Games don't just appear out of thin air. Games are created by teams of designers and programers toiling in small underground vaults, unaware of the world above. At least, that's the information to which I'm privy. At any rate, games do require designers and Age of Empires III is no exception. Recently, I had the chance to chat with Greg Street, leader of the design team at Ensemble Studios that created Age of Empires III, about his role at Ensemble, what gamers can expect from this latest generation of the Age of Empires series and other industry related topics of interest. This is a good read, trust me.
Michael Phillips: First, could you tell us a bit about yourself and what it means to be Lead Designer at Ensemble Studios?
Greg Street: My name is Greg Street. I am a former (I like to say recovering) marine biologist who made a career change into gaming about eight years ago. I have worked on every Age of Empires title since Rise of Rome, our first expansion. I started out designing scenarios and random maps and eventually graduated to leading our design team.GTS: That’s just it: we are fundamentally making a sequel here, and like any sequel, you have to offer something new without losing the essence of what players like about your game. I think our time period helped us here, because starting on an unknown map with just a few people totally makes sense in a game about colonization. It would be harder to portray say France in 1900 the same way. “Here’s Paris. You have a Town Center and 3 Villagers.” It just doesn’t make sense.
Being a lead designer at Ensemble Studios means you are the vision-holder of the game. You might not actually get to do that much design implementation, but you are always evaluating every feature to see if it meets the vision of the game. Ours is a very collaborative company without a lot of hierarchy, so it is especially important that nothing feels “designed by committee.” For example, we constantly struggle with making sure our games offer enough depth to retain the hardcore gamers, while being easy to enough to learn for more casual players. We end up tossing out a lot of potentially interesting features because they stray too far into either direction.
MP: So, let's get one thing out of the way for our impatient readers, hopped up on Mountain Dew and Twizzlers. Age of Empires III is about to hit Mac OS X, what are the key points that separate it from the previous Age titles?
GTS: In Age of Empires III, you take on the role of a European power attempting to colonize the New World: North and South America. You build up your colony, explore the wilderness, meet the local people and critters, and eventually come into contact with rival European powers, and such conflicts are generally settled at the point of a musket or cannon.
The game is wholly an Age of Empires title. Any fans of the franchise will feel completely comfortable here. But we dramatically updated the graphics engine to allow for more detailed units and buildings, more dramatic light effects, and a world that feels alive with a lot of animation and little hidden areas to discover. The three new big features are the Home City, your capital back in Europe that aids you throughout the game and improves as you succeed, the way we implemented Native Americans, and Trade Routes.
MP: Are you yourself a Mac user, do you have much experience with the platform?
GTS: I don’t use one personally, though I don’t use the Windows platform for much more than playing games either (grin). I do have some friends in the publishing industry, and of course they use Macs, and I stay in touch with the world through them. They are always asking me how soon one of our games will ship on the Mac and they are excited about Age III.
MP: You've heard the axiom, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Could you discuss some of the challenges involved in creating a new incarnation of Age of Empires without losing the essence of what makes Age of Empires so successful?
Our visual look also plays into this. We like to say that the sun is always shining in Age of Empires. We didn’t change the visual style of the game even as we evolved the features and even the looks quite a bit.
MP: Could you discuss the concept of Home Cities and how they affect gameplay?
GTS: Imagine that you are the Dutch, setting out in a ship to the New World, where you plan to establish a colony. Your success or failure depends primarily on the decisions you make, but you also can expect some support from the mother country. So periodically as you play the game, Amsterdam sends you shipments of resources or colonists. You can ask for more settlers to work your fields, more livestock to feed your colony, or more soldiers to defend your frontiers. The more successful you are in the game, the more shipments Amsterdam can send you.
Now here is the really cool part. If you are very successful (say you win a game), Amsterdam actually gains the ability to send you new, more powerful shipments the next time you play. We treat the Home City almost like an RPG character – it gains experience and levels, and new powers with new levels. After two games, your Home City might be level 4 and can send you a cannon instead of a musketeer. After you have played 100 games with the game Home City, you are going to have many, many more options in what shipments you send over. In addition, you can name your city whatever you like, and even decorate it with things like flags, lampposts or characters as it persists for multiple games.