Ensemble Studios shutting down was a bittersweet moment for a team that had grown extremely close over the years; however, as cliché as it sounds, the doors closing on Ensemble forced the team to look at open doors full of opportunity and new possibilities. For many this meant the first chance in years to break away from an already established IP in over fifteen years presenting a chance now to take risks and reinvigorate themselves. The tight-knit group showed that it really did believe in fostering community, as when the former Microsoft subsidiary disbanded as company but the majority of its members stuck together in one of four new studios: Robot Entertainment, Bonfire (now Zynga Dallas), Windstorm Studio and New Toy.
Recently we had the opportunity to visit Robot Entertainment in Dallas. While the studio may have a new name, they haven’t forgotten all the old lessons they learned. The team still believes in community both internally and with fans. Upon entering the studio, the open environment is striking: four main quadrants of desks with no cubicles or walls and a biergarten style lunch room comprise the majority of the studio. Outside of the two war rooms, server room and executive offices, it’s an entirely open floor plan mirroring the studios own level of openness with employees. The real decisions as to what games are made don’t come from a guy in a suit with a calculator, but from a collaborative process involving the entire team.
This “organic” process started six months ago. Development on Age of Empires Online was beginning to wind down, and the studio was looking toward what their next project would be. Instead of setting their sights on the traditional three year AAA development cycle, Robot chose to focus on the downloadable segment of the industry. The shorter development time allowed the fifty person team to the ability to not become re-tied down to a singular IP for the foreseeable future. Robot started to brainstorm and create basic prototypes for some of the better ideas, one of which was Orcs Must Die.
Section 8 was a flawed gem. A diamond in the rough relegated mostly to bargain bins, the original Section 8 pushed new ideas into the first person shooter genre. It overcame minor bugs, mixed reviews and the stigma of being a full priced multiplayer only game, developing a small cult following along the way. Section 8 is back and ready to do an orbital drop again, but this time TimeGate Studios is rewriting the rules.
With the freedom that self publishing gives them, TimeGate Studios is pushing the boundaries of what has been traditionally accepted as normal. Section 8 Prejudice is a fully fledged sequel to Section 8; however, it will be released on Xbox Live Arcade in early 2011 for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15), nearly a fraction of the cost of the original. The transition from a $60 retail product to an Xbox Live Arcade sequel is a new one in this industry. We had some trepidation that the production values would suffer or that the game might feel too much like a rehash of the first, but that was all alleviated when we went hands on with Prejudice this past week.