Microsoft must think Halo Wars is going to be a flop at retail. The game marks Halo’s return to its real-time strategy roots, it’s being developed by Ensemble Studios, and by most accounts its RTS controls are working well on the Xbox 360.
But today, Microsoft canned almost the entire staff at Ensemble Studios, the famed Age of Empires developer and the team behind Halo Wars.
The layoffs won’t take affect until after Halo Wars ships, but the timing of the layoff announcement is odd. Ensemble has a great reputation in the industry. Its Age of Empires games have served Microsoft’s bank account well. And Halo Wars, by most gamers’ estimation, will achieve that rare status of “sold like hotcakes” when all is said and done.
But maybe, just maybe, Microsoft doesn’t believe in the quality of Halo Wars. Maybe the layoffs aren’t strictly a sign of reducing internal overhead, but a sign that Halo Wars isn’t good enough to warrant an eventual sequel. Sure, Microsoft could farm out a Halo Wars sequel to another studio, but why would they? With Ensemble on the docket and the assets and institutional knowledge already in place, why reinvent the wheel with another developer?
Perhaps because a sequel will never see the light of day. Perhaps because all those glowing reports of Halo Wars’ control scheme were little more than Microsoft blowing smoke.
Microsoft of course will never fully disclose the reasons for the layoffs; no business ever would. But if the timing of the layoffs — particularly for a game of this stature — means anything, our money’s on it being indicative of Microsoft not having the utmost faith in Ensemble’s product. We naturally hope for that not to be the case, but the circumstances certainly don’t seem to indicate that.