Why Age of Empires is again important to Microsoft ?

Nostalgia is something nice. And what dangerous. Everyone remembers games of yesteryear, when you sat with sparkling eyes in front of the screen and let the graphics shine on you. And now, 20 years or more later, there is often not much left of this spell. It looks washed out, pixelated, old. Granted, some games are timeless, others age badly. If you are so concerned with Age of Empires 2 that you can not see the old one anymore, then there is good news: The pounded Definitive Edition is here!

A game that shows why Age of Empires as a brand is again important to Microsoft. The Definitve Edition of Part Two is a declaration of love to the fans who played a major role in the process. The coordination of all this – including the upcoming Definitive Edition of Age of Empires 3 and Age of Empires 4 – will be taken over by a new, Microsoft-internal studio, which will be solely responsible for Age of Empires.

“It was important to us to put together a team that exclusively cares for the care of the Age of Empires brand across the various projects,” says studio boss Shannon Loftis in an interview with Eurogamer.de. At the same time, the community is central to the studio’s efforts to “bring the best of all Ages together”.

And that is a worldwide endeavor. Age of Empires is popular in four different regions of the planet, so the company works with various partners around the world, including Relic, Forgotten Empires and Tantalus. Together with them, Microsoft is thinking about how to “promote the franchise and honor the legacy of the Age titles.” And with one goal: “Keeping what people love about Age 1, 2 and 3 while innovating,” she says.

“We want to capture the memories everyone has about the game,” adds Creative Director Adam Isgreen. “From time to time it’s hard to look at games that are so old, the graphics have changed and the memories in your head are different than what you see on screen.”

Therefore, it was important to them not to change your memories of the game. Rather, they should resurrect when you see the Definitive Edition. With one exception: “Do not touch the gameplay!”, Isgreen summarizes the general tenor of the community in terms of the playful aspects. Which does not mean that nothing changes. New assets (over 1,000 pieces), new music, a spectator mode, a modern matchmaking and multiplayer systems developed by Relic for Age of Empires 4 await you in the Definitive Edition of Part Two.

At the same time, the Microsoft internal Age team does not just take care of the coordination. As Loftis states, the studio includes a “complete development team dedicated to all the skills and aspects of game development at Age.” The company is currently not talking about long-term plans for the brand, according to Loftis, “they are very satisfied with their partnerships with Relic, Tantalus and Forgotten Empires”. Whatever happens in the future, is a common cause in which the community plays an important role.

Why did it happen to form the studio right now? “A few things were crucial,” explains Loftis. “The main reason was that we were approaching the feature-complete status and beta phase of Age 2 DE and Age was arguably the most important of the old titles, and it felt like timely, some absolutely capable people like Adam Speaking to the community with one voice, the time was right. “

“Honestly, many of us have wanted to do this for several years, including myself,” she adds. “When we re-released Part One in 2013, we were convinced there was still a lot of potential in this brand and we wanted to continue on that path.”

At the same time she sees a kind of generational change, which she noticed at E3. “Oh, I played this as a kid” or “I played it with my dad or watched him” were sentences that she heard from visitors there. “We are now reaching a point where we are in the second generation of Age players,” she says. “By honoring the people who made Age 20 years ago what it is and at the same time driving the brand forward, it has the wonderful effect of making parents and children equally involved in the future of Age.”

Currently, there is a lot going on in Age of Empires after Microsoft ignored the brand for years before. Where did the change of course? “Microsoft has focused almost exclusively on consoles for several years, but there has always been a core of people who never lost sight of what made Age so great,” Loftis explains. She points to the development of the market and the fact that the popularity of genres is subject to fluctuations.

“The real-time strategy genre lost popularity in the mid-2000s and at the time Microsoft was heavily focused on the Xbox and console market, but many of us never stopped playing it or interacting with the great community, so this is the time for the return. ” Loftis speaks of “three announced projects”, which are currently being worked on. “We made a promise to the company and the community, and that’s what we focus on.”

The team hopes that Age of Empires will play the same role in today’s marketplace as it did in the past. On Steam, the series is very popular, notes Loftis. “It just needed more support and attention from us, as well as more resources,” she says. The aspired goal: To turn Age of Empires into a “pop culture phenomenon for the mass market”.

Getting to Adam Isgreen, who previously worked on all the Command & Conquer games and other RTS titles like Star Wars: Empire at War, was not difficult. He has been working for Microsoft for nine and a half years, while in the Xbox 360 era he oversaw all XBLA games after Microsoft originally hired him to work on the Windows Phone. He was just there.

“You thought, ‘Hm, strategy games, who has more RTS experience at Microsoft? What about this Adam? The guy did all the C & C games and other strategy games, maybe we should get him?'” Says Isgreen. “Shannon and I knew each other about sales, and I’m just a guy who has worked on a lot of RTS games in the past, and for me it’s an honor to be here and work on Age of Empires.”

“For me, there was always this sacred triumvirate of strategy games when the genre came about,” he says. “It was the Blizzard games, it was Ensemble, and it was Westwood with Command & Conquer.” “Being able to say that I’ve worked on two of the three that defined this genre is really exciting.” Age is just so different It’s more unique, and that makes it so exciting to come back to RTS games and the genre and work on a completely different brand that is different feels like anything else RTS title I worked on before. “

“Adam is a bit modest,” interjects Loftis. “Thanks in large part to his presence, we were able to convince Matt [Booty] and Phil [Spencer] that it is a safe bet to invest in Age at this level.”

