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Age of Ensemble Reflections

December 29th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 11 Comments · Crispy Gamer, Ensemble, History, Industry

Now that the series is complete and I have some distance from it, I can probably reflect a little more about the Ensemble three parter.

I’m most happy with how open everyone was, especially with their criticisms of their own work. The series would simply not have been as interesting as it was if Shelley, Goodman, Pottinger, Petersen and Street refused to own up to mistakes or been so up front about why Age of Kings was such an outlier. People demonstrated regret about titles that got cancelled, features that did or did not get cut and even some weariness about the Age series in general. If I ever write another one of these things, I’d like to have that sort of openness be the standard.

Of course, that may not happen. Developers can be protective of their children, thought it’s nice to find one who can admit that a design they thought would work would be much less than they had expected. And this series of interviews was with people who knew that they would be turning a page on a franchise – they could look at it with more objectivity and less need to protect and preserve the expectations of their audience.

They were not open about the split with Microsoft, and it was made very clear from the beginning that the subject of the closure would be off limits. Ensemble is, after all, still a part of Microsoft. Beyond the generic expressions of regret, everyone still at ES was professional about the whole thing. This did not mean that they were faking their appreciation for everything Microsoft had done for the studio – and they did mention how the MS acquisition changed the corporate culture – for good and ill – and how publisher pressure to keep making Age games would mean canceling a lot of other projects.

I wish I could have interviewed more people – my acquaintance and blogroll member Rob Fermier, for example – but I already had more material than I could ever use. Like how ship dates would be marked by drunken celebration at a German restaurant. About how pathfinding is the hardest part of programming a real time strategy game. About how Tony Goodman would build an ideal work environment. About the benefits and perils of allowing every employee a say in hiring decisions. About winning a Best Graphics prize for Age of Empires III – a recognition traditionally given to shooters or sports games – and what this meant to the team.

I solicited some opinions that never arrived (I won’t say who failed me so I can spare the innocent), but I do appreciate the comments from developers Chris Taylor and Brian Reynolds (who had a lot to say that I didn’t print) and from my former colleague Jeff Green and current colleague Tom Chick. I certainly know enough about the games to not need other journalist input, but let’s face it – the more people you have as supporting evidence, the better.

In his Year of Strategy Wrap Up, Chick wonders what the closure of Ensemble means for deep, complex, AAA PC strategy games. He never really answers the question, but I’ll try.

Ensemble’s closure is not a leading indicator, of course. Gas Powered Games and EALA have tried – unsuccessfully at this point – to move their RTS games to a console environment. This in itself shows where developer energies are going. Ensemble takes a long time to make a game, and even with millions of sales the profit margins are getting slimmer for every AAA title.

For me, the real question is whether the closure of Ensemble means the end of AAA light history games, games where you are stuck in a world that looks something like the past, a world that makes history look inviting. I never learned a lot from the Age games, but they did make me curious about things I wasn’t curious about before. As a hardcore gamer, I might have been brought to these topics through something else, but I bet that most people only have the Age games and the Total War games.

When I had to do some fact checking on the Age III combat model that never was, I turned to a preview that Chick (the man is everywhere) wrote for the May 2005 CGM back in the day. He closes the preview with this vignette, that I hope he doesn’t mind seeing here:

While Street is breaking down the basic units every country gets, he describes how some of the hussars “have those, you know, big band hats.” He puts both hands over his head and shoots them up in parallel directions to illustrate, you know, a big band hat.

“Shako,” Bruce Shelley says. “Or a kepi.” Shelley explains how they could be used to store food during foraging expeditions, and how they were designed to be intimidating in battles by making a man look taller. Shelley’s not being pedantic. It’s just that he knows, and he cares enough that it’s interesting to him.

I doubt that Age III has turned the kepi into a household word, but Hussite War Wagons? Maybe.

Now, the big brains at ES will be moving somewhere else. And they are still history nerds. And, I suspect, they will still sell lots of games. But the budget may not be there, and budgets matter if you think that a “swirling mass of crap” (an Ensemble term for combat in most RTS) can provoke curiosity.

