Age of Empires: Definitive Edition launches tomorrow. It is the first step in a big project that will include similarly lavish remasters of Age of Empires II and III, as well as a brand new entry in the iconic RTS series with Age of Empires IV. On the eve of this bold vote of confidence by Microsoft in what is often said to be a dying genre, we spoke with creative director Adam Isgreen about resurrecting a classic, and the RTS’s place in the market today.
Undecided? Here is our Age of Empires: Definitive Edition review.
PCGamesN: The definitive edition was first due to release in October last year. What have you done with the extra four months of development time?
Adam Isgreen: We didn’t feel that findpath was good enough to ship. Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is built on a 20-year-old codebase, and that can cause some pretty big headaches when you’re going through development.
There were also a couple of features that our beta testers said they would love to have which are present in other Age games, like an in-game tech tree. In the original game, that shipped on a card in the box! We decided that was a feature worth investing in so that this really is the ‘definitive edition’ when we talk about Age of Empires.
And now that you are shipping, is everything as you want it?
AI: Yeah, I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It’s really challenging when you take an old IP, and an old game, and you’re like: ‘how do we bring this back?’ But the great thing about Age of Empires, especially the first one, is it’s a simple RTS. I don’t mean that it doesn’t have a lot of things to do, but it’s back in the day when you built bases, and you fought, and you harvested resources, and it wasn’t all about actions-per-minute (APM).
But surely higher APM is advantageous however you play, right?
AI: Well, it could be about APM, there are certainly players that played that way, but the really great thing about Age is it’s a game that can be played multiple ways. I worked on a lot of RTS back in the day: I was at Westwood Studios when we did all the Command and Conquer games, and what I always appreciated about Age of Empires when looking across at it was that Age had multiple ways to win, right? That was such a brilliant thing to add to an RTS game, because at the time all of ours were just: kill everybody, blow everything up, and you win. Then Age came along like, ‘hey, it’s okay to just build a big base, wall yourself in, and win with a Wonder’.
That really blew my mind. Because it was always a frustration of ours, working on our RTS games: ‘man, how do we get people to play differently?’ Maybe I was fighting an uphill battle, but that was one of the things I think is so successful about Age. And not only can you win different ways, but they’re all viable. They’re not just lip service towards something you could never really pull off.
Is Age of Empires: Definitive Edition just a nostalgia trip, or do you think it has a place in the market today?
AI: I believe that any genre that exists for a long time eventually gets more and more complicated. You see that in FPS. Every genre is like ‘add more complication, add more layers, add more this or that’. I think that along the way, RTS split into many different genres: you’ve got everything from Farmville, which is like the base-building of an RTS, to Clash of Clans, which is like super-simplified RTS about input, to MOBA, which all about individual unit control. Those are all awesome vectors that RTS has gone off on.
But I don’t think we’re alone in saying that we think people still want the experience that a core, fundamental, ‘let’s build a base, let’s have a fight, let’s explore’ RTS can bring. We see that as games pop up from time to time. They Are Billions is an interesting example of a base-building/tower defence RTS that has been super successful. So I think there’s still a demand for those games.
Obviously, we’re putting our foot down and saying ‘we think RTS is relevant here at Microsoft’, because not have we got Age I Definitive Edition, but we’re also working on Age II and III, and of course we’re making a brand new Age game with Age of Empires IV, so we firmly believe that RTS has a place in the market. And I bet you that Blizzard is working on something similar, for whatever is going to happen next with Warcraft or StarCraft.
You are probably right there. So what would be your elevator pitch to a young gamer raised on MOBAs, who hadn’t seen where the genre started?
AI: I would say: ‘how about an RTS game where you have different ways to win? How about an RTS game where you can be just as crazy with ATM but you can also sit back, wall yourself in, let your enemy come to you, and still be successful? How about an RTS game where you can win by being sneaky and going around and grabbing things, rather than always going and killing someone? Is it interesting to you to outwit your opponent in ways other than beating them over the head, like you’ve been used to doing?’
I would say there’s more ways to play these kinds of games than you may think, and this one has a lot of great stuff to offer. The other great thing about Age of Empires as an IP is that, because it’s about history, it’s ridiculously accessible. Everybody knows what a club is, what a sword does, what a horse can do. With every other RTS game, you’ve had to explain what the units are - I mean, people kind of know what a tank is and a gun is, but there’s much more fidelity with something like a club: ‘oh sweet, I upgraded it to a sword, I get that’. It makes the games easy to jump into for a broad audience. Age has such a wonderful appeal to everyone across the world, and I think that really does come across.
Much has been made of the audiovisual face lift, which is clear in the screenshots, but how has the gameplay been polished?
AI: The big thing is, this game was written when RTS was still in its fledgling years, by a group of people who had never built an RTS before. Ensemble kind of learned as they went. They got better and better at it, but we’re dealing with a 20-year-old codebase here, because it was really important to us to maintain the feel and the pace of Age of Empires. That’s why we didn’t start with a new engine - we started with the original - and sometimes it’s very difficult for engineers to wrap their heads around 20-year-old code, because no-one thinks like that anymore.
