- Game of the Year 2018 - Voting open!
- Posted by HockeySam18 on January 29th, 2019 @ 4:19 p.m.
At the start of each year, the scenario designing community comes together to vote and hand out awards to all the greatest scenarios, campaigns, mods and designers of the previous year. The time has come again, as the voting for Game of the Year 2018 has begun! Head on over to the forum thread and check out the nominees! Make sure you post your ballot before March 1st, though, because after that it'll be too late!
- Through the Ages: Custom Campaign Classics
- Posted by Mash on December 31st, 2018 @ 07:09 a.m.
- This article was written and submitted by our very own community member, Bassi.
Christmas - the perfect time to start this article series. When else can one indulge in such uninhibited nostalgia?
Over irregular intervals during the next few months, I'll be presenting old campaigns and scenarios that are considered classics in the AoE2 custom scenario design scene. I would like to share my thoughts on the respective works and, in each case, address the question as to whether the scenarios retain playing value today or if their value instead lies exclusively in nostalgia.
As I cannot claim to wield an objective opinion in most cases, I decided to produce articles rather than standardized reviews.
Enough of the preface - let's turn to the first classic!
I. Tamerlane, Prince of Destruction
What is it?
"Tamerlane, Prince of Destruction" is a 7-scenario-campaign by Mark Stoker. The AoK:TC version was released in October 2000, two months after the original AoK version graced the AoKH Blacksmith. The campaign has been downloaded almost 100,000 times over the past 18 years. This fact underscores the campaign's importance for the custom scenario design scene and proves that the fascinating story of the last great conqueror from the steppes continually draws new players under its spell.
"Tamerlane" can be justly described as Mark Stoker's magnum opus. After the release of this extensive campaign, Stoker released further scenarios, but after nearly two decades "Tamerlane" is still the campaign that is considered his masterpiece.
Strengths and weaknesses:
The greatest strength of this campaign is the freedom that it offers the player. Mark Stoker does not grapple with complicated trigger systems, and he does not limit the player in order to forge unique game play experiences. This certainly sets him apart from many other designers who took the stage in the following years. While there are certainly more impressive and sophisticated scenario concepts, only seldom have they stood the test of time so well.
Generally speaking, Stoker's scenarios conform to the proven game play concepts of the ES designers. However, Stoker has managed to increase the replay value of his Tamerlane scenarios through amazingly simple means. One such example are the decisions with which the player is sporadically presented: shall I camp in the half-ruined city to the west? Maybe I can rebuild the broken walls to fend off the enemy easily that way...or should I instead move east in order to occupy a less defensible but resource-rich village?
Another good example of this method is represented by main objectives that give the player freedom of choice. For example, in the fifth playable (non-cinematic) mission, we witness Tamerlane's conquest of Syria. In order to conquer this region, it is not necessary to conquer all Syrian cities, but it is enough to force two out of three towns to surrender. This scenario can therefore be won in various ways, which can motivate the player to master the mission again in a different way later. This is a very simple but nevertheless effective concept that is unfortunately still only considered by a few designers.
Another important point to mention is the AI. Stoker gave each player a custom AI that it appears that he scripted himself (although technically they are based on the script "Sample AoK AI File", by ES designer Greg "DeathShrimp" Street). The AIs may be somewhat inflexible by today's standards, but in 2000, it was not at all common to integrate one's own AI files into a custom scenario or campaign. In this respect, one can regard Stoker's efforts as that of a pioneer.
Naturally, the campaign also has some weaknesses. While the classic "Build and Destroy" scenarios offer entertaining game play, the "Fixed Force" scenarios are less exciting. In the first playable scenario, Stoker managed to strike a fine balance between hit-and-run-style Fixed Force and Build and Destroy; unfortunately, he did not manage to maintain this standard in "The Imperial City" (the mission covering the Timurid conquest of India). The design concept of leading a single unit from one end of the map to the other has only seldom resulted in an enjoyable game play experience. In the case of "The Imperial City", it is also an unmounted unit that you control, which renders the flow of game play even more tedious.
Somewhat less of a weakness, but nevertheless a point that one can quibble about, is the map design: the decision to depict age-old Persian cities such as Samarkand with an East Asian architectural style is questionable. In addition, one can certainly complain about the designer's choice to depict several regions in a verdant aesthetic in ignorance of the fact that that in reality they were arid plains and steppes. This relays the false impression that the majority of Tamerlane's campaigns took place in very fertile regions.
There are also narrative weaknesses. Stoker decided to cast the campaign in a relatively abbreviated historical context, which is by all means a legitimate approach. However, the campaign would have benefited from a little more accuracy for the sake of immersion. To call the forces of Tamerlane "Mongolian" without taking into account the Turkic background of the majority of his followers is one such examples of a false impression regarding historical context. The peculiar construct characteristic of the Timurid Empire, which followed a Genghisid model in its legal form while being in actuality a Turkish realm, is nevertheless portrayed in Stoker's campaign as a typical Mongolian Khanate. This deviates too much from the historical reality at the expense of immersion.
Additionally, not all players will find the juvenile, cartoon-like language used in the dialogues to their liking. Nevertheless, aside from a rather clumsy modern pop culture allusion in one of the scenarios, I find this approach quite entertaining and thus successful. It is notable that, while Stoker took his work as a designer very seriously, he was capable of not doing so to the same degree with the subject matter. The resulting light-hearted mood of the campaign is quite refreshing.
