Ensemble Studios had spent nearly a decade mastering the real-time strategy genre when it became a victim of its own success. Its 1997 debut, Age of Empires, had been an instant hit and spawned several beloved sequels and expansions that cemented the studio’s glowing reputation. Imitators—some novel, some slavish—quickly appeared in their droves, and by the mid-2000s, parent company expected nothing of the studio other than to build on its legacy with another game in the same vein.
The only problem: Ensemble wasn’t much interested. “We had been trying for so long to do anything but an RTS game,” says Dave Pottinger, a veteran of the studio who worked there across its lifespan. “If we were going to do another one, something had to change.” An idea was floated: stick to the RTS format on which the team had built its reputation, but leave PCs behind to make a game for consoles. Ensemble would have something new to chew on, and Microsoft would be left happy. Or so they hoped.
“Everyone there thought it was a catastrophically terrible idea,” says Pottinger. “We had never designed a console game, much less a console RTS, and they didn’t really exist back then.” With Ensemble having already spent a couple of years creating an original IP and prototyping ideas, Microsoft gave the studio an ultimatum: rework the game into a tie-in for the biggest Xbox franchise of the day, or scrap the whole thing. “If they were gonna take a chance on a console RTS, it had to be tied to Halo,” says Pottinger. “That was the only way they thought it would sell.”
And sell it did. When Halo Wars hit shelves in 2009, it soldin under a month. It was the kind of commercial success any developer would be happy with, largely driven, Pottinger admits, by the Halo brand.
Yet were those Microsoft executives to look at Ensemble’s original console RTS today, they may be more approving. In a far cry from its early years, console strategy gaming is the healthiest it’s ever been. Knotty grand-strategy titles such as Crusader Kings III sit alongside the more approachable likes of Minecraft Legends, action-focused games like Aliens: Dark Descent, the more conventional real-time battlefields of Company of Heroes 3, and management simulators like Two Point Campus. Just this year, Ensemble’s PC classic Age of Empires 2 was ported to Xbox platforms with a bespoke gamepad control scheme, and Age of Empires 4 followed suit only last month.
It speaks, in part, to the general homogenization of the medium. “The line between consoles and PC gaming is going away,” says Lewis Ward, gaming research director at market research firm IDC. He notes that seven of the 10 top-grossing games on Steam last year are also available on consoles, and publishers themselves are increasingly blurring platform distinctions. Sony has ported several of its biggest PlayStation exclusives to PC in the past few years, including traditional console mascots like Ratchet & Clank and Sackboy. And the launch of the Steam Deck has allowed players to access the world’s biggest PC storefront through a console-style device.
In the past, hardware disparities have been a major headache for multiplatform developers, as large chunks of a game would have to be tweaked to support the bespoke processes and systems of each console. “Nowadays the CPUs and other hardware are actually surprisingly similar between them all,” says Ben Hymers, technical director on Two Point Campus. “Some platforms are more powerful than others, but the actual core architecture of things is about the same.”