Reader Cryptic of the Bungie Community Group club writes to let us know of that group's unofficial Community Forge Contest. The contest is for map variants based on the Mythic Maps due out soon; purchasers of the Limited Edition of Halo Wars will get access to them on that disc. The contest winner will get a year of Xbox Live or $50 worth of MS points, and the top three maps (one for each Mythic Map) will be featured on Bungie Favorites in the Bungie Community Group spotlight. Deadline for entries is March 3, 2009. There is no entry fee. For complete details, visit the Bungie Community Group.
This remark from Valve's Jason Holtman is the analysis of game piracy that I've been waiting to hear someone utter for years: the idea that copyright infringement needs to be analyzed from economic rather than purely legal or moral standpoints. It is, essentially, the market telling producers that something is wrong, and that smart producers should respond in a more productive way, rather than seeking legal redress or technological methods of copy protection.
When people infringe on your product because it is not officially available, as most games are not in Russia, make it available. When people infringe on your product because it is too expensive... well, you figure it out.
So far in this recession gaming in general, and the Xbox 360 in particular, has been an oasis of growth and stability. Don't expect that to continue. Don't expect people to just knuckle under and fork over $60 because that's what next-gen games cost now. Myself, I'm taking a hard look at Halo Wars, coming out soon, and wondering if it's worth $60-- $80 for the limited edition with the early release of new Halo 3 maps.
What started as another one of those rumors within the span of a day became a confirmed truth: following the release of the upcoming Halo Wars RTS game for the Xbox 360 console, Ensemble Studios, known for the Age of Empires RTS series of games for Windows, will be shuttered. A new studio, like Ensemble part of Microsoft Games Studios, will be formed to support Halo Wars. Employees releated to Halo Wars will be offered spots in the new studio; those currently working on the project have been offered extra incentives to continue working on it through release. Those not directly related to Halo Wars are being let go.
This is being called a "fiscal move" designed to "grow" the company's game efforts.
This is a strange move on many levels, and deserves examination in a wider context.
If the staff working on projects unrelated to Halo Wars formed a significant portion of the studio's payroll, then removing them would indeed make the studio less expensive. However, paying incentives to keep the Halo Wars staff makes them more expensive than they are currently, and also negatively impacts morale. So unless those employees were more numerous or more expensive, those gains are long-term and not short term; and that assumes that they were not working on projects that were going to generate revenue, since that potential revenue is now lost.
The timing of the news is also interesting. There's never a good time for someone to hear that they've been fired or laid off, but the gaming press has covered several studio shutterings that occurred right after a game's release; perhaps Microsoft considered that announcing the closure nearer to Halo Wars' actual release date might negatively impact the game's sales, and so elected to do it earlier. Once people have been given their pink slips they can hardly be expected to keep entirely silent, especially with friends in the industry, so there was no way to keep the closure secret for any length of time; hence the quick confirmation.
I've seen several posters on various message boards wonder aloud why Microsoft didn't just buy Ensemble. That's just it. Microsoft didn't have to buy Ensemble. They already owned them. Microsoft's high profile studio acquisitions now have a decidedly checkered history. FASA stumbled and was shuttered. Rare tried to make a shooter to appeal to the Xbox demographic and missed the mark, even though it had the field at launch nearly to itself. Their other title, Kameo, was more in line with titles from their Nintendo days, but also received a mixed reaction. Viva Pinata looks like their strongest Xbox 360 title, but it also sits in a niche by itself amongst sports games and shooters.
Then there's Bungie; the unexpected blockbuster that spawned a hit trilogy and a staggering array of related merchandise, propelling the studio from its position as a critically acclaimed Macintosh developer with occasional financial problems to a mass market juggernaut.
Then they walked out the door, leaving Microsoft with the franchise and industry watchers scratching their heads. The goose who laid the golden egg left one last present, left the farm to hang out its own shingle, and prompty announced it would keep supporting and enhancing the eggs, but that new and as-yet-unannounced golden items would be coming in the future. This kind of thing doesn't happen every day.
This might have convinced Microsoft that the way to continue to build its Xbox empire isn't to acquire good independent developers, treat them nicely, let them keep their own corporate culture, and let them do their own thing, because ultimately when you do that, if they're successful enough they'll just leave. If they keep making games for your platform that's good, but suddenly you're getting only the publisher's take instead of the whole enchilada; and ultimately that independent studio might decide to develop for other platforms, and you've lost exclusivity with your premier developer. In short it makes the entire experience with Bungie look much like what I thought it was at the start: not the acqusition of a studio but the acquisition of the Halo property. Despite all the hot air about Bungie's talent and innovation, what Microsoft wanted, and what they ultimately got and had to keep-- and ended up acquiring on the cheap compared to developers like Lionhead-- was Halo.
Now Ensemble Studios is feeling the repercussions of Bungie's independence. The independent identity of the studio Microsoft bought, Ensemble, is being destroyed, to be replaced by a Halo Wars-focused division of MGS that will help monetize the property that Microsoft was able to rescue from the Bungie departure. It is largely a symbolic move; those people worked for Microsoft before and they still will. What is being removed is the idea of that group as something separate from Microsoft; the knowledge of their history before Microsoft, and the kernel of the idea that just as there was life before Microsoft, there might be life after Microsoft. When the studio is a group just part of a larger team, with a name assigned to them that bears no relation to the studio Microsoft purchased, the risk of those people going independent is minimized.
UPDATE: The above was written before I saw notes at Kotaku that indicate that while MS retains ownership of Halo and of Age of Empires, the new studio that is replacing Ensemble will, in fact, be independent of Microsoft, as Bungie is. This ends up painting a picture in which rather than trying to prevent further defections from MGS, what it in fact is doing is divesting itself of game development and becoming more of a pure publisher-- letting independent companies bear the costs of financing and developing the games.
In the end, the real casualties seem to be Ensemble's PC developers. With Starcraft 2 looming in the future of RTS games for Windows and Microsoft focused squarely on building and expanding the Halo property and continuing to add genres to the Xbox 360's repertoire, there was no room for Age of Empires. No room for the idea of Ensemble Studios, a group that used to make its own decisions and might again someday.
I wonder what is going through Peter Molyneux's mind right about now?
Of course fans expect that a Halo game will look good. Maybe it won't be the absolutely most edge-bleedingly, envelope-pushingly, buzzword-compliantly beautiful game on the market at release, but it will look good.
According to Kotaku, then, Halo Wars is a Halo game, and it looks good:
Halo Wars has some impressive visual pop to it, more colorful than when we last saw it. The game's visual effects, in motion, look spectacular. It may not have the immediate visual sex appeal of something like Halo 3, with it's micro-sized units and overhead perspective, but it looks good.
Of course, how an RTS game controls on a console is really the central issue, and Kotaku says that's another area where Halo Wars excels:
Halo plus real-time strategy plus gamepad controls may sound like a recipe for a franchise misfire, but Ensemble Studios has polished Halo Wars to the point of an immediately playable console title. While some may argue that, like first person shooters, RTS games should only be played on a mouse and keyboard, Ensemble has done an admirable job of nailing the controls. We got a chance to go hands-on with the game at E3 and came away surprisingly pleased.
That does sound pretty good. Those of the faithful who won't be able to stomach games in the Haloverse outside of Bungie's watchful eyes might have problems with some of Ensemble's choices (indeed, some are already, including myself) but the bottom line should be whether a game is fun and interesting to play, and it sounds like so far Halo Wars has a good chance of rising to that challenge.