Age of Empires: Where it all Began Interviews


In October 1997 a game called Age of Empires began to appear on store shelves. It was the first game from a brand new game development company called Ensemble Studios and was published by Microsoft. Many members of the Ensemble Studios team were right out of school with no experience in the games industry. Today, Age of Empires is a multi-million unit selling franchise with fans around world. This series of interviews with a few of the developers on that first title takes a look back at where it all began.

Age of Empires

Bruce Shelley | Harter Ryan | Tony Goodman | Thonny Namuonglo | Dave Pottinger

 

Bruce C. Shelley


What was your role in the development of the first Age of Empires game?

BCS: I helped design the game. At the start of the studio and the game I worked with Tony and Rick Goodman to decide what the game would be about, the vision, the scope, etc. I helped with the design over the next three years. I remember helping to pick the civilizations, the buildings, the units, and also worked with Chris Rippy on the single player campaigns. I wrote the historical notes and many of the historical blurbs about the units and other components. Near the end of the project they sent me on the road to do PR and show the game to press in San Francisco, E3, etc.

 

What do you remember most about the development process of Age of Empires?

BCS: I remember the very happy day when we got multiplayer working and completed our first four (six?, eight?) player game. Up to that point we had been playing mostly Warcraft II for the experience and as a benchmark. After that point it was almost only Age of Empires being played. Our multiplayer games helped shaped the design and polish it so it was a fun game when completed. We have continued to use that same process on all of our games since.

 

When was your first day working at Ensemble Studios and what was it like?

BCS: Don't really recall, since that was over twelve years ago and at the time we had no game underway. We were considering several ideas for a game and we either talked about them or played some games looking for inspiration.

 

What is your earliest memory of playing Age of Empires?

BCS: I remember an early prototype where we had only a few kinds of units, a horseman, an archer, and maybe a club or swordsman. We may have been working on the rocks-paper-scissor relationship. I remember that the archer could shoot at the swordsman and then run away from him (I believe he was faster). The horseman could outrun the archer, however. The swordsman was at a disadvantage with no range or speed. The map was very flat with a few trees for terrain.

 

How do you think Age of Empires ended up with such a large online following?

BCS: I think it sold well overall because it appealed to both online/hardcore gamers and casual gamers. There were a lot of different experiences in the box and players of all tastes could find a game that really suited them. For everyone the game was bright and inviting. For online particularly, I think it was well balanced and challenging, and always a little different thanks to randomly generated maps. We had playtested it for years in multiplayer mode (the artificial intelligence for skirmish mode was finished late) so it was fairly well polished for online play by the time it published.

 

Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties is heading to store shelves shortly. What do you think of Age's latest incarnation and how different or similar it is to the original Age title?

BSC: I like TAD a lot. I think it is a very good add-on for Age of Empires III. I like it that India has finally got into one of our games as a civilization. I think that TAD is a nice blend of new and old, with the wonders back, for example. The biggest changes to me over the entire series are changes in graphics (nice 2D to stunning 3D), the gradual reduction in micromanagement, the increasing sophistication in the single player campaigns, and the continual innovation in gameplay features.

 

Where would you like to see the Age series of games go in the future?

BCS: I don't have a clear favorite option. Redoing Age of Kings in 3D would be cool. Knights and castles make a great RTS topic. The 20th century or World War II would be logical next steps, but come with a lot of political baggage and would probably require a completely new economic model. Going into space would really open up possibilities, but would obviously draw from science fiction rather than the historical human experience. One of those three would be my favorite and I believe all could be great.

 

Age of Empires

Harter Ryan


What was your role in the development of the first Age of Empires game?

HR: Practically none. I was hired in the last couple of weeks before the game went gold to replace the "Project Manager" hat that Rick Goodman was wearing while he also fulfilling the role of Lead Designer on Age1. We knew Rick was leaving ES after Age1 shipped, so I was a preemptive hire to help offset that loss.

 

What do you remember most about the development process of Age of Empires?

HR: Well, I started on Labor Day 1997 and I remember seemingly endless crunch (10-midnight Monday through Saturday, then Noon to Midnight on Sundays) to finish up Age1. I did it for about 3 weeks and it was exhausting, while the rest of the studio had been on that schedule for something like 9 months straight.

 

When was your first day working at Ensemble Studios and what was it like?

HR: I was introduced to everyone (all 24 of them), then given a PC in a conference room to start playing the game. Since I hadn't seen much of Age1 beforehand, it was a revelation.

 

What is your earliest memory of playing Age of Empires?

HR: Playing in a multiplayer game with the artists and seeing 40-odd Sumerian Heavy Catapults enter my town while I was still figuring out the tech tree.

 

How do you think Age of Empires ended up with such a large online following?

HR: The online game has great pacing, solid balance, and enough replay-ability due to the deep tech tree to make the game repeatedly compelling. I think the fact that it concerned human history and that players could relate to civilizations from the past made the game very easy to embrace.

 

Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties is heading to store shelves shortly. What do you think of Age's latest incarnation and how different or similar it is to the original Age title?

