Interviews

 

Greg "Deathshrimp" Street

Interviewed by Angel Omnivac - 12/9/1998
Greg 'DeathShrimp' Street

Omnivac: Welcome, and thank you Greg for taking some time away from your demanding schedule at Ensemble Studios to entertain all of us, fans of Age of Empires and Age of Empires II: Age of Kings!...

Greg Street: My pleasure. Staying in contact with the fans is important to the members of the Ensemble Studios team. I'm glad I can do my part!

Omnivac: Okay Greg, Lets start off with an easy question. What is your main responsibility at Ensemble Studios? And how in Heaven's name a Marine Biologist become part of the creative team working on Age of Empires II: Age of Kings?

Greg Street: My title is Game Designer. Everyone at ES designs to some extent, but since I can't program or do 3D art, I do nothing but design. Right now I am working on the campaigns for Age2, helping to design the Scenario Editor, developing all the Random Map types, and helping the other designers come up with names, attributes, and justification for all the civs and units.

How did I get here? The short version is that being a marine biologist is a lot of fun for the first several years or so. During my PhD work and a year teaching college, I was going out into the ocean quite a bit to see all the crazy stuff out there. I got to retrieve animals from the bottom of the ocean, take students out into the Gulf of Mexico, swim with sharks and turtles, and live on the beach. What more could you want out of life? As I moved up the ranks, however, I was spending more and more of my time writing grant proposals, filling out paperwork and playing departmental politics. Yuck. Science is a lot of doing the same thing over and over again.

I don't find it too hard to justify why I enjoy my current position much more. If I hadn't been able to swing this job, I am not sure what other career I would be happy doing. Gazelle poacher, perhaps. (KIDDING! Do not call PETA!)

Why was ES interested in a marine biologist? If I had to guess: my writing and teaching experience, historical breadth, personal hygiene, gudd speling, creativity, my talent at capturing live alligators, and the scenario I submitted with my application (it's in ROR, BTW. I'll let you figure out which one....) Because I would be leaving behind a career that had taken years of school to achieve, ES knew I was pretty serious about wanting to make games. I also knew what a solifugid was, which is a bonus in any company that employs Sandy Petersen.

Omnivac: I guess you'll make sure dolphins are not hunted by players in AOK? :^)

Greg Street: On the contrary, you can always find fish underneath dolphins. Just ask the tuna fleets. We were also talking about replacing gazelles with seal pups in the northern climates, but that gets a little gruesome. (KIDDING! Do not call PETA!)

Omnivac: After being a fan yourself of the game and being a visitor of Age of Empires Heaven and other sites, how is it now that you are really on the other side of the fence? Is it like you thought it would be?

Greg Street: It wasn't that long ago I was scanning through the pages of Heaven and other sites trying to absorb any new information about Age2. That is the main reason that I try to drop by the fan sites as often as I can.

Is it like I thought it would be? Ensemble Studios really has a corporate culture unlike any job I have ever had. We truly are just a bunch of gamers trying to make some great games. There are no suits or corporate heavies telling us what we can and can't put in the game. If you have a great idea, all you have to do is convince everyone else in the company that it's great.

Omnivac: What is it like, a day at Ensemble Studios for Greg Street?

Greg Street: I guess it would be typical for me to say how much work it is and what long hours we put in, but the truth is that I usually can't wait to get to work in the mornings.

I write most of the campaign stuff early on when it is pretty quiet. As more of the guys show up and things get noisy, I scroll through email and check out the fan sites and forums. Everyone at Ensemble Studios has input into most of the decisions the company makes, so we have a lot of meetings. At least 30 or 40 a day. Well...it sure feels like it.

At lunch I usually play a board game or war game with anyone who is available (read: has no meetings). After lunch I work on random map stuff and playtest Age2. The evenings I set aside to try out the latest PC games (I have to--it's my job! Yeah, that's it.) I put in about twelve hours a day right now, but we have yet to enter crunch mode for Age2.

Omnivac: Since one of your main task at Ensemble Studios deal with the scenario editor, can you tell some of the new features we will see in it?

Greg Street: Would you believe the editor is one of the last things we are going to do? That's because we need to see how all of the new features work. Can you start units in formations? How do you get the AI to use the market? I can promise that it will allow anyone to make a robust campaign that takes advantage of all of Age2's features. I am really looking forward to seeing what people come up with!

