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Topic Subject:Behind the Scenes with Two Singleplayer Developers for the Definitive Edition
Mr Wednesday
Cavalier
(id: matty12345)
posted 12-11-19 02:31 PM CT (US)         
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition has been out for a few weeks now, and fans are happily dividing their time between the editor, multiplayer, and the single player campaigns. The latter of those three groups boasts a wealth of new content, from brand new campaigns and battles, to complete reconstructions of some older campaigns, to more subtle remasters of others.

To get the whole story of what is going on with the single player side of this exciting new release, I sat down with two campaign designers from Forgotten Empires. You might recognize them from this heaven as Bassi and HockeySam18, or from the variety of other places to discuss all things AGE on the internet. I ended up asking the two of them about everything from the campaigns to their experiences joining FE, to support for the editor moving forward, and they were graciously kind enough to provide thoughtful answers to everything.

Interview follows below, with questions in bold.

Thank you both for taking the time out of what must be a busy post-release schedule to do this. Let's start with the two of you personally. When did you first get involved with Forgotten Empires? And how long have you been working now on content specifically for Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition?
Bassi: My first contact with Forgotten Empires was actually before it was a company. That was sometime before 2013 when Cysion was asking the German AoE community for permission to make use of an icon for the original Forgotten Empires mod. Incidentally, that icon was just a screenshot of the nets that the beta building "Port" is covered with, so it was in-game content anyway, but still we generously "allowed" him to use that icon, hahaha! I followed the development process of the original FE mod and later designed a custom campaign using it, but I initially missed out on HD. I did eventually install it in 2016 and was impressed by the African Kingdoms DLC, which motivated me to design custom scenarios again. After being a beta tester for the Rise of the Rajas expansion and winning a custom design contest, I joined the team in the autumn of 2017 after having met some of the developers some months earlier in Cologne, Germany. In November 2017, I began to work on both new and old content with the single player content production team. The 3 The Last Khans campaigns had already been designed by that time, so the first task that I took on was writing outlines for another new campaign, Pachacuti.

Sam: FE and I go way back to even before it was a professional studio - in late 2012, when the Forgotten Empires mod was mainly a multiplayer-oriented project, Bert and a few others posted notices that they were seeking level designers to produce single player campaign content for the mod. I joined up as a level designer and, as my educational background is in history, a researcher. Seven years later, the road goes ever on!

For Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition specifically, we'd have to go back to the autumn of 2016, when I drafted the initial outline for the Tamerlane campaign. The individual missions largely took shape over the following year, and as we moved into the development process for AoE2DE, the other level designers and I took on the enormous task of updating and remastering a whopping 27 campaigns.

During that time, I was meticulously researching and assisting the game designers in the process of creating our four new Last Khans civilizations. Synthesizing history into the simplified and formulaic medium of a video game is a difficult yet extremely rewarding process, as it brings me joy to make history more accessible to people.

Sam, I am glad you mentioned the history behind the game, and your role as a researcher. The Age of Empires series has always had a fast and loose interpretation of historical peoples. The game kind of goes, "Here be Saracens, and they train Mamelukes," and manages to lump several ethnic groups and even an important dynasty into a dude on a camel chucking scimitars. Yet, many players remember more history from Age of Empires than from their elementary school teachers. How did you balance your love for historical detail with making the game approachable?
Sam: As you allude to, the design of AoE2 civilizations is largely quite similar, with only the unique unit/technologies, bonuses, and technology tree differences to set them apart, so you have to be economical. When I’m researching the historical group(s) on which we’re basing a civilization, my general approach is to identify their most notable characteristics and then discuss with the game designers as to how we can render that into something that is accessible, fun to play, and competitively viable.

Take for example the Bulgarian civilization, which is based on nomadic Bulgars and the Slavic tribes that they fused with when they migrated into Europe in the 7th century. The Bulgars and other nearby nomadic tribes introduced the stirrup into Europe, changing cavalry warfare forever. That is reflected in one of their unique technologies, and their cavalry tradition is represented by their unique unit and strong stable units. However, the medieval Bulgarians were also known for staunchly defending mountain passes and using the terrain and fortifications to defeat more powerful and numerous opponents. To represent that, we added the Krepost and made other design decisions to render the Bulgarians effective at defending their fortifications and fighting in close quarters. The result is a civilization that is fun to play, competitive, and grounded in actual historical features. Players can thus learn the historical basics of the medieval Bulgarians while enjoying the game.

