Age of Ensemble, Part 3: The Closing Chapters
By the time Age of Mythology came out, there was a sense that the franchise, and genre in general, was getting played out. "There were several prominent articles back then about how the RTS genre was basically done," recalls Greg Street, the lead designer on Age of Empires III.
Age III upped the ante where graphics were concerned, making the lush tropics come alive.
"Everything that could be done had been done -- or so the argument went. At the same time, we had people at Ensemble Studios who had been working on essentially the same game for 10 years and were starting to burn out."
However, with Ensemble's expertise in real-time strategy, there seemed to be little appetite at Microsoft, or in-house, for a radical new look at the genre. So Street took the team's resistance as a challenge, and challenged them in return to make "the best-looking game ever."
"[This] proved strong motivation for the programmers and artists, obviously, but also for design. We wanted the cannon knocking down troops to actually be a real part of gameplay, and not just graphical embellishment. We wanted to have long-range siege weapons. We wanted to have train tracks that looked real, not the kind of mess ? that players can spam out whenever they want.
The floating numbers are experience points, which are credited towards your next shipment from the Home City.
"We knew there were a lot of opportunities for awesome graphics: herds of bison, pirate ships firing broadsides at a galleon, musketeers firing volleys in formations, mortars shelling one of those star-shaped Vauban fortresses, Sioux on horseback, beaver lodges, early locomotives and the European capital cities themselves."
The real challenge for the team was to make the graphical and design innovations they had in mind work with their reluctance to trim features.
"Part of the team -- and the customer base! -- was extremely wedded to the Age of Kings gameplay. In their minds, Age 3 should have just been Age 2 with a graphical update, and ? 'Do we really need cannons, because we kind of liked them trebuchets?'
Artillery is the master of the battlefield, provided you can protect it.
"We had a hard time pruning old features to make room for the new ones, because someone on the team ended up being in love with every one of those features. "We have to have Wonders. We have to have opening gates. We have to have berry bushes. We have to have converting monks. I see the same discussions happening on StarCraft II. This is a franchise issue, not an Age of Empires issue."
The big feature that Ensemble tried to sell gamers and the gaming media was the Home City, an intercontinental Santa Claus that would parcel out goodies as the player gained experience. As you leveled up your city, you had more payout options available to you.
"That was an idea we borrowed from role-playing games," says Shelley. "Your city is your character and you can shape it over play. A lot of our [proposed] innovations didn't take root, but we stuck with the Home City."
According to Greg Street, the Home City was such a central idea that it had to be reworked over and over. He says there were about 40 variations on the city, and Shelley remembers an early design of Age 3 being more similar to a board game -- it more about accumulating points than exterminating your enemy. Though both are very happy with how the Home City turned out, Dave Pottinger is more critical of the final iteration.
"It was a really cool idea, but not integrated well. We didn't have the balls to change the game to make it work. We should have made it a bigger part of the campaign and built the entire game around it."
Even within Ensemble, there is debate over how well the Home City concept was implemented.
The pressure to make the game more innovative had some missteps. A heavily promoted combat model, making deeper use of formations, artificial intelligence scripts and line of fire, was never finished in spite of up-to-the-end work by Pottinger and Street. "We wanted to have something amazing to show people all at once," says Street, "so they would evaluate the design fairly rather than nitpick at every step along the way. It was a noble cause, but not the Ensemble way, and was doomed to failure. The combat feature was coming together very well, and I still think it was a mistake not to ship with it. But it came together late, without the support of the entire team. And Ensemble was not a place to ram even a good design down the throats of a team that wasn't behind it."
In spite of widespread satisfaction, everyone I spoke to expressed some ambivalence about Age 3's step toward greater complexity. Once you throw in the two expansion packs and on-map native tribes, Age 3 has hundreds of units. "Is a ninja infantry or counter-infantry?" asks Pottinger. And the story-based campaign, though a point of pride for Street, did a poor job of introducing players to all that was going on.
Expansions added Native American and Asian nations, transforming the base game.
