For those like me still lamenting the death of Ensemble Studios, a great piece is up on Crispy Gamer. The three part feature looks at how ES got started; how they ended and can be found here, please note this links to part 1 and there are 2 others on the website. It’s never a good thing when a game company gets shutdown but I really took the death of ES hard.
ES has done a lot in their time; even though they have only worked on the Age of series it has garnered them numerous awards. Age of Kings (their first title) manage to compete against the monopoly of Westwood Studios (another great company) and Blizzard in the late 90s for RTS dominance. They have never made a game that failed which is no small accomplishment; from playing their games over the years you could tell that this was a company that cared for their products. Now that doesn’t mean the company didn’t have a few slip ups over the years.
Age of Empires 3 had a rough start, patches to the game actually removed important game mechanics by accident and not everything was promised made it into the game. Going back further Age of Mythology had trouble in the market as people didn’t think it was part of the Age of franchise (what, people didn’t notice the ES logo on the front?! but I digress). The company was called to create a new strategy title in the Halo universe for the consoles, which would become their final PC game. Even though AOE3 would be their last game it will stand the test of time as one of the most interesting RTS games out there.
AOE 3 started out as another real world setting RTS title, it had your Rock Paper Scissors like strategy and unique sides with their own advantages and disadvantages. The first big difference was the Home City, a way of having Collectible Card Game like mechanics into a RTS. You would build your deck with shipments (AKA cards) that can be sent over from your homeland to assist in your fight to take over. These cards range from a quick influx of units, to unique researches and equipment further improving your strengths. I LOVED this idea, as it easily destroyed one of the main complaints I have about RTS games, having the game play become mundane. In most RTS games you can figure out the main tactics of someone by the side they use, in AOE 3 however the deck of cards each person has can have a huge affect on their play style making it impossible to know how someone will fight until you play them. Add in random resources on maps kept the game from becoming too predictable, but ES did not stop there.
Over the lifetime of AOE 3, two expansions were released that turned the game into something else entirely. The first one “The War Chiefs” added Native American sides to the game, with their own unique way of handling things, they could perform rituals improving certain areas of their base at the cost of not having villagers gathering resources, and one side didn’t have any cavalry units and instead had special infantry for that role. The original nations receive the end game bonus of Revolution allowing them to have an end game counter to the other factions. If you thought that things couldn’t get any bigger, it became huge after the next expansion.
“The Asian Dynasties” would be the last and would impact the game play the most. TAD was guest designed by Big Huge Games which did the Rise of Nations series and they brought numerous interface and quality of life improvements to the game. More importantly they added another unique group of sides, the above mentioned Asian Dynasties with of course their own unique units, cards and researches. Wonders (Real life Monuments) returned to the series for TAD giving unique bonuses to whoever can build them. By the end, the world of AOE 3 was huge, perhaps too huge as the amount of details to keep track of could easily overwhelm a new comer to the series. Still AOE 3 will probably remain as one of the most feature enriched RTS titles ever made.
The reason why I’m still upset is that the studio did nothing wrong, as mentioned none of their games were commercial flops and the talent at the studio was overflowing. We may never know the real reason why Microsoft pulled the plug on ES and that pisses me off. With studios that produce bargain bin quality titles every year still in existence, losing such a prominent game studio is absurd. This is one of the main reasons why if I ever do own a game studio in the future, I will fight tooth and nail to keep it independent so that crap like this cannot happen. Now I should end this before I get myself anymore worked up. At least ES ended on a high note for PC gaming and will be remembered as one of the best, I do wish that everyone at ES good luck and hoped that they have found more work since the studio’s closing.