Before we talk about the new campaigns, which so many players are diving into right now, let's talk about the work that went into the other campaigns. Obviously, the original Age of Kings and The Conquerors campaigns were beloved by a generation of fans. When The Forgotten came out, there was some definite backlash against scenarios and campaigns that tried to vary the formula a bit, but then the African Kingdoms seemed to swing back to generally positive reviews. Can you talk about the efforts that went into remastering all of these campaigns? Which ones are the most recognizable, and which have had the biggest overhaul?
Sam: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original Ensemble Studios campaigns will probably remain the most recognizable campaigns to fans. I’ll let Bassi take the helm in discussing those, since he and our narrative/level design lead were in charge of remastering them.

At the beginning of the DE design process, we had several meetings to discuss the narrative/campaign content and chart our course of action. Generally speaking, the visuals, AI, settings (such as civilizations and population limits), and gameplay of all missions received varying degrees of updating and remastering in an effort to establish consistency and parity of quality between them. Several of the campaigns and battle scenarios from The Forgotten in particular were deemed to not be of DE quality and thus received particularly heavy overhauls or were even entirely remade from scratch - so be sure to give those another look when you play the AoE2DE campaigns!

Furthermore, AoE2DE has introduced a slew of new scenario editor features such as terrain layering, additional trigger functionality, and variable systems, so we made ample use of those as well. We're excited to see how the scenario design community receives and utilizes those going forward!

Bassi: Working on the AoK and AoC campaigns was actually a very fun experience. I had not played through them in years, so playing them again was actually the first thing that I did. That made me realize how good the base ideas behind those scenarios actually were. In my opinion, the ES campaigns have aged very well in terms of playability, but the execution was often sloppy. It was not long before I found the first dysfunctional trigger chains or broken scripts. In terms of storylines and dialogues we did not change much aside from correcting some odd things such as erroneous dates or awkward phrases. I recall that we initially discussed changing some player names in the very early stages of the remastering process. Remember the first mission of the Genghis Khan campaign? There, the Kara-Khitai are introduced as Genghis Khan's archenemies, even though the Tatars or Merkits would historically fit that role much better—but we decided against such changes. Imagine Genghis declaring: "But beware the Merkits, they are without honor!" --- Nah, if you come back to the game after 15 years, you want Temujin insulting the Kara-Khitai—in some cases it is better to preserve the nostalgia. In other cases, we adjusted the player names, usually when it had minimal impact on the actual story. We have made numerous civilization adjustments, however. If you march against Hungary, you will no longer fight against Teutonic Knights, and if you invade Italy, your opponents are Italians, not Franks. In addition, we improved the AI so that the computer opponents act more effectively. The AI now uses its villagers more skillfully—it now makes use of more than one villager to build buildings, for example. Most of our working hours were spent refreshing the map design, as the ES maps were usually very, very simple. It was fun to be creative here without damaging the legacy.

Remastering the campaigns of the first DLC, The Forgotten, was also a challenge. I am grateful that we were able to decide to design certain missions and even full campaigns from scratch. The new Alaric and Sforza campaigns, for example, are essentially entirely new tales that, with the exception of the basic theme, have little in common with the original Forgotten campaigns. Overall, we decided firmly against the experimental nature of those missions. A notable case is the El Dorado campaign, which was removed and replaced by another campaign instead of being revised. We now have a true Inca campaign (Pachacuti) focusing on the rise of this Andean people rather than telling the story of a Spanish expedition.

Now, being so close to all of these campaigns, which would you say is your favorite Ensemble Studios campaign and favorite Forgotten Empires campaign?
Bassi: My favorite ES campaign is Genghis Khan. It takes you around Asia and Europe, and with so many civilizations to discover (and subdue) it strikes me as an ideal introduction of several aspects of the game. The narrative style of Attila and Montezuma is also very enjoyable. When it comes to our own campaigns, I like Ivaylo very much - it is a tragic tale that few people know. The good thing is that all of the new campaigns are very different from each other, so I think that there is something for everyone.

Sam: My favorite Ensemble Studios campaign is Attila the Hun. Its atmosphere is excellent from the start, and the individual scenarios all offer varying modes of gameplay and present numerous strategic options. My favorite ES battle scenario is Tours (732). It's a fun mission with simple yet unique concepts and objectives, and was greatly improved across the board in the Definitive Edition.

