Age of Empires 4 Interview - Going Behind the Scenes on the Return of the RTS Great
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 05:54pm 26/10/21 | Comments
We sat down with the teams at Relic and World’s Edge days before the launch of Age of Empires IV to chat about its development, the campaign, siege gameplay, and what’s in store for the future.
“We set out with the goal of creating a spiritual successor, one that would feel comfortable to an existing audience but also have some new things,” Quinn Duffy, Game Director at Relic Entertainment says. “We spent a lot of time in the design phase, we played through a bunch of different systems just to push the boundaries. How far could we go before it stopped feeling like Age of Empires? There was always a metric, does this feel like a new Age game?”
Age of Empires IV, currently available on PC and also playable via Xbox Game Pass, has been a long time coming. Not only is it the first mainline release in the series since 2005’s Age of Empires III, but Relic Entertainment and Xbox studio World’s Edge have been cooking up what they call a “spiritual successor” for many years. And all along the way the teams have been engaging with select players, a Community Council, to play-test and provide feedback. For a series with a rich history, and with games like Age of Empires II and III still being played today, it makes sense.
That said, Relic is no stranger to the real-time strategy or RTS genre. The studio is behind some of the best modern RTS games; from Dawn of War through to Company of Heroes. Even so, as Age 4 looks towards the 21st century it’s look and feel remains true to the franchise’s roots.
“Making sure that the game felt like a new Age of Empires was important, but it also had to feel like an Age game,” Quinn continues. “We definitely pushed the boundaries early on, to the point where it stopped feeling like Age and a part of the franchise. We knew that was too far, but having that reinforced with community feedback was great.”
Making Changes While Staying True
There’s playing it safe, and then there’s staying true to a look and feel. Age of Empires IV is in many ways an extension of Age of Empires II, and with the move to a fully-3D presentation it allows for more expansive siege warfare and other elements to highlight faction and civilisation identity.
“We set out with the goal of creating a spiritual successor, one that would feel comfortable to an existing audience but also have some new things.”
“There's another balancing act,” Quinn Duffy explains. “You could bury the player in nuanced and sophisticated systems, things that can detract from the overall experience. Even though you have the ability to do it in-engine, it doesn't always pay off the way you think. We had tonnes of really sophisticated line-of-sight stuff with terrain and everything. And it just ended up being a bit too hard to read with the unit numbers you're dealing with. You have to be careful, but there's also really cool presentation stuff that comes with improved graphics, lighting, and 4K.”
Also, maintaining that Age feel has a lot to do with the series’ accessibility. For many, Age of Empires was their gateway to computer games back in the 1990s -- and the concept of an RTS. This can be felt in Age of Empires IV, across everything from resource management and technig up, through to the speed at which a round or mission plays out.
“The speed and the pace of the game is highly intentional, because there's a certain pace to the series,” Adam Isgreen, Creative Director at World’s Edge says. “It was super important for the diversity of players that we have, because we have so many players from around the world that play at all different skill levels. I always find it fun to be with the balance team. They're like, ‘We've got this great thing, it's going to be great for high-end play’. What about the normal players? What about the people that aren't that great at the game? It's something we've been thinking about since day one, keeping that very broad appeal that the other Age of Empires games have had.”
This is not to say that Age of Empires IV is a simplified version of what’s come before, high-end players still have access to keyboard shortcuts and readouts that let them know how much food, gold, wood, and stone their villagers are collecting per-minute. The UI itself is designed in a way to present detailed info easily. Stuff that will factor into a victory. For the team it’s more about offering up an easy mode that is clear and understandable that allows the game to be played with nothing but a mouse in hand.
One area that highlights both the care and attention put into the development of Age 4 is how it presents its campaign. Four historical empires, missions based on real-world encounters, and all wrapped up in a documentary-style that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Sunday arvo watching a BBC doco. A huge undertaking, and risk on the account of it playing a central role in years of development. A globe trotting campaign that also sent out film crews and historians to places like Russia, China, England, and France.
“You could bury the player in nuanced and sophisticated systems, things that can detract from the overall experience. Even though you have the ability to do it in-engine, it doesn't always pay off the way you think."
“We got started on these [documentaries] maybe four years ago,” Quinn Duffy says. “They'd been in production for a long time, there was the physical production phase and then there's all the things that films have to do; colour grading, HDR, 4K. All of the editing, the voiceover, there's a lot of stuff. There was a significant lead time so it really required for us to be as sure as we could around the structure of the campaigns and what we needed to do. We set ourselves a big challenge, and we knew it was going to be challenging. I think it works really well, the films give you great context and they bring the past and present together.”
“These missions take a while to make, and within each campaign we were like, ‘if we have to lose one, we could lose this one’,” Adam Isgreen adds. "We did have a little bit of a buffer, and we did sort of eat that up. Trim a mission over here on this campaign and the narrative still works. Originally we had a much longer and very ambitious campaign, with like a hundred missions.”
“It's challenging but the great thing is that it was a two-way street,” Adam continues. “There was some media that we got early. A great example of that is the Pavise [shield used by archers], where we have a video on the Pavise. They weren't in the game though so when I saw the video it made me wonder why the crossbows didn't have Pavise. How did we miss that? We were actually able to put that into the game because of the lead time. So the films ended up informing some of the gameplay because we had the time to do it.”