The majority of us have certainly played this campaign at some point. Considered once more, it is guaranteed to evoke a first-class nostalgic mood. This actually represents a major strength of this campaign; by no means are the majority of works produced in this era capable of triggering such feelings for the player. That is one reason why "Tamerlane" still works so well - many aspects of scenario design that were outstanding in 2000 still hold up today. Compared to many other scenarios that were released in the years 2000-2004, "Tamerlane" is in a noticeably different league...
Test of time:
...and thus stands the test of time. Certain aspects of this great work are certainly outdated, though. The weakest of Stoker's scenarios are those where classic "AoK-Heaven" mistakes were made: unnecessarily long cut scenes that detract from playability and boring wandering in regions with a paucity of detailed and utilitarian map design, are the campaign's greatest weaknesses. On the other hand, however, there are masterfully implemented Build and Destroy missions and solid Fixed Force portions. AIs capable of constructing and enlarging their camps contribute to the impression of a living world. Stoker tends neither to wish to control the course that the player sets, nor does he narrow the scope of the AI. The result is a fantastic game world that is fun to explore. Tamerlane remains a great campaign by a designer who clearly intended to produce a game, rather than a history lesson or a cinematic piece of art.
Screenshot 1 | Screenshot 2 | Screenshot 3 | Screenshot 4 | Screenshot 5 | Download Tamerlane, Prince of Destruction (Original) here!
Download Tamerland, Prince of Destruction (TC Version) here!
- SLX Studio Released - A New Modding Tool by Tevious
- Posted by Sebastien on November 15th, 2018 @ 11:39 p.m.
- Throughout the years, Age of Empires 2 modders have been very lucky to be able to use various different programs and tools for modding the game.
New developers arrived and improved upon their predecessors; making their programs easier to use as well as adding completely new capabilities.
This cycle continues with, what you could say, is the ultimate step in this developmental timeline. The capabilities of SLX Studio are more than anybody could probably have wished for.
SLX Studio, developed by former SCN Punk designer Tevious, is a brand new modding program containing tools for creating and editing SLP and DRS files. It comes packed with more functionality than ever before and is incredibly easy to learn and use.
Some highlight features of SLX Studio:
- Convert SLX to SLP / Extract SLP to SLX (and batch versions of these).
- Support for both 8-bit and 32-bit SLP versions with additional support for 8-bit AoE1 SLPs and all 10 player color indices. Works with SLP's for HD edition and even AOE: DE!
- Extract or Create DRS files for each game.
- Double-click graphic image for fast anchor/hotspot positioning. Also support for importing/exporting CSV files.
- Viewable selection boxes (including rectangular shaped) or selection rings.
- Generate Data Graphics tool with tolerance bars for shadows and player colors, creates outlines, auto-crops images, and can even split shadows into it's own SLX. This tool is necessary to convert from SLX to SLP format.
- Color Palette Editor/Viewer that supports multiple formats (Jasc .pal, Microsoft .pal, Photoshop .act, GIMP .gpl, and even rendering as .png images). It comes embedded with some commonly used palettes, as well as the option to import your own.
- Terrain tools. Create terrain SLPs of any size (rows and columns). Includes conversion tools to create an isometric terrain map from a texture image. Also, works with AOE1 terrains.
- Batch Palette Swap and Batch Replace SLP Colors tools that can be used to quickly recolor units.
- Other Batch image tools for recoloring pixels, changing image format, and creating data images.
- GIF tool with transparency support.
- SLP and DRS Viewer tools that can save anchor changes.
- Play animation support for SLX with speed settings.
- Zoom image support for SLX frames.
- FX Editor tool to draw various effects on frames such as various sparks, weapon fire effects, engine fire effects, transparency, holocrons, relics, and more!
- Delta Object Positioner tool to determine various object positions for things like snow and fire on buildings. Positions can be exported as CSV files to then manually imported into AGE.
- New automatic file association. Open SLP's and DRS files straight away in the SLX Studio SLP and DRS viewer.
This is just a small amount of what the program does; but it's most likely you will never have to open another modding program again! Well, except for Advanced Genie Editor for the data side of things.
SLX Studio can be downloaded from our Download Section! But be absolutely sure to check for updates, as Tevious is still developing, fixing bugs, and making improvements.
You can learn more about SLX Studio on the topic in our Forums here.
- Defend the Spot Competition 2018 - Results Announced!
- Posted by HockeySam18 on September 01st, 2018 @ 07:00 a.m.
The results of the 2018 AoKH Defend the Spot Competition are in! In a gripping standoff, Bassi narrowly edged Al_Kharn the Great and Great_Artiste for first place with a score of 125/150 points to Al_Kharn the Great's 111/150 points and Great_Artiste's 109/150 points. This year's contest provided us with an excellent set of entries to enjoy.
Head over to the contest thread to congratulate the winners, and be sure to check out all of the entries:
- The Siege of Caffa by Bassi - lead a staunch defense of the Genoese port of Caffa against the Golden Horde.
- Last Stand at Orkney by Al_Kharn the Great - lead shepherds and fishermen in a desperate defense against Norse raiders.
- Anageos (1494) by Great_Artiste - battle corsairs and sail the Mediterranean as Honore La Chapelle and his crew.
- Reliquary by BF_Tanks - hold your citadel against numerous waves of zealots.
- Horns of Hattin by Alkhalim - defy history and hold the Crusader camp against Saladin's relentless assaults.
- Sniper - A Dead End by HellKnight61 - pick enemies off one by one as a sniper in a tower.
- Game of the Year 2017 - Results In!
