After word broke that Ensemble Studios was rumoured to be close after the completion of Halo Wars, the real-time strategy game for the Xbox 360, we received word from sources close to the studio that the information was mostly correct. According to those sources, there were no lay-offs at Ensemble today, but we did receive internal confirmation that the Dallas based developer is to be shuttered sometime next year.
Those sources, who wish to remain anonymous, told us that Microsoft corporate VP Shane Kim visited the studio today to deliver the bad news. The former vice president of Microsoft Game Studios informed the rank and file that, come Halo Wars ship date, the 13-year old dev studio would be closed.
Why would Microsoft ax one of its more successful developers, one with 20 million units sold over the past decade in the home stretch of development on Halo Wars?
It's an odd move, but not unprecedented for the Redmond giant. It shuttered FASA Studios, developer of Shadowrun, just four months after that developer delivered its Xbox 360 and PC shooter. Rumours of its closure came far in advance of official word.
Letting go of Ensemble may signal a serious change in direction for Microsoft as a games publisher, opting to distance itself further from the PC gaming space amid increasing piracy concerns and build a stronger focus on Xbox development. With "no plans" for a Gears of War 2 PC release and the dissolution of Halo 2 PC developer Hired Gun, Ensemble may have looked, to bean counters, like expensive overhead in a dwindling market, one with little console experience.
Microsoft Game Studios still has a handful of developers under its umbrella, including Lionhead Studios, Turn 10 Studios and Rare, all of whom are hard at work on Xbox 360-only titles.
Internally engineered studios, like Wingnut Interactive and Xbox Live Productions, may now be more of Microsoft's style, as opposed to the buy and burn acquisition methods it has used to build up the MGS label. With studios like BioWare, Bungie and Bizarre being sold to third-party publishers — or in the case of Bungie, to itself — it doesn't leave the company with much of a "second-party" presence.
We've yet to receive comment from Microsoft on the situation at Ensemble Studios, but we'll update when and if we do.