Friday, September 12, 2008

What Will Happen to the âAge ofâ¦â Game Franchise?


The past has a certain way of knocking on the present's door. This week has been proof of that. First, Google turned 10 (or 13), sending me down memory lane back to when “Silicon Alley Insider” meant Fred Wilson and Scott Kurnit, not the blog by that name.

And now here comes news that Microsoft is shuttering Ensemble Studios. This is the same studio that created the only game franchise I have truly loved: The Age Of Empires. It is the only Microsoft product I honestly can say I truly enjoyed. Maybe that is why the Ensemble shutdown news caught my eye.

It wasn't clear from today's news what was going to happen to The Age of Empires and its sequels including the Age of Mythology. So I emailed Microsoft to get some clarification. "Microsoft will continue to sell the Ensemble games, including ‘Halo Wars,’ but is not commenting on future plans for the Age franchise," Microsoft spokesperson emailed back. (Read the full statement at the end of the post.) That left me where I started -– confused, like many Age of Empires fans.

Given that the Age of Empires has sold over 20 million copies, I am betting some kind of deal might be in the works to keep milking the franchise, which began in 1997 when the game was first released by Ensemble and sold by Microsoft. Microsoft eventually bought the studio in 2001 and followed up with The Age of Mythology.

Still,  the possibility (however remote) that the game would soon be gone conjured up images from the past. While there are many great real-time strategy games, Civilization, for example, I don't have an emotional bond with the game that starts in the Stone Age and progresses through history giving players an option to pick from different civilizations.

What I loved most about it was the fact that each civilization had its skills (economic or military) and you needed to be aware of their "edge." Most importantly, the game had easy to set-up network play features. After our day was done at's, I would team up with my editor-boss David Churbuck and play the game over the network against the business guys, led by Dewayne Martin, before going off for dinner. Now that was some serious fun!

I even had a whole list of cheats written out on a piece of paper that was stuck to the 17-inch Gateway monitor. It became such an obsession that I would think of strategies to outwit our competitors on the business side. And I can't even remember how many hours I practiced and then got really good at it. I spent many weekends playing the game online, using the experience to figure out that online gaming would one day be the big driver of broadband usage and demand. Of course, knowledge would come later. Memories came sooner.

The Age of Empires was part of the whole experience, and since then the game has become part of my memories at and the early days of the Internet boom. These days I just play whenever I have time and inclination. The Rise of Rome add-on was my favorite. Still is. Maybe today I am going to fire up the BootCamp and play for a while before I go to sleep.

Microsoft statement on why it closed Ensemble.

Microsoft has decided to close Ensemble Studios following the completion of “Halo Wars.” After the closure, the Ensemble leadership team will form a new studio and has agreed to provide ongoing support for “Halo Wars” as well as work on other projects with Microsoft Game Studios. Microsoft will continue to sell the Ensemble games, including “Halo Wars,” but is not commenting on future plans for the Age franchise.

The team at Ensemble has made invaluable contributions to the games industry with their “Age of Empires” and “Age of Mythology” games and with the highly anticipated release of “Halo Wars.” This decision does not reflect at all on Ensemble’s talent or the quality of “Halo Wars” - in fact, many people who have had a chance to test drive “Halo Wars” agree that it is on track to being a fantastic game.

This was a fiscally-rooted decision that keeps MGS on its growth path.  While the decision to dissolve Ensemble was not an easy one, Microsoft is working to place as many Ensemble employees who do not move to the newly formed studio into open positions within Microsoft as possible.

As to our overall strategy at MGS, it remains the same. We are committed to growing MGS with world-class talent both internally and with our external partners around the globe.  We have recently added some well-known developers to our team and will continue growing the team. We’re particularly excited about the titles we have in the pipeline and continue to evaluate additional opportunities to bring incredible games to life with the industry’s best. Our investment in games has never been greater than it is today.

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