the day came."
Since they had wargamed together, Shelley had turned his hobby into a career, moving from SPI to Avalon Hill (the two leading board game makers of the time) and then joining Microprose, where he worked on Civilization and Railroad Tycoon with Sid Meier -- an experience he likens to a "game design university."
"The big thing I learned at Microprose," Shelley says, "was to play the game while you were making it [aka iterative design]." The philosophy would underlie his approach to game design, and he would take it with him when he moved on. With Shelley, a veteran game designer with a marketable legacy behind him, there was a broad consensus on the type of game Ensemble should make.
According to Shelley, "[Ensemble programmer] Tim Deen told us to buy Warcraft and said that this was the kind of game we should make. We thought, 'This is really cool, but why don't we make it historical?'"
An idea for a Robinson Crusoe/desert island simulation was tossed aside. "Bruce did Civilization, so [we thought] we should do something he knew how to do," says Goodman. Because the studio was full of history buffs, the idea of a real-time Civilization made sense. "It was originally called Dawn of Man," recalls Shelley. "It was about the rise of the great civilizations on earth." They expanded the game to include Greeks, Persians and Asians (at Microsoft's suggestion).
It never really looked like a city, but the graphics were a revelation at the time.
The result, of course, was Age of Empires, the first historically-themed real-time strategy game. But for a new studio with largely unproven talent, it would take more than a unique setting to crack through an increasingly crowded real-time market. Inspired by a video demo they had seen at a conference of realistic people walking through a cityscape, Tony Goodman pushed to have that level of graphics technology incorporated into the game -- a decision that undoubtedly extended the game's development. At a time when your average RTS featured either cartoonish characters (like Warcraft) or tiny vehicles (like Command & Conquer), the choice to have human-looking villagers carrying Flintstone-sized chunks of meat was a risky one. With the game's sense of light and richness of color, Shelley says, "the sun never sets in Age of Empires."
Shelley pushed for other changes, including random maps. "Fixed maps -- like in StarCraft -- are like chess; you know everything on the map. Random maps are like poker. You play the hand you're dealt." Age of Empires would be poker, using maps that followed basic templates (sea maps, continental maps, forest-rich maps, etc.) but emphasized the exploration part of the game (a central mechanic from the Civ series). Shelley also insisted on varying levels of difficulty and alternate victory conditions.
The game's development was so extended that another Ensemble team developing a fantasy strategy game (Sorceror) was poached of talent so that Age of Empires could be completed. Sandy Petersen, the lead on Sorceror, declared the project dead and worked instead on making an Age of Empires expansion pack (Rise of Rome). Throughout the life of the studio, Petersen says, the pattern became familiar. "[At least] six or seven different projects that I was working on weren't Age games [and] got canceled for one reason or another."
"We had to sell 400,000 copies [of Age of Empires] to break even, because it took three years to make it," says Shelley. But in spite of delays, Microsoft never lost faith in the project. Except for Microsoft Flight Simulator, Microsoft hadn't had much success as a game publisher. With an established designer in place and producer Stuart Moulder firmly behind the team, Age of Empires was the first Microsoft game to grace a Computer Gaming World cover.
The original campaigns were short history-based affairs that basically mimicked the main game.
Age of Empires topped one million sales relatively quickly, exhausting the holiday supply in 1997, and has sold over three million in its lifespan. It reached -- and maybe even created -- an RTS market that no one was sure was even there. Breaking out of the fantasy/science-fiction mold without changing the gameplay, AoE brought in new gamers with its historical content and drew in veterans with familiar gameplay. It became the singular Ensemble franchise. "[Former Computer Gaming World editor] Jeff Green once told me that it was the only game he'd seen lots of women play," says Shelley with pride, something he attributes to the game's willingness to open up new ground in a genre that was already full of clones. "We were the only ones doing a real historical game."
It was Age of Empires that set the pattern for so many historical RTSes to follow. The first two Empire Earth games, Cossacks: European Wars and a slew of lesser games all fell into the rhythm of gold-mining, forest-clearing and counter-units established by Age of Empires. Even the campaign system wherein the player would replay historical events was replicated, and has persisted in some corners well after Ensemble itself decided it didn't work. In Age of Empires and Blizzard's StarCraft, released within months of each other, real-time strategy would have its two iconic models, each breaking decisively from the Warcraft and Command & Conquer designs and leading a golden age.
Building a workplace
Though Shelley espouses the standard employer line that Ensemble should "make great games and be a great place to work," both he and Tony Goodman had very firm ideas about the type of company they wanted Ensemble to be. Major decisions would be based on consensus. Employees should know each other on sight. And there should be an understanding of game design deeper than what is on the computer monitor.
Naval warfare was more than an afterthought, though wood could be in short supply.
Board games, therefore, became an important part of the corporate culture. "I wanted people to understand games at a level where computers didn't control them," says Goodman. "If you and I are playing a game without a computer, all the fun is on top of the table. It's transparent." Computers, he argues, introduce "magic" into a game such that you may not be entirely sure why you enjoy it. Board games leave the rules exposed for analysis and understanding. "Anyone can analyze why that game is fun."
They also proved to be valuable tools for job interviews. Candidates were encouraged to play board games with their prospective colleagues, and this could be a deal-breaker. Programmer and designer Dave Pottinger remembers RoboRally being a particularly valuable litmus test. "We had one person interview for a position and say nothing the entire time. Another one got so mad he threw his pieces."
In an industry that is fueled by turnover, start-ups and mergers, the stability of Ensemble's staff appears remarkable. Rick Goodman left to form Stainless Steel Studios shortly after the release of Age of Empires, and made three games that tried to advance the Age formula. But many of the central personalities at Ensemble have worked there for a decade. Shelley and Tony Goodman credit the cohesion to a system that tried, for a long time, to keep the team size manageable. Though common in smaller companies, Ensemble allowed all employees to have a say in interviews and hiring decisions for many years, even after Microsoft tried to discourage the practice.
A well-used priest could be your most powerful unit.
"I've never seen a company like it," says Sandy Petersen, a veteran of Microprose and id Software. "The people here all got along really well. It used to be that everyone knew everyone and [all the employees] were friends. The most recent expansion [during development of Age of Empires III] changed that." Petersen gives great credit to the management at Ensemble. He draws a comparison to Microprose, a celebrated studio that, in his opinion, "never understood what they had" and undervalued their talent.
Shelley gives a lot of the credit to Goodman, whom he says is very invested in the success and camaraderie of the Ensemble staff. "Tony is a unique kind of guy. As far as bosses go, there is a lot of lip service to employee satisfaction. But everyone at Ensemble sees him as a personal friend. He takes it very personally when things go wrong, and celebrates every success. Every time we've won an award, he gets a copy of it made so he can have it at home."
Read on for Part 2 of this feature.