Interview with Ryan Bidan from Microsoft

by R4NT

I’m sure most of our readers are going to be familiar with the Age of Empires (AoE) franchise. What started with one “real time strategy” game has become a series of big PC games which have sold over 11 million copies and spawned a sister game Age of Mythology. The latest addition to this collection is Age of Empires III where you play as a world power from 1500 – 1850 and try to build colonies in North and South America. It is our pleasure to ask Ryan Bidan from Microsoft (the publisher of AoE III) about some of the background and details of this new game.

R4NT: Age of Empires has an enviable history, but did the fact that this is an older, established franchise worry the developer (Ensemble Studios) and Microsoft? I mean how to do you make sure that the game is fresh and attractive for new players?

Ryan Bidan: Age is definitely an established franchise with a solid fan base, and Age III builds on that, but there is a lot that is fresh in the game that will appeal to new players. First of all, it’s a new time period set directly after the last Age of Empires game, in the age of European discovery and conquering of the New World. And of course the visuals in the game are a giant leap up from the previous games in the franchise. Age III incorporates technology that you use to only see in first-person shooters, it had never been done in an RTS. Gameplay-wise, the addition of the persistent Home City is a major strategic addition to the game.

R4NT: The timeframe (1500 – 1850) seems like a logical choice for a real time strategy game; what was the initial rationale for having the game set in the Americas?

RB: Like you say, the time period is a natural fit for an RTS, and works well with elements of the colonization and conquest of the New World – exploring an unknown map, starting a new town, eventually coming into contact with other players and having to resolve differences seemed like a challenge Age fans would be up to.

R4NT: The new “Home City” aspect of the game fits in nicely with the historical period and adds a new in-depth element to game play (both single player skirmish and multiplayer); was it difficult to tie in this new element of game play into the typical real time strategy format? (For details about the “Home City” concept, please see this month’s review of AoE III here on R4NT.com)

RB: The Home City really changes how players can modify their strategy. And it was a natural progression for the game. In the 1500-1850 time period, new world colonies would have received support from Europe: supplies, settlers, reinforcements. In Age III, the Home City almost works like a character in an RPG, you earn experience points through playing the game – for putting up buildings, defeating enemies, finding treasures – to level up your city. This gives you access to new and more advanced shipments that are then available to send to your new world colony from the Home City back in Europe.

R4NT: I know the first time I played AoE III I was pretty confident, being an older gamer who has seen the progression of this sort of game. However, I got mauled pretty badly my first time out. AoE III seems to set a nice balance between being for the casual game player and the hardcore gamer, I assume achieving this isn’t as easy as it looks?

RB: It’s always a challenge to make a game appeal to as wide a gaming audience as possible – previous Age of Empires games have done this and the key was figuring out which elements appealed to which gamers. We found that more casual gamers would really get involved in the single player campaign, whereas hardcore gamers are all about the multiplayer. The game’s single player campaign that has a very strong story – you follow the adventures of one family through three generations from early exploration and discovery, to European hostilities in America in the eighteenth century and then the next scenarios are set further in the American west.

A lot of hardcore Age gamers will jump straight into the multiplayer, so the game’s online play has been designed with the expert hardcore gamers in mind. Ensemble’s incorporated new features like game lists, ladders and rankings so that players can be ranked according to their results, and people can see who the great players are. For casual gamers it’s also nice to know that with the matchmaking capability, you can choose to play just with your friends or match with strangers with equal skill or city levels.

R4NT: One thing I had heard about AoE III even before it came out was that the graphics were incredible and the battle scenes and animations were cutting edge. When I tried AoE III for the first time I agreed with that assessment but recognized that you need to have a fast computer (1.4 GHz+ with a decent video card 64MB+) before you could even try playing this. Having the high end graphics and the need for a fast computer must be a calculated risk on the developer/publisher’s part; do you think anyone may be turned off by the power needed to coax the beauty out of the game?

RB: You’re right, to take full advantage of some of the game’s glorious graphics, it helps to have a pretty beefy PC, but the game can be played and enjoyed on a computer with lower specs too. The game’s more complex graphics effects can be toggled on or off, and the game will automatically optimize the settings for the hardware that your PC has.

And, yes, the game is at the cutting edge of graphics technology. The Ensemble Studios team was developing the game for graphics cards that didn’t exist yet and devoting more programmers to graphics – there were more people working on graphics for Age III than programmed all of Age II.

R4NT: Speaking specifically about game play, one of my favourite improvements in the game was that there are buildings that allow you to “manufacture” food and gold later in the game. I found that allowed me to quit micromanaging late in the game and concentrate fully on the battles. Did you take previous critiques to the real time strategy genre and/or player feedback into account when making this game?

RB: Absolutely. When thinking of what to do with Age III to keep the game fresh while maintaining the look and feel of an Age game, the development team looked at what worked and what didn’t work with previous franchise releases. For instance, while recreating history can make a fun campaign, a good story goes further to capture fans’ attention. That players like fantastical effects – in Age of Mythology it was meteors raining from the sky, in Age III it’s the epic battles and volleys of mortar fire bringing down buildings.

But about the changes to the economic model specifically, we knew that a rich economic structure was an important part of the franchise, so, unlike some other RTSs that have come out recently, we didn’t make any effort to do away with or dumb down economics. It’s there, and it is vital to the game. What we have done is give the players more options. If they enjoy the micromanagement aspect of resource gathering they can do that. If they want to automate the generation of resources later in the game, that’s now an option as well.

R4NT: What is your favourite part of the game?

RB: The hardest question of all! I’m tempted to say the graphics, and, at first, that’s what really grabs you – they’re just breathtaking. But the longer you get spend in the game, the more the graphics take a back seat to the gameplay, so I’d have to say it’s the in-depth strategy. Sending armies running into each other is fun, but for me it’s all about the gameplan. Management of settlers, knowing when to Age up, the balance of defence and offence, building the best Home City card deck for this particular game.

R4NT: Finally, are there any plans for more AoE games or has the Age of Empires run out?

RB: Ensemble is busily working on new projects, and currently not another Age project. Perhaps, down the line, they will turn their focus to another Age game, but right now they are experimenting and building some new prototypes.

R4NT: Ryan, on behalf of the readers of R4NT.com, we’d like to thank you for taking the time out to speak to us.

  • Interview with Ryan Bidan from Microsoft
  • by R4NT
  • Published on November 1st, 2005

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