While Microsoft has always been something of a software juggernaut, the games studio wing of it always seemed like a kid brother always lagging behind his much larger and more capable sibling. Flight simulators and golf games aside, it was the 1997 release of Age of Empires, produced by Ensemble Studios, that really put MGS on the map. Competing even with such stiff competition as Command & Conquer and Starcraft, Age of Empires became a huge hit, spawning a sequel, a spin-off series, and expansion packs on top of it all. Now, as we get into 2005, Ensemble Studios prepares to send us back in time once again with the announcement of Age of Empires III. Today we’re taking a moment to speak with Greg Street of Ensemble Studios, Lead Designer of Age of Empires III , to learn more about this exciting new game.
Snackbar Games: AoE3 seems to offer the highest visual fidelity of any Real-Time Strategy game to date. Is this advance tied to the gameplay in any way, or is it just a “We have the technology to make it better” thing?
Greg Street: We get at least 4 big benefits from spending so much effort on visuals. 1) It gets players’ attention. The Age of Empires series has always attracted new gamers because of its looks. We are confident customers will like the game once they play it, so we use the visuals to reel them in. 2) We’ve been making RTS games for some 10 years now. A heavy investment in graphics became a powerful motivator for our programmers and artists because they got to challenge themselves and try and solve some problems we’ve never had to look at before. 3) I think pretty games can be more fun. Our worlds always contain a lot of detail. You’re always seeing something new, which in turn can encourage you to want to keep playing to see what else you can discover. 4) A lot of our graphics focus has been on combat, and in this case the gameplay actually changes. When you have a battle where the soldiers line up the way soldiers fought in the 1600s-1700s, it makes the battles easier to understand. You can more easily tell who is winning or losing and why.
SBG: What’s being done to make sure navigation and control is as easy in the lush, complex environments of AoE3 as it was in the first two?
GS: There is a lot going in AOEIII, so much that we wanted to simplify parts of the game to free up player bandwidth to deal with the new features. You still make a lot of economic decisions, but they are more strategic, such as which food source to invest in, rather than being about madly clicking units on the screen. We offer ways to keep your troops together without having them spread out across the map, or forgetting and leaving some at home. We also let players turn on or off a lot of UI options. More casual gamers can have a simple, elegant UI, while hardcore gamers can have that space shuttle-like display with lots of numbers and gizmos that they enjoy.
SBG: Is terrain going to be playing a larger role in tactics this time around? For instance, will there be spots too rocky for siege machines that infantry and/or cavalry can get across?
GS: Tactics in general are much more important than they have been in our previous games. We’re currently focusing a lot more on different orders to give your troops, such as whether musketeers fire in volleys, break and attack, or fix bayonets and charge. Assuming we can keep that system from getting too complicated, we’ll add things like a downhill charging bonus or increased damage from firing from higher ground.
SBG: How many civilizations will the player have to choose from this time around, and how will they be differentiated gameplay-wise?
GS: There are 8 civilizations, and they are much more diverse than the civilizations were in Age of Kings. Each civilization has a general “feel.” Some get lots of colonists, others fight with hordes of terrible units, while others have expensive and highly-upgraded units in smaller armies. Each civilization has a twist on how they manage their economy. The Portuguese start the game with two colonies, so they can produce Settlers quickly, but have to manage two towns at once. The Spanish only have a single colony, but they receive shipments from Europe more regularly. Two additional features complement this diversity: Native Americans and Home Cities. A Dutch player allied with the Comanche feels different from a Dutch player allied with the Maya. The Home City allows the Dutch to develop along a very different path from the Spanish, and even two Dutch players to develop to diversify over time.
SBG: What kinds of single-player campaigns are players going to be able to do? Can we expect to help Spain conquer the new world, etc.?
GS: When we started AOEIII, we knew there were two directions we could go in: the purely historical variety of Age of Kings (“You’re Genghis Khan. Here’s what happened to Genghis Khan.”) or the more story-driven campaign that we went with on Age of Mythology. Ultimately we chose the latter. It’s just hard to compare what we were able to accomplish in the AOM campaign to the drier battles of AOK, and I also think it’s harder to come up with charismatic figures in this time period who can compete with the likes of Genghis Khan. So instead, we wrote our own story with our own characters to try to capture the feel of what it was like for Europeans to reach the New World and ultimately prosper there. Our characters interact with real events and people from history (in what we’ve started calling “Forrest Gump moments”) but we also have good excuses for our characters to travel all across North and South America and get involved in some conflicts that aren’t in the history books.
