What Will Happen to the "Age of…" Game Franchise?

18 Comments

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 Forbes.com’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 Forbes.com-as-a-startup experience, and since then the game has become part of my memories at Forbes.com 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.

18 Comments

James

I never played the first one, but my brother bought II and then got annoyed, as the whole family got addicted to it! I wasn’t so keen on Mythology, but Age III was quality. It’s an HD revisit of Age of Empires II that i’m holding out for though. I also enjoyed Cossacks very much, is anyone still making games like these?

Dakota Moore

What a shame, I was always playing these games and still do I am going to miss it. Unless a differnt company buys it and continues the series.

Nick

The news of Ensemble’s closure hit me hard, and now I too am waiting with bated breath to hear word of the fate of the AoE series. The sequels were all great in their own way, but the original AoE and its Rise of Rome expansion hold a very special place in my heart. I wasn’t much older than 10 when I first played it, so there’s a lot of nostalgia packed into those pixels. This was this game that got me interested in ancient history, an interest which endures to this day.

My friends and I still regularly fire up a good long game of the original AoE at our LAN parties, and we still have a blast playing it. It’s a mark of a true classic when a game is still played regularly at LANs more than a decade after its release.

It’s tragic that the developer of such a classic game – the first in a series with over 20 million sales to its credit – has ended up a casualty of Microsoft’s corporate agenda.

R.I.P. Ensemble.

Tony Sena

What a shame! I love Age of Empires! I lost so much sleep when I was younger staying up all night playing online getting my butt kicked :) I might have to pull it out and play a game just for old time sakes!

Om Malik

@David

Well now i can tell you – our secret is no longer the secret. haha! i played the game this weekend. it was so much fun. we should do an online play sometime. I might go and buy a PC for this.

David Churbuck

Om,
Wow. That brings back some memories. We were utter pimps against DeWayne and Nathan — undefeated if I recall correctly. My favorite AOE set up was to play Byzantine on islands, go Naval early, and pound the stuffing out of the land defenses with waterborne projectiles.

Our secret, if I recall correctly, was one of us went offensive, while the other super fortified and built a Wonder of the World.

Alexander Marktl

My all time favourite game list:

1. Civilization
2. Half-Life 2
3. Age of Empires 2

I never liked Age of Mythology and always hoped for a AOE2 successor…

Wolf-

Wow, 11 years. And it still runs. It is still fun. Little kids can lean about economics. We had a LAN party back in the spring here, and we played AoE w/ and w/o mods. Was a great weekend.

Andy Gongea

So – what civilization was better – I loved the Teutons Knight and the Brits with their long bow. Also the Spanish mounted troops with guns were good. Age of Empires 2 was one of the best games EVER.

stone

Bombshell. You have described my love for Age of Empires series. It’s the only game I’ve ever been happily addicted to. What a damn shame.

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