The final stop on Next-Gen's tour of Dallas was Ensemble. One of the best known developers in Dallas has two floors at the top of a terra-cotta colored tower. Inside, it's built out in an interior design that looks like a space-ship.
As Tony Goodman, CEO of Ensemble Studios explains, "We don't want it to feel like an office, we want it to feel like a cool place to hang out." And it does. From the lounges throughout, to the theater room with eighty seats, where the team gathers to watch movies, the effect is achieved.
Goodman has just moved from one office to another, and isn't quite unpacked. On his desk is a copy of the Blue Ocean Strategy. We begin by discussing blue waters and Age of Empires at the start...
At the Time
"Half-way through, there were literally fifty [RTS] games in development. Everybody got the same idea at the same time, to do an RTS game." Computer Gaming World called it: The Year of the RTS. "We were lucky to have survived."
Still, Age of Empires was the only history based RTS at the time. "Even our publisher, back then we were talking to Microsoft, were like 'Well, history games don't sell.' I go, 'How do you know that?' 'Well, because most of the games out are fantasy and science-fiction. That's what you've got to do.'"
Goodman had to convince them that you cannot use comparables for everything. "They didn't believe it until the game sold."
When Ensemble started the project, they were quite confident. "By the time we'd talked to them and their marketing people enough, they stared to shake our own confidence. 'Well, maybe this is a bad idea.'"
Goodman chuckles, "Then, when we shipped it, it sold really well. We hit ourselves on the head. 'Why are we listening to people? We should just listen to our conscience, and our customers, and we'll be fine.'"
"Our business strategy has been and this is something I have to preach every week is not like other people's business strategy at all," Goodman says. "From the very beginning we've just said: we're going to build a place people enjoy coming to work, and we're going to let the really good games happen."
"We have layers of strategy on top of that," Goodman admits, "But that's the hardest thing to pitch to a publisher because they're always wanting to see some sort of business strategy or hear why we're doing what we're doing."
"I'm just trying to get some fertile soil out there," Goodman explains. "I think it's worked really well. Our retention is high. We're making fun games. In my mind, that's the whole point."
"I used to have another company before this, called Ensemble Corporation," says Goodman. "We were a systems consulting firm. And that was my first company out of college. Started it with me and another guy and grew to about two-hundred people. And this company kind of spun-off from that. I jumped into this as my dream job."
"What's the purpose of getting to your retirement, looking back on a life where you've made some money, and a lot of people are really pissed at you?" Goodman asks. "I'm all about the fun. Because if it's not fun, I'm out of there myself."
"When we were acquired by Microsoft, which was back in 2000, we didn't have any IP because they owned Age of Empires as part of our original deal. To get us into business, we gave up the intellectual property," Goodman says.
"The reason they acquired us is because we said, 'Okay, you guys do Age of Empires now, we're going to go off and do some other things.' They tried, and said, 'This is really difficult stuff, we really need you guys to do it.'" Goodman recalls. "In that case, they finally acquired us because of the talent internally. I think it's a more enduring thing to have than the IP."
"For us, it's been a fairly good acquisition," Goodman reflects. "We're in Dallas they're a world away. So they kind of leave us alone to do our own thing."
"We're giving RTS games on the console a shot," Goodman continues, "We actually spent a whole year just trying to reconstruct how the controls would work on an RTS game, six to eight people in just a prototype mode where they just were working on actually making it a good experience on the console."
"Because we wanted to focus on just controls alone, we just took a straight port of Age of Empires and worked on that first. Now, the game we're doing for our console has a lot of different gameplay elements, too."
"When they got it to the point where we had Age of Empires up and running, and our people with gamepads could beat the people with mice, then we knew we really had totally reconstructed the control systems."
Goodman believes Ensemble has achieved the Holy Grail of RTS development: "Yeah, and we got there. Our gamepad people could beat our mouse people. The last thing we wanted was to start on a game before we solved that problem. That's the big problem. We put in so much time, and effort, and made a series of little breakthroughs, and got it."