SBG: How is the multiplayer aspect of AoE 3 going to be handled? What Kinds of modes can gamers look forward to?
GS: Our multiplayer is a combination of what we offered in Age of Mythology and Age of Kings. Specifically, with Mythology, we tried to attract some more casual gamers online with a system that emphasized speed and ease-of-use over customization and community. It was a successful experiment, but in hindsight we may have neglected some of the more hardcore players who are the bread-and-butter of online play. This time around we are trying to give the hardcore exactly what they want, without being too intimidating to someone who wants to venture online for the first time.
SBG: Is it hard play-balancing cultures that were not, historically speaking, balanced themselves? The differences in available technologies and resources between pre- and post-industrial societies would make for some pretty unbalanced sides, I’d think…
GS: Our games have always been a little bit about “what if?” In Age of Empires, you are the leader of your people, and your decisions bring them to power or to ruin. If you want to lead the Spanish navy to defeat the English, you have that capability. If you want to send your French trappers down into Mexico to ally with the Aztecs and establish a series of trade routes fortified by Aztec Eagle Warriors and French Crossbows, go for it. Now advancing in Age is always a good move, provided you can afford it, so colonies that reach the Industrial Age have some exciting new options, including the ability to use Factories and Trains, and get access to the most powerful cannon. The way we chose to handle Native Americans was precisely so we wouldn’t have a game where the Iroquois were building frigates and cannon in order to compete with the European civilizations. Instead our Iroquois can feel like Iroquois, and still be cool.
SBG: Has the Ensemble team done a lot of research to ensure the game’s historical accuracy in terms of buildings and units?
GS: First off, we make games, not educational products. When history and fun collide, fun wins every time. But we do a ton of historical research. We have a library with several hundred volumes and probably many more Internet links. We buy movies to check out costumes and the way large-scale combat works. We take photographs of real buildings to get the architecture right. Early on in the project, several of us attended the reenactment of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, where we were able to get audio and video footage of musket volleys, cavalry charging and cannons firing. (A Revolutionary War reenactment would have matched our time period better, but it’s hard to beat the spectacle of the tens of thousands of re-enactors who attend Gettysburg.)
SBG: What are “Home Cities”, and how will they impact the player’s experience? Will they provide faster building or more profitable resource gathering than expansion cities?
GS: Your Home City represents your capital back in Europe. If I play as the Portuguese, I may found “New Portugal” in Argentina, but my success is ultimately dependent on the state of Lisbon back home, and vice versa. In every game, your Home City continually provides you with shipments of resources or soldiers. Aggressive players often choose soldiers, while economic or city-builders like Settlers or resources. These shipments occur every few minutes, depending a great deal on how you are doing in the game, and you get to decide what the Home City sends you. But if your colony flourishes, your Home City improves as well. The way this works is that a player earns Experience Points for doing things in the New World – everything from shooting a grizzly bear, to building a Mill, to razing an enemy Fort. If you gain enough experience, your Home City gains a new level, just as in many RPGs. When you gain a new level, you get the ability to visually customize your Home City (such as changing the color of shutters on a building, or changing the lighting from day to night), and you gain a new bonus you can use in the game, such as having more powerful Crossbows, or faster hunting, or adding more armor and weapon improvements to your Arsenal. The best metaphor for the Home City is probably a console game like Gran Turismo, where if you play enough, you can unlock new content for your car: not just changing the color or pinstripes, but also the ability to get a more powerful engine or better tires. That’s how the Home City feels. You can expect to level up every few games, though it slows down at higher levels.
SBG: Finally, what would you say fans of the series should be looking forward to the most?
GS: Diversity. There are constantly new things to discover in Age of Empires III. You might see a Native American warrior that you’ve never seen before, or you might play on a new map that has different animals living on it. There are scores of upgrades available in the Home City, and they vary from civ to civ. I play whole games where I forget to build an Arsenal or Church because I am focused on other things, so when I remember those buildings, it’s fun to explore what improvements they offer. Every ship in the game is given a culturally appropriate random name. Your Explorer can unlock a pet dog in the Home City, and that dog gets a random name as well.
Well, I don’t know about you readers, but I know I’m excited. In a genre that has seen too much “Me too” and not enough “Follow me” in recent times, Age of Empires III looks to give the RTS genre a much-needed shot in the arm. Thanks again to Greg Street for taking the time to talk to us and the rest of Ensemble Studios for keeping the series going for the better part of a decade!