ES Interviews Part 1
Published on 12-30-2016; updated on 12-30-2016
Tags: General Info, Interviews
Here are several interviews with Ensemble Studios staff members conducted by previous Age of Kings Heaven staff, from the year 1998 to 2001 (please note that some are pre-game interviews):
- Post-Patch Chat with Kevin “The_Sheriff” Holme
- Matt “The Optimizer” Pritchard
- Matt “maimin_matty” Scadding
- Duncan “Reverend” McKissick
- Greg “Deathshrimp” Street
- Bruce Shelley
Post-Patch Chat with Kevin “The_Sheriff” Holme
Interviewed by Angel Thunder – 7/11/2001
HeavenGames had the opportunity to sit down for a discussion about patch 1.0 with Kevin Holme, who is not only a fantastic Age player, but also one of the hard working folks at Ensemble Studios who’ve brought us this new update. You can find the recently released patch for the Conquerors expansion pack here, along with the ReadMe file which explains the many changes, additions and tweaks.
Thunder: Howdy there Kevin, many thanks for this sit down chat. Pull up a chair, stand, sit, lay down, kneel…get comfortable.
There were a lot more changes to civilizations in the final patch than I was expecting. The change to Japanese and Gothic infantry in particular was quite drastic. This seems to really go against AoK’s original theme of weaker bonuses to start that progressively got stronger. What brought this about?
Kevin Holme: Hmm. Well our original plan was to make as few changes as possible and get the patch out as soon as we could. We were going to balance the Koreans, balance the feudal age, fix the farm bug, and not much more. So we did this, and sent out the beta patch to get some feedback on the changes. But in the end, not only did we get a ton of feedback on our new changes, but we also got an amazing number of requests and suggestions to make the civilizations more balanced. So after a long discussion over some of the suggestions we read at AoKH and MFO, we decided to look at each civilization individually and take another crack at rebalancing them with some small easy changes. When we got to the Goths and Japanese we saw 2 problems. The first and most obvious was that they are considered ‘slow civs’ and are rarely if ever used in a competitive RM game. The second problem was that they are strong infantry civs, but most players never build infantry until they are in imperial age and have the champion upgrade. So we un-scaled their infantry bonuses. This gives them a new powerful unit-line to fight the faster civs with in the early ages, yet it maintains our old Imperial age balance
Thunder: Staying with the infantry for a moment here, there is some discrepancy between how large of a change both of these civs infantry bonuses are supposed to be between the readme and the final patch. For those who haven’t noticed, the Goths are actually getting 35% cheaper infantry in the game. Which reflects your actual intentions?
Kevin Holme: This was unfortunately a mistake in the database that slipped by us. We had intended that the Japanese and Goths should get no more than a 25% bonus. We are very aware of the error and are running tests on it already in case it turns out to be a problem.
Thunder: Yes, there’s some debate about whether or not 35% is too much of a bonus, with players backing both points of view. But with slower archer build time, introduced with the xpack, you must have had some concerns about civs being able to counter infantry rushes.
Kevin Holme: Like I said above, we felt that a 25% bonus was a safe change, not intending it to go to 35%.
Thunder: Alrighty, now on to the much debated Koreans. Do you believe the Koreans will be off the “banned” list in DM with the all changes that have been made to them? It seems that some more wood for War Wagons won’t have much of an impact when you have DM resources.
Kevin Holme: The wood increase will have impact, even in DM. I almost always end up with 100 villagers stripping the map dry at the end of all my DM games. Besides that, we also lowered the range on their WWs and Onagers. Their bombard towers shouldn’t be as much of a problem now either because of their new vulnerability to siege rams.
Thunder: Yes indeed, I’ve experienced the changes to BTs first hand. It’s great for civs without bombard cannons to have more than one option at stopping a BT push. Now, you guys had lots of fan feedback to deal with. What was one of the most unexpected reactions from fans during the beta patch period that you guys had to deal with?