Selling a Console RTS
"In my mind it's a great game. It's actually our most fun strategy game that we're working on right now. Those guys working on that game are having a blast. It's shorter, it's more fun, it's more visceral."
Goodman is genuinely enthusiastic about the project. "The game's really great." He hasn't exactly figured out how to sell the game, but his strategy is, "in six months or so, we'll probably just try to get it in the hands of gamers."
"Just take a grass-roots marketing approach," Goodman says. "Give it to gamers to play, and let them decide. Don't put it out on the market, and start marketing it immediately. Do a public beta and give lots of people the chance to play it. I think that's the best way. Because it is a new thing. I don't want to rely on marketing to sell something that's already fun. It'll sink or swim, on its own merit."
The Ensemble MMO
Patrick Hudson, Executive Producer points out that they haven't been secretive, "because we are advertising on our website that we're looking for people with MMO experience."
Hudson explains the origin of the project. "We've got a lead designer here, his name's Ian Fischer, he's been here for a long time. He's always wanted to do an MMO. He's been playing MMOs since the early days, MUDs, before that."
The idea was proposed to Ensemble right after Ultima Online came out. 'Why don't we do an MMO?' At the time, Ensemble was in no position to be thinking about it. But Fischer persisted ever since.
"After we shipped Age III," Hudson says, "We started diving up the studio to do more games than we've ever done, and get beyond Age of Empires." A small team was put around Fischer to start working on a prototype.
"And that's where those guys still are." Hudson says. "A pretty small group, just noodling away on ideas, a long way away from anything substantive and shipping anything, that's for sure. But it's fun to explore."
"It's always been a risky kind of market to look at." Hudson admits. "And then you see WoW come out, and turn the industry on its head, and you start to reevaluate. 'Wait a minute, there's a true business case out for a game like this.'"
"Maybe it's not crazy to go spend thirty or forty million bucks to actually make one of these things." Hudson points out, "At some point, they'll get tired of WoW and want to play something else."
"We haven't settled on anything," Hudson cautions. "It's safe to say we won't be chasing the fantasy genre. It seems like there are so many coming out. [We're] still pretty far out from even thinking of taking that prototype to a greenlight phase."
As for monthly subscription fees: "Yeah, I think that's the business model we mostly believe in," Hudson says. "There could be things that come along and change our mind, but there's a lot of people trying different things... If anything, WoW is charging too little, not too much."
"So for us, it's just trying to get a little away from Age." Hudson concludes, "It's been hugely successful we're now up near almost 18 million units."
What does this mean for the future of the Age of Empires franchise? "[We'll] just slow it down. Probably take a little break from it," Hudson says. "Microsoft would obviously like us to keep churning them out as quickly as possible."
"But you can only do that for so long." Hudson adds. Ensemble is successful and profitable enough as a studio that they get the leeway to spend money on prototypes.
"And [we] prototype probably a lot longer than most developers would take the time and effort to do," Hudson says. "To Microsoft's chagrin, probably spend more on prototypes than they'd ideally like."
But it ultimately returns, Hudson hopes, in a better game. "Usually we kill our own prototypes before we take them up to Microsoft and say, 'Hey, here's this new idea.'"
Formula for Success
When asked what makes Ensemble great, Goodman considers, "I think I said it at the first, and I really believe it from the very beginning we've always said: the mission of our company is to make a great place to work...and to make great games. We'd always say it in that order."
"Most people say great games are their mission." Goodman explains, "Ours is to make a great place to work, and for the good games to come out of that. I really do believe that's all of it. We live by that mission statement. Everything we do, we think 'Is this going to make it a better place to work, is this going to make it more fun, is this going to make peoples career better?' That's the goal."
It does run into conflict, Goodman admits. "At Microsoft, they're like, 'Well, just tell them we have to ship it sooner. Work them harder.' We need these people. They have lives. But also, we need them to stick around for the next round; we need them to stick around for the next ten years. It just doesn't pay to exploit people."
And after spending even a couple of hours at Ensemble Studios, you'll understand why. "We really think living by that mission statement has been our formula for success. The best people in the industry are looking for a good culture to come to."