Real news from the virtual world:
— SEPARATE WAYS: "Great job, but we're going to have to let you go."
It's a sentence too many people have heard over the last few years, but one you might think could be avoided in the booming video-game industry.
It clearly took the people at Ensemble Studios by surprise when Microsoft told them they would be closing up shop once they finish work on the forthcoming "Halo Wars."
"It was certainly a shock to everyone when we found out about the decision," Ensemble chief executive officer Tony Goodman wrote on the company's Web site.
Microsoft described the decision as "fiscally rooted" and said it "does not reflect at all on Ensemble's talent or the quality of `Halo Wars."'
Ensemble's leaders will form a new studio, and Microsoft said it hoped to find jobs for most of Ensemble's employees, either at the new studio or elsewhere within Microsoft.
Still, it's a puzzling development for the developers of "Halo Wars," the first spinoff of the Xbox 360's most successful franchise. ("Halo 3" has sold 8.1 million copies since its release last year.)
Ensemble built its reputation on stellar PC strategy games like "Age of Empires," but Microsoft says its closure doesn't mean that it's giving up on that series — or on PC gaming.
"As a company, we're very excited about the future potential for 'Age of Empires,"' Kevin Unangst, director of Microsoft's Games for Windows label, told worried fans, "and as a PC gamer I'm looking forward to what that future holds."
— STUNTED GROWTH: Video-game sales are still growing. Including hardware and software, they were up 9 percent in August compared with the same month in 2007.
But that's the first time in more than two years that sales haven't increased by double digits, the NPD Group reported, suggesting that the country's economic woes are finally catching up with the video-game industry.
The big winner in August was EA Sports, who sold 2.3 million copies of "Madden NFL 09."
The winner this month could be Microsoft, which cut the prices of every Xbox model at the beginning of September.
During the first weekend of the new prices, Microsoft said retailers reported "over 100 percent sales lift for all Xbox 360 models compared to the previous weekend."
— NO DEAL: Fans of Take-Two Interactive's most popular franchises — Rockstar Games' "Grand Theft Auto" and the 2K Sports lineup — were never thrilled about Electronic Arts' proposed acquisition of its smaller rival.
"GTA" enthusiasts worried that EA would water down the notorious series, while sports-game players saw the deal as a way for EA Sports to eliminate its most serious competitor.
Few gamers, then, were disappointed with EA's announcement that it had given up the pursuit.
In the end, of course, it came down to money.
Take-Two Chairman Strauss Zelnick said EA "made it very clear" it wouldn't raise its price.
And EA spokesman Jeff Brown said, "We simply have different views on the value of the company."
— QUESTION AUTHORITY: If you've ever wanted to pen the queries that Alex Trebek recites on "Jeopardy!" here's your next-best chance.
Sony has launched MyBuzzQuiz.com before the Sept. 23 release of the PlayStation 3 trivia game "Buzz! Quiz TV."
On the site, users can create eight-question personalized quizzes playable online or in the game.
Other users will be able to rate the quizzes, leave comments for the author, add quizzes to their favorites list and search for quizzes by rating, date and subject.
"You can create them on any topic and anyone can play them or you can make them just for you and your friends," said associate producer Jenny Barbour. "I hope people get in there and create quizzes about topics that they're interested in and know a lot about. They can even make private personal quizzes and play them at bachelorette parties or family reunions or gatherings like that."
Aspiring quizmasters may want to check out the version of "Jeopardy!" that Sony has just started on its PlayStation Network.
It's not the most satisfying electronic version available — the answers are multiple-choice (horrors!) — but for $15 you get 2,500 clues by the TV show's producers.
— NEW IN STORES: In the spirit of Nirvana's "Nevermind," "Led Zeppelin II" and other great second albums, MTV Games presents "Rock Band 2" (for the Xbox 360). ... LucasArts lets you show those pesky Jedi who's boss in "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed" (most platforms). ... Disney (yes, Disney) digs into off-road racing in "Pure" (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3).