As I said before, if you liked the Ensemble story, let Crispy Gamer know. This took a lot of time, including making reassuring tones in the direction of PR to make sure no one would be too embarrassed or break any contracts. I enjoyed writing it, I enjoyed researching it. It’s probably not my best work, but not all of you have had the pleasure of watching me roast a turkey.

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11 Comments so far ↓

  • SwiftRanger

    Would love to see the bits that got cut out.

    Though only the first Age of Empires stuck out for me (has a lot to do with looks/animations of the units) I am still curious what the ‘new Ensemble’ will do. Maybe they’ve seen how well CivRev did and do something similar on consoles though a PC-only title would make me more happy.

    If we want to see more like this, we’d just need to mail CrispyGamer or put something in the comments of the articles then?

  • Troy

    Yeah, just stick a comment on the article. Or email the editor directly. Or just link to it someplace and point other readers to it. Hits are the thing. I don’t want to juke the stats or anything, but serious hard work like this isn’t being done in a lot of places. CG does it every week.

    I could see a console type game, and maybe Ensemble sees the success of the AoK and AoM DS versions and imagines a future there. I think the handhelds could be the savior of serious strategy gaming if you don’t worry too much about graphics.

    As for the other bits, nothing got cut out; stuff just didn’t get put in. I may use it for future comments; these guys know design.

  • James Allen

    With the continued expansion of digital distribution, do you see a decrease in the retail presence of RTS games (with a few exceptions) and more smaller, independent titles taking the charge with less graphical flair but solid ganeplay? As I’ve stated before, I think the future of most PC gaming lies in online sales by smaller developers, especially in the strategy genre.

  • Troy

    I’ve said the same thing, James, in a number of places, but AAA games are a different kettle of fish. As I note in my wargame summary on CG, wargame developers have thrown themselves into the digital environment whole hog. Most small developers have.

    AAA games are another kettle of fish, no matter the genre. Steam is changing things, to be sure. As has World of Warcraft. Consumers are much more comfortable with digital distribution than they were. But there’s no denying that a shift from a colorful box and manual to a PDF would be a step down for top notch strategy titles.

  • Alan Au

    I’ve sometimes wondered if RTS as a genre is dying, going the way of the adventure games. Then I remember how insanely popular RTS games are in places like South Korea, where it seems like StarCraft is a national pasttime.

  • Troy

    The genre is certainly changing, but it’s nowhere near where it once was. Relic is making a new one, but it has a lot of RPG stuff in it. Big Huge Games is making an RPG. Starcraft II is the only really big RTS on the horizon and last year saw Red Alert 3.

    And as for Korea, I would say that Starcraft is popular more than say that RTSes are popular. It’s an important distinction.

  • Alan Au

    In some sense RTS really is going the way of the adventure game, incorporating more and more RPG elements. Of course, in this case it means adding more story and continuity to a combat game, rather than adding a combat element to a story game. Even StarCraft II is promising more narrative elements.

  • Dave Long

    StarCraft II will probably reignite the category. Blizzard’s game will have to be a super dud not to. The only other option is that Blizzard basically corners the entire market like they seem to have done with World of Warcraft making hardly anyone even try to make a similar game.

    Hopefully a successful StarCraft II will also mean a future WarCraft IV.

  • Jon Shafer

    To speak on the digital distribution topic for a bit: It’ll be a very, very long time before this replaces retail for “AAA” games. Civ IV (and it’s various spawn) sell a lot of digital copies, but it’s still no where NEAR as many as the number of boxed copies sold. I think the more “hardcore” gamers have been much quicker to adopt the DD model when compared with more casual gamers. I always chuckle a little bit when folks on the internet suggest companies try to stick it to companies like Gamestop and just go digital. They’d only do that if they wanted to lose 50%+ of their sales. :)

    I expect that we’ll see a further decline in the RTS market in the next decade or so. Publishers are getting less and less inclined to go in that direction. When excellent games like Company of Heroes don’t sell as well as they should, it’s easy to understand why.

    I suppose it shouldn’t be any surprise, but I really loved this series Troy. I wish there was more of this kind of stuff available.

    Jon

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