Omnivac: Was Ensemble Studios surprised at how popular was the scenario editor of Age of Empires? What do they think of the fans' scenarios and campaigns?

Greg Street: I don't think anyone expected the editor to be used nearly to the extent that it has been. People have really milked that thing for some great results. While drawing a map is not that difficult, developing useful AI and PER files can be a real pain. It is amazing how adept some of the fans have become getting the AI to do what they want. AI for Age of Empires is not trivial. There are tons of units, several victory conditions, and a lot of depth to the strategy. It is great to see when it is all done well.

Omnivac: Do you have any preferred fan works in particular?

Greg Street: I don't want to name names because the net zeitgeist is such that once a few people get a reputation for being good at scenarios (or even playing the game for that matter), other folks feel like they can't compete and stop trying. I do download quite a few scenarios and campaigns. I feel like it's part of my job to stay on top of things like that. I think part of the reason the ROR campaigns are better than the Age1 campaigns is because we learned a lot about what the fans like to see in campaigns.

Omnivac: In your opinion, what makes or breaks a good scenario or campaign? Can you give any advices to those who start designing them?

Greg Street: Because the Random Maps in Age1 are so good, I think that a successful scenario has to be as unlike a Random Map as possible. A good-looking map that actually affects gameplay is great to see, as are AI opponents that behave like human players. Any computer opponent can do well given 99,999 gold, stone and wood. It's when I find myself fighting with the AI over the last gold mine on a map that I really enjoy the single player game. A story (historical or not) that puts the scenario in some kind of context is useful as well. "Red called you a monkey--go destroy his town" is not the stuff of epic literature.

I think a scenario designer should know what is going to happen in a scenario at any given time. You should know when you want the AI to attack and what units it should be using. This works in AOE, because the AI must still build up like a human player. Otherwise the scenario might feel very "scripted" and becomes more of a puzzle scenario.

Some folks like puzzle scenarios, but they are not my personal favorite. I don't like trying to figure out what the designer was thinking. There is a subtle difference between a designer being able to predict what the AI will do and the designer making a map that is essentially a linear gauntlet. ("Red Wizard needs food badly!") You should not be able to make a "walkthrough" of a scenario (the way you can for an adventure game) but a "strategy guide".

I usually go through four steps in testing maps: 1) Give tons of resources to the AI to check build lists (using cheats is helpful here). 2) Let the AI go for a bit at max speed. Build tons of walls around the human player if you are worried about the game ending too quickly. Go get a cookie or something and come back later to see if Red and Yellow eventually made those Armored Elephants or got caught up behind a cliff somewhere. This tests to see if the AI is doing what it should and gives you an idea about resource level and pacing. 3) Play through the scenario to test for difficulty level. 4) Let someone else playtest the scenario--there is no telling what other people will come up with if you don't. In Alesia, for example, you could really mess things up by converting the enemy hero you are supposed to kill.

Omnivac: If there was only one campaign in Age of Empires II: Age of Kings you could make, what would it be?

Greg Street: Ever heard of Peter the Hermit and the Peasant's Crusade? Peter led a bunch on unarmed peasants down into the Holy Land and discovered that Turkish horse archers are pretty good at killing peasants. I envision this campaign involving a lot of running away....

Omnivac: *Ahem!*

Greg Street: Seriously, I think we would be pretty remiss if we left out the Mongol invasions. No other military leader in history has been able to match Genghis Khan's rate of conquering land. The Romans owned most of the known world, but it took them decades. Genghis did it in one afternoon between 3 and 4 pm, before the nightly yak milking.

Omnivac: Aha! Got you there. Looking forward to play it. :^)

Greg Street: Did I mention that the Mongols had Mirror Towers, Nuke Troopers and Alligator Kings?

Omnivac: Aaaah.. Huh?...err, After playing Age of Empires, what get you excited the most when you playtest Age of Kings in its current state? I personally look forward the fighting formations and the new economic model.

Greg Street: The game just *looks* better. When I play Age1 and then Age2, I am amazed at how much my city really looks like a medieval city. The artists have really outdone themselves on units, buildings and terrain.

I am the first to admit that great graphics alone do not make a great game, so I will also add that the new economic model is pretty exciting. It is nice to be able to sell off excess wood to get that little boost you need to go Imperial.

