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Age of Empires 4 - The Big Interview
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 02:30am 11/04/21 | Comments
The iconic strategy series is back with a new game, we sit down with the team at Relic and World’s Edge to talk about all things Age of Empires IV

It’s been well over a decade since the initial release of Age of Empires III -- the third game in the popular Ensemble Studios and Microsoft-published series. A release that brought the franchise into the realm of 2005-style 3D visuals in ambitious style. With that in mind one could just as easily view Age of Empires IV as the return of a long-dormant RTS classic, a modern reimagining as envisioned by Relic Entertainment and Xbox Game Studio World's Edge.

That is, if you were to overlook the fact that the series has a passionate fan base that have been playing the games for decades now.

So much so that the recent Definitive Edition updates have seen both the original game, Age of Empires II, and most recently Age of Empires III, get the modern 4K makeover treatment alongside the debut of new and impressive content. As overseers of the franchise, the Definitive Editions are a testament to World’s Edge's commitment to maintaining Age’s legacy -- something that has not only sparked renewed interest from returning players, but seen the arrival of newcomers diving into the now iconic Age format for the first time.

For those that have played an Age game the flow is like nothing else. Starting off small, building villages, hunting for food, you then ‘Age Up’ through different eras to unlock new metallic and stone monuments, train units that can wield advanced armour and weaponry, and then embark on various large-scale conquests. A journey through history, riding an exponential graph of strategy goodness.

As a sequel, Age of Empires IV presents a new numbered entry in the long running strategy franchise -- and that alone makes it one of the most anticipated PC games currently in development. With the critically acclaimed Relic Entertainment heading up development, the studio behind acclaimed RTS staples like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War, there’s a sense that the end result could be something that, well, might just match the hype.

As a sequel, Age of Empires IV presents a new numbered entry in the long running strategy franchise -- and that alone makes it one of the most anticipated PC games currently in development.

The track record is there -- and the results are looking promising.

Ahead of the recent reveal, which showcased the new and impressive visuals alongside the commitment to presenting history in a way that is both accurate and still very much Age of Empires -- we had the chance to sit down with both Relic and World’s Edge to discuss the game, its journey, and where the franchise is headed.

The First Age

“We met with Microsoft years ago about potentially working on an Age of Empires game,” Quinn Duffy, Age of Empires IV Game Director at Relic Entertainment tells us. “They saw the passionate fan base and new players continuing to come to Age of Empires II and III -- so maybe there was an opportunity to make another one. Age of Empires II was the immediate creative inspiration for us, it’s my own formative Age experience. That period of history is fascinating and there's so many stories we could tell. From that we viewed the idea of Age of Empires IV as a spiritual successor to Age II, a game that would continue that legacy and bring a modern approach to the RTS gameplay.”

The release of Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is particularly important in that it’s not only the most beloved Age game, but one of the most iconic RTS games of all time. In classical videogame sequel fashion it took the foundation laid out by the original and improved and refined it to the point where everything element not only came together but complemented each other. From the single player campaign to the robust multiplayer that still sees competitive tournaments thrive all over the world -- Age II is a classic in every sense of the word.

“The Definitive Editions proved to us that Age has not only been popular for 20-plus years, but something that could still bring new people come in,” Emma Bridle, Director of Customer Voice at World’s Edge adds. “And it truly is popular all over the world, we have a global player-base. We also understand that the franchise means a lot to people, some go and study history because they played Age of Empires as a child. We're excited that we get to start a new chapter with that legacy.”

A Modern Take

Taking a classic game and modernising it is such a broad term, it could apply to just about anything. From a visual perspective, Age of Empires IV of course features the sort of 3D engine that simply wouldn’t have been possible back in the day. From detailed environments and structures to motion-captured animation through to physics and AI that can, well, work out how to move in formation and get through a small opening in a breached and broken castle wall without getting stuck.

"We viewed the idea of Age of Empires IV as a spiritual successor to Age II, a game that would continue that legacy and bring a modern approach to the RTS gameplay.”