HR: I can't believe how far the game has come since Age1, while keeping the core game play and fun essentially the same. I believe that Big Huge Games has brought some really great ideas to the table in TAD and it's been a good thing for the game to have another party to give their take on improving Age3.

 

Where would you like to see the Age series of games go in the future?

HR: Oh, wherever the team thinks they can make the best game.

 

Age of Empires

Tony Goodman


What was your role in the development of the first Age of Empires game?

TG: I started Ensemble Studios in 1994 so I was responsible for the idea of starting the company and hiring all of the initial employees. It was kind of a group effort coming up with the idea for Age of Empires and eventually I became the Art Director on the project.

 

What do you remember most about the development process of Age of Empires?

TG: Back in the old days we didn't know what we were doing, but we were probably doing a lot more things right than we suspected. We were a much smaller company back then, about 15 people. I think the big thing that was different about the development process was that we were all in one room so communication was never an issue.

 

When was your first day working at Ensemble Studios and what was it like?

TG: I guess my first day at the company was when I started the company. I didn't have any employees so I was just kinda sitting there thinking of stuff.

 

What is your earliest memory of playing Age of Empires?

TG: My first memory is when we first got the villager in with a big "Fred Flintstone" slab of meat over his shoulder. We all got a kick out of that. There wasn't much to do in the game back then, but we all had a lot of fun. We'd just build the villager and chop down the entire forest. The game was over when there weren't anymore trees to chop down.

 

How do you think Age of Empires ended up with such a large online following?

TG: Age of Empires has two main ways of playing. One way is the campaign where you play against the computer, the other way is the online mode where you play head to head against other players. Those guys are maniacs and they are fanatics, and that is just an insanely fun way to play. Age of Empires is a great online game and just has a huge online following because of it.

 

Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties is heading to store shelves shortly. What do you think of Age's latest incarnation and how different or similar it is to the original Age title?

TG: One way it's different is our latest expansion pack was developed in conjunction with Big Huge Games. They did almost all of the work on it, and we participated in the development process. But because it was developed by Big Huge Games it definitely has a different flavor to it and I think that's somewhat refreshing. Another thing is that our games over time have become more and more hardcore. As time goes on people expect the same features that the last game had, but they want more. So the evolution of the game is that it has become more and more complex.

 

Where would you like to see the Age series of games go in the future?

TG: Complexity is a lot of fun. Complexity and depth are really great but it creates a pretty big chasm for the new gamer that barriers entry. Definitely one thing that everybody can expect in Age of Empires IV is a big shift towards making the game fun and easy to pick up for the new player and the casual gamer. We're not going to take any of the depth out of the game but we're going to simplify the process and hide a lot of the complexity. Age of Empires IV should be easy to play for anybody who has never played an RTS game before or not and they should be able to pick it up and have fun with it in the first five minutes.

As far as the topic goes, I can't tell you right now if we're going to be going back and revisiting the medieval days or moving forward into mechanized warfare. Both are possibilities but we're going to keep that a secret.

 

Age of Empires

Thonny Namuonglo


What was your role in the development of the first Age of Empires game?

TN: Back in the old days we were a pretty small company so people had several roles. I worked on some terrain, buildings, units, unit animations, and cinematics. We were all general artists back then. Through the years we've become more specialized. I miss those days of variety.

 

What do you remember most about the development process of Age of Empires?

TN: How small the team was. I've got a copy of all our games and got everyone that worked on the title to sign the boxes. The Age1 box has only 30 signatures on it. Of course that's what we ended up with. When I first started there were maybe 7 people in the company. It was a tight knit group back then. There was a lot of energy and excitement then too. We were a small startup working on our very first game and didn't have a publisher initially.

 

When was your first day working at Ensemble Studios and what was it like?

TN: January 2, 1996 was my first day and as you can imagine my memory is bit hazy :). Ensemble Studios shared an office with sister company Ensemble Corporation, a computer consulting company. I remember meeting everyone from both sides of the company, which at the time was maybe 20 people in total, maybe not even that many. We worked in cubicles mixed in with the consultants but it was cool since everyone was friendly. The very first day I arrived I hit the ground running because we were putting together a demo to present to potential publishers. It wasn't even an RTS but a space shooter. It had the same similar isometric view the Age games have now but you pilot a spaceship around shooting things. It turned out to be pretty cool actually.

 

What is your earliest memory of playing Age of Empires?

TN: I remember being pretty terrible, much like today, lol. I wasn't too bad near the end of development having to playtest the game so much. It wasn't until Age2 that I got to be good.

 

How do you think Age of Empires ended up with such a large online following?

TN: Good game play and the historical setting I think brought people in. Oh, and the art :). Gamers are pretty vocal about what they like and don't like so I think the positive word-of-mouth just spread.

 

Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties is heading to store shelves shortly. What do you think of Age's latest incarnation and how different or similar it is to the original Age title?

TN: It's fantastic. It has the right amount of new content so it doesn't overwhelm you but enough so as to add more variety to an already great game. I wanted to include the Asian civilizations in the original AOE3 but now realize that it was best to have released them as an expansion. Giving them focus allowed us to present them on a much grander scale.

