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Age of Empires (1997)

April 11th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 14 Comments · Ancients, Ensemble, Feature:Anc, Retro, Review, RTS

It’s now one of the most established brands in strategy gaming, but it’s easy to forget what an oddball title Age of Empires was at the time. Bruce Shelley, Sid Meier’s partner in design for many years, left Microprose to form his own studio, Ensemble. With real time strategy games quickly becoming the most popular design in the genre, it made sense to go down that road. Bruce Shelley underlines that what made Ensemble’s choice unusual was that it would be an historical RTS.

We considered several ideas for our first game, but Tim Deen showed us the recently published Warcraft and said we should do something like it. It was really selling well and it was a strategy game. Tony Goodman, Rick Goodman, Brian Sullivan, and me were all fans of strategy games and interested in history. The original vision of AoE was to merge the RTS play of Warcraft and Command & Conquer with the economic elements and historical theme of Civilization. Our first idea was that our game would be about the rise of the first great civilizations on Earth. We thought that would be interesting, different, and manageable. We liked the idea immediately and there was no sense of having to sell it internally. Once we had it on screen looking cool, it was also easy to present it to prospective publishers. In retrospect, we were very smart, without knowing it, to take an historical theme when everyone else in the space was doing either fantasy or sci-fi in emulation of the predecessor games. By doing history we were immediately different; we stood out. We had to deliver on the promise of our cool screen shots and managed to do that. In 1997 CGW reported over 50 RTS games in development but we were the only one about history of any era, as I recall. It turned out that millions of gamers liked the historical theme.

To understand just how unique this was, take a look at Mobygames listing of real time strategy games in 1996-97. The closest you can get to an historical RTS is Lords of the Realm, an Impressions game that was turn based but had the battles play out in real time. (The more of these you remember, the less innovative Creative Assembly seems.) There were real time wargames like Sid Meier’s Gettysburg (1997). But the Blizzard/Westwood model of base building, resource harvesting and ass kicking was dominated by science fiction or apocalyptic future themes.

Age of Empires followed the model pretty closely. It had four resources, dedicated unit production buildings and a rock/paper/scissors combat system. From Warcraft II, it adopted the idea of upgrading town centers, an action which would unlock new buildings provided certain requirements were met. This mechanic was so integral to the Age of Empires experience that the action itself has become known as “aging up” and applied to games outside of the AoE series (you can find references to it connected to historical RTSes like Empire Earth and Rise of Nations among others.)

“Aging up” worked well because it was tied so closely to the theme of the game. This wasn’t just about getting access to bigger and better weapons. It was about progressing through history, moving from the hunter-gatherer phase to building elaborate cities with religion and government. And because it was about the birth of civilization, tough decisions about which nations to include and when to start the game had to be made.

The early idea for Age I was that it would be about the rise of the first great civilizations. Thus we would have the Myceneans, not the classic Greeks that came later. We would have the Sumerians and Babylonians, not the later Persians. Carthage was originally a Phoenician colony. The Romans came after the Estruscans and were really the end, although a high point, of the classical world. The original plan did not call for Asian civs at all. That was a later addition in the hopes of broadening our market into that part of the world. We also decided to include the classical Greeks and Persia since they had such a rich history of conflict. One of my ideas, which got thrown out thankfully, was that the map would begin covered with ice (the Ice Age) and part of the discovery process in the early going was finding what came up when the ice receded. When the game launched and was successful we decided in 1998 to do an expansion pack. Without planning it, we had Rome available as a great focus for the expansion and that worked out very well.

Released a few months before Starcraft changed the way people looked at factions altogether, Ensemble had a general template for every nation, with the only differentiation being cutting off certain parts of the tech tree (no chariots for some, no monotheism for others) and allocating resource collection bonuses here and there for others. For a while, this +/- model was a real challenger to the unique faction system that Starcraft introduced. Age of Empires III demonstrates that even Ensemble has come to the conclusion that civs should have greater distinctions between them.