My favorite Forgotten Empires campaign is Tamerlane. It is undoubtedly my best (and largest) work in terms of gameplay, visuals, storyline and atmosphere, and all six missions present the player with something entirely different in terms of gameplay while remaining very recognizably AoE2, as well as considerable strategic freedom and replay value. My favorite FE battle scenario is Honfoglalás (895). The remastered version in the Definitive Edition offers players a fascinating choice between nomadic and sedentary lifestyles, and its open gameplay is a fun take on a series of memorable historical events.

Saladin, for me, was always the most memorable.

Sam, you mentioned the Tamerlane campaign. As I'm sure you both know, Tamerlane: Prince of Destruction is one of the more famous fan-made campaigns of the last 20 years. Did you draw any influence from that adaptation, or was there enough fresh ground to go in a completely new direction?

Bassi: Mark Stoker's custom campaign is a classic that has aged very well. People still upload playthrough videos of it, which is quite amazing considering that is two decades old. The official Tamerlane campaign features some of the same historical events, but it is quite different and does not have the juvenile comical touch that Stoker's campaign had—unless there is a hidden Britney Spears scene that I have missed out on, Sam?

Sam: Playing the Stoker Tamerlane campaign in my youth inspired me to begin reading about Tamerlane, so it certainly deserves credit in that regard. However, with the exception of any common ground owing to historical events, the similarities essentially end there. Stoker's campaign approached Tamerlane from a more comic, loosely historically-inspired fantasy angle, which is the source of a good deal of its entertainment value as well as some aspects that objectively have not aged particularly well, such as a certain modern pop culture cameo.

When designing the Tamerlane campaign for AoE2DE, I chose to take a more grim, authentic approach to a historical character who, for all of his exploits and achievements, was a proud, brutal, and ruthless tyrant. The campaign was meticulously researched, and I even read some older scholarship such as René Grousset's "L'Empire des Steppes", which contained more narrative flair and some anecdotal details absent from many more recent works. This allowed me to translate a complex historical subject into the game in a widely accessible and entertaining manner. Players will enjoy unleashing the Timurid horde upon its various enemies, but will also be confronted by the plight of its victims and the inner machinations of a cruel and bombastic yet brilliant commander who will stop at nothing on his quest for world domination.

I think everyone can agree that one of the most iconic things about the game is the William Wallace learning campaign. Even if you never played a lot of the other campaigns, almost everyone played that tutorial, and learned the point-and-click basics of the game. In the Definitive Edition, we also have The Art of War, which teaches you how to actually be effective in the game, including such basic things as sheep management and luring boars—things that became standard over the years for even the most average of players. Can you talk about the thinking behind the decision to include this second learning campaign, and what you hope it accomplishes for a lot of players?
Sam: The William Wallace tutorial teaches players the extreme basics of Age of Empires II. It is a good starting point, but it does not address the nuances of the game and how to play it most effectively. The mission of The Art of War is simple: to introduce players to a higher echelon of game strategy, analysis, and action, and leave them with a skillset that will allow them to succeed at higher levels of both single player and multiplayer gameplay.

Bassi: The Art of War was introduced to close the gap between knowing the very basics of the game and being able to stand a chance against a moderate AI or a casual multiplayer session. The William Wallace campaign does not feature advanced strategies and, as it was not prudent to make drastic changes to the regular tutorial campaign or overload it by adding more content, creating a new tutorial/challenge series was the best course of action. The feedback regarding this campaign is very positive so far. There were initially a few misunderstandings because some people thought that it was a China campaign, but the challenges feature several civilizations for maximal gameplay coverage. The Art of War is solely about improving playing skills—there's no actual story to experience.

Alright, let's talk about the new campaigns. What was designing those like? Presumably, the civilizations themselves were still in flux when you began laying out the stories. How did the changes made for the multiplayer side of things affect your designs? And what happens if one of the new civs gets a major boost or nerf in a balance patch? Will you have to revisit the scenarios?
Bassi: Some imbalances are inevitably present when a game is released, and those are being addressed. Naturally, this will necessitate changes to some of the campaign scenarios. There were also some issues with achievements not firing correctly. All of those are already fixed and should be implemented soon. The entire team of mission designers is still working on the retail content and closely observing reports across various social media channel and internet forums.