“Even simply taking that gameplay from Age of Empires II and putting that into a new engine is a challenging prospect,” Quinn Duffy explains. “The game is going to feel different and it's going to look different. We’ve spent a lot of time on the look and feel of Age of Empires IV, from presentation to the use of colour to the modern visual elements that didn't exist 20 years ago. We have to think about every little detail.”

For the team, simply pushing the visual side is one part of the story. Readability, that is being able to quickly and easily determine where specific units are located alongside structures and other elements on a battlefield, sits alongside the new look. As does taking advantage of modern rendering and Relic’s own history of pushing the genre forward when it comes to unit behaviour and combat.

“Visually, we’ve done a lot of iterations on unit colouration and design, building from history but then having to make that unit work in the context of an Age game and be recognisable,” Quinn continues, noting that things like a unit’s silhouette needs to be unique and quickly identifiable alongside its colour and even the sounds they make. “There’s a huge amount of effort put into combat and being able to recognise what's happening on the battlefield. There are a few things we looked at to make it flow, formations to help players organise and lay out their units. There’s also a system we call ‘Battle Lines’, which is getting units to create a line -- the sort of definable frontline that makes combat easier to control and easier to manage. Underlying systems are there too for unit navigation and automated formation to create order on the battlefield where it could normally be quite chaotic.”

For Relic and World’s Edge, the modernisation of Age of Empires flows into all aspects of the game -- right through to how we all consume and find content today. From mod support to the observer like watching of matches through to streaming on platforms like Twitch. Described as an ecosystem that builds up around the game, Age of Empires IV is very much viewed as a platform. That is, in addition to a return to the sort of historical fun the franchise is known for.

History Channel

Age of Empires IV is set to feature cinematic campaigns that will both highlight and celebrate its playable civilisations. From the Normans in England through to the Chinese and the Delhi Sultanate -- character-driven tales that blend history with real-world documentary footage. A presentation-style that aims to showcase the history and diversity of each civilisation’s culture.

“Visually, we’ve done a lot of iterations on unit colouration and design, building from history but then having to make that unit work in the context of an Age game and be recognisable.”

“When we went into designing the campaign and the narrative, we really wanted to celebrate the history that we were dealing with and bring a sort of cutting-edge documentary style to the stories we were telling,” Phil Boulle, Narrative Lead at Relic Entertainment tells us. “All that live action footage, the drone shots with the golden soldiers, that’s all from the game, from the cinematics that bridge one mission to another.”

“Where Age of Empires II went deep on a single historical moment, the career of Joan of Arc or William Wallace, we expand that, so you get to see what happens with William of Normandy as he conquers England,” Phil continues. “But also, what happens to his son Henry the First, his daughter Empress Matilda, her grandchildren. We go through several generations to build a more sweeping historical narrative and our filmmaking partners were a huge part of making that work.”

“When I saw it for the first time, being British, it was very reminiscent of some high quality things you'd see on the BBC,” Emma Bridle adds.

A reaction grounded in the process, which not only saw Relic and the World’s Edge team travel to historical sites across Europe and the like, but also engage with documentarians and filmmakers with experience working on similar projects. That is, documentaries. This approach to the single-player campaign in Age of Empires IV not only sounds like something that hasn’t really been done before -- it speaks to the scope of its development.

Related: The Making of Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition.

“Tonnes of research, working with historians, working with linguists, to really make the language and the look of the units come alive,” Phil Boulle explains. “But always with the understanding that we are building a game. We of course need to lean into the historical fantasy that is Age of Empires. Starting in a small village and building out your city, but even then all things become a conversation with history. There's endless inspiration for how to celebrate these civilisations, how to make them different from one another, how to elevate missions with actual historical context. I was a history major back in university, and it's been a real joy to come back to that.”


“Being able to build game mechanics out of the uniqueness of the history of the civilisations is something that's really fun,” Quinn Duffy notes, when the discussion shifts to not only choosing the different civs to put into Age of Empires IV but also design them in such a way as they feel different from one another. “The things that make the Mongols unique, their nomadic nature, horse archers, a reliance on Steppe ponies for mobility -- all that’s in there. Then there’s the Delhi Sultanate with their elephants, there aren’t that many people that would have access to those types of units.”