“As we look forward now, we're definitely going to take more of that into account. How can we make that cycle tighter in terms of the videos informing the game, and the game informing the videos.”
Gameplay Takes Precedent
With a campaign that features an extensive and impressive amount of well produced documentary footage, having that support and inform missions as opposed to changing the scope and direction of Age of Empires IV, is interesting. It wouldn’t be strange to imagine a scenario where documentary films were paired with a strategy game that aimed for realism above all.
“We set ourselves a big challenge, and we knew it was going to be challenging. I think it works really well, the films give you great context and they bring the past and present together.”
“Gameplay always took precedence,” Quinn Duffy confirms. “We did motion capture for tonnes of stuff, we even did horse capture. But it quickly became slow and unwieldy and didn't feel right. That's an area where we probably overextended, because the gameplay needed to be the priority over the presentation of a particular unit. The documentary stuff ended up informing the look and feel quite a bit, it was like having our own kind of reference bank. We could see how things worked, how they reacted, and we could see the sophistication of the engineering, art, and culture of that time.”
“We always have these pop culture presentations of the middle ages and it can look dark and dreary,” Quinn adds. “People are covered in mud and dung and there’s this blue-filter over everything. Castles were colourful and bright and we embraced that.”
Age of Empires has always been about progressing through time, taking humble hunters and villagers and then expanding into the realm of metal and even gunpowder. With multiple civilizations available to play covering the English, French, Mongol, Chinese, and more, focusing squarely on the middle-ages has seen the expansion and arrival of robust siege warfare. That thing where archers sit atop stone walls and pour boiling oil on-top of anyone with a red-shirt that gets a little too close.
“We did motion capture for tonnes of stuff, we even did horse capture. But it quickly became slow and unwieldy and didn't feel right. That's an area where we probably overextended, because the gameplay needed to be the priority over the presentation of a particular unit."
“It's tough and there are problems to solve with walkable walls, and AI,” Quinn Duffy explains. “We didn't want to create a siege simulator, we wanted to add walls and siege warfare as an addition to the game. The breadth of Age gameplay covers villagers and economy and fighting and scouting and moving, so it had to be intuitive.”
“But certainly not without bugs along the way, like why are there deer on my walls?” Adam Isgreen adds. “It was definitely a conscious decision that we wanted the siege stuff to be more of a thing here because we wanted people to be able to build and then protect their big, beautiful cities.”
Going 3D and adding walls and bridges and large army sizes saw the franchises change the way that it deals with pathfinding. “We moved to a completely different pathfinding system for Age 4,” Adam continues. “All the other Age games use a system called ‘A Star’, which has been around forever. It deals with pathfinding and it kind of predicts routes. With Age 4 we moved to a new solution that other RTS games like Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander use called ‘Flow Field’ -- which allows for these big group calculations to be much better. But it brought up a host of new issues.”
“Flow Field is great for optimising performance,” Quinn Duffy says. “It's faster because not every unit has to calculate everything all the time and you can kind of calculate on the leader of a formation. The world builds itself and rebuilds a series of arrows on the ground that the units follow. It really is good at simulating large groups. You watch people trying to leave a stadium after a rugby match or something and it’s this huge mass funnelling down toward a gate to get out and [Age of Empires IV] looks very similar. It was new to us and figuring out some of the nuances from a gameplay standpoint and how it would portray animations and how units are trying to get into combat are all things that we went through.”
The Next Age
With Age of Empires IV’s release, the past few months for the teams at Relic and World’s Edge have understandably been busy. From bug fixing to balancing to preparing for patches and all of the things that come with a live game, it’s also been focused on post-launch. That whole thing about Age of Empires II still being played today is baked into the design here.
“We're making plans for things that we're not talking about yet, that we want to do in the future. And a lot of it's going to be driven by community and feedback from the community. We want to see this game grow over time."
“There’s been lots of discussions about post-launch,” Adam Isgreen says. “What we're going to do, looking at all the feedback we've gotten from players and our council and everyone that's gotten the chance to play the game and what features can we do and in what order. Prioritising the stuff that people care about. If it's not in the game at launch, how can we get it in there? When can we get it in there?”
“We look at Age of Empires 4 as a platform and that this is just the start of the conversation with our fans, where we take the game, what we add,” Adam continues. “We're making plans for things that we're not talking about yet, that we want to do in the future. And a lot of it's going to be driven by community and feedback from the community. We want to see this game grow over time. Also we have no intention of stopping support for the Definitive Edition games. We want to grow Age of Empires overall and have games that everyone can find some wonder and joy and really get into.”
“As a studio we always look to build the sort of long-term support and long-term relationship with our games and community,” Quinn Duffy adds. “And that aligns with World's Edge. We've got games that people are still playing that are 10 plus years old and it's fantastic. That's one of the amazing things about RTS games is that they can be played for decades.”
Of course, where Age of Empires IV goes from here is a bit of a mystery, but for the teams at Relic and World’s Edge the next Age has just begun.