Re-releases or Definitive Editions haven’t exactly been rare of late, but as we’ve gone from non-HD to full-HD to basking in the midday sun of the 4K-era, there are plenty of reasons to bring back a classic. Or two, or III. When it comes to the real-time strategy genre, full-blown remasters are often a cause for celebration. From StarCraft
to Command & Conquer
to Age of Empires
, we’re talking about titles from decades past in a genre that has all but disappeared.
In the case of the latter, the recent Definitive Edition releases of the first two Age of Empires titles - originally developed by the now defunct Ensemble Studios - not only saw a renewed interest in the Age series from a wider audience, but bolstered its already formidable popularity in a community of fans that span the globe. Odds are you or someone you're close to have fond memories playing Age of Empires.
A phenomenon that recently saw the formation of a new Xbox Games Studios
team called World's Edge
, which would oversee the franchise’s continued success with assistance from a range of talented studios. For the release of Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition
, the first mainline title in the series to introduce full-3D visuals ala Blizzard’s jump from Warcraft II to Warcraft III, remaster duties have been handled in a partnership between World’s Edge and the Melbourne based Tantalus Media
. A studio that helped Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition
reach the heights that it did back in 2019.
From a development standpoint, there are similarities to what we saw happen there. Support for 4K displays and modern PC hardware, crisper assets, and remastered sound. Even so, Age of Empires III presented a somewhat different challenge than what had come before. The original game’s 3D visuals, that is polygons and textures moving about the screen, were cutting-edge back in the day. That day though, was 2005. With the Definitive Edition the teams at Tantalus and World’s Edge had to rebuild every model, texture, and animation essentially from scratch.
The original game’s 3D visuals, that is polygons and textures moving about the screen, were cutting-edge back in the day. That day though, was 2005.
“The original game still stands up despite his age,” Joss Ellis, Director of Development at Tantalus tells me. “But it's a DirectX 9 game that features pretty low poly models. When you zoom in on some of the things now, they're like cubes with blurry textures. When we started out, we were like, right, lets rev the engine.”
That revving of the engine can be seen in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition’s trailers, screenshots, and early preview builds seen to date. Where new physically-based rendering means modern, dynamic, and impressive lighting that sits alongside new higher detailed models and textures. With full DirectX 12 support, the team were also conscious of the fact that Age players also come in the form of players of a certain age - so it will scale well across everything from a modern PC beast to a somewhat older DirectX 11 rig.
“We then went through every single system, updated or at least changed them to use the latest version – as seen with the physics now using the latest Havok,” Joss continues. “We’ve also completely changed the peer-to-peer networking to have a sort of host environment with fewer desyncs offering up a much more reliable online game that now allows spectators to watch. We’ve redone the UI to make it a floating system that scales [across multiple displays and resolutions].”
It’s a laundry list of updates, that even covers cinematics and story elements, stuff worthy of the Definitive tag. To go from a blurry and low-detail image when zoomed all the way in to the high-quality and impressive detail seen in the Definitive Edition, one can’t help but wonder just how that was achieved. Was it a case of re-using concept art dating back several years, hitting the mythical ‘enhance’ button movies have been telling us exists, or, start from scratch?
“We had access to some of the research material that the original team had but basically we re-did it all,” Joss explains. “Because of the historical aspect we could actually go back and see what colonial militia from 1627 looked like in a specific place. The original in-game assets were not all that helpful, in fact we had a couple of full-time people working on the team where their job was to do that historical research. The added benefit there is that we’ve now got all these great books in the studio covering arms and armour and various civilisations and buildings and architecture.”
“One of the key things to us was maintaining the silhouettes and the read on each unit,” Adam Isgreen, Creative Director at World’s Edge adds. “When you’re making a historical game you can ask what a Janissary looks like and then find that out. The Janissary we see in the original game is a handful of polygons and a few blurry textures, but taking that to where we are now we had to make sure the silhouettes still read as those same units from the original. The pose, how they hold their weapons. An RTS is a game of quickly looking over your battlefield and being able to identify units in an instant. We brought these units back using history, but in a way people were familiar with. It's a balance.”