- Posted by HockeySam18 on July 06th, 2018 @ 2:20 p.m.
Voting has closed and the final results of the 2017 AoKH Game of the Year Awards are in!
Stealing the show were Al_Kharn the Great, Mash, and Bassi, who produced a number of quality campaigns and scenarios that garnered the lion's share of the awards. This year brought AoKH a fine crop of simple and complex scenarios of various styles, and you would all be remiss if you didn't give them a go!
Honorable mention goes to Julius999, Mr. Wednesday, and Lord Basse, whose Pretty Town Contest entries set new bars in the spheres of map design, creativity, and storytelling, respectively.
Head on over to the forum thread to congratulate the winners!
- Blacksmith Feature: A Crash Back Into The Past (06.26.2018)
- Posted by Mash on June 26th, 2018 @ 08:12 a.m.
- I wanted to do something different for the Blacksmith Feature and discuss not one particular scenario, but the works of one of my favourite designers, Crasher. Crasher was a past member of the now inactive Dragon Gaming Design Network (or DGDN for short) and was active from around the early to mid-2000s. Few designers during this time had the mind to combine atmosphere, map design and storytelling all into one complimentary blend, but Crasher was not only able to achieve this skilfully but in a way that was meditative and soulful too. His story writing drew upon a layer of depth I had not seen in many other scenarios before, while his fantasy-based designs were inspired and highly-entertaining. If there is any mark to put to his designing, it was that it often lacked the extra ingredient or layer of polish that would have seen it achieve higher acclaim. Perhaps it was more to do with his style of alternative over grand epics, or that he never truly built into a major scenario, seemingly preferring side projects such as contest entries and cut-scenes instead. Nevertheless, his best work presented well-crafted maps enriched with atmosphere and designed to a level of detail that generally brought out the best of what the editor had to offer at the time.
Crasher's Pretty Town Contest entries, A Lost World and my personal favourite A Different World, were seemingly years ahead of their time both in aesthetic appeal and craft. They each conveyed the mood and atmosphere of desolate island communities in a way that left a lasting impression with the haunting soundtracks and well-written prose to match. These are a must view for any map design enthusiast.
Then there's the fan favourite Attack at Dawn, which is a relatively modest yet immensely enjoyable classic B&D scenario with an RPG twist. Slangam, a powerful warlord from the north, is invading the valley and the small village of Akuror stands in its way. Led by three able warriors, you must prepare to make your stand. Being one of the first scenarios I ever downloaded, Attack at Dawn gripped me from the very start with its fantasy-inspired world and intriguing map design that invites you to go exploring.
Perhaps you have a taste for the theatrical? Then Immortal Prey will not only intrigue you but whet your appetite with its multi-layered story of mystery and betrayal. This cinematic scenario was in fact a prelude to a larger campaign that was never released, although having talked to crasher over the last year he still swears he'll finish it one day! It does however provide a worthwhile 15 minutes of entertainment in what is undoubtedly one of the best cinematic scenarios at the Blacksmith.
Enter the fantastical world of crasher's designs here:
A Different World ~ Rated 4.2 | A Lost World ~ Rated 4.0 | Attack at Dawn ~ Rated 4.8 | Immortal Prey ~ Eye of the Beholder ~ Rated 4.7
- Defend the Spot Competition 2018 - Sign up now!
- Posted by HockeySam18 on April 20th, 2018 @ 08:19 a.m.
The fifth Defend the Spot Scenario Design Competition (DtS competition) is under way! Held two years back to back in 2007 and 2008 and then again in 2013 and 2016, it has been two years since it was held. We hope for many excellent entries. This type of competition is not very difficult, so it is an excellent way for newer designers to show off their creativity. Don't hesitate to join!
What is a "Defend the Spot" scenario? Simple. The basic premise that you have to hold out for a while in a limited area against superior forces. The most common type of DtS scenario is a defense of a fortified castle or city against hordes of invaders, but a DtS can be the defense of anything - a forest village, a newly-found treasure, a hill during a surprise attack, the king's ship in the middle of the sea - the possibilities are only limited by your imagination!
So, what are you waiting for! Head on over to the contest thread and sign up!
Best of luck!
- The Master Builders: An Interview with Gordon Farrell
- Posted by Mr Wednesday on March 12th, 2018 @ 07:47 a.m.
Welcome back for another feature of The Master Builders. In this series I am interviewing some of the scenario designing greats from Age of Kings past. These are the fellows who made AoKH's SD forum what it is today. They built worlds that we all grew up in, created maps we still can remember almost two decades later, told us grand stories, and all the while challenged us to follow them. Some of them are still with us, but most have moved on to new pursuits. And yet, having left so great a mark, each of us is likely to once in a while feel a tinge of nostalgia for our favourite designer. If you ever asked yourself, "I wonder what happened to Gordon Farrell?", well, you are in luck.
For those who don't know the name, Gordon Farrell was the brilliant early AoK designer of the Pendragon Saga and The Last Viking Prince, as well as a prolific designer for AoE. He went on to use his talents in a career in the industry. I chatted over email with Gordon late last fall (I know, shame on me for the long delay in getting this together), and we discussed everything from his time at HeavenGames to his current pursuits to his thoughts on the RTS genre and game design. It was a fascinating discussion!
[Note: As before, I have added some notes after the fact in italics. While I have copied Gordon's answers word for word, the order of the questions has been made more linear and logical than the back and forth email affords.]