For critic Tom Chick, whose review of Age of Empires III provoked a public scolding from Shelley, this complexity is part of the game's charm. "I'm thinking of the way natives work, the explorer mechanic, how navies and artillery are balanced and, most of all, their economic model, which went well beyond food/wood/coin. There was experience, Home Cities, trade, factories and native dancers in the WarChiefs expansion. There was the weird Ottoman system with the mosques and those damn Dutch with their banks. If you couldn't master Ensemble's economic model, you couldn't play Age of
Empires III. And it was a lovely economic model to learn to master. You will never see [Electronic Arts Los Angeles] or Relic try something like that."
Plus, the goal of making the best-looking RTS ever was achieved. Age of Empires III won plaudits for its reflective water, gorgeous unit design and convincing forests. Just like earlier Age games, it was a smash hit that would pop up on bestseller lists with every expansion and price drop. It's unlikely that anyone thought it would be the last Age game that Ensemble would ever make.
Somebody else's toys
In September 2006, Microsoft announced that its prize RTS developer would be making an RTS based on its prize intellectual property -- the Halo universe. The conversion of a first-person shooter to a strategy game for the Xbox 360 would be a challenge for everyone. Real-time strategy games have never been comfortable in the console environment, and the legions of Halo fans are immersed in a diet of games, novels and action figures. "It's almost Star Wars for this generation," says Pottinger, now the lead designer on Halo Wars.
Drawing on his own experience making the Asian Dynasties expansion for Age of Empires III, Brian Reynolds of Big Huge Games is cautious about working in someone else's playground.
"Working with an existing IP that someone else created has its own unique set of challenges -- you need to create something 'new and exciting' for players while staying true to what made the original game great. The most important thing to do is identify the central features of the original franchise that attracted players, and keep almost all of those things intact."
"Halo Wars is a boiled-down strategy game," Pottinger warns. "It's a 15-minute console adrenaline fest with lots of explosions. But I think it has reinvigorated the team quite a bit. You get a little tired of working on the same PC game, where you get into battles over which features to put in. It was great to think about making a game that is so different."
There are, to be expected, lots of challenges in working with someone else's universe. Your typical Ensemble game draws on Encyclopedia Britannica -- general knowledge in the public domain that can be turned into something mechanical. The Halo world presents difficulties that cannot be resolved by taking out the Italians and Swedes, two nations culled from Age of Empires III.
"It's a very tough road to walk," says Shelley. "You have to make some tradeoffs between consoles and your typical RTS. You have to simplify the economy, make the action faster; there is no micromanagement."
"If you come to Halo Wars looking for the Age experience, well, it's not that. It's more about combat," says Pottinger. "People who were good at our previous games may not be successful here. Even in our development team, there has been a definite shift in who's good at this game versus who was good at the earlier games. It doesn't apologize for being simple."
As one of the premier real-time strategy developers, Ensemble is well aware of the difficulties other companies have faced in translating the genre for a console controller and television. They point to first-person shooters as an example of how a genre can work just as well on the console, provided the game is built with that platform in mind.
Part of the challenge, says Pottinger, is the size of the audience. "Holy crap. There are a lot of people who love Halo. It reminds you of how jaded you can get working on someone else's IP. It's cool to work on a game that is going to get more public attention than the Age games. They were never quite as cool.
"With Halo Wars, we have Todd McFarlane coming to visit, and everybody has his figures. In that sense, working on Halo has been very cool. I would rather work on our own IP, but I'm very proud of the game we've made."
There have already been complaints from the hardcore fans about unit design. "People saw the Cyclops in his mech suit and said that we were already pulling a Jar Jar Binks on the IP. We stay as true as we can, but a strategy game needs to have lots of units and the UNSC needs a melee unit.
"When I took over as lead designer, we had five guys on two legs who shot guns for the UNSC -- five different units that were pretty much the same. It was too hard. So we kept a couple, turned one into an upgrade, etc. Three you can remember. Five is too many."
