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10 Years Ago This Month: Microsoft announces Ensemble's closing time months before it wraps development on Halo Wars

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Ensemble's Hydra-like Ability to Spawn New Studios

2008 was a particularly rough year for studio closures, but few were as unexpected as that of Ensemble. After all, the studio was one of the crown jewels in the Microsoft first-party family, creator of the phenomenally successful Age of Empires franchise. In September of 2008, it was in the home stretch of development on Halo Wars, a real-time strategy game that marked the first expansion of Microsoft's most important Xbox franchise beyond its first-person shooter roots. But in what was described as "a fiscally rooted decision," Microsoft announced that it would be closing Ensemble once work on Halo Wars had wrapped up.

The news arrived about a year after Microsoft closed Shadowrun developer FASA Studios announced that Halo outfit Bungie would be going independent, rekindling doubts about a first-party lineup that now leaned heavily on Rare, Lionhead and Turn 10 Studios, supported by external studios contributing games like Too Human, Crackdown, and the Gears of War franchise.

"As heartbreaking as it can be to see studios closed and people laid off, the people involved in such events often band together to build something new"

Then-Microsoft Game Studios head Phil Spencer sought to soothe employee concerns in a company memo, telling them, "This action notwithstanding, I want to emphasize that the overall investment Microsoft is making in videogame development is not diminished, and we will continue to bring in talent to work on titles and franchises where we'll see the most ROI." It would not be the last time Spencer had to defend the Xbox first-party lineup, something we can only assume grew increasingly frustrating until the company's E3 2018 media briefing, when he announced the acquisition of five separate studios at once, quieting doubters and ensuring he wouldn't have to answer pointed questions about the studio lineup until, oh, let's say GDC 2019.

As heartbreaking as it can be to see studios closed and people laid off, the people involved in such events often band together to build something new. And appropriately enough, Ensemble has spawned an ensemble of developmental offspring. Even as Microsoft announced the closure of Ensemble, it added that some of the key staff there had already made plans to set up a new studio to provide support on Halo Wars. That outfit, Robot Entertainment, worked on Age of Empires Online, created the Orcs Must Die franchise, and is still running today. Founder Tony Goodman also went on to establish another studio, PeopleFun, in 2012.

Another group of Ensemble vets formed Bonfire Studios, which was acquired by Zynga and shutdown in a massive round of layoffs. And from the ashes of Bonfire came Boss Fight Entertainment, developer of Dungeon Boss.

Two more Ensemble developers, Paul and David Bettner, went on to co-found Newtoy and develop the smash mobile hit Words with Friends. They also sold to Zynga, left the company in 2012, and formed Playful Corp, creator of Lucky's Tale. And then there's Bonus XP, which was set up by Ensemble vets who reunited after stints at Bonfire, Robot, and id Software, and produced the Stranger Things mobile game.

If we missed anyone, just do us a solid and pretend we didn't, because this story has way too many links in it already.

People Speaking Too Soon

● After the Ensemble closure, Phil Spencer gave an interview in which he talked about the value of Gears of War to Microsoft, saying, "Gears of War is about Cliff Bleszinski and Tim Sweeney, and that team's passion for building Gears. It's not about us owning a brand called Gears of War..." Microsoft bought the Gears of War brand from Epic in 2014, and the series is more about Funko Pops than Sweeney or Bleszinski.

Gears POP!, coming 2019 to iOS and Android.

● In the second part of that same interview, Spencer said there were no plans to do to Lionhead what had been done to Bungie or Ensemble. That was almost certainly 100% true at the time, but the somewhat unfortunate headline of the piece, "Phil Spencer: Lionhead's future is safe," feels like it belongs in this section anyway.

● While all that was happening, Microsoft executive Robert Bach downplayed investor concerns about the struggling economy, saying the company had seen no negative impact on its games business. The negative impact would become much easier to see at the end of the month as the global economy went completely off the rails just a few weeks later.

● GameStop was confident heading into the 2008 holidays that it would finally have enough Wii hardware to meet demand for the system in its third holiday season. (That confidence would not last.)

● Midway interim CEO and president Matt Booty stressed the publisher's Newcastle studio (the team behind Wheelman) was in the company's long-term plans. Unfortunately, it was not in the long-term plans of Warner Bros., which purchased Midway out of bankruptcy within a year, but left Newcastle to be shut down.

● Electronic Arts signed a three-game deal with film director Zack Snyder, who was best known at the time for his work on 300. As far as we can tell, none of those games were ever announced.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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