Kevin Holme: We received a lot of complaints about bombard towers being too powerful in deathmatch. Players would build forests of towers backed up by bombard cannons which were nearly impossible to destroy.
Thunder: Aha, those BTs again. It’ll be interesting to see how the change plays out in DM. Now, you folks at ES did plenty of testing, were there any strange events that occurred during your in house sessions?
Kevin Holme: Hmm not really. I guess the biggest problem we came across was an out of sync in the recorded games caused by Turbo gold trickle from relics.
Thunder: Ahhh, speaking of Turbo…it is quite a popular new addition. Where did the idea for turbo mode come from?
Kevin Holme: I believe Mike Kidd came up with this idea during his trip to the Cybergames in Korea last year. He spent a lot of time talking with the Korean gamers and found that the biggest complaint about AoK by far was that it was too slow. They prefered games that take 30 minutes rather than an hour, and they especially didn’t want to play for 15 minutes before they could fight. Turbo mode is probably what ‘Fast Speed’ should have been. You can advance faster, fight sooner, but without the loss of unit control.
Thunder: Yah, it reminds some of the old timers of the fast paced RoR days. Now, there were other civilizations that had tweaks such as China. Some feel the change to the chinese starting resources has hurt them too much. How did this change play out in your testing?
Kevin Holme: I don’t see why they should be a bad civ now. At the very worst they should have an even start with the rest of the civs speed-wise, but they also still have a very robust tech tree with discounted improvements. They have a strong navy (you are gonna need those demo boats to take out the new fireships) and probably one of the best team bonuses in the game.
Thunder: Getting on to another civilization that was tweaked, everyone was expecting better Conquistadors as a result of the patch, but why was it decided to give the Spanish a major bonus with all gunpowder units?
Kevin Holme: We thought that the Spanish had a pretty well-rounded tech tree, but nothing really stood out from the other civilizations. Gunpowder units weren’t very popular in the past, and only the Turks had a bonus to them. So we figured it would be a safe and welcomed improvement. It also kinda all ties together with their super cannon galleys.
Thunder: Oki doki there Kevin, many thanks for your time! We’ll let you get back to your QA duties there at the studios. See ya on the battlefield!
Matt “The Optimizer” Pritchard
Matt Pritchard is a long time Ensemble Studios programmer, and has worked on both Age of Empires and Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings. He was nice enough to answer a number of my questions concerning his start with ES, the AoK patch process, and why they call him the “Optimizer.”
Washizu: Hey Matt! First off, thanks for doing this interview. I really appreciate it.
Matt Pritchard: My Pleasure, Washizu.
Washizu: How did you get hired by Ensemble Studios?
Matt Pritchard: I had been looking to get into game development for some time. In early 1996, I saw a newsgroup posting from [Communications Programmer] Mark Terrano, looking for developers. At that time Age was in the early-early prototype stage and no publisher had been secured. I came up to the Ensemble Consulting offices (a separate company) and met President Tony Goodman, and a few of the original team members. I showed them some stuff I had been working on, they smiled and said we’ll call you. About 6 months later, I got a call back from Tony. In the interim, Ensemble Studios had been fully spun off as a separate company and landed a publishing deal with Microsoft. They had almost forgotten about me… *wipes brow*
Washizu: If I’m correct, you are known as the “optimizer”. Can you give us a little description into what optimization of the code entails and any other duties you have at ES?
Matt Pritchard: Optimization basically means “making more efficient” which for games usually means making things faster. Actually I like to think of myself as general engine programmer, but the truth is that my skill at speeding code up has me re-working various portions of the game whenever needed. The nickname “optimizer” came to me early on when I re-wrote the Graphics engine for the original Age of Empires game, moving a good piece of it into assembly language. The results were so successful that I wound up maintaining and improving the graphics engine through all of the games to date. Beyond that I’ve worked on all sorts of things from the obstruction and short range pathing, to target searching and resource tracking sub-systems. I’ve also done a lot of the external tools for the games.