A Thriving Community
Even before Age of Empires II got its big 4K make-over it was a game that was still played by countless fans, a statement that is true of Age of Empires III - where similarly a thriving community has been patching, updating, tweaking, and keeping it alive for well over a decade now. That said there’s a big list out there of fixes, tweaks, improvements, changes, and other things many have been wanting to see officially arrive - and on that note the teams at World’s Edge and Tantalus have put in every change asked for into the Definitive Edition.
“Because of the historical aspect we could actually go back and see what colonial militia from 1627 looked like in a specific place. The original in-game assets were not all that helpful, in fact we had a couple of full-time people working on the team where their job was to do that historical research."
“We also got to a bunch of absolute best players in the world to play a few months back and get them put forth suggestions,” Joss Ellis tells me. “We got rid of a lot of cheats and hacks which will please players and we’ve simplified the whole system. In Age III there's a whole meta happening as you play, where it’s not only about building your armies and cutting down enough wood - you’ve also got these shipments coming in from your Home City. And they have as big an impact on the game as Age-ing up.”
An element from the original release that would result in dramatically different performance depending on how much time you spent with each civ. For the Definitive Edition it’s a process that has been streamlined due to digging into the reasons why players were, well, cheating or hacking the game. “As a brand-new player, you were at a distinct disadvantage,” Adam Isgreen recalls. “It took hundreds of hours to get all that stuff which was ridiculous. So, people hacked the game.”
“We were like that's just dumb, let's build that in and help people from the beginning,” Joss adds. “Age III is much better balanced here than if you were to download it right now from Steam, there are a thousand changes we’ve made – maybe more.”
Looking to the community and Age of Empires fans to help implement change is a great idea, especially for a franchise that owes a large portion of its longevity to that audience. But, it does raise a potential concern - that is changing the game to suit a specific viewpoint or perspective.
“The changes we brought in from the community came from ESOC
, where there’s this consensus across lots of minor changes made incrementally over the years,” Joss responds, noting that even with the changes the team would still discuss, test, play, and monitor it every step of the way. “It’s a fantastic thing to tap into, because you've got people that have been playing the game for over a decade. Putting a lot of those changes in was relatively safe, but there have been some that have come and then been reverted.”
“There's also our own expertise, we can’t give too much credence to one individual,” Joss continues. “We can track all manner of stats, we can see what people are doing and how many people might utilise certain strategies. Are the Brits overpowered versus the French in this map? We can just pull the stats and verify what people suggest. A lot of it is about fun too, where you might add something where the walk speed of an on-foot unit is almost as fast as cavalry, to keep momentum and balance.”
Two New Civilisations Emerge
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is far more than a simple re-release, it’s not the sort of remaster that puts the word ‘Definitive’ in its title in order to sound cool. In addition to rebuilding the visuals for modern PC hardware from the ground-up, the teams at World Edge and Tantalus are also introducing two new playable civilisations - the Swedes and the Incas - drawing on lesser known parts of history and outright gaps in the broader scope of the game.
“It’s a fantastic thing to tap into, because you've got people that have been playing the game for over a decade. Putting a lot of those changes in was relatively safe."
“One of the things we're trying to do with Age of Empires is really be aware,” Adam Isgreen explains. “There’s what would be cool, right? What civilisation was fascinating in this period that people might not know about. With the Swedes, you have a civilisation that at the time was using politics, money, and inventive uses of gunpowder to punch way above their weight class.”
“Then there’s our players,” Adam continues. “Age of Empires is a popular game all around the world, and we have a tonne of players that love Age III across South America. When we looked at that region for potential civs we could bring into the game we quickly realised we didn’t have the Incas. That was one of those ‘what are we doing’ moments.”
Outside of the who, there’s also the why. With both the Swedes and the Incas filling a particular playstyle gap not seen in the default or classic Age of Empires III civ line-up. The Incas are described as having a more Age II feel, with fortifications, walls, and big cities. The Swedes on the other hand live up to their historical counterparts by offering players the ability to hire a lot of units and go agile - backed up by a near limitless supply of gunpowder. The Swedes are also able to spend money for influence.
