Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Bonfire Studios Interview

When Microsoft announced they were closing down Ensemble Studios (most famous for the Age of Empires series and, more recently, Halo Wars) I was deeply shocked. More shocked even than when Bungie left Microsoft. Ensemble had been with Mircosoft for as long as I have been playing video games.

Since this announcement, Halo Wars has been released and, by and large, has been positively reviewed (with a few notable exceptions), I'll be posting my thoughts in a couple of weeks. Following it's release, Ensemble Studios was duly dismantled; a true figurehead of the industry removed.

However, all is not lost. From Ensemble rises two new development companies. The first, Robot Entertainment, is currently working on the Halo Wars DLC in addition to their own new intellectual property. The second, Bonfire Studios, kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the break from Microsoft, Halo Wars, their new studio and their new project.

Closure of Ensemble Studios

1) Would you view your break with Microsoft as a blessing in disguise, as you surely must have more freedom in design, or a curse, as, in reality you have less freedom due to financial constraints?
It’s a bit of both. We enjoyed a great relationship with Microsoft for almost 15 years, and it was very disappointing when they decided to close Ensemble. Microsoft was supportive of Ensemble in most ways, but we found it difficult to branch out into genres other than RTS, largely due to the success of our RTS games. The break from Microsoft allows us to explore some creative ideas that would have been difficult to pursue in the past.

2) What will you miss least about being a first party developer?
We liked the fact that Ensemble was closely linked to PC gaming and now the Xbox, and I believe we helped Microsoft push both of those platforms forward. However, there were times when we wish we could have pursued development on platforms such as the iPhone or Wii, and obviously that wasn’t going to happen when we were owned by Microsoft.

3) And what will you miss most?
I’ll miss a lot of the friendships that were built over the years at Microsoft. I think we’ll also miss working with one of the biggest players in the tech and gaming industry

Halo Wars

4) Have you played Dawn of War 2, and if so, what did you think of it (bare with me)?

Yes, it’s really popular around the office right now. The reviews have been very positive, and the game looks great. Relic has done a very nice job with the Warhammer 40,000 franchise.

5) What would you say to Dawn of War 2 being better suited to the console than Halo Wars? After all, there were fewer units to control, which surely would have been easier on the console.

Without commenting on Dawn of War 2 specifically, I will say that the number of units you control is just one aspect of what makes an RTS work well on the console. Every feature in Halo Wars was designed with the Xbox 360 in mind, and because of that, I think it works very well on the console. After our experience developing Halo Wars, It's hard to imagine any PC title working well on the console without significant design change.

6) Were you pleased with the reception of Halo Wars?

Yes, we've been pleased with the response so far. Our ratings are in-line with those of previous Ensemble titles, and most of the reviewers feel that Halo Wars is a great addition to the Halo Universe. They feel that we nailed the control scheme, which was extremely important to us, and something that we had to get right for RTS games to finally migrate to the console.

7) Given more time, is there anything you wished you could have changed in Halo Wars?

Of course. As a developer, there’s always one more feature or one more polish pass you’d like to finish before sending the game out into the wild. Halo Wars was no different. Given more time, I would have liked to have seen us implement split screen co-op for the campaign.

8) Are there any plans to port Halo Wars for the PC?

Microsoft hasn’t announced any plans to port Halo Wars to the PC. To-date, they’ve been firm about Halo Wars being exclusive to the Xbox 360.

Bonfire Studios

9) There are two splinter development companies that came from Ensemble Studios, so obviously the team was split. Which areas do your team specialize in? Do you wish there was anyone / any skill area that you wish you had more of as it has gone to the other team. I.E., is one team the artists and the other the programmers?

The company was divided largely along product lines. Virtually everyone at Bonfire worked on Halo Wars from the earliest concept phase all the way through ship. We have a complete team – artists, programmers, designers, audio, and production. Robot, the other Ensemble spinoff, has very specific plans in mind that don’t overlap with what we’re doing at Bonfire, so it really worked out well that two top-notch studios are coming out of Ensemble’s closure.

10) Will you be working with the other studio on any future projects?

We don’t have any plans to work with Robot at this time, but they are great friends of ours, so you never know what might happen!

11) I heard that Robot would be working on the DLC for Halo Wars; does this mean you are not?

That is true – Robot is releasing DLC for Halo Wars. Bonfire doesn’t have any responsibilities for supporting Halo Wars at the moment.

12)Why is Robot working on the DLC if your team is composed of the Halo Wars development team?

At Ensemble, everyone in the company eventually piled onto Halo Wars to help get it out the door. So, while most everyone at Bonfire was on Halo Wars from the very beginning, the team also eventually included the folks that now work at Robot. Robot was the first spinoff to come out of Ensemble’s closure, and Microsoft felt they’d be a good fit for the initial round of DLC.

13) Will you remain a 3rd party developer to Microsoft or entirely freelance?

We haven’t announced a publishing partner yet for our new game, but we’d certainly be open to working with Microsoft in the future. Despite the fact that they closed Ensemble, we enjoyed working with Microsoft over the years and we made some great games together.

Future Projects

14) What is your current project, or is it just a collection of different ideas at the moment?

We’re working on an entirely new game based on original IP that we are very excited about. There’s not a lot we can discuss just yet, but I think fans of Ensemble titles will be very excited when they hear what we have in store and also a bit surprised!

15) What are your thoughts on the Wii, specifically for "hard-core" games and even real time strategy games?

I think there is a huge opportunity for a publisher willing to take a bet on a more “hard-core” title for the Wii. How can you ignore a console with such a massive install base? The game needs to be designed with the Wii in mind from the start, and not just be a simple port of an existing title. Madworld from Sega comes to mind – talk about breaking the mold of what is expected in a Wii title! I think strategy games could find a home on the Wii as well. Our hope is that Halo Wars is the title that finally demonstrates that RTS games can work well on the console. If it does, maybe other publishers will feel more confident in investing in RTS games on all consoles including the Wii.

16) Will you be producing games from outside the RTS genre?

Definitely - our first game is something very different than what we've done in the past. I think our games will always have a strong strategy element to them, though, since that is one of our core strengths. Of course, we do love the RTS genre, and I imagine we’ll always keep that door open in the future.

17) Can you give us a time frame on hearing about a new project from Bonfire Studios more officially?

The team would love to share more with you today, but I’d say “later this year” is a safer answer!


While they sadly did not reveal their current project (trust me, I begged) they do drop a couple of interesting hints. While this is purely speculation, I think their new game could be squad based first person shooter. Why? Well, they hinted at a game that was "very different to what we have done in the past" but yet has a "strong strategy element". It is also possible that it could be a Wii game, however, that is also guess work based on their apparent interest in the Wii.

Their conclusion of Halo Wars is to be predicted, I truly hope it was the legacy they wanted to leave behind. While I am disappointed that there are no plans for a port to the PC for Halo Wars, I am hardly surprised.


  1. Anonymous3:53 PM

    Read it all. Am very impressed. Would have preferred more intimate questions e.g. 'What are you wearing?'

    Don't forget Puffin Cat

  2. Yes, Every feature in Halo Wars was designed with the Xbox 360 in mind, and because of that, I think it works very well on the console. After our experience developing Halo Wars, It's hard to imagine any PC title working well on the console without significant design change.


"All your base are belong to us"