Washizu: If Ensemble’s next game were to be designed by you and you alone, what would would it be like?
Matt Pritchard: Probably a ‘conquer the galaxy and win-the-girl’ space-opera of some sort.
Washizu: What games are you playing currently?
Matt Pritchard: Age of Kings:The Conquerors, Unreal Tournament, Master of Orion, Worms 2, Ultima 4 on the Sega Master System, Zelda 64, Midnight Magic, Warlords on the Atari 2600.
Washizu: What game(s) at E3 did you find the most appealing? Were there any that surprised you?
Matt Pritchard: Games that caught my eye included Halo, Metal Gear Sold 2, Gothic, Warcraft 3, and a bunch of others whose names escape me at the moment. I can’t say I was terribly surprised by much. As an industry insider I try and stay up on developing games.
Washizu: In the AOK Postmortem (which was GREAT by the way) you wrote for Gamasutra, you said that one of the things needed to be established was a patching process. Now, we’ll be seeing the Age of Empires 2 expansion pack in just two and a half months, and there still isn’t a patch for AOK. In your opinion, what is the biggest contributor to patch delays?
Matt Pritchard: There are a number of factors involved. The biggest is that once Ensemble finishes a patch, it still takes a month or two for our publisher to fully test it, translate it and the documentation to all the various languages Age is sold in, create an installer, and release it. Because of that, we tend to pack a lot of stuff into each patch.
Washizu: What is your favorite civ to play with all the expansion pack enhancements?
Matt Pritchard: Probably the Mayans at this moment, but check back as it changes from week to week. I think we’ve done a great job of balancing the game.
Washizu: What picture do you keep on your computer’s desktop at work?
Matt Pritchard: Just the blue background. A picture of my wife sits to the side of my monitor though.
Washizu: A lot of developers are including game matching software to make things easier for multiplay, and by doing so are increasing the percentage of people who play online, which is typically a small amount. Are there any plans for game matching software to be built into future Ensemble Studios games?
Matt Pritchard: I really can’t comment on what we may or may not be doing with unannounced products that may or may not exist.
Washizu: Ok, here’s the last question. What game most influenced your desire to get involved in game development?
Matt Pritchard: Gosh, I don’t know. I started writing games all the way back in 1978 on a TRS-80 computer. At that time, there hardly were any games or consoles around. Still, I knew way back then that Computer Games were a calling for me.
Washizu: Thanks alot! I’ll see you on the battlefield!
Matt “maimin_matty” Scadding
When I was about 12 I watched movies like “Goonies.” They spoke to me of dreams and adventures. I always wondered what it would be like to have a grand adventure of my own. One year ago I lived through one of my dreams… I won the Rumble for Rome. The child in me screamed with glee. Even attending the tournament was something I never thought would happen to me. I can envision myself telling my grandchildren about the big event 50 years from now. One of the side effects of actually living my dream was that the dream changed. Instead of dreaming of winning I dreamt of helping to create instead. At the end of January someone from Microsoft contacted me about going to Seattle again in February for something called Gamestock (some of you may have seen it advertised on the zone). Unfortunately it was almost in the middle of my exams but after switching some things around I was set. February came and I couldn’t believe I was heading to Microsoft for my second time. I arrived in the evening to find that my hotel room must have been upgraded. There was some other convention going on in the same hotel…so lucky me got a suite with 2 TVs, 2 balconies,a hot tub, living room, kitchen area and was on the top floor of the hotel. My room was larger then my 2-bedroom apartment back in Guelph. The next day was spent looking at some of Microsoft’s upcoming games. At the time Age of Kings and Asheron’s Call were still in their early beta stages. Two of the coolest zone staff took me out that second day for a kick ass dinner. After dinner we went to one of the most extravagant video game palaces I have ever seen. It was a special time. After 3 days I was home again. I ran into a friend, from one of my classes at school, in the grocery store. She tried to play a joke on me telling me I had missed a midterm. I laughed but when she didn’t give up I realized I HAD missed my exam! I have no idea how I could of overlooked it but…. Anyway, my teacher was very forgiving. A month or so later Microsoft Canada held a Gamestock of their own (much smaller then the American one). Well I was there I ran into one of my friend’s who I had met out in Redmon. We chatted a bit after which he told me I should try and get a job at MS for the summer. I couldn’t believe he was serious.
