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Gone but not forgotten: Looking Back on the Studio Closures of the Great Recession

It wasn’t that long ago that the video game industry was considered recession-proof. Game sales were on the rise year after year, so many thought that gaming would weather the financial storm without serious causalities. Of course, that turned out not to be the case.

Over the last few years, countless studios have felt the pain of our troubled times. Well-known developers like Factor 5, 3D Realms, and Microsoft’s ACES Team shut down. Smaller studios like Underground Development, Luxoflux, Paradigm Entertainment and more were closed by the publishers that owned them. Many more studios suffered massive reductions in staff. Yet out of these unfortunate circumstances comes new opportunities; several new development houses have been born out of the ashes of the old. GameZone spoke with several former staffers from acclaimed developers Ensemble Studios and Pandemic Studios about their memories of their time at the companies, what their losses mean to the industry, and what the future holds for those who were affected.

Of all the studios that shut down over the last few years, the closure of Ensemble Studios was amongst the least expected. The critically acclaimed Age of Empires and Halo Wars developer had a great track record of quality games that sold well, reviewed strongly and won awards. None of that was enough to prevent its closure – former Ensemble luminary Bruce Shelley admits the company was perhaps too specialized, too expensive and had too many costly, unproduced projects. Fortunately, out of the demise of Ensemble were born several new studios, including Robot Entertainment, Bonfire Studios, Windstorm Studios and NewToy.

“It was really an amazing experience,” says David Rippy, the ex-Ensemble employee who now serves as President of Bonfire Studios. “I had the pleasure of working at Ensemble from day one and watched it grow from a few guys experimenting with a WinG tank demo into a really well-respected game company. Hardly anyone ever left Ensemble, so it truly felt like family. Tony Goodman (our studio head) created an environment and culture where people actually enjoyed going to work every day and even hung out on the weekends.

"We had a movie theater, arcade games, pool table, gourmet food … you name it! We certainly worked hard and crunched around major milestones, but we did it because we loved the games we were making. I think most former ES-rs will remember it as a really cool place to work, a great group of people who were completely committed to the company and their craft, and hopefully some of the most rewarding years of their life.”

“Without question, the people are what I miss the most,” Rippy continues. “Both of my brothers (Chris and Stephen Rippy) worked at Ensemble, and I worked with many of the original ES guys in other industries before Ensemble was formed. There were lifelong friendships forged over the years and even two marriages. The roots for me (and I know for others) were very deep at ES. On a happy note, I do get to see about 30 former ES employees at Bonfire every day, and most everyone else from Ensemble has stayed in the Dallas area.”

Rob Fermier, another former Ensemble employee who now works as a Lead Programmer at Robot Entertainment, agrees that Ensemble was made great by the people who worked there. “Ensemble was rare in that most of the people working there had been working together for many years, with a great deal of continuity,” said Fermier.

“Being able to establish such deep working relationships with people was incredibly valuable, and we had strong bonds to each other and to the studio. I’ll most miss that sense of team that we had – a well established development process, a deep understanding in our area of expertise, and strong sense of studio identity. Such things take years to build, and once gone are lost forever.”

As with any team that spends years working together, both Rippy and Fermier have fond memories of some of the good times at Ensemble. “As hard as we worked, we really knew how to let loose at our release parties and industry conferences,” says Rippy.

“It’s largely a blur at this point, but I have great memories of a Van Halen tribute band playing at one release party, being handed the first copies of Age of Empires before it hit the store shelves, winning several ‘Game of the Year’ awards, bumping into fans that tell us that Ensemble’s games were their favorite of all time or inspired their kids to do better in school, releasing the first successful RTS game on a console, and finally, the company pulling together to make Halo Wars a great game even though we knew were being let go at the end of the project.” For his part, Fermier fondly recounts “When we made some drastic changes in our internal game lineup to enable us to work on our ‘dream games’ - a dramatic move most companies wouldn’t even consider, pulling all-nighters to get game features in on Age of Mythology because I was so excited about the gameplay, and going to E3 and GDC as a group and celebrating the commercial and critical success of our games.”