Most of our Age of Kings Heaven community here likely know you best for your excellent Pendragon Saga and Last Viking Prince campaigns. But that is only one short chapter of your experiences in game design. Can you take us chronologically through that journey so everyone is up to speed? From your time as a prolific scenario designer for the original Age of Empires, to your present projects and position, and well, everything in between?
I've always had a deep passion for Greek history, and after I'd played through the original Age of Empires campaign, I began to stare at the main menu, and a button marked "Scenario Editor." It was something new in retail games at that time, brand new, actually, and I began to think, damn, if this does what I think it does, I can make a much better Greek campaign than the game I just played, okay, lemme have a crack at it... That was in 1998.
For various reasons (divorce, ahem), I had a lot of time on my hands and I started building scenarios for my own entertainment. Eventually someone suggested I check out Age of Empires Heaven. I did, and I began uploading my work. Well, I got good ratings and a lot of praise at AOEH, and one day I opened my email to find a job offer from Rick Goodman. That's how I got hired to work on Empire Earth, my first AAA gig.
As a mod builder, I plunged right into AoK next but the thing is, now we could write triggers. Yes, the storytelling options were several orders of magnitude greater, but it took much, much longer to build a scenario. My mod work on AoK won some awards, and the trigger writing I did prepared me for Rick Goodman's next game, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. That came out in 2003 to excellent reviews.
Still, soon after, Rick's company shuttered. I spent some time with BreakAway Games and Tilted Mill. Then, oh, around 2006 Konstantin Fomenko invited me to join the staff of his new company, Reverie World Studios, as lead writer. That was exactly the gig I was looking for! I love Kon and I've been with his company ever since. We did Dawn of Fantasy, Kingdom Wars, and Kingdom Wars II: Battles. Our new grand strategy RTS is called Medieval Kingdom Wars. Right now it's in Early Access on Steam, where the reviews and the sales are through the roof. It's the dream game Kon and I always wanted to build: a historically accurate, open-world recreation of the 100 Years War, with all the medieval city-building, Europe-conquering, real-time, blood-soaked warfare you've always craved.
If I can get sidetracked a bit, let's talk about RTS game design. Empire Earth and Dawn of the Modern World were both in many ways spiritual successors to the Age series, both somewhat expected to make Age of Empires and Age of Kings extinct, and both were at least in my opinion excellent games. Somehow though, neither game quite grew the fan base that Age of Empires or Age of Mythology did, despire being more technically impressive, having more options, and being all around shinier games. As someone who worked with or on all of them, and as someone with a great deal of experience working on more modern RTS game experiences, what are the core principles in your mind that make a great and memorable RTS?
The classic RTS format was invented by Westwood, for Dune II. Blizzard transferred it to high fantasy with WarCraft: Orcs and Humans, and only then did Tony and Rick Goodman turn it into a historical strategy game, Age of Empires. So the format had been fairly well refined along the way, much in the way Christopher Marlowe invented the core elements of Elizabethan drama, allowing Shakespeare to take it to the next level. Add in the fact that each early use of that RTS format appealed to a different gaming niche -- scifi, fantasy, and history buffs -- while still being a novel style of gaming overall, and that is the first part of the equation. Novelty, and finding your target audience.
The second part of the equation is that people generally respond in larger numbers to more visually beautiful games, which is why I suspect Dwarf Fortress, for all its narrative richness and immersive capabilities, has never caught on big. So when Rick left Ensemble Studios to create Empire Earth, he increased the Age of Empires multi-nation gaming experience tenfold, going from Stone Age to Future Tech, and not just confining himself to the ancient world. It was genius, really, and the audacity of it struck a major chord in people's imaginations. But here's the rub: gaming had only just entered the beginnings of 3D design, and major publishers were looking for 3D games. To accomplish this, Rick's fabulously talented team led by Jon Alenson, built units using polygons, not pixels. And there were only 20 or 30 polygons per unit! 3D games now use 10 or 20 times that number. So the game wasn't nearly as attractive as AoE, with its gem-like 2D pixel models. And over time, the more beautifully crafted visuals won out.
But this leads us to Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. That game really should have taken off. The versatility of the editor, its much more attractive poly units, the use of reflection mapping, environmental bump mapping and a new physics engine -- frankly, it's medieval design elements alone should have eclipsed Age of Kings among mod builders and scenario designers. The game got great reviews, too -- so what stopped it from being the success it might have been? And here's the third part of the equation: marketing. Specifically, the name "Empires: Dawn of the Modern World" did not inspire gaming fantasies. In fact, the name alone probably doomed the game to obscurity.
Think about it: "Empire Earth." Wow. It thrills the imagination. And "Epic Is Too Small a Word" was the perfect tag line.
Now say: "Empires: Dawn of the Modern World." Hmmm.. here's the thing: there is no poetry whatsoever in the phrase "modern world." It sounds like a world furnished with Danish tables and chairs. Marketing is damned tricky, and sadly I think Rick's team dropped the ball on that.
Fast forwarding to the present day and Medieval Kingdom Wars. Most of the games mentioned above were in the so called 'Golden Age' of RTS gaming. What approaches have you and the development team taken to create a unique experience in a genre of gaming often criticized as having gone stale?
Stale? It never went stale. Creative Assembly proved that. They expanded RTS beyond real-time base building and married it to grand strategy gaming, with vast world maps and the option to play any of a dozen or so nations. We've got all that in Medieval Kingdom Wars, including deeper tech trees, historical quests with multiple outcomes, and genuine MMO gameplay. Plus, our world map strategic action isn't restricted to TBS. It's all 100% real-time, where you can join your army on the tactical map at any time in its journey from point A to point B, not just at the end of the turn. It's Total War: Medieval with the training wheels removed.