The next few weeks were tense for me. Every email I sent to Redmond seemed to take years before I received a response. The program I had originally tried to get into (intern program) was already filled…. but they might be able to squeeze me in under contract. Then came the interview; my mouth felt dry. They were going to phone at 4pm. But as this time approached I felt the overwhelming desire to use the lavatory. I kept trying to hold it in case they phoned a little early. Sure enough as soon as I headed to the washroom *ring**ring*. I suppose the interview went better then I thought because the next day I was offered the job. I couldn’t believe it. I realized that my new dream was to work with computers. The idea of working at a place like Microsoft was almost beyond my comprehension. But there was a catch… I needed to get a visa. From here on in the story gets a little depressing as my dream is smashed my a rather egotistical sadistic border guard. The visa was not issued. I was definitely a little nervous when I arrived at the border. The plan was to pick up the visa then fly out from Toronto. I knew there was a chance I wouldn’t get the visa. When I didn’t get the visa I felt like an evil border guard demon had come in to my dream and crushed my hopes… turning my dream into a nightmare. Even though I’m disappointed I am not beat. Another summer draws closer and if Microsoft is willing to try again then I am willing to try once again as well. Hopefully by the end of this coming summer my dream will come true and I will be able to tell you about the joys and hard work involved being a Microsoft employee.
– Matt Scadding a.k.a. “maimin_matty”
Duncan “Reverend” McKissick
Omnivac: For the Age of Empires Fans out there that don’t know you Duncan, can you give us a little background on yourself and how you came to be with Ensemble Studios?
Duncan McKissick: After Graduating for the Art Institute of Dallas, I went to work for Origin Systems in Austin as a 3D Artist. After working at Origin for about 6 months, I came back to Dallas to Work with some of my friends who were working on an early version of a game called “Dawn of Civilization”, later on to be renamed as Age of Empires. I’ve been with Ensemble for 3 years now, my work includes Age of Empires, Rise of Rome and Age2 The Age of Kings.
Omnivac: What’s the story behind your nickname, Reverend? Or more precisely, how come Mike “Archangel” McCart stole your old nick? :^)
Duncan McKissick: Yes, I was originally named Archangel, but after meeting Mike and knowing that he had been in the Web industry longer than I had been a 3D Artist (yes he’s THAT OLD!) I decided to change my name after being ordained into the Universal Life Church.
Omnivac: Can you describe what are the tools you are using when you’re working?
Duncan McKissick: We are primarily a 3Dstudio Max house. A lot of PhotoShop, and a little Animator Pro.
Omnivac: What is the main source of inspiration for the talented artists working on Age of Kings at Ensemble Studios?
Duncan McKissick: Looking at the competition’s screenshots gets me motivated, there’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition :}
Omnivac: How many drafts does conceptual art go through before it is considered a finished product ready for implementation in the game? The art seems to change on a daily basis.
Duncan McKissick: True. We go through several revisions until on every piece of artwork meets everybody’s standard. Just one unit can take weeks of tweaking until we think it’s perfect. This includes units, buildings, and even the interface. So yes, the artwork does change on a daily basis. So keep that in mind when reading this and seeing new artwork as it appears in the screenshots.
Omnivac: Are all the 3D models made from “scratch” or do you digitize some pictures of animals or people, or even little clay sculptures or something?
Duncan McKissick: Every piece of artwork is created from scratch using 3D Studio Max. Most of the textures are scanned from books or photos that we take ourselves. We try to stay “historically correct” in the units and buildings we create. All the animation in the game is keyframed.
Omnivac: Do you sometimes plan or even create art that cannot be included in the game for technical reasons? If so, could you give an example and explain what restricted its use in the game?
