The Simulation Game
In an industry obsessed with franchise building, the closure of Microsoft’s Aces Game Studio was an ambiguous decision. The steward of the Flight Simulator series wasn’t generating the revenue of a Modern Warfare or a Halo, but nobody was expecting it to. Aces was steadily evolving a property established in 1982, one synonymous with the entire genre; it had a loyal following and turned a steady profit. At around the same time, Microsoft also closed Ensemble Studios, despite a long history of strong sales and great games. It wasn’t about talent. It was about “restructuring”.
More than a year later, former Aces employee Kathie Flood is still baffled. “We simply don’t know,” she admits. “Both studio closures were puzzling, given the rabid enthusiasm of their audiences and the consistent profitability of their titles. Microsoft is a big company. The decision was made outside of the Aces Studio itself, and we weren’t privy to the details [of] how or why the decision was made. In hindsight, it provided a tremendous opportunity for us to work on our own game designs, which we’re extremely excited about.”
Flood’s new venture is Cascade Game Foundry, which she established with Rick Selby and several other Aces veterans. The breadth of Microsoft’s game business means that the Cascade team is drawing from experience on projects that fall far outside of the simulation genre, including the Project Gotham Racing series, the Halo trilogy, and Fable 3. More to the point, working within such a vast company has left Flood and Selby – who are Cascade’s managing director and creative director respectively – with an insight into business that few start-ups possess.
“We truly loved our jobs working on games at Microsoft and they gave us the skills that make it possible for us to build our own studio now,” she says. “It’s critical to know your audience, listen to them, and involve them early and throughout the development process. In a similar way, it’s critical to know your team, listen to them, and do whatever you can to empower them to do their best work, as well as provide compelling opportunities for growth and innovation. The other big takeaway is to establish a clear vision and stay focussed on its delivery. Everyone on the team needs to know that their work directly impacts the delivery of that vision.”
However, while a corporate super-structure like Microsoft can support a niche franchise like Flight Simulator, Cascade will find it necessary to raise its ambitions. The studio has some of the most talented simulation designers in the business, but it will live or die on its unit sales, and the traditional simulation audience is too select to offer much security. Factor in the challenging economic conditions, and turning Aces’ quiet success into something that can sustain an independent business seems a daunting challenge.