But with over a dozen races, even these minor differences allowed some races to stand out. The Roman swordsmen had a faster attack rate; match that to the tech that makes barracks units cost only half the population points and you had unstoppable legions. Shang villagers were cheaper, allowing you to pump out a huge Chinese population. Greek spearmen moved faster, like a well drilled phalanx could.

Not that all the differentiation made sense. A +4 bonus to the firing range of your ships was a huge advantage for the Hittites, but they aren’t really known as a seafaring people. But for the most part, you could adapt your strategy to your nation, taking advantage of all those small bonuses.

Age of Empires wasn’t really about history as much as it just happened to be set there. And it was wonderful; a glorious cartoon with catapults the size of palaces running around accidentally killing their own men and villagers lugging huge slabs of meat from a freshly killed gazelle. The sounds were alien gibberish, the units ahistorically peculiar (centurions are spearmen, ballistas are rapid fire arrow cannons, etc.) and the whole thing irresistible.

If you could boil down the historical lesson of Age of Empires to a couple of core points they would probably have something to do with the power of religion (a few priests could turn the tide of a battle) and the importance of terrain. The longer it took you to find that first steady supply of food, the harder your journey would be. Proper placement of a supply pit could save you precious minutes in a game that could be over in half an hour. These aren’t bad lessons, I suppose, if your focus is the birth of civilization. Soldiers and priests were among the earliest specialist professions in human history, since you needed someone to protect the food and someone to make sure that the gods were on your side. Food and resource surpluses could be turned into combat bonuses and the fifty unit cap meant that the tech and racial advantages could be crucial; you were always bumping into that unit limit so you had to make the most of whatever you had. Never build a new ship when you can repair an old one, always drag a healer into battle and know that a well placed tower can save many lives.

The good thing about history is that most people know (or think they know) a little bit about it; they know at least enough to understand progression of technology, basic unit counters and what gold is good for.

We haven’t tried to simulate or recreate history, but rather borrow from the historical record ideas, units, technologies, architecture, etc., that we think we could mold into a fun real-time strategy game. So the catapults were way over the top powerful and effective, but they were fun and had a specific role in the game. Elephants were cool and effective in the game, way out proportion to their historical significance. We did try to be somewhat reasonable, tying unit types to civilizations that would have used them. Elements like these improved the game while providing a veneer of history. Players don’t need much of a back story for our games. They see an archer or a cavalry unit and have reasonable expectations of what that unit will do.

It wasn’t the setting that made the game a success, though. It was the design. Age of Empires introduced a lot of things that are now standard in real time strategy games.

We spent a fair amount of time looking back at Age I to understand why that game was successful. We obviously wanted to repeat that success. In retrospect, we believe that Age I was different at a high level from the competition. When people looked at screen shots in magazine ads or online, they felt right away that our game was different from the other RTS games out there. People don’t want to buy a game they have already played. Then, at the game play level we managed to innovate and give players a fresh and fun experience. We had features that few other RTS games were employing at the time, like random maps, levels of difficulty, multiple paths to victory, non-cheating AI, ambient life (deer and birds roaming around). Features like the priest converting enemy units were unique to our game and made it stand out from the crowd. I think too many games of that era did not differentiate enough at the high level or innovate enough at the game play level, and they fell by the wayside. The fundamental game play has to work well and you have to provide some unique things that set your game apart. One or the other is not enough. I believe we did both well.

Like many RTS from the founding era of the genre, Age of Empires hasn’t aged particularly well. The Rise of Rome expansion introduced queuing of a specific unit and double-click selection, but you can’t queue different types of units and group movement over long distances can be trouble because of poor pathfinding and variable speeds of units. When farms run out of food, your villager stands there waiting for you to build a new one. But when you play it, you see all the promise of the future in it, stuff you don’t feel when you go back and play Dune II or Warcraft II. Only Age of Empires and Starcraft really have any noticeable legacy beyond being “almost first” in the genre’s history.

