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Making History – Developers Talk About Age of Empires IV

Q&A with Quinn Duffy, Game Director, Age of Empires IV and Adam Isgreen, Franchise Creative Director, World’s Edge

The Age of Empires franchise (which also included spinoff Age of Mythology) is one of the most popular series of real-time strategies ever made, both with casual fans and competitive players. Combining accessibility with near-endless strategic depth and replayability, it’s not hard to understand why. Relic Entertainment has just released — 16 years after the last installment Age of Empires IV, and we talked to the development team about some of the challenges and successes they’ve encountered as they moved their game from conception to completion.

Of course, a lot has changed over the past two decades. World cultures and their contributions to history, their struggles, and complexities are more obvious, and old approaches to telling their stories aren’t going to work. “It was important to us that the team do justice by the cultures represented in the game because representation and identity in gaming matters not just for our community but for the world at large,” the developers said. “To do that, we’ve worked with experts across many fields and many countries to present an authentic context for our missions and the lives of the people involved. We use high-quality documentary films to frame missions – either tracing the historical narrative or diving into interesting details of life at the time. We also worked with linguists to ensure period-appropriate unit speech, as well as historians, weapon and armor experts, and many more.”

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Art, Artifacts and Getting Your Hands on History

Part of telling those stories is through the game’s single player campaign, which the team calls “Hands on History.” “We’re fond of saying ‘history is only as interesting as the people who taught it to you.’ Our goal was to “humanize history” through our “Hands on History” videos and give players something deeper as part of the campaign to help them understand how the past connects to modern times and the people that lived it.” Of course, Age of Empire IV’s attention to detail shines through in its art and graphics. “The amount of depth brought to units and buildings for each civ was really challenging and exciting; more unique architecture and detail embellishment when the player ages up. There are some themes and interesting observations we used to develop the style and presentation. Gold was the common baseline for currency for nearly all our civs – it was used in art and adorned artifacts and used in illuminated manuscripts, so it wasn’t hard to consider using it in many places in our game like in UI and in our historical films. To keep the visuals contemporary, we let it hang in the air as if it was an augmented VR experience, like a ghost memory overlay of what was there and what is there.”

Age of Empires releases with eight starting civilizations, which although a relatively small number, manages to cover a broad swath of geography, culture, politics, and military history. The developers opened a window into the process of deciding which civs to start with. “We wanted to connect past to present as one of our visions for the game, so we looked at civs that had, in many cases, survived from the early middle ages until the present, or they had a deep and lasting impact on how our world looks today. We also wanted to connect geography from east to west across Eurasia. A civilization like the Mongols allows us to feature the Chinese in the East and European civs in the West. And then there’s the campaign. When you add a civ you want to find a natural partner for them in the narrative like the English and the French, or the Rus and the Mongols. And finally there’s just the “cool” factor – what fascinating, interesting units or cultural elements do they have that would appeal to the players and work well in the game.”

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Making All the Machinery Work

One of the most complex sets of decisions revolved around which RTS mechanics to retain, change, or add. Age of Empires IV at first feels mechanically very similar to other games in the franchise, but there are significant new additions and subtle changes to the basics. “The list of discarded mechanics and systems is pretty substantial. We tried all kinds of things at various times. we tried some pretty novel economic mechanics that were interesting, but harder to parse and understand the way a basic ‘villager gathering resources’ is immediately understandable. We looked at weather as a factor on the map such as rain that could boost your food resource production. We looked at how cities are built, and how bonuses are derived from having buildings in proximity to other buildings. Ultimately, the critical guidance for us was answering the question “Does this feature make the game feel more or less like Age.” The game had to feel like an Age of Empires experience. In addition, we needed to make the game work on a really wide range of machine specs right from an integrated graphics card laptop to a powerful gaming rig that could do 4k. Gameplay systems, unit numbers and the impact on the simulation is obviously really important to overall performance.”

The developers also talked about some ideas that were considered but finally, rejected for one reason or another. “Too much randomization in cases makes RTS games harder to balance or understand. Trying to add the impact of real-world environmental effects can often make gameplay feel random or punitive to players, and that was something we played with on Age of Empires IV too. But every decision a team makes – successful or not – is a chance to learn more about the game and the community. Since RTS games have really long lives, we have a chance to make changes, improve our support, provide more of what the community would like and enhance the game experience over time.”

As the developers noted, real-time strategy games are a genre where the product at release often only hints at what it will become. We asked about plans for add-ons like a map editor and additional civilizations. “The team is excited to announce that mods are coming to “Age of Empires” IV in early 2022, allowing players to play how they want with user-generated content tools for custom games. Stay tuned as we will have more to share in the coming weeks and months about new content and features in Age of Empires IV.”

You can read our full review of Age of Empires IV right here on COGconnected.com, and we want to hear your thoughts on the game as well!

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