Sam: The design of the new campaigns goes back a couple of years, so the initial, rudimentary versions were produced in AoE2HD, using placeholder civilizations and assets. By the time that the scenarios truly took shape, the civilization design process was decently far along, so we had a good idea of the strengths, weaknesses, and unique features that we wanted to showcase in each campaign. The development process is a complex one, with the narrative/campaign sector working alongside other sectors (art, design, programming, etc) of the studio, so some patience is needed as one awaits new assets, stability fixes, and such. Sporadic setbacks are inevitable, but effective communication solves most problems before they even arise. Incidentally, the game balancing itself should do the lion's share of the work on this front as regards the Last Khans campaigns, which can currently be steamrolled by certain particularly strong units or tactics...but rest assured that we will continue to monitor the scenarios as further balancing adjustments are made.

You mentioned how the editor is filled with new goodies for scenario designers. Scenario design and modding have always had huge roles in the Age of Empires community, more so than for most games. Can you both talk about the importance of editor and modding support when working on the Definitive Edition? Obviously, multiplayer is the main driving force, but where did the creative side of the community fit in? And what is your new favorite editor feature?
Bassi: The Definitive Edition offers many new features that make the editor more comfortable to use. For example, we have introduced a simple variable system that spares designers the toil of using complex trigger systems as workarounds. Even smaller additions such as an invisible object (to prevent a player from being defeated) together represent a considerable quality of life improvement. Statistics show that the majority of the AoE2 fanbase is actually more interested in single player than in multiplayer, so ensuring that creating new custom single player content is possible was critical for us. It is now also possible to modify various attributes of units and buildings. You can create your own heroes, you can change icons, and you can make units reversible or impossible to convert. You can even change their training locations—there is a lot to discover. With the new terrain layer system you can also achieve much more aesthetically pleasing terrain transitions. In addition, it is now possible to design and implement your own slideshows for custom campaigns. Any designer can now present their campaigns just as appealingly as the retail content. This is perhaps the feature that I like the most of the new possibilities.

Sam: My favorite new scenario editor feature (or, more appropriately, complex of features) is the functionality that allows players to alter fundamental features of assets including, but not limited to cost and training location. The level of customization that is now available allows scenario designers to essentially mod the game within a single scenario and opens up a whole new world of possibilities for creative content.

It's interesting that you describe it as modding within the editor. As you probably know, the entire MOBA genre of video games exists because of an old game with a very powerful editor capable of exactly that sort of thing. I'm really excited to see essentially new games being created as multiplayer scenarios within the editor. Is this something that you at FE have discussed at all, and do you think that it might take off within the community?
Sam: One of our priorities when discussing improvements to the scenario editor was providing designers with the ability to customize their works. Clearly, the community has been extremely appreciative of the functionality available in UserPatch v1.5 for the CD version, and we knew that it had elevated players' expectations. Many of the improvements to the scenario editor in AoE2DE were geared to address this, but rather than imitating UP v1.5, we allowed our observations on the community's use of it to inform a portion of our decision-making. The focus, however, was firmly on practicality and accessibility - the terrain layering system, for example, was prioritized over some of the more obscure and niche tricks that UP-effects bring to the table. I have considerable optimism that the community will take full advantage of the new features, although it is quite clear that some detailed documentation of the new features would go a long way here.

Bassi: Of course we thought about how to extend the editor, and with further feedback from the community we can continue to incorporate more useful improvements and functions. I hope that the new possibilities will motivate a lot of designers, new and old alike, to create their own works, single player or multiplayer. I foresee an interesting, experimental phase of scenario design. I am sure that some new, previously impossible tricks will be discovered in the near future.

Obviously the Age of Empires II editor was not without a lot of bugs, many of which were never patched and ended up being turned into 'features' by an imaginative community. The Definitive Edition has released with a few editor issues of its own, and there is a lot of new content without much documentation. Can players expect some post launch support for the editor? Or maybe even some support for modding tools?
Bassi: To our delight, the AoKH community has already begun to report bugs and make suggestions for improvements. We have been following the relevant threads very closely and aim to implement as many of those ideas and improvements as is reasonably possible. Everyone is invited to contribute to the discussion of the improvement of this tool, and we hope to see a healthy and active map design community on DE in the future. We are always around and look forward to any suggestions pertaining to our work!