It’s fashionable to attack the big franchise real time strategy games for mining the same territory over and over again, but this charge just doesn’t stick with the Age of Empires franchise. All of Ensemble’s RTSes have introduced new and wonderful things, many of which have become standards in the genre.

In many ways Age of Empires is the Sims of the RTS world, a magic game that people sometimes try to emulate but rarely very well. There have been other historical real time strategy games, but most of them just serve to remind you how good Ensemble’s games are. Where the Age games have been able to tweak the formula here and there to give unique experiences every time out, the Empire Earth series has flailed through three very different games, unable to find its footing. Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War (which I liked) destroyed the company that made it. Cossacks tried to paste European micromanagement onto a genre that requires a little more automation. Only Rise of Nations stands out as an Age of Empires descendant with excellent game play, strong core design values and thrilling visuals.

If Ensemble is one of the great fulfilled promises of historical gaming, with two set in the ancient world, Slitherine is one of the great unfulfilled promises, a studio with four ancients games and some great design ideas that just don’t gel. Next week, we take a look at Legion.

Special thanks to Ensemble’s Bruce Shelley for offering his insights into the design and significance of Age of Empires.


14 Comments so far ↓

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  • Michael A.

    A nice piece. Although I do generally prefer turn-based games, I have many fond memories of Age of Empires. The observation that it had success because it was “unique” at the time seems right; certainly, there was not much else out there that came close.

    Bonus points for mentioning Lords of the Realm… now there was a classic strategy game.

  • Andrew

    Are those quotes from Bruce Shelley? Oh, okay, I guess you imply that at the end there.

  • Troy

    Yeah, I should clarify that.

  • Chris Nahr

    Age of Empires was the first RTS title that I liked at all, even though it fell well short of the promise of a real-time Civilization. No one else had ever done cheerful pseudo-history so well.

  • SwiftRanger

    Always hated the conversion ability of those priests but the rest of the game had me hooked, and that was a real achievement in 1997 with the RTS-overload back then. AoE also had a very, very user-friendly map editor, I can’t count the times I prepared extremely large battles or castle sieges with that tool.

    Oddly enough AoE II didn’t do as much for me, the units looked a bit less ‘meaty’ and felt ‘lighter’, everything went a bit too fast (and seemed somewhat less bloody) perhaps.

  • jason

    To my great shame, I never played AoE or AoK. When AoE came out I was too much of a Blizzard fanboy to give AoE a chance. I *loved* Age of Mythology though. Great game.

    Some day I really need to go back and play at least AoK.

  • Natus

    Great article. I’ve been frustrated, as my Natus vs Tom knockdown-drag-outs years ago would indicate, with Ensemble’s inability to keep patching and tuning their games years after publication, but damn! I’m still playing them! I can sneer at AoE3:tAD’s menagerie of strange animals that fight for you, but it’s still a great game, and I get a charge out of them like no other game.

    I agree with Jason. AoM for the win!

  • Troy

    I’m with both of you on AoM. It’s one of my favorite RTSes of all time, and it shows how Ensemble can really cut loose with the crazy when they want to. It is a beautiful design in so many ways, with two separate interlocking rock/paper/scissors circles. Not to mention just how different all of the nations played.

  • roberton

    Good article, as usual.

    I’d forgotten just how innovative it was when it came out. And I like your point about how it stood out in the RTS rush of the nineties. I definitely think it deserved its success.

    One minor “nit” though; within your series of Ancients games AoE stands out to me (and maybe only me!) as being the odd one out. I just don’t think of it as an ancients game. It’s just pretending to be one, isn’t it?


  • Troy

    I just don’t think of it as an ancients game. It’s just pretending to be one, isn’t it?

    It’s an ancients themed game, just like Caesar and Centurion were. To a great extent, as far as games are concerned this time period more than any other (except maybe the middle ages) is all about trappings more than truth, spectacle more than specifics.

    Games are always pretending to be something they are not, after all.

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