Omnivac: Speaking of super-units, what will happen if someone play a full tech tree game? Can he build all the different super-units of every civilizations?

Greg Street: That is still undecided. I predict that a civ will be able to build every unit except for the civ-specific ones (like samurai and longbowmen).

Omnivac: During playtesting, has anyone established himself as the master of AoK yet? Is Dave "BigDog" Pottinger renewing his "tyranny" over the other ES employees? I remember him being called the "20 minutes Iron" Man in the ol' days of AoE playtesting, hehe.

Greg Street: Dave attacks pretty quickly, particularly in team games. The two guys who give him the greatest challenge are Tim Deen and Angelo Laudon, who are also both programmers. My theory is that programmers think very analytically and can keep all those little numbers about pierce armor and ROF straight in their minds.

In general, I think we probably play the game less than people out on the net realize. There is a lot to do besides just playtesting over and over again. Testing for game balance is dreadfully important to the game, but not nearly as important as testing to make sure the game doesn't crash or go out of sync.

Omnivac: Any favourite civs or units yet? Yours personally, or the most popular ones over at ES.

Greg Street: Last week, everyone loved jannisaries because an error in the database gave them 430 hit points! When everything has its normal hit points, though, I like to play the advanced archers, particularly arbalests and longbowmen. The civ differences aren't all ironed out yet, so I don't yet have a favorite civ. The Mideasterners have the best art set (though the others are still quite good) so I have been playing them lately.

Omnivac: What about the Raider Civs? A lot of people are looking forward to play them and as of late, their status was still unknown if they would make it in the game. It must be also very hard to balance them with the normal civs since they will play entirely differently. Is this the major factor for them to be in AoK or not?

Greg Street: They will be there! Raiders are very hard to balance but they are still slated to go in the game. We just had to get the other civs functional first so we would have a baseline with which to compare the raiders.

I would say the new economic model, the raiders, use of formations, and the changes to the first fifteen minutes of the game are going to be the features that most differentiate a game of AOK from AOE. As far as the product is concerned, the campaigns, random maps, AI and improved usability are much better than they were in AOE.

Omnivac: In the January 99 issue of Computer Gaming World, there was a mention of a new victory condition, Regicide, where you must kill or capture a Royal Unit. What's the low down on this? Are they like the heroes of AoE, or players can customize them to some extent like naming the king (or queen), and even maybe choosing what type of unit it will be as well as having a point system for the various stats of a unit. I think all players would like to at least personalize their own king or queen.

Greg Street: We envision Regicide as an evolution of the AOE Deathmatch (though there will still be the familiar, resource-heavy DM in Age2). Basically, you start with a lot of stuff and have to play capture the flag with king units. There is more to it, but I don't want to give it all away.

Omnivac: The bane of the multiplayers is without a doubt the dreaded disconnection. This is an absolute killer when you play a very good game (It never happens when you successfully tool rush someone and win easily). Is the multiplayer save game still in? What will be the exact procedure to follow?

Greg Street: Paul "Winter" Bettner has come up with a really elegant save system. Not only is there a multiplayer save, but more than likely, the game will be auto saved periodically and can be restored. There is an option on the host screen to "Restore game" which will put the saved game up with the original player names. You then wait (and can hopefully drop) the other players. I suspect there is some kind of version comparison to keep people from hacking their files in between disconnect and restore.

Omnivac: Will the population limit be a real population limit this time, or you can get around it like in AoE by building several units when you have one free space left?

Greg Street: That is also undecided. Obviously, queuing of units makes a big difference in the game. Also, the new economic model sometimes means that the rate at which you produce units (not the underlying resources required) becomes the limiting factor in a prolonged war. Those two considerations will probably lead to a "real" popcap.

Omnivac: Thanks a lot Greg. I'm sure there is a lot more to know that will be revealed in the upcoming months. Anything you want to add before the end?

Greg Street: The Random Map types are looking really cool, and yes, there will be a "Random" type this time around. It is possible (but no promises) that players will be able to develop their own Random Map types. My favorite starts you with three gazelle that you must get past all the Alligator Shrimp and Mirror Shrimp on the map. (Do not call PETA....)

The comments of Greg Street do not necessarily reflect the views of Ensemble Studios. Doubtless some employees support PETA and/or gazelle poaching.

Omnivac: Hehe! See you on the battlefield...

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