Another well-know developer that recently closed its doors was Pandemic Studios, the respected action developer that first merged with BioWare and was, in turn, purchased by Electronic Arts. Not long ago, a group of former Pandemic employees formed Downsized Games, a small team currently working on a new iPhone action game. Several members of the Downsized crew were happy to share their thoughts on Pandemic, and like the Ensemble veterans, they have many fond memories of their experiences.

“The thing I will miss the most about Pandemic is the studio culture they promoted there,” says Manny Vega of Downsized. “They really went out of their way to make the studio feel comfortable so that people working there would be able to work and play. I made some great friends and worked with some very talented people and I miss going to the office, which I can't say about my previous jobs. You could feel that culture slowly slipping away as bigger and bigger fish bought us and started replacing people, but we held on for as long as we could and did our best to ignore it.”

"I really enjoyed working with the many talented people I met at Pandemic over the course of seven years,” adds Downsized’s Andrew Mournian. “I will miss working on games in the Mercenaries series and the unique challenges they presented. I still think that series holds so much potential for an awesome game. Now that it's over, I think most Pandemic folk are just trying to find new homes at studios scattered all over. As for Downsized games, I'm finding working on the small screen is a lot of fun, it feels like going back to development on the PS2 or something."

Downsized’s Ariel Tal echoes the sentiment. “Pandemic had amazing staff and a drive to create fun games. I will miss the passionate discussions we had, ranging from shader tech to perforce checkins. Pandemic had an enormous amount of talent and we broke new ground in tech and ideas. I'm sorry we didn't get to see some of that talent come to fruition when we closed down. But slowly we are moving on to bigger – well, sometimes downsized, opportunities."

Unfortunately, loads of talent and a positive work environment aren’t enough to maintain a business, and Manny Vega has plenty to say about what caused the downfall of Pandemic. “One of the main flaws of the company was that it got too big too fast,” he says.

“The transition between Mercenaries and Mercenaries 2 on next-gen consoles, coupled with being courted and bought out by two companies in under three years - I think it was too much to bear. Many people seem to be under the impression that the people working at Pandemic were to blame for the downfall of the company, but the truth is that milestones, direction and focus were changed regularly and it made completing any project difficult. This is a business first and foremost, but it's also one that is run by creative, passionate people, and many times the two do not mix. It's something the entire industry is starting to see right now, creativity and the bottom line are not one and the same. I don't blame anyone in particular for Pandemic's closure; it was an intense situation that had only two possible outcomes: stunning success or complete closure. Middle of the road would have been unacceptable, and I can confidently say that everyone employed at Pandemic gave their all, and a left it all on the table.”

Of course, it wasn’t just Ensemble and Pandemic that shut down recently. There are plenty of other studios that closed down and sent their former employees scrambling for new jobs.

While it’s always sad to hear about a studio closing, the former Pandemic and Ensemble developers we spoke to seem to be optimistic about the future. After all, the new companies that have arisen in the place of the old bring with them new opportunities and challenges.

“Downsized is about making small games that make you forget how ‘hardcore’ a gamer you are and let you enjoy the blissful ignorance of having fun,” says Vega. “Everyone always says they want to make their own game and that they have the best ideas, but few get the chance to make it happen.”

Bonfire President David Rippy is also upbeat on the multiple companies that sprang up from the remnants of Ensemble. “The worst thing that could have happened would have been for all the talent at Ensemble to just dissipate,” he says. “Competent teams that have worked together and shipped games for over a decade are few and far between. My hope is that the companies that formed as a result of Ensemble Studios closing will go on to be big successes of their own. That would be great for us as individuals, and great for the health of the industry as a whole.”

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Jeremy M. Zoss
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