Phoenix (Ensemble pitch)
From Halopedia, the Halo wiki
This article is about the cancelled Ensemble project. For other uses of the term Phoenix, see its disambiguation page.
Phoenix was the codename of a cancelled video game formerly under development at Ensemble Studios, primarily headed by Graeme Devine. The project is notable as being the original real-time strategy game under development at Ensemble which was eventually, at the behest of Microsoft, turned into Halo Wars.
Story and setting
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Few details are known of the original Phoenix project. The game was set to centre around a The War of the Worlds-style conflict between Earthlings and Martians. Only one piece of concept art has been released of this project, showcasing a human "air carrier" carrying refugees away from the fall of Washington D.C - the art showcases a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, indicating the game's setting may have been intended to be relatively near-future. The 2021 TV series Invasion has also been likened to the original Phoenix IP outline, with the alien invasion being viewed from the perspectives of numerous different ordinary people.
In Phoenix, the alien enemies were to have a mechanic involving the ability to build a generator which would allow them to build "fog-of-war killing barriers". The remnants of these structures made their way into an early build of Halo Wars as Covenant structures modelled by 3D artist Duane Santos.
In early 2004, Ensemble Studios were working on a prototype for a third-person shooter car combat game known as "Wrench". This demo was put together in 7–10 days by Ensemble's team and shown to Bill Gates, who was impressed at the power of the then-in-development Xbox 360's hardware. Ultimately, this game was cancelled by Microsoft, who pressured Ensemble to go back to their core strengths of real-time strategy games, ultimately leading to them starting on the Phoenix prototype. Much of the core code used for developing the graphics systems in "Wrench" was preserved and found its way into Phoenix and the later Age of Empires III.
Beginning development later in 2004, Phoenix originally began development as a hack of Ensemble's last project, 2003's Titans expansion for Age of Mythology. The game was originally designed due to Ensemble's wish to bring the "Age [of Empires] experience" to the console - as such the first year of development was spent simply prototyping control schemes and UI designs. Unlike previous console RTS' which simply ported existing PC strategy games, Ensemble wanted to redesign the game experience from the ground-up to work natively with the controller - requiring a large amount of brainstorming over what the core experience of an RTS is and what should be kept. Around 6–7 months into development, then-balance tester Justin Rouse considered the game easier to play on controller than on traditional keyboard and mouse setups; considered a success for the development.
This era also saw much iteration on the game's user interface, and how to design it in a controller-friendly way. Multiple solutions were tried including circle menus like those ultimately used in the final Halo Wars game and even experiments with using sub-menus within the circle menus. This phase of development also saw experimentation with base-building mechanics - something that would be iterated upon for many more years. Tim Deen was one of the programmers involved on the project, and was responsible for implementing many of Devine's ideas.
Overall, the Phoenix project was worked on for around 12–18 months, at which point it was pitched to Microsoft. According to Ensemble manager Tony Goodman, Microsoft at the time was incredibly risk-averse, and ultimately did not feel comfortable with the risk of making a strategy game for a console. As such, they requested that the Halo intellectual property be tied to the game, and the Phoenix IP was effectively killed off. This rework of the game set Ensemble back roughly a year - despite Microsoft's belief that they could simply "paint over what they have with Halo stuff". Goodman went on to state that he never felt "it quite turned out the same".
The transition into the Halo IP was similarly met with a cool reception by Bungie, who viewed the game as Microsoft "whoring out the franchise" despite positive public comments. This tense relationship between the two studios meant that Bungie provided little source material for the Ensemble developers, resulting in them having to use Halo film reference material developed for WETA Workshop and screenshots taken inside the public builds of the existing Halo games for reference in manually recreating the Halo assets. Notably, this era also saw the beginning of development for the Halo MMO also by Ensemble, though the game's cancellation in 2007 saw most of its staff redeployed onto the now-underway Halo Wars project.
Although Phoenix was killed off so Halo Wars could live, its legacy remains in several areas of the Halo universe to this day. Primarily, Phoenix remained the codename used for Halo Wars prior to its official announcement even after transition into the Halo IP. In the Halo universe, the Phoenix name was the inspiration for the UNSC Spirit of Fire and the Phoenix-class colony ship it is a part of. In-game, a bird species can be found resembling a Phoenix as another intentional reference, and in Halo Wars 2, the Vulture gunship is additionally outfitted with a "Phoenix missile".
The eponymously-named Phoenix engine was developed for the game based itself off the BANG! Engine developed for Age of Mythology, and was later used as a foundation to develop Halo Wars 2, released in 2017.