“There's endless inspiration for how to celebrate these civilisations, how to make them different from one another, how to elevate missions with actual historical context.”

“But it is desperately sad when they die,” Quinn adds with a somewhat guilty chuckle. “You dig into the history, you find some interesting little thing and you can then turn that into an upgrade or a mechanic. Ensemble [Ensemble Studios, the developers of the original Age of Empires trilogy] did a great job back in the day, looking at history and choosing compelling elements to build into the games. They always said that they did history from the children's book aisle at the library. Our sources might be a little more modern, but we’re building on that same ideal.”

And as seen with the Definitive Edition releases, both Relic and World’s Edge are committed to accuracy and diversity without any pretense of broad generalisations or stereotypes. “We're all history geeks,” Emma Bridle emphatically states. “I love being able to share a bio-tapestry meme with my colleagues. For the historians that we work with, we really tried to be diverse and make sure that we were speaking with as many people as possible. And it's not just us that are passionate about getting it right, so is our community. If they spot something that they don't think is historically correct, they will tell us. We've put a lot of effort into being as authentic and we can be.”

The Community Council

For an established franchise or series that has as long of a history as Age of Empires, being open with the community is one thing, establishing a long-standing and thriving line of communication with fans is something else. Even though most of us have only just gotten our first real look at Age of Empires IV, the now years long development on the game has been underway with input and communication with what is referred to as the Community Council -- a diverse selection of Age of Empires fans and experts.

“All players have a seat at the table and have a voice in our development,” Emma Bridle explains. “The Community Council was formed in 2017, so they've been with us for the long haul. We selected players who have history with different games in the franchise, players who are from different places all over the world. This franchise means a lot to so many people and it's very important that Age IV really does feel like an Age game. They've been hands-on with the game for a long time and have been able to see it change and along the way have been open and honest with their feedback. Which, we really appreciate. We all pore through every piece of that feedback, compile it, review it. It's quite a detailed process.”

The battlefield readability discussion from earlier, that’s an area where the development team has been engaging with the Community Council to get their feedback and take on the decisions being made. From that changes to this side of the game have been made over the years specific to their experiences. Something the team firmly believes has made Age of Empires IV a better game.

A New Beginning

“This is Age of Empires and experienced players will recognise it as Age of Empires, but just like the games from 20 years ago we want to welcome people in,” Phil Boulle responds as we ask about new players and how the premise of a new Age game could also bring back players that haven’t played an entry for many years.

“This franchise means a lot to so many people and it's very important that Age IV really does feel like an Age game.”

“We definitely set out to roll out the red carpet for new players. We have a gentle on-ramp that lets you live through going from a small village to a large town with landmarks. And there's a variety of ways in, but probably the main way is going to be through the campaign. The Norman campaign is designed to open up the mechanics progressively and let you explore different parts of the game. As you get more comfortable, there are the Art of War challenges that provide in-depth looks at specific mechanics.”

Art of War missions became popular additions to the Definitive Edition releases in that they offered up tangible and playable ways to dive into the various systems and ideas that go into the more competitive side of the franchise. “All of that sets you up to be able to play however you want to,” Phil continues. “You can go back and play missions at a harder difficulty, you can skirmish with your friends against multiple levels of AI. Then there's the online community if you want to play against humans. Different people will find engagement in different parts of the experience, and that's one of the great things about Age.”

With an upcoming beta and the legacy that comes with Age of Empires the team is excited to not only see new people and existing fans jump in, but begin to look beyond this year’s launch -- the future. Although plans are in place, specific details are a little light in that launching a new platform will have its own trajectory and momentum.

“That's a very safe assumption,” Quinn Duffy pauses, when asked about the long-term support for Age of Empires IV in relation to updates and new content. “Looking at Relic’s track record, Microsoft’s, World's Edge, we’ve been supporting games that shipped many years ago. This is the start of something, so there's that military Axiom that says something like ‘no plan survives first contact’. We want to get our game out and see how players react to it and discover ways we can engage with them. To connect with the different kinds of communities that emerge. We do have long-term plans for supporting Age of Empires IV.”

Age of Empires IV is on track for a 2021 release on PC where it will also be available as a part of Xbox Game Pass.

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