So what does a successful RTS game require? 1) Visually attractive maps and models, 2) a rich variety of game positions to choose from, 3) a switch-up in the formula so there's more than just Build and Destroy, and 4) a layer of poetry woven into the presentation.
I couldn't agree more about Empire Earth. I remember being fascinated by it and eager to get it...and then so disappointed that the graphics were actually weaker. Looking back I think the graphics were the real reason I never got into it.
Empires: Dawn of the Modern World was very fun. I definitely spent many hours playing it, and it is a very underrated game. I do think the one flaw it had was atmosphere. When increasing the scope to include both medieval and modern warfare, you end up sometimes with an experience that immerses you in neither setting completely, making the experiences a little less memorable.
So as lead writer for Reverie, what can you tell us about Mediaeval Kingdom Wars' single player campaign experience?
The entire game, including Single Player, is framed and shaped by the historical events of the 100 Years War. You have a lot of latitude to deviate from history, to play any of twenty kingdoms, and to forge your own empire, but there will be events that pop up from the actual timeline that you'll have to cope with. In addition, Single Player has lots of quest-driven missions that determine when you get new technologies, the price you have to pay for the them, cultivating political stability at home, and maneuvering around international alliances. Alliances will be critical to your game, because having peace on one border will be necessary to wage war along another. Allies also come to your aid as AI Players. In addition, there will be lots of classic base building and soldier training, although you won't be founding your own cities, you have to tear down and rebuild the existing infrastructure in historical cities of the time. So... lots of history to provide a dense texture of reality, and lots of freedom to become the master of Europe through your own devious schemes, with lots of opportunities to screw everything up in your own particular way.
Random question. You mentioned being a big fan of Greek history. Have you ever visited Greece?
Sadly, no. Lots of England and Ireland, but Greece is next on my bucket list.
What campaigns or scenarios of yours do you think were your finest, for AoE, AoK, EmpiresotMW, etc.?
AoE's levels were so easy to build, it allowed me to create stories with epic sweep. I miss that. AoK allowed for lots of special effects. But in RTS, the scenario I'm most proud of is EotMW's Pilgrims With Knives. Still, on balance, my campaign for Caesar IV, Ceasar in Exile, is I think my best -- though Scenario 1 gets a bit cramped and ugly. Shoulda rebuilt it. Sigh. Most ambitious of them all? Legends of Ancient Arabia for Civilization 4. My only total conversion mod. Proud of that one, too.
But, yeah, finest work? Caesar in Exile. (Come on, Tilted Mill! Surely SOMEONE will bankroll another Caesar citybuilder!)
When I interviewed Ingo van Thiel, I asked him if he had any suggestions for who I should catch up with next from HG's past. Among a few names he threw out was yours. So...anyone you'd suggest we catch up with from back in the day?
Check in with Konstantin Fomenko, at Reverie World Studios. He was one of the most envelop-pushing designers back in the day, under the name DeKont. Also Chris Theriault, know as Eggman. Last I heard Chris was on the faculty of the renown DigiPen game design college.
Lastly, is there anything you would like to mention that we didn't cover?
you might add that one of my most ambitious mods, long unavailable online and I believe never submitted to HGS, has been recovered, and I'll be uploading it around the time this interview comes out. It's for Children of the Nile, and it's called "The Tyranny of the Gods."
I must apologize at this point that this has taken me months to post instead of a couple weeks as originally intended.
Thanks Gordon for an amazing interview. Hopefully you will stop by and say hi below!
- Revived Community Spotlight III: Bassi
- Posted by Mash on March 09th, 2018 @ 03:27 a.m.
This article has been written and submitted by Cataphract. For the purpose of this interview, the interviewer will be in bold while the interviewee will remain normal.
Welcome back to the Community Spotlight series, where we examine notable members of the community who have made a significant impact upon the website. Today's guest is a new-but-old member known as Bassi who you may know from the campaign section on the blacksmith where he has netted three 4.8 reviews and most recently a 5.0 review from yours truly. This designer is a veteran of the German AoC website AgeArena, dating his career back to 2003. However he has only registered in 2017 here on AoKH and its high time the community learn more about this excellent designer. I had a chance to catch up with him over the week and make some inquiries into his design career. Lets get things started!
Hi Bassi, thanks for giving me some of your valuable time for this interview. How are you?
Hello Cata! I am fine and I am very happy that the "Community Spotlight" is being revived. I have always enjoyed reading and learning more about other designers and I am pleased that you have chosen me to answer a few questions about myself and my work.
Over the last year you have released a long list of top notch materiel that has established you as a major player in the english-speaking design community. AoKH forummers may potentially mistake you for a newcomer, but you have been designing for many years over on AgeArena. Who are you and where do you hail from?
In regards to AoK Heaven, that's true. Here I am a "freshman" indeed, because I did not register in the forum until 2017. But in said year I just had to, since I wanted to participate in the Historic Design Contest. That was a good decision, after all, since I won the competition. Hahaha! But I have followed the events here for a very long time. At least since 2005. My actual custom design "career" began two years earlier: In 2003, I started releasing my first campaigns and scenarios. I was still a young teenager back then, so all my scenarios were in German (my mother tongue, I'm from northern Germany, today I live in Berlin).
Tell me about your introduction to AoC. Many like myself were introduced to the game by a father or other family member. It seems likely that you developed a stronger interest in the game by developing friends at AgeArena as well.