Duncan McKissick: Too much blood on dead units or dead elephants can sometimes offend :} I know that Sean Wolff and I are still rooting for Cannibalism as a cheat in Age2 which didn’t make it into Age1. So keep your fingers crossed! :}
Omnivac: Do you work on one particular “area” in AoK (units, buildings, terrains) or all the artists touch at everything? What would be the work you are most proud of having done in AoK so far?
Duncan McKissick: In Age1 I did a lot of the buildings, all of the terrain, a little bit if the units, and a majority of the Icons. In Age2 Thonny Namuonglo and I are working 100% units. There are significantly more units than in Age1 so it’s a full time job creating them. Currently I am working on the Mangonel which is a “catapult type” of unit that throws lots of little stones.
Omnivac: According to you, what feature(s) or part(s) of Age of Kings you really like over Age of Empires?
Duncan McKissick: It’s hard to pick just one or two features, the game has sooo many cool things about it. From all the new Civilizations, to all the new units to play with, all the new technologies, new map types, it’s Age of Empires times ten! The market is one of the coolest new features we have in my opinion. It allows you to buy and sell goods in a real world economy which can get you out of a jam if you are low on rescources. Formations will play an important role too.
Omnivac: I heard Greg Street came up with new random map types that are very good. Which one do you like the most, and why?
Duncan McKissick: Gold Rush and Fortress. Gold Rush in that you have to rush the middle and fight for the gold, its non stop, and Fortress in that you start out with some walls that gives you a little time to think. We have all the originals and then some.
Omnivac: Any war stories for the fans about these?
Duncan McKissick: I do pretty well in AoK, although, it seems that I always have trouble against Bruce tho, he’s better than you think. One of the hardest things about play testing is there used to always be at least one “screw” unit that could kill anything and everything. One of our programmers Tim Deen is good about finding and exploiting these units. So it’s always nice when I can get a win in against him. I can’t wait until the public gets their hands on it so I can watch all the new strategies develop.
Omnivac: What is the biggest difference between the first (stone) age of AoE, and the first (dark) age of AoK? Can players launch attacks earlier in the game, as well as putting a good defense like walls and towers?
Duncan McKissick: Food gathering is a bit different. You are allowed to build farms in the first age which is a huge help. Sheep are an excellent source of food as well. We have concentrated on making the “Early Rush” a little more challenging with Wolves. No longer can you immediately run a villager and begin to build outside someone’s town within the fist 10 min. Travel out too far and you’ll begin to hear some howling :} It’s not entirely impossible to launch an early attack, palisade walls can help protect in the early game.
Omnivac: In the expansion pack of Age of Empires, The Rise of Rome, we were introduced to “anti-units” units (Camel Riders vs Cavalry). So far in AoK, it was mentionned that Skirmishers and Light Cavalry would be good against Archers, that Pikemen and Camels would be good against Cavalry. Will this approach to reinforce the rock-paper-scissor be present with more units to ensure that not one unit will rule the game at any stages?
Duncan McKissick: Yes. We have been thoroughly testing units for balance problems and have a pretty well balanced game right now. Some of the unit’s ranges are still in question. Currently the ships are under the Microscope. We are also working on different “stances’ that the units will have that will help them think for themselves and eliminate a little bit of the micro-management in battles.
Omnivac: What would be your preferred civilization(s) and unit(s) at this stage?
Duncan McKissick: Turks by far. Each Civ has their own language and I love to listen to the Turks speak. Not to mention their knowledge of gun powder (Hint, Hint) :} Each Civ has a “Super” unit you are allowed to research in the castles.
Omnivac: What do you think in general about making games 3D?
Duncan McKissick: Wave of the future man. 3D games are going to get more and more photo realistic, in first person shooters and real time strategies. I love to sit back and watch the bar get raised higher and higher and love reaching to help raise that bar.
Omnivac: Do you think the sequel for AoK will be 3D? If not, could you say why not?