Any personal projects for you guys planned in this enhanced editor, or are you too busy now for that?
Sam: I started playing around in the editor with a custom scenario based on the Hlǫðskviða (the Battle of Goths and Huns in the latter section of The Saga of Hervǫr and Heiðrekr the Wise), but who knows when I'll have the time to get around to finishing it.

Bassi: I have already published a 3-scenario custom campaign: "The Golden Horde". It deals mainly with Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, and his successors—you can subscribe here https://www.ageofempires.com/mods/details/1316, or download it from the AoKH Blacksmith. The campaign features some of the new civilizations, such as the Bulgarians, the Tatars, and the Cumans. I have deliberately shaped it in the style of the new "The Last Khans” campaigns, in order to build on the new retail content. Furthermore, I plan to publish another campaign soon, this time covering the early life of Tamerlane. It will only portray events that are neither part of the new Tamerlane campaign nor of Mark Stoker's adaptation.

The man is a machine, folks!

I really appreciate your time, guys. Bassi, Sam, thanks for doing this!

Bassi: Thanks for your excellent questions and your interest in general!

Sam: No problem. Thanks for organizing it!

[This message has been edited by Mr Wednesday (edited 12-11-2019 @ 02:32 PM).]

AuthorReplies:
Leif Ericson
Seraph Emeritus
posted 12-12-19 00:05 AM CT (US)     1 / 6       
This was a fantastic read! Thanks everyone!

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HockeySam18
Dúnadan
posted 12-12-19 01:45 AM CT (US)     2 / 6       
Thanks for setting this up, Matt. I'll be hanging around this thread to answer questions and comments that people might have, although as always I reserve the right to decline to comment, so raise your queries judiciously.

~ Forgotten Empires ~

Storm on the Steppe | Galderton Hill RP | Proud member of Stormwind Studios

"Deyr fé, deyja frændr, deyr sjálfr it sama; ek veit einn at aldri deyr, dómr um dauðan hvern." - Hávamál 77.
Lord Basse
MI6 Scenario-Making Machine
posted 12-12-19 03:41 AM CT (US)     3 / 6       
A great write-up, Matt! Very interesting to get a behind the scenes look at the new game version.
Bassi: To our delight, the AoKH community has already begun to report bugs and make suggestions for improvements. We have been following the relevant threads very closely and aim to implement as many of those ideas and improvements as is reasonably possible.
This in particular is very encouraging to hear!

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poxo
Squire
posted 12-21-19 06:23 AM CT (US)     4 / 6       
As a high MP player and campaign tryhard I must say that you guys have improved significally the AoC-AoFE campaigns, good work.

Nice interview
ArcherHombre
Squire
posted 12-26-19 08:02 AM CT (US)     5 / 6       
Thank you, everyone, for interviewing these guys and for taking the time to be interviewed.

I love the idea of the "Art of War" campaign as described here. I don't have AoE2DE yet because I doubt it will work on my Linux systems, but almost everyone else does and I will direct them to this.

It sounds like the scenario editor has been greatly improved! I dropped out of the scen-ed scene a long time ago, before I even joined this forum. But I remember the complexities of tracking variables and hiding a unit per civ inside a forest so that player doesn't die. I like that the UserPatch and other community projects have inspired some of the improvements.

For some reason, the thing that most brought me joy from this article is the reference to making your own slideshow for your custom campaigns. I remember making campaigns from individual scenarios, and while I didn't have the chops to make the cut-scenes, the lack of ability to do so really bothered me. Thank you for allowing custom campaigns to look as slick as the retail content!
Charging_Knight
Squire
posted 01-07-20 12:46 PM CT (US)     6 / 6       
Dear Bassi and HockeySam, thank you for a lovely write-up. Agree with all the sentiments. I am most intrigued by the new scenario editor but it seems to be lacking a few more units along the flavour of the East/Southeast Asian/African civilisations. Seeing as the DE game is still modder-unfriendly for graphics editing, I was wondering if either of you know much about the possibility of the designers adding more scenario editor content in future updates of the game?

Also, I would like to do more with the editor but would appreciate some advice/guidance on the terrain layering, and triggering mechanics, as well as perhaps some tips on designing scenarios (like the ones made for the game) from you guys given that your works are always so excellent and are of a high quality. I am planning a campaign based on the travels of Marco Polo (which is apt given the Central Asian flavour with the Last Khans expansion) but am a little constrained given an absence of more eye-candy/units in game tailored to this theme.

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