Age of Empires Dev Ensemble Speaks Out on Studio Closure, Microsoft, and the Cancelled Halo MMO

It's the developer behind Age of Empires, one of the most successful videogame franchises of all time. It's a financial success, with its flagship franchise recording sales of over 20 million copies.

The company's latest title, Halo Wars, is a console RTS based on the hugely popular shooter series. By all accounts, this was a studio poised to conquer new territory with its dependable design and a popular property.

Which is why it was so confusing when owner Microsoft announced its intention to close Ensemble Studios following the completion of Halo Wars. Recently I sat down to talk with Ensemble director of technology Dave Pottinger, who quickly echoed that confusion by saying Microsoft's decision "honestly doesn't make a lot of sense."

In our conversation, we touched on how the announcement of the studio closure affected the team, where the staff is moving on to, and what this means for the future of both Halo Wars and Age of Empires. Pottinger also shed a little more light on Ensemble's cancelled Halo MMO, while revealing that a reorganized Microsoft scrapped the title after it had already been green-lit.

Shack: How is the Halo Wars project looking?

Dave Pottinger: We're down to the end. And obviously with the studio closure and stuff that changes the perception a little bit, but people are really dedicated to finishing the game.

Shack: How did the announcement of the impending studio closure affect the team?

Dave Pottinger: Well, poorly. [laughs]

Shack: Did it catch you guys by surprise?

Dave Pottinger: Um, it's Microsoft's right to decide where they wanna put their money. Personally we all disagree with the decision.

Shack: As did, I think, most observers.

Dave Pottinger: Yeah, it honestly doesn't make a lot of sense. But that's their prerogative.

After they told us they were closing us, we tried to do some things that--there's at least one studio that's starting with a good chunk of the Ensemble people, about half. And that's the studio that's contracted for support for Halo Wars. So the cool thing about that is, from a buyer standpoint, Halo Wars isn't going to just be shoved out there. But it's also helped I think to really solidify people in terms of getting the game done in the first place.

We know that a good number of people are going to have to live with the cooking, so to speak, and so we've really been able to keep people focused on making it a great game. Losing your job is never good, but the best thing about the team's dedication is, we had a hundred full-time people when the announcement was made--we've lost three since then.

Those were three people that--you know, everyone at Ensemble is important, we don't want to lose anybody. But we had feared losing 30 or 40, and I think it's a testament to the strength of Ensemble--and I guess maybe the mistake that Microsoft is making, if you want to look at it that way--that so many people stuck around to see this game out, and kind of make Ensemble go out the right way.

Shack: Do you guys know if this is part of an overall strategy at Microsoft?

Dave Pottinger: They... they have a plan. We're not in it the way that we used to be. It's... they're making the choice that they need to make to be profitable, and make the right choice for the shareholders and things like that. It's hard to look at the stuff Ensemble's done and equate those two things, and justify it in that sense, but...

Shack: That's the strangest thing about this, because even just looking at it from a business perspective, you guys always did very well.

Dave Pottinger: Yeah, I guess just not well enough. [laughs] Yeah, I think we made, what, 700 million dollars total on the Age franchise?

Shack: Do you know what's going to happen to Age of Empires?

Dave Pottinger: Uh, Microsoft has some plans for it, but I'm not really at liberty to discuss it. But it will carry on. It's a great franchise. We're obviously real proud of the work on that over the last 13 or 14 years.

I think one of the sad things is that we thought we were on to something with Halo Wars. Our goal for that project was always to bring strategy gaming to the console, and give people a chance on the console to see how much fun that type of gaming can be. And in terms of Halo Wars 2, that's certainly in Microsoft's court right now.

Shack: What were the circumstances behind the Halo MMO?

Dave Pottinger: Ensemble has been wanting to make an MMO for a long time. That was in production for a long time. The Halo IP was a great IP to launch an MMO with. Microsoft... hasn't had the best track record with those.

And we worked on it for a long time--we had staffed up an almost-40 person team. And then there was some reorganization at Microsoft, and the new bosses thought it wasn't the best idea anymore. It had actually been green-lit, and then it got cancelled after that.

Shack: So you guys were feeling good about it?

Dave Pottinger: Yeah, we were happy with it. It was a long road to go, and we had proved the gameplay we wanted to prove.

It actually turned out--we ended up reusing a lot of the people. We had hired people who were excited about making a Halo game, and we used them on Phoenix--Phoenix is the Halo Wars codename. And a lot of that stuff that we picked up was able to be reused. So we didn't lose everything. It wasn't all wasted.

Shack: From the screenshots that were leaked, it seemed very World of Warcraft-esque. Was that your model?

Dave Pottinger: Yeah. It's a popular one.

Shack: Was the concept such that there were Covenant and UNSC factions, in the same way that WoW has Horde and Alliance?

Dave Pottinger: It was more broken up than that. The Covenant weren't quite the Covenant yet.

That idea of that sort of stylized approach to Halo was something that we were very interested in, in terms of the art. Some of the art that leaked out wasn't art that was actually in the game, so people were a little more torqued than they needed to be.

But it felt very Halo--we had a combat demo that felt like a very action-oriented MMO, but still had that MMO depth. So it was very analogous to the RTS that we worked on.

Shack: So you didn't have plans to go for a more FPS-style game.

Dave Pottinger: It was definitely more of a classic MMO, but it still had that very action feel. Definitely more actiony than WoW.

Stay tuned for our full interview with Ensemble Studios' Dave Pottinger and Graeme Devine.

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