Duncan McKissick: We are currently developing a 3D engine. I dunno, Age “3D”, sounds kinda catchy :}
Omnivac: Do you still see little green men coming out of the floor during crunch times? :^)
Duncan McKissick: Not since we moved into the new offices. What, are you making fun of me?
Omnivac: Hehe! Thanks for your time Duncan. Keep up the good work!
Duncan McKissick: You do the same there toughguy!
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….
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…
Archangel: Will the campaigns in AoE II be extended to include reasonably realistic and accurate renderings of ‘important’ stages of history such as the extended period of invasions of what are now the British Isles?
Bruce Shelley: We are considering several interesting periods for campaigns in AOE II. We want the individual scenarios to be interesting and fun. That is our priority. We hope the scenarios and campaigns will be reasonably realistic and accurate, within the framework of the AOE system.
Archangel: Will campaigns/scenarios reflect more intensely and realistically specific deeds of heroism/greatness, such as portrayed in Arthurian legend and Scandinavian Sagas, to lend a more ‘personal, adventurous’ feel to the game?
Bruce Shelley: We are considering heros for AOE II. Keep in mind that it is hard to be “intensely and realistically specific” about people and events that are largely legendary. The historic Arthur, for example, is mentioned only in four or five sentences in historic documents. We know next to nothing about this person and cannot identify the location of even one of his reported 11 victories over the Saxons. Even for well-documented historic figures, much is unknown.
Within the context of scenarios, it is possible to change the scale of play. For example, units could represent individual men instead of large bodies of soldiers. At this scale there are opportunities for action where the player can take on a more personal role.
Archangel: What modifications will be made to AoE II to support this better than AoE I currently does?
Bruce Shelley: One thing we are considering is a piece in play that represents the player. Capture of this piece might eliminate the player or cause payment of a ransom. This is just a concept at this point.
Archangel: Will we be able to rotate the map? I guess not fully rotational, but 90 degrees for example, for four views?
Bruce Shelley: Sorry, no map rotation. It would require too much work to implement for the return.
Archangel: Obviously, a number of Ensemble employees have been in the gaming industry for quite a while, but some are relatively new to it. What would be the best way for someone to break into the game industry and what skills should they possess or be working on (programming, graphics, etc.)?
Bruce Shelley: Artists need only an education (3D Studio or ?) and a good demo reel. Programmers need education, experience, and probably a demo game. Designers need experience, communication skills, research ability, maybe management ability. Everyone needs to be passionate about games and should be able to play games critically (consider what is working and what is not, and understand why).
Start anyway you can. Be a tester for a local game developer. Send your resume to game developers. Look for their web sites. Most are always looking for talent. Keep trying. Demonstrate that you are passionate, highly motivated, very enthusiastic, that you just want a chance, that you have some skills and are willing to learn.
Archangel: Could you describe the life cycle of a game from its inception to shipping the final release copy?
Bruce Shelley: This is the evolutionary process mentioned above. New version each morning. Test for hours. Note what works and what doesn’t. Make suggestions for improvements deletions. Recode in the afternoon. New version tomorrow morning. Keep at it for months until Tim Deen is happy with the game.
Archangel: The addition of gates will be a great feature for AoE 2. However, how will they be controlled? Will we be able to open/close/lock the gates?
Bruce Shelley: The open and close by clicking on them. They probably can be opened only by the owning player, or perhaps an ally. They can always be destroyed if you lost your key :).
Archangel: The addition of formations is also a great feature, although it may add some unwanted complexity. How will the formations operate?
Bruce Shelley: Good question. We have several models for them now. Testing will tell us which is the best solution.
Archangel: What will you do, if anything, to give the game more substance and length for two not equally matched players? Will strategic implementations be more of an issue, against fast moving of the mouse and remembering keyboard shortcuts, in determining the winner of a game?
Bruce Shelley: We hope that several new features such as permanent farms and formations will allow players to get better at strategy and not just at using the interface.