I come from a very media-critical family. My parents did not let me and my siblings watch a lot of TV and did not want us to spend much time playing computer games. Instead, I read a lot, I even developed a great ambition to read as much as possible, and I otherwise played with classic toys, hardly any computer or console games. Today I am very grateful for that, as it has greatly promoted my imagination and creativity. Both are resources that are very important when designing campaigns in my opinion. I came into contact with the Age of Empires series when I was 10 or 11 years old. My brother and I loved to play "The Settlers II: Veni, Vidi, Vici" at that time. We did not play much on the computer, as I said, and rather spent our days on the football field, but if we did, it was strategy games. Other genres did not really interest us anyway.
One day, my brother brought a copy of Age of Kings home, he had borrowed the game from a classmate. I was blown away immediately. It was love at first sight. Unfortunately, we only had the game on loan, so we had to return it after some weeks. That was quite a bummer. But then my brother got the game a little later for his birthday. One summer later, we bought the add-on "The Conquerors" immediately (upon the day it was released in Germany). Well, "we" means my brother bought it. And I spent a good amount of time watching and him play random maps. Of course I did not hesitate to comment his strategies with all wisdom an 11 year old has. While my brother enjoyed playing the different game modes, I was fascinated by the campaigns. But even then, the scenario editor had an even greater appeal for me, the actual game much less. That has not changed until today. When I was about 14 years old, a German computer game magazine published a special issue, which was accompanied by a DVD featuring mods for all sorts of games. There were also a lot of custom campaigns for AoC included. Many were junk, but some were just fine and some even excellent. In the aftermath text of one of the better scenarios, a link to the AgeAreana was inserted. And so everything started rolling for me. The German Age of Empires scene was quite huge at that time, yet very familiar. It was ideal conditions to familiarize yourself with the possibilities of the game. Simultaneously with me, many other young designers started to engage with the editor and so we learned together how to design reasonably usable campaigns (from today's point of view, they are not very good of course, but we all start somewhere). In the end, we were a bunch of teenagers, "looked after" by experienced and award-winning designers like Andreas Marscheider (aMa), who was the founder and main admin of the AgeArena at that time.
What scenarios over the years have inspired you the most, or had a formative effect on your growth as a designer?
For me it was scenarios from the German scene that influenced me the most: aMa's "Geachtet", David Laeske's "Hernan Cortez", Gunter Zengerle's ''Carthago'' and ''Nibelungen'', and everything released by Andi Wagner. When it comes to AoKH, the ones that had a huge impact on me are the following; Stoker's Tamerlane, Ingo van Thiel's "The Quest", "The King's Best Men", "Gyda's Challenge" and of course "Ulio" which I would say is the best campaign ever done for the original game. Lord Basse is another designer I have to mention, and though his scenarios did not influence my own work, I enjoyed a lot of his scenarios very, very much. Same goes for most scenarios by Mash. So, if I'd be forced to live on an island and were allowed to take only three campaigns with me, it would be "Ulio", "Tamerlane" and "Relics of Athalen".
You have had quite a productive career with consistent releases over a decade and a half. What can you tell me about this experience, and your perspective on your journey with AoC over this long time?
When it comes to my design career, I would divide it into two phases. The first phase covers the years 2003-2016, the Arena Years. Since 2016 I design for AoE 2 HD only, let's call it the Steam Years. The Arena Years were altogether much more familiar. A committed community, very friendly contacts. There may have been a bit of argument two or three times in the forum over all those years, but otherwise it was a completely harmonious parallel world. The AgeArena was just a place to feel at home. After a while I was one of the better designers; in the years 2007 and 2009 I won the Game of the Year award of the German AoC Community. But I certainly did not count myself among the best. Gunter Zengerle was still active at that time, certainly one of the most gifted designers. And there was Andi Wagner, who set new standards in storytelling. These were definitely two designers I looked up to. I myself have always been fixated on the Build & Destroy genre, but I have always admired other designers for their ability to combine good storytelling with engaging game design. This is a high art that, not mastered by many. As already mentioned, I switched to the HD version in 2016 and have therefore mainly published via the steam workshop. The opportunities offered by the new DLCs have moved me to this step. Since then, my output has increased significantly. That was not a deliberate decision, it just happened after my scenarios suddenly received much more attention. You reach way more people if you publish on steam, which is clearly reflected in the downloads. But it lacks the close community feeling. That's the downside.
During 2017 you went on an unprecedented mapping rampage, releasing four full size campaigns with half a dozen single scenario releases sprinkled in. I can attest to the high quality of every entry, which is remarkable in of itself; both quantity and quality. Your interest in designing seems to have been brought to life by the feedback and acclaim you received on the steam workshop. Can anything stop the Bassi Machine now?
As mentioned, I did not plan to create so many scenarios at all. That just happened somehow and the reasons are manifold, sometimes completely banal. For example, I only designed the first scenario of the "Kings of Destruction" campaign because I wanted to use all the new terrain textures that were available since the "African Kingdoms" DLC. With these textures steppe landscapes could be designed way more effectively than before, and that's what I wanted to try. Meanwhile, the Indian civ got their own building design and I thought it was quite pretty, so I wanted to work with it. So it came to the second scenario in which the Indians appear as opponents. Then the DLC "Rise of the Rajas" was released and suddenly there were all these great rainforest textures. That's why I wanted to try jungle scenarios - and all of sudden it was a whole series. It just happened because while working on a scenario, there were always new ideas for more scenarios. But I do not think I'll design as many campaigns as I did in 2017 in the near future. I'm working on a new scenario series though and I think it will be my best work so far. But at the moment I have definitively other obligations.
