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Simon Carless interviews Ensemble Studios’ Bruce Shelley, to get his perspective on the process of computer game design. Bruce talks about his history at Microprose, and details how important he thinks board game play has been in the design of computer games.

Simon Carless, Blogger

November 26, 2003

12 Min Read

In the world of PC strategy titles, there's a surprisingly rich heritage at work. Today's top designers aren't suddenly catapulted to fame, but have often been working away iteratively for up to 20 years or more, gradually improving the art and science of creating effective war games. Naturally, with the passage of time, at least a modicum of experience and perspective is spawned, and it's those qualities that, although he might modestly deny it himself, Bruce Shelley can bring to the table.

Shelley is best known for working alongside Sid Meier at Microprose, on the design of classic PC titles Civilization and Railroad Tycoon. More recently, he has excelled as a co-founder and designer at Ensemble Studios, creators of the Age Of Empires trilogy. Ensemble has been, in many ways, a surprise leader of the mass-market PC strategy game, aided by Microsoft's hefty backing and an intuitive easy-to-play, difficult-to-master game-play slant.

Bruce Shelley, Senior Game Designer with Ensemble Studios.

But Bruce's gaming history started way back in 1980, when he co-founded a Virginia pen-and-paper RPG company dealing with the Lord Of The Rings license. And although videogames were not yet sophisticated enough to match up to their board game counterparts, Shelley feels he learnt a lot from his board game days:

"The most important thing is that we prototyped board games as a very early step, before writing rules, for example. We would play the games with rules being in our heads, almost. That process has translated well for Ensemble Studios. We prototype early and then iterate daily, gradually bring[ing] the game into shape. I believe very strongly in designing by playing, and that designers are only guessing until they play. Unfortunately, this process is difficult to schedule and budget, so few teams employ it."

But board games are clearly still an important part of Shelley's life, and he admits: "At one time I owned over 500 board games. Games that I think influenced computer games I worked on include Civilization, 1830, Titan, and many war games from Avalon Hill and SPI." Even his current place of employment shows a heavy board game bias: "We have a very active board gaming community within Ensemble Studios, and you can usually find a couple of European-style board games underway everyday at lunch."

But in terms of influence, Shelley's stint with Sid Meier, hunkered away in the innovative Maryland-based Microprose during the late '80s and early '90s, gave him the chance to find his feet in the videogame arena. Shelley elaborates:

"Sid was the first person I worked with who thought about game design theory and philosophy. In some cases I think I knew intuitively what to do, but he actually gave some principals titles, and built a sort of list of axioms to follow over and over. From him I learned that there was science to the process and we did not have to reinvent the wheel each time. Our industry is still in its infancy, and I think pioneers like him will provide a great foundation of experience and knowledge upon which to build. He reinforced the concepts of prototyping and designing by playing-things wehad been doing in board games"

It's clear that Meier's extended run of success, with titles from Pirates! through the overlooked Covert Action and the seminal Civilization, wasn't just fluke. Shelley discusses some of the key design maxims the extremely successful Microprose team espoused, and which still hold true today:

"Principles that Sid enunciated included things like the player should have the fun, not the designer, programmer, [or] computer. Begin your game with a great first few minutes; great game-play is a stream of interesting decisions the player must resolve; the inverted pyramid of decision making (have few decisions to deal with first, and then let them multiply until the player is totally engrossed); put the player in his dreams, where he or she is the hero."

While at Microprose, Shelley worked with Sid Meier on a number of games, including Covert Action (1990). Meier and Shelley share game design credit on this title.

Finally, as to why Microprose incubated eminent strategy game designers such as Shelley himself and Brian Reynolds (Big Huge Games), Bruce explains: "I think that follows from Sid. The company brought in people like myself from paper gaming and Sid added to what we knew already. We shared a common interest in the board games and we occasionally got to make the games we wanted to play."

Shelley then worked freelance for several years, before hooking up with old paper-gaming compadres to form Ensemble Studios in 1995. It's clear that the design through prototyping made a huge difference to how Ensemble, as a start-up, developed their first title. Bruce elaborates:

"You can borrow ideas from successful games and have great intuition, but I think all games reveal shortcomings when they are finally played. If that happens too late in the process, you may be forced to live with them. By beginning the playing at a very early date, you can rely on your instincts as a gamer, and those of as many people as you can get involved, to help you assess what parts of the game are working well and what parts are not. By continually reinforcing good stuff and removing bad stuff, the game moves closer to being great. Playing early allows time for new inspiration and innovation, as well. When we started Ensemble Studios in 1995, very few of us had development experience, but almost all of us were gamers. We incorporated those gaming instincts into our process, and I believe all of our games have turned out to have excellent game-play. In each case, however, the final games played quite differently from our early prototypes."