Pottinger thinks that, in many ways, Halo Wars is a blessing for the team since they have had to streamline the design. "We've had to make tough choices and a better, tighter game."
The better, tighter game will be their last one -- at least in this incarnation.
Moving on and looking back
Since most of those consulted for this article are still employees of Microsoft, none would speak on the record about the sudden announcement that Ensemble Studios would shut down once Halo Wars was completed. There was a lot of disappointment, and a little bitterness, but no one is finished making games.
"I hope I get to make one more great game," says Bruce Shelley. "I worked on Civilization and Age of Empires. One more like that would be nice." Plans are already in place for a successor studio -- smaller and more like the earlier, more intimate Ensemble. But Age of Empires is a Microsoft property, and it's uncertain what, if any role, the new studio could play in its future.
Still, "Age of Empires is our legacy," says Tony Goodman. "People will know that, and Ensemble Studios will be forgotten. Only so many people know what Ensemble is, anyway, right?"
Shelley is proud of what Ensemble has done, and is unapologetic for the style of game that it made. "There was a guy making an RTS years ago -- I won't go into names -- and he said that he would have none of that stupid wood chopping. I just said, 'Fine, we'll do the wood chopping. Our fans seem to love it.'"
Shelley was philosophical about the role played by peons in developing a sense of flow (citing psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi), and how it fit into his theory of the inverted pyramid of decision-making in game design. "Pacing alone can make a decision interesting -- deciding what to do first while the clock is ticking."
"We're old-school gamers," says Goodman. "Dungeons & Dragons, Axis & Allies. Age of Empires, I think, is for people like that. And I think we made a difference when we made it."
Greg Street, now a Blizzard employee, thinks that Microsoft has put an end to something very special, and has words of caution for whomever takes up the Age mantle. "This is an industry where talent counts for a whole lot more than franchise brand identity. Bad sequels sell okay, but they definitely do damage to a good franchise and we all know stories of franchises that were driven into the ground."
Brian Reynolds is too big a fan of the series to see it end. "I certainly hope someone will get a chance to continue the Age series at some point -- they're some of my favorite games of all time, and I'd love to see both a 20th-century Age IV game and a revisit to the ancient times of the first AoE using updated game mechanics, art, technology, and so forth."
Former Computer Gaming World editor Jeff Green gives voice to many in his disbelief that Ensemble and its games will be separated. "I still can't quite get over the fact that Ensemble is gone or that Microsoft would do this to them. For many PC gamers, Ensemble was the jewel in the crown, the proof that Microsoft still gave a damn about PC gaming. For me personally, Age of Empires remains the RTS series I've played more than any other, and is also the one I've used most as a gateway to turn others on to the genre. Non-hardcore gamers who were afraid of StarCraft's sci-fi or WarCraft's fantasy could more easily accept Age of Empires' more 'realistic' setting, which right from the start was always beautifully realized in terms of art, animation and sound. And I will forever love them for introducing the 'idle peasant' button, which everyone else copied later."
Ensemble is proud that none of its games has ever sold less than two million copies. You can point to each title on its r?sum? and identify how it either moved real-time strategy games forward in significant ways or embraced the state of the art in the genre. They have a design that is immediately identifiable and distinct from the other giants in the field -- Blizzard, Relic and Electronic Arts.
But budgets and bottom lines have little regard for originality and no time for gratitude. As the Age games got more sophisticated and more attractive, they took longer to make. The corporate push -- from Microsoft, from within Ensemble and from a rabid fan base -- to keep the series going may have kept the team from diversifying its brands and skill set. Even the built-in hit of Halo Wars, already late according to Dave Pottinger, is not enough to ensure the team continues.
And Halo Wars, even though it is an Ensemble game, will not be the sort of game that they are known for. Tom Chick thinks it is an odd game to close on, given their legacy of elaborate economic/military games. That is how they will close, though, putting a period on an era that began with villagers trying to bring down an elephant and priests chanting cures over injured soldiers.