Ive been quite impressed with your work ethic. Many times I saw you in-game on steam before I jumped into the editor for a design session until I became tired and called it quits for the day, yet you were still plugging away for hours after! What is your motivating factor?
The impression may be deceptive. Often AoE 2 HD runs only in the background and is minimized, while I do something totally different. Nevertheless, you will then be still displayed as "ingame". But I have a fairly high work ethic, I can not deny that. Often long sessions happen when I design the landscape of the map I'm working on. This is mainly because I do not appreciate that part of the design process. I always just want to get over with that, so that I can implement the actual ideas, for which the designed landscape is just the frame. The trigger and AI work is much, much more fun for me. I think for most designers it's the other way around ... I also enjoy the research before the actual design work very much. Most of my scenarios deal with real historical events. It's fun to read about those in advance and then to think about if that or that historic event could make a good campaign, like: How can I implement this as an enjoyable and playable scenario? What events do I have to omit because they can not be carried out with the means of the game? Where do I have to move away from the actual course of events? I think that's what motivates me: making history playable. To inspire others for something that fascinated me so much, that it tickled my fancy. And if that works and players from all over the world tell you how much they enjoy your campaigns, it motivates you all the more. I get feedback from all around the globe, that's just great!
What advice would you give to new up and coming designers who have yet to finish a map?
SSF - Small, simple, fun. It makes absolutely no sense to draft a huge, epic campaign as your debut. Even Ingo van Thiel released "The Quest" before putting more wood on the fire by designing the epic "The King's Best Men" campaign. When a new, inexperienced designer tells you something about the massive "Sandbox Open World" he's planning to work on, you already know that said map will never ever see the light of day. I therefore recommend working on small maps and designing a manageable story. What I always find quite remarkable is that above all many newcomers are very fixated on the RPG genre. But Age of Empires is not RPG-themed and you have to be a very good storyteller to make a roleplay scenario entertaining enough. The probability is almost 100 percent that you will be overchallenged with such a project, simply because of the lack of experience. The possibilities the editor offers are limited and when you're a newbie it's complete madness to design something like that. So try to design a rather classic scenario, maybe with a little twist. And then you will soon be able to answer the following questions: Do I even have the patience that is required? Can I handle frustration? If so: good! Maybe you can already aim for a bigger project next time then. Sometimes I talk to people who claim they would like to design scenarios "like you, bro!!1 XD", but I often realize that many are not interested in the actual art, but only in the status they hope for. If it's only all about having the best possible download rates, that's not a good motivation either. And it will never lead to success anyway.
Some may be quite surprised to hear you do not enjoy map design, despite your enormous mapping talent! Personally that is the most enjoyable part by far, and in order to make progress in my scenarios I forbid myself when indulging in it until the game is mostly finished. What would you say is the most challenging or difficult part of scenario design for you?
I find designing scenario landscapes monotonous and rather exhausting. It used to be more fun for me, but at some point you develop a fairly strong routine. And then it gets boring. But that's not so bad. I nowadays just enjoy working on the triggers and scripting the AIs much more, also because I got much better in both of that fields, since I learned a lot in the last two years. In the past, especially my AIs were very amateurish. It took a while for me to understand that AI writing is not rocket science. When you're testing your own AI and it acts reasonably in trial run - that's quite satisfying. Seeing the in-game results, and then you gradually improve the script step by step - that's a lot of fun. Much more exciting than designing landscapes. Still - I am far from being an AI expert. But that's a good thing, so there is still something to learn and a field in which to improve.
You once established claim to the title "Best Mapper in the World". To some this may seem an arrogant and presumptuous notion, but I found the idea of striving to live up to such a title an ennobling concept. By striving to maintain such an ideal, you put yourself in a position of needing to deliver spectacular works, which could serve as a driving force for excellence. Have you moved on from this claim, or is this something you dream of achieving on AoKH? I could name some strong competitors to be overcome in order to establish legitimacy to this title...
Hahaha, alas, that's just a form of primeval German megalomania, I'd say! But seriously, it was just a stupid joke years ago to make a splash in the AgeArena forum. That was never meant seriously. I have never really considered myself one of the best mapdesigners and I do not do that today. There are much better ones. Look, I've never been ahead of the time. But the really outstanding designers were. Especially of course Ingo, whom I consider the best ever, followed by Lord Basse (at least since the release of "Relics of Athalen"). But at the end of the day, it's not important at all to be the best or one of the best. That's childish nonsense. The fun must be in the foreground and the desire to deliver good work. But mild competition has to be - of course! That's "the salt in the soup", as we Germans say (meaning ~ "that's what gives it that extra something").
The competition between peers for success can be highly beneficial for all parties involved - I would point out the friendly rivalries in the PTC giving us many awesome scenarios over the years!
The majority of your maps seem to be set in the jungle. Does this come from some inspiration that struck you as a child, and that has stuck with you till now?
It is tragic that there is hardly any written legacy of indigenous American peoples. But for a scenario designer, on the other hand, it's a goldmine. You can develop much more imaginative stories, since you hardly have to stick to historical facts, since hardly any are handed down. That's why I enjoy designing scenarios for a pre-Columbian setting. I like the adventurous and mysterious feeling those scenarios have. It reminds me of the great atmosphere of Age of Empires 1. The conquest of the "New World" is an exciting topic as well, yet a very tragic event. Still the conquistador is certainly one of my favorite units and it works best in an American setting. I guess from these aspects my preference for this geographical area arises. I think the fact that I pay little attention to Europe has to do with the fact that I am European myself. It is much more exciting for me to immerse myself in the history of other continents than to stay in my own cultural space.
