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How and why Microsoft updated Age of Empires for the upcoming Definitive Edition

How and why Microsoft updated Age of Empires for the upcoming Definitive Edition

More than 20 years after its initial release, Microsoft and developers Forgotten Empire have decided to remaster the original Age of Empires with the Definitive Edition. 

We caught up with creative director Adam Isgree to see how they updated one of the original RTS classics. 

Why update the original Age of Empires with this Definitive Edition?

We've updated 2 and 3 before but we never really went back and touched the first game when we were modernising them and making them more accessible to a broader group of players. It was a natural thing to go: 'Hey, maybe we should do something with Age of Empires'. Of course, that being the oldest of the game, it's the one that needed a lot of love to bring it up to a standard that people would find really exciting and compelling for today's audiences. We spent the time and the effort really making a Definitive Edition. We hope this will be the version that people will be playing for the next 20-plus years, just like they have the original version.

What has changed?

Pretty much everything except the core gameplay. We've redone all the art, all the terrain sets, all the objects, animations. We've re-recorded and reorchestrated the entire soundtrack. We've gone back and added voice acting in so there's a narrator for all the campaign missions. We've added multiplayer features and some quality of life features. We've improved the user interface. A lot of people forget that Age of Empires existed at a time where RTS games didn't even have building queues or other gameplay that's so ingrained now. We took a very careful approach as we stepped through all the things that modern RTS games do to see what to put into Age of Empires without making it not Age of Empires or making it play in a way that wasn't something really about back in that day. We spent a lot of time on just about every aspect of the game in order to improve it and really live up to the idea that this is the definitive edition of the game.

Before...

And after!

Could you tell me a bit about the process by which you update the game? I would presume it's a balancing act between improving the base game while also trying to not break what made it special to start with. 

It really is a challenge. We had a lot of discussions as we were going through and talking about ways to improve the game that sparked really big debates. That was more or less what my role on the project was - being the voice of 'Let's make sure we don't lose what Age of Empires was while we're making this game. Immediately, we looked at aspects of Age of Empires 2 and 3 and looked to bring them in, while also seeing a certain element from StarCraft - it became this very tight rope you have to walk between features and visuals. It came back to the core philosophy which was that Age of Empires is a game that doesn't demand you play it at an insanely fast pace. It's a game that was on the market before the idea of APM was even a consideration. That's not to say you can't play it at a super aggressive level - there are some amazing videos from the Vietnamese tournaments that still go on today. It's amazing how they play the game. Most people don't really get into the hyper-aggressive crazy APM version of Age, but it's there. That's the really fun thing about Age of Empires - it's a game you can play all these different ways. That's one of the reasons why it's been so appealing, it's so accessible to so many people because you can play it in different ways and there are different paths to success that aren't just beating up the other player as fast as possible.

What would you say the impact or influence of the original Age of Empires was?

As someone who was at Westwood Studios making the Command and Conquer RTS games when Age of Empires came out, there are three things that it did absolutely brilliantly for the time. They made an RTS about history, which is so great and smart. Everyone knows what a bow does, everyone understands what a horse can do, or what the wheel does. There's this built-in knowledge of how to play the game and what the tech means. We're all part of history. That was a brilliant take. The other thing that they did really well for accessibility - and another reason the game has lasted so long - is that there are multiple ways to win. You don't have to just kill someone, you can build a wonderful, huge base, wall yourself in and build a Wonder, or you can capture all the Relics. They added all these ways that encouraged you to play the game in different avenues, and they were all viable. That was the amazing thing, it wasn't just lip service, they were viable ways to win. That was really smart of them. They also had this wonderful random map generator - we were always jealous of that thing. It took us a long time to crack that nut on the C&C games. With Age, the gameplay is really nice and understandable. It comes from a time when you just built a cool city, get into a fight, gather resources. There's something nice about that. As genres are out in the market for longer, they tend to get more complicated. This is just a really nice and fun game. I think a lot of people have forgotten how much fun RTS titles can be on a core level. I'm really excited to see what people think of the game as it gets out. Hopefully, we'll see more stories about the passion and enjoyment people have had over the years with the Age franchise.

Age of Empires was a massive brand in the late 90s and early 00s, but these days it isn't the behemoth it once was. Is there a pressure for this game to do well, and help reintroduce the brand, ahead of Age of Empires 4's release? 

Most certainly. Sometimes I don't think companies treat their IP with the respect that they deserve or they should. I've been really delighted that we've been given permission and support to go and make the Age of Empires games the way we want to make them and make them as good as they can be for the fans and support all the features that the fans would love. There's a pressure, though. We want Age of Empires 4 to be an amazing game and the team at Relic has been doing some amazing work on it. I'm very happy with how it's going now. The message we're sending with all of the Age of Empires games as we go through them and do these Definitive Editions is that we really care about this franchise and what makes an Age of Empires game an Age of Empires game. This is all part of not only showing how great these games were, but it is a build up to a new game. We have a lot of respect for this IP, so hopefully, when Age 4 comes out, people will say they've loved all three Definitive Editions and will jump in even though they don't know much about it. There are a lot of people who still play the Age games on a daily basis, a lot more than people realise. Maybe because it's not in the limelight of the press all the time. It's a big number.

At the moment, Age of Empires Definitive Edition is pencilled for launch on the Windows 10 Store but not Steam. Are you worried you might be limiting your PC audience by not bringing it to that marketplace? 

Sure. I'm the one who makes the games; I don't worry too much about where they go. But of course, we want our games to be enjoyed by everybody. That's a natural tendency. Right now, because this is a UWP game, we want to make sure we offer the best experience that we can offer and UWP allows us to do all this stuff we want to do on the live side - multiplayer, cloud saves and so on. We really want to have all this in place and concentrate on this version before we think about what comes next. The Windows 10 Store is an alternative to Steam, obviously, and Steam is huge. But competition is a good thing. I can't promise where the game is or is not going to go in the future because that's not really up to me, but we want to have the best version of the game that we can make right now and then we'll figure out what we can do with it after that.

What's the goal or ambition for Definitive Edition?

For the game to be able to generate more memories. All of these wonderful stories that I hear from people. I would love people to say: 'Wow, this is a breath of fresh air' because it's not asking and demanding so much from me so quickly. They can sit down and enjoy it and it's super fun, and they'll get why this is where RTS games originated from, but can also see why it's enjoyable. My big thing is to show that we love the Age of Empires franchise and are really going to treat it with respect and do the things that the players want and hopefully generate all kinds of wonderful memories in the future with the brand.

Editor - PC Games Insider

Alex Calvin launched PCGamesInsider.biz in August 2017 and has been its editor since. Prior to this, he was deputy editor at UK based games trade paper MCV and content editor for marketing and events for London Games Festival 2017. His work has also appeared in Eurogamer, The Observer, Kotaku UK, Esquire UK and Develop.

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