Privately held Ensemble Studios has had a long relationship with Microsoft and has used the software giant as its sole publisher since the game company was founded six years ago. The company has also remained debt-free since then, according to Brian Moon, its chief financial officer. Much of that owes to its success with the popular game franchise "Age of Empires," an award-winning PC game series the company developed in conjunction with Microsoft, he said.
While Ensemble Studios has focused on the PC market, the acquisition will give the company the financial backing to expand its development into online video games, and potentially other areas, including the Xbox, Microsoft's next-generation video-game console, Moon said.
"There's been nothing formally stated about the Xbox development," Moon said. "That's something that we're continuing to look at."
The acquisition marks Microsoft's fifth purchase of a game maker in the past two years, including FASA Interactive, Access Software, Digital Anvil and Bungie Software Products. Microsoft said in a statement Thursday that the acquisition is aimed at maintaining its market share in the PC gaming industry, but the deal will also likely give it more options when rolling out titles for the Xbox when it is released sometime this year.
"Age of Empires" has sold approximately 8.5 million licensed units worldwide and has won five Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences awards, among a number of industry awards. That success could easily be migrated to the Xbox platform, which offers PC game makers familiar development tools.
"Developing for the Xbox is really great because one of the difficult things about developing for the PC is the slew of configuration in terms of graphic cards, sound cards, memory, and what have you," Moon said. "There's a lot of additional work that goes into making sure a game is compatible with all levels of PCs.
"With the Xbox, you can optimise your software exactly for that power," Moon said.
While a move toward the Xbox has not yet been announced, Moon said work has already begun on development for the online games space. Microsoft runs Zone.com, one of the leading online game sites.