 

Where would you like to see the Age series of games go in the future?

TN: It would be cool to have some kind of persistent world online where players could form teams or guilds and play each other for territory. People could look online at any time and see the border skirmishes between opposing factions. That could be cool.

 

Age of Empires

Dave C. Pottinger


What was your role in the development of the first Age of Empires game?

DCP: I was originally hired as a general programmer. I ended up being in charge of the engine architecture. I also did most of the CPAI and a lot of the sim programming.

 

What do you remember most about the development process of Age of Empires?

DCP: Long, long hours and a sense of just dumb bull-headed perseverance. We didn't know how much we'd bitten off in getting that game done. We blundered our way through it with a type of passion that only new studios have. Most of the team, myself included, was straight out of school. Most of the team was single; hardly anyone had kids. So, the long nights were more okay than they are today. We didn't really have anyone (Bruce aside) with "real" game industry experience. That was when the soul of the company was born, though. So, yeah, it was a pretty damn great time:)

 

When was your first day working at Ensemble Studios and what was it like?

DCP: I started sometime in June of '96. I had just graduated college, gotten married, and was still trying to finish the game I'd started in college, so I'm fuzzy on the dates:) It was an interesting day, to say the least. The bank downstairs had gotten robbed that morning. When I arrived, my machine had just been unboxed and people were pawing through the free software that came with it since no of us had any money back then:) I got the tour of the recently finished 8 room office (it was under construction when I interviewed); that took about 1 minute. And then we went to lunch:) The afternoon consisted of playing the game, talking about the game with the lead designer, and get the compiler setup. So, we didn't waste much time getting me right into the thick of things:) But, it was pretty cool to drive home and realize that someone was going to pay me real money for making games. The longer I'm in this industry, the more I'm amazed at how everything came together for all of us back then. Amazing.

 

What is your earliest memory of playing Age of Empires?

DCP: I interviewed with Tony Goodman (studio head then and now) and Brian Sullivan (business dude/designer back in the day, now doing similar things his company Iron Lore) at CGDC in March (back when it was CGDC and not just GDC). I had answered a random Internet post looking for game developers in Dallas after my fiancee landed a job at Texas Instruments. TG interviewed me over the phone and we planned a meet-up at the convention. After chatting with TG and Brian for a while, they drove me back to their hotel room to show me the game. I think 4 or 5 people were sharing the room for budget reasons (ES was on the cheap back then). It smelled like a locker room and was replete with strewn underwear and the general trappings of geeked-out gamers. I wasn't really interested in history much at all, but when I saw that game come up, it was pretty damn magical. The sense of wonderment and exploration just hooked me from the start.

 

How do you think Age of Empires ended up with such a large online following?

DCP: Blind f'in luck:) Well, not entirely. But, it's not like we shipped Age1 with multiplayer that really worked well:) It wasn't until the first patch (or later depending on your viewpoint) that it really felt good online. And, back then, patches were much less accepted and took a lot longer to get through publishing, testing, etc. Anyhow, I think we had a good connection to the community and, honestly, the game was just fun. You couldn't watch Age1 and not think "Wow, I've got to play that". Once online stabilized, it did also bring a lot of new/solid gameplay to the table. Historical settings, random maps, 8 player games, longer/deeper experiences, massive content for an RTS game, etc. It was the right game at pretty much the right time. So, yeah, blind f'in luck:)

Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties is heading to store shelves shortly. What do you think of Age's latest incarnation and how different or similar it is to the original Age title?

DCP: I like playing TAD quite a bit. I think it was fun to try out a second expansion pack and to have Big Huge do it. They've done a great job bringing their party to Age and changing up some of our dynamics. Some things in TAD are a departure from the core Age gameplay, but that's actually what we all wanted. By the time you do a second expansion pack, players are looking for pretty different experience from the core game they've been playing for a couple of years. Well, at least I think so:) I think BHG did a good maintaining the feel of Age while putting a fresh spin on a game that's already bursting with content.

 

Where would you like to see the Age series of games go in the future?

DCP: Tough question. We need to decide what timeframe the next game in the series is set in. That comes down, for me, a lot to how we define "What is Age of Empires?" I certainly have my own opinions about that and the timeframe, but it's too early to share them.

Instead, I'll just mention two other things... Platform and Features. I think we need to look at bringing Age to consoles. I don't know if that's a simultaneous release or if it's just a different version made specifically for consoles. But, in working on Halo Wars, it's pretty damn clear that Age would be a great console game. The trick there is doing that w/o compromising the PC game.

That actually segues into the second thing, Features. Looking back on our games, we've fallen victim to the feature bloat that a series like Age tends to have. We've carried virtually every feature/mechanic forward in every one of our games. At some point, we have to get off that treadmill. Our games are getting too bogged down in features that don't add to the core experience. When you look at something like Company of Heroes or World in Conflict, they're stronger in some areas because they've got a cleaner vision and core experience. Age is a deep game, so you can't shoot that in the head, either. It'll be tricky to decide how we remain true to what Age is for our fans, yet still create a game that has a deep, fulfilling feature set that doesn't require a doctorate to grok.