Findpath has been the major focus. It’s one of the biggest things that you care about in an RTS - anytime a unit doesn’t obey a player is a massive frustration point. We also added the attack move command, which is a way to order units to fight as they’re moving. That required a lot of logic to be added, because behind the scenes it has to think about the unit’s sight range, what it can attack, how far it can deviate from its path, what does it do when it returns, how it prioritises combat - because it has to pick and prioritise its own targets. So we had to add all that too, to make sure that that was a robust feature.
You have also said there has been some faction and unit rebalancing for the multiplayer scene - could you give us some examples?
AI: So Age of Empires still has a really big following in Asia-Pacific countries - Vietnam in particular has a really huge Age I playerbase, and they have tournaments and everything. After 20 years, they’ve settled on two factions, and all they build is chariot archers. It basically comes down to how many chariot archers you can build, so Age of Empires was basically reduced to a Cookie Clicker game - it’s all about clicking efficiency rather than trying different tactics. And that belittled their play, because those guys are amazing to watch - you should go on YouTube and find some of the Vietnamese tournaments for Age I, they’re incredible.
So we wanted to bring up the other factions. We didn’t want to take anything away from the ones that everyone was enjoying, but we wanted to make the meta a little more interesting - we wanted at least half the factions to be viable at high-end play. Some have bonuses on the water, so of course if there’s no water on the map those guys are gonna suffer, but we wanted a more robust, competitive field overall.
We know there will be matchmaking via Xbox Live, but what more advanced features are you considering? Ladders, ranked play, maybe a tournament or two?
AI: I would love to do stuff like that, and I know our community team is putting together some stuff to do around launch that’s on a smaller scale. We do definitely have aspirations to do more with tournaments and have more people globally get into the game.
I think what’s going to happen is much like what happened with Overwatch. That game came out and they were like ‘we’re going to let the meta settle and let people get used to the game before we start patching in ranked and tournaments’. So that, I believe, is the approach - I really like that approach, so we’re going to roll that way. We’re going to see how the meta develops, and then we’ll figure out how we get tournaments out there and get something that’s big and we can take around the world to get people playing.
What are your plans for supporting community content, and the sharing of it?
AI: We’ve added a destination on AgeofEmpires.com that’s going to allow people to upload their campaigns and scenarios directly to the site. They can post them for people, they can be rated by the community, they can be curated, and they can be downloaded. We wanted to make that really easy.
Back when Age came out it was all about finding the files and putting them in the right place. We’re way past that in this day and age. We would like people to be able to just grab the things they want, and play and have fun. We want to get all those pain points out of the way, so people can just get what they want and play it.
What about sharing more advanced, fiddly stuff, like mods?
AI: Mods is a really challenging one. Obviously, [being on Universal Windows Platform] clamps some things down. We’re still working through ways. We fully intend to have support for mods across Age of Empires, it’s something we feel is an insanely fun thing that people love - you can see that with Age II. We’re looking at ways to bring that back into everything we do with Age.
Would that require any changes to the Microsoft store?
AI: I’m not a Store person, so I can’t speak to it.
New content has been key in Age II’s renaissance on Steam. Do you have any longer term plans for new DLC or expansions for the Age I Definitive Edition?
AI: We want to get the game out and see what people ask for. We’re going to judge it by what people want, then we’ll figure out what content to do there. We’ve still got an Age II DE and an Age III DE that we’re working through, and of course Age IV as well, so with all that in the pipe we’ll see where people want to go and figure out how we can open it up or support it from there.
Why have you decided against bringing this to Steam, especially with Age II doing so well there?
AI: I don’t think competition is necessarily a bad thing for the marketplace. I fully recognise that some people have issues with the Windows 10 Store. Right now we’re focusing on the UWP build, which doesn’t necessarily have all the functionality we would want if we were to bring it to Steam.
So we’re focusing on this for now, in the future I can’t say what's going to happen - I’m the guy who makes the games, and we just want to make the best version of the game that we can at this point. For us, right now, that’s focusing on the UWP build, with live integrated achievements, cloud saves, all the stuff to expect with the live network. That’s what we want to deliver. Then we’ll figure out if we go somewhere else from there or not.
What are your general thoughts and feelings as we approach launch?
AI: I’m super excited to get this out in front of players and see the reaction. There are so many people that have such fond memories of Age. Last summer, when I was at Gamescom, people would come up and tell me their stories: ‘I learned history from this game’, or ‘my father and I used to play it together, and now I’m playing with my kids’. There’s this wonderful feeling around Age which is really nice to be a part of. I really hope we’ve done the game justice with the Definitive Edition. I hope people understand that we really do care about the Age franchise - we’re going to make all of these games as great as they can be, and continue their legacy.