“Picking civs is not a case of simply looking at the most popular or well-known ones, but civs that bring something creative and interesting to the gameplay,” Adam says, adding that the ultimate selection on behalf of players is akin to a “fighting game like Street Fighter.”
Accuracy Above All
Outside of the jump from 2D to 3D graphics, one of the areas Age of Empires III shifted the franchise into a new direction was its focus on a cinematic story that spanned multiple locations, characters, and set-pieces that would dip its toes more often than not into pure spectacle. It also presented a very simplified look at colonisation from the era. When the decision was made to remaster and remake Age III, the team at World’s Edge knew that it would also need to address some of its more blatant historical inaccuracies or omissions.
“Picking civs is not a case of simply looking at the most popular or well-known ones, but civs that bring something creative and interesting to the gameplay."
“We knew there were going to be challenges with Age III as we started to work on it, in terms of some of the depictions,” Adam admits. “Especially when it came to Native American culture. And honestly, we didn't realise how much work needed to be done. At World's Edge, one of the things that we did early on was create franchise pillars that talked about the way we wanted to treat our players and the ways we wanted to respect history. As we established the studio and the culture, we asked ourselves how we felt about these things. Were we okay with being blatantly inaccurate? The answer was no.”
For Age of Empires III and its clearly dated and above all inaccurate depiction of indigenous people the team poured over a number of different solutions - with outright cancelling the project on the table. “The thing that was great was that all the leadership above us at Microsoft, Phil [Spencer] and everyone on his team, were like, do the right thing,” Adam continues. “Make this right for these cultures and represent them accurately. That was what we needed to hear to dive in and really solve the problem.”
From there the team took special care to collaborate and involve tribal consultants to change the stereotypically European depiction of natives seen in the original Age of Empires III to something that better represents the cultures as they existed. In much the same way the Swedes use money for influence, Native American cultures in Age of Empires III approach resource gathering in a more realistic and environmentally conscious fashion. A minor detail that speaks volumes, and it’s through scrutiny, collaboration, and a steadfast focus on accuracy that has driven development.
“We're going to keep looking at it,” Adam adds. “Even to this day we find little things where we're like, ‘oh no, that flag is wrong’ or ‘that architecture doesn’t belong at that specific moment in time’. We’ve made sure that we can do those changes, big or small, to represent those cultures. It's important to us and it's important to the future of what we're going to do at World's Edge.”
The Art of War in the Digital Age
There’s something comforting about a traditional RTS tutorial, a setup that introduces you to the concept of a PC mouse and it’s left-click and right-click setup. For a series and game like Age of Empires III though, it’s a setup that does little to prepare new players for the latter stages of the cinematic campaign or the robust multiplayer. Places where a full understanding of the Home City mechanic, age-ing up, and the various civilisations are a must. As seen in the Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, the Art of War is returning here - with missions designed specifically to teach players the ins and outs of the Age III meta.
“As we established the studio and the culture, we asked ourselves how we felt about these things. Were we okay with being blatantly inaccurate? The answer was no."
“What I love about the Art of War is that it’s unique to each game,” Adam tells me. “If it were simply a tutorial that we called Art of War, where you had the same missions across every Age of Empires release that would be one thing. Art of War has become its own thing, not only is it saying ‘hey, learn how to play RTS’, it’s saying ‘learn the specific nuances of this RTS game’.”
“If you’re just playing a normal game, you can beat the AI and from that think you're good,” Joss Ellis adds, articulating an RTS feeling we’ve all had at one time or another. “In Age the jump to multiplayer is this huge step in complexity and difficulty. How fast do you need to work? And that’s what the Art of War teaches you in eight to ten different areas. How fast you need to be, how accurate, and what kind of strategies you need to draw on. Essentially it gives you that training so that when you try your very first multiplayer battle you don't get utterly crushed. Just partially crushed.”
“This is a different game and a very different approach to Age of Empires,” Adam concludes, noting that Age of Empires III has a very different feel to other entries in the long-running series. “It's been a lot of fun finding the nuances in each game and amplifying them, a great part of getting to put together these Definitive Editions.”
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is out October 15 on Windows 10, Steam and Xbox Game Pass for PC.