“Yeah, I think I might have something to do with it,” adds Isgreen, laughing.

Not only does the Definitive Edition bring all the previous content for Age 2, but there are new civilizations and a campaign about the Khans. It was important for the developers to find something new that could be summarized around a specific topic. And this with civilizations that have survived and been known for more than 50 years.

“It would be strange to make an extension and have civilizations in South America and at the same time in Asia, which simply have nothing to do with each other,” explains Isgreen. “So we looked around and came to the Mongol Empire, it was such a powerful and important part of the story, and when it collapsed, it created all those different nations, it was an interesting area for us, and we studied it more closely to see if that will do any good. “

With the new additions, the definitive edition then reaches a total of 35 civilizations, reaching a point where it is simple enough. We do not want any more civilizations from you, it’s good the way it is, “Isgreen quotes the pro players of Age 2. Rather, new game modes or new ways to play are in demand. “35 are a lot,” he says. “So I think we agree with them, we’ve reached a point where we all have.”

In summary, this means that there are no new civilizations after the release of the Definitive Edition. Other things? Yes, that is to be expected. After the game has appeared, the developers are experimenting with several new game modes that lead Age 2 “in all possible directions,” according to Isgreen. Again, feedback from the community plays a big role. The developers want to listen to the fans and thus find out what they hope for the game, and then look that they can deliver them.

“Our goal was to refresh Age 2 so that it looks modern,” he explains. “The HD version looked better, but much of the underlying technology, especially the multiplayer, was not up to the standards of today, and the Definitive Edition is the ultimate edition of the old game.”

What was the most difficult aspect of implementing the Definitive Edition? Especially the 20 year old program code of the original. “It’s like a kind of language,” says Isgreen. “A language evolves every ten years or so and in the end you look at the code and the programmers scratch their heads because people just do not program that way anymore and it makes no sense for them.” Why should one Doing so? ‘, they ask themselves, today there are better ways, for example, how to handle graphing, which simply did not exist then, when this game was born. “

He calls the pathfinding the biggest challenge. At this the developers of strategy games work always the longest. “Whenever a unit does not do what the player wants, it’s frustrating and may cause people to get excited about the game,” he explains. “The units should respond as the player expects, although the computer may have a different idea, which was always a challenge in any real-time strategy game I worked on.”

You should not consider the Definitive Edition alone as a graphics upgrade. Which does not mean that a lot has not happened there. Assets and animations have redesigned the developers, re-recorded the music. Without changing the game in the core, it plays in terms of pace and game logic as before, which was enormously important for the makers. “It just looks like a modern RTS game, not like one of the past, with modest improvements,” says Isgreen. “Some people told us they could not believe we made it into a 3D game and we said, ‘Wait a minute, these are all sprites, but now in 4K!'”

Loftis describes the publication of the Definitive Edition of Part One as a kind of “introductory note” to the community. At that time, with the exception of Minecraft, Microsoft had been actively involved in the PC market for a long time. At the same time, the team learned “important lessons” for the development of Age 2, the difference “between nostalgic feelings and the reality of the code you work with”. “For example, we did not do much with the AI ​​wayfinding,” she says. “It was outstanding for the time, but since then the AI ​​has evolved tremendously, and that was one of the areas we tackled on Age 2.”

Focus Tests for the Definitive Edition of Age 2 have been in existence for more than a year, symbolizing the intense collaboration with the community that Microsoft runs here. It’s about what people expect from the game and what they would like to see in Age of Empires. “We thoroughly looked at all their feedback over the years we developed the game,” says Isgreen. In the end, it was about the Definitiv Edition being better than any other versions of the game that are in circulation. “We had a changing group of Age fans we call the Age Council,” adds Loftis. “They helped us balance the civilizations, the multiplayer modes of play, the speed options, suggested features, and we literally talk to them, as Adam said.

And there are certainly some suggestions that are not feasible? “[laughs] Yes, there is,” Loftis says. “There was a desire to revitalize the more than 20 years old Internet technology, we definitely have the intention to take over all the multiplayer features of that time, but today’s server architecture is simply not usable anymore Internet that is incompatible with the old technology, we intend to make all the features of the old servers available, but we can not revive the servers themselves. “

We know what the future of the series will look like over the next few years. Age 2 is followed by a definitive edition of Age of Empires 3, and Relic is currently working on Age of Empires 4. “And I’ve said in the past that I’d like to return to Myth and get started,” says Isgreen. “I love Myth and we figure out what to do with it, and there are many exciting things going on for the future of the brand.”

“You asked an interesting question … why now?” Adds Loftis. “What makes this a good time to return to real-time strategy is more computing power, more powerful PCs, so much more can be done today than at the end of the first round of the Age lifecycle, and then there are the emerging technologies For example, I’m interested in experimenting with Streaming and Project xCloud. “

One thing is certain: The future of Age of Empires is an interesting one. Let’s hope it’s just as successful.