You are said to be a prolific reader of history books. What are you reading now, and what are some of your favorites? You once suggested I read "Vanished Kingdoms" which turned out to be an enjoyable title, which looked at some kingdoms which didn't manage to create modern nation states like France or Castille did.
If I ever start my own professional game design studio, I should call it "Vanished Kingdoms", but somehow that sounds familiar, no clue what it reminds me of ... I must have ... forgotten. Currently I am reading Marozzi, Justin: "Tamerlane - The Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World". A very interesting and, above all, entertaining book. I would recommend it to anyone who, like me, is fascinated by the Mongols and their successor states. Shortly before, I also read an exciting book about the Golden Horde by a Russian historian named Fedorow-Davydow. The structure of the book is completely chaotic, but that made this gem even more lovable. The author I most appreciate is a German publicist named Sebastian Haffner, who was not only a brilliant mind but also an outstanding writer. He has written little about the Middle Ages though, but if you are interested in modern history as well and if you want to learn something especially about German history, read a book by Sebastian Haffner and you surely have come to the right place. I can wholeheartedly recommend everything he has written.
Tell me about some of your favorite foods. Perhaps pork knuckle and sauerkraut with a beer after? Or did you burst into laughter upon hearing a such a cliche suggestion? ;-)
Haha, actually sauerkraut is one of my favorites, not kidding! I like how putting sauerkraut on a hot dog seems to be a thing in the US. I saw that when visiting Washington DC and NYC - and what can I say? It's indeed a great combination. Besides that, I enjoy all kind of foods, but when it comes to dinner I'm not very exotic. I quite like traditional German meals. When it comes to beer we have a high standard in Germany, but it's a bit boring since they all taste quite good, but often very, very similar. Incidentally, American beer is better than its reputation. I even found the Pabst Blue Ribbon quite drinkable.
Now that I think of it, sauerkraut is actually incredibly widespread here being a staple restaurant sidedish. Never tried it myself.
Some Quickfire questions to conclude:
NFL or Soccer? *snicker*
Would you rather build a wall or tear one down?
I prefer to build castles
Red vs Blue?
Half full or half empty?
Thanks again for agreeing to the interview! You have been a great guest and given some very interesting material to think about with your insights from a German designers perspective.
Thanks for having me, it was a pleasure.
- Blacksmith Feature: Winter Storm (02.24.2018)
- Posted by Mash on February 23rd, 2018 @ 9:50 p.m.
- Article written by Cataphract.
Today's Blacksmith Feature article covers an absolute gem from 2016, "Winter Storm" by Lord Basse, a file which narrowly missed winning the 2016 Classic Design Contest. Portraying events after the fall of Xaphira in the fantastically well received "Relics of Athalen" one would expect this scenario to receive a similar following, but has only received seven hundred downloads until now. A most remarkable aspect of the scenario is its frugality with triggers; less than 150 are used, and yet the game play is rich and complex, with a strong AI which will keep you on your toes throughout the game.
True to its name, the scenario plays out in the frozen north-lands of the Kingdom of Sarachrion. The story continues in a surprising turn of events from "Relics of Athalen" as the Gwyndlegardians of prior campaigns have developed into an imperialistic force intent on dominating the entire continent, leading to an assault on the Kingdom of Sarachrion. Here Lord Basse frames wonderfully the environment of the world starting with a nice bitmap and a superbly written preamble. As King Adman contemplate the dire situation which he must face, the viewer experiences his melancholy at being forced to stand alone, betrayed by his allies, against the seemingly insurmountable Gwyndlegardians. This all leads up to a desperate last stand to hold the last few fortresses of Sarachrion.
Which leads us to the game play. The player must hold three fortresses in the face of an implacable AI opponent who can detect your weaknesses and hit you hard where you can least afford it. This leads to some fairly desperate battles with your men holding out while reinforcements ride to the rescue. A large variety of strategies are viable, even luring the AI into attacking a soft spot then ambushing it upon the roads. Meanwhile a well-balanced difficulty system ensures a wide range of players will experience a challenge appropriate for their experience. Beware when choosing hard for this is one of those scenarios where it truly is brutally difficult, though remaining fair and entirely possible for the player to triumph. I would quite confidently say this is one of the most well balanced games around, although an exploit or two brought down my own review score in this department. A final point related to game play that must be mentioned is the slight lag spikes experienced sporadically while playing which is all the more inexplicable for the scenario having so few triggers.
The terrain presented is of a lovely winter environment, with the fortified cities looking the part while frozen harbors and a bleak, sparsely detailed countryside portrays the harshness of winter with elegant simplicity. I did find some terrain detailing choices to be somewhat odd, such as exposed green grass in the dead of winter, while usage of green mountains and their placement sometimes left me desiring a more perfectly polished map. These minor flaws tend to be in out of the way locations however, and shouldn't even be noticed while the player is engrossed in game play. An interesting aspect of the map design is that soldiers sent between the various fortresses including the AI troops tend to actually use the roads while moving automatically. It's a small touch that adds an element of authenticity.
In summary, if you like an intense, challenging game play with a well written story taking place on a good looking map, "Winter Storm" is an excellent choice.
Battle Erupts | Frozen Harbor | Gwyndlegard Army Download the scenario here!
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