One unexpected thing that Ensemble did was to choose a purely historical setting for their first title, the PC RTS Age Of Empires. Shelley and his co-designers wagered that a real-life historical setting ends up being more plausible and accessible, "especially to more casual gamers. Ensemble Studios was very pleased to have the historical RTS genre pretty much to ourselves for several years. We sell more games internationally then we do at home and I think that has a lot to do with Europeans, especially, having a strong interest in history."

After the significant and continued success of Age Of Empires and its sequels, which have collectively sold more than 11 million copies up to earlier this year, Ensemble has certainly seen massive success. Yet with Age Of Kings and Age Of Mythology, some claim the RTS titles show constant and intelligent evolution within boundaries, where others raise accusations that the titles play, well, a little too similarly. But then, why mess with a winning formula? Shelley counters:

"We do believe you cannot repeat the same experience for your audience. We do two things. At the vision level of a new game we want a new topic at least, perhaps a new genre (someday) and a new look and feel (Age of Mythology was in 3D, for example). Then, at the game-play level we innovate to make the experience new and refreshing. I have described the history of the Age games as something like making sausage. We are constantly adding in new ideas to our games, but every two years or so we twist off a game and release it. But new ideas keep going in. They come from our own testing (everyone at Ensemble is asked to play-test at least once a week), the media, and the huge interest in our games on fan-sites. We are gamers and we won't buy the same game twice, and don't ask our customers to either."

The Titans Expansion Pack for Age Of Mythology is the latest title from Ensemble Studios. Ensemble's games have sold 11 million units so far.

But it's not only great game-play that will net your game series 11 million sales. You need a strong, influential backer to get the game showcased. Ensemble has found that in its publisher (and now owner) Microsoft, which Shelley definitely see[s] the advantages of, though he expresses some reservations about a free-flowing game creator being part of a larger corporate machine:

"Every developer needs resources to get a game finished and then a publisher with the clout to get shelf space and other marketing support. Microsoft has all those advantages. As an independent developer we could invest our money as we wished, hire who we wanted, when we wanted them, and compensate our employees as we thought best. As part of a large corporation, we have to work within a company-wide structure that we sometimes find constraining. We will see in the long run if the standard practices of a large corporation can be flexible enough to accommodate a very creative business like developing interactive entertainment."

Even taking into account these reservations, Shelley understands the evolving nature and finances of RTS gaming that requires backers like Microsoft:

"There are fewer strategy games now, but the winners do very well. Perhaps our segment of gaming is just becoming more mature. Early in the 20th century there were hundreds of car manufacturers and now there are a dozen or less. Part of the issue is that the stakes are high so companies make big bets, but marginal companies find it very hard to compete when the standards are set so high."

But where does the design talent pool for PC strategy titles come from? Whereas FPS titles have modders who graduate easily to FPS level designers, the path to RTS design doesn't seem quite so obvious. Bruce sums up how things have worked at Ensemble:

"We have hired a number of content designers, often with little experience, to work on our single player campaigns. Greg Street gave up a career in marine biology to become a content designer for us. Now he is the lead designer on our next big RTS. Ian Fischer came to us directly from the U.S. Navy, and has been the lead designer on both AoK and AoM. I would say scenario design is one way to start. An alternative path is to start in testing, demonstrate an interest in design, and earn a chance to be a designer. At Ensemble we prefer to promote from within. Some testers back at Microprose are now leads at other companies today."

Shelley has now settled down at Ensemble as an off-site public spokesman for the studio, and part of the management team, but leaves much of the in-depth design to Ian Fischer (for Age of Kings and Age of Mythology) and Greg Street (on the next, as yet unannounced RTS.) He explains:

"I continue to write a lot of the historical notes and help with research, as well as sharing my opinions throughout the [design] process, but the decisions are up to the designers."

When asked to sum up his and Ensemble's design philosophies, Shelley is short, sweet, and refreshingly direct:

"Number 1 is make a game of very high quality; anything less is probably a waste of time. Number 2 is design for your audience, not yourself; make commercial art, not fine art; and make sure the audience you design for is large enough so the game can be very profitable."

Looking further in the future, Ensemble has a crystal-clear handle on their plans. Shelley and his fellow designers intend to carefully, intelligently, and painstakingly plot out the next generation of RTS titles-and when they can phrase their plans as determinedly as this, who can deny they have the will to succeed?

"There has been some talk about RTS being dead as a genre, despite some estimates that it is 35% of the PC market. We are excited about some innovations we are prototyping for our next RTS. We have another small team working on a completely different prototype. Hopefully, these projects will get to the point that we are willing to talk about them. We want to make the best. And we are competitive. We play all the great new games and we are inspired by them also. In 1997 there were something like 53 RTS games in development but Age of Empires turned out to be the most successful of the group. We weren't intimidated then, and we are only more experienced and prepared now."


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About the Author(s)

Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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