Interviews & Opinion

Why Microsoft is investing so heavily in the Age of Empires series

Why Microsoft is investing so heavily in the Age of Empires series

After what felt like a very long nap, the Age of Empires franchise is once again active. Well, maybe it never went away with Microsoft claiming that one million people play the franchise each month. Either way, the historical strategy game series saw a return with 2018's Age of Empires Definitive Edition, an update of the 1997 franchise debut, with both Age of Empires 2 and 3 receiving similar treatment.

That's on top of a brand new entry in the franchise with Sega-owned strategy guru Relic at the helm and a brand new arm of Xbox Game Studios that's overseeing the brand headed up by Microsoft GM of publishing Shannon Loftis

We caught up with the brand's creative director Adam Isgreen to find out more about updating Age of Empires and why the brand seems to be in vogue right now

Why is Microsoft investing so heavily in Age of Empires? Just three years ago the brand seemed to be hibernating.

As someone who works at Microsoft, the commitment to Age is incredible. The fact that we have Satya [Nadella, Microsoft boss] down saying the company believes in games and these franchises, and everyone loves Age of Empires so much that they have the confidence to allow us to create a studio specifically for Age of Empires. It's awesome, but also an incredible amount of responsibility. We're all excited and nervous. Of course, the people there have seen what we're doing with Age 4 and there's a lot of confident coming off that. They believe in the future we're creating for the franchise.

What's the strategy for the series moving forward? You've got Forgotten Empires and Tantalus working on these Definitive Editions, Relic handling Age of Empires 4 and a new arm of Xbox Game Studios that's focused on the brand... how does all that fit together?

We do have an internal team but we're really providing oversight to our wonderful development partners - our team at Forgotten Empires that made Age of Empires Definitive Edition and is working on Age of Empires II - Definitive Edition, but we also have a group in Australia - Tantalus Media - that's working on Age of Empires III.

We have Relic up in Vancouver. But they're also helping each other out with all the games, too. Our role at Microsoft is to enable these great developers to make Age products and to be the overseers and the ones making sure that we're on-message and on-brand for delivering what we believe to be great Age of Empires experiences. They're accessible, for all ages and you may learn something about history whether you want to or not. That kind of approach, a game that's accessible that is really meant for a large audience, across the world. We have a wonderful userbase from all across the globe that plays Age of Empires games every month and we want to make sure we can bring everybody in, not just from specific cultures.

So how did this new Definitive Edition of Age of Empires 2 come about?

Age of Empires has been around for a long, long time. The community has been supporting the game and Age of Empires 2 has been going for 20 years. What happened is Microsoft was looking at the opportunity - these are wonderful games that people still love, so we asked ourselves if we could bring them back in a great way and celebrate the Age of Empires games. There were a lot of people to convince. We reached out and started looking for a developer and found this wonderful group called Forgotten Empires that had basically gone from being modders to professional developers. We gave them the Definitive Edition of the original Age of Empires to do and they did a wonderful job with it so we decided to do more. We're also looking to the future with 4. RTS games haven't exactly been on everyone's minds recently. They were very popular but the genre isn't as popular as it was. The amazing thing is that our data shows that that's not really true: there's always been an audience there, it just might not be stealing as much of the limelight as other games were. The great thing is we looked at all that and decided to do something new with Age of Empires. All of this and all our Definitive Editions are just a celebration of these wonderful games that so many people have so many great memories of. There's a lot of familial memories; people always have a story about playing with their parents and siblings. We wanted to preserve what was so great about these games that can survive another 20 years. We really believe in what Age of Empires stands for as historical, super entertaining, accessible games that anyone can get into and play.

What lessons did you take away from Age of Empires Definitive Edition? 

Oh, loads. We learn things about what the audience loves, dislikes and expects from every release. One of the things was - and we've fixed a lot of these in patches - people were really adamant about features like improving pathfinding. We tried a lot of things to make it better and we believe it was but there were still areas that we didn't succeed as well as we could have. The community has been great in identifying the areas and making those fixes to make the game better. That's a thing that we love; working with the community to really find all those issues and looking at what other stuff they want added in. One thing we found after releasing Age of Empires Definitive Edition was that we'd been talking about this idea of unifiying our community, bringing everyone together with all of the Age games. We were, of course, working on Age of Empires 4 and Relic has this great back-end system called Relic Link that they've been using for almost 20 years now. We're using a modern version of that in Age 4 and figured we could put it in all the other Definitive Editions, too. It's been a really fun journey to work this all out with the community.

I imagine walking the line between updating a game and changing to so that it doesn't feel the same to folks who played it back in the day is something of a challenge.

Doing a lot of feedback, testing and working with the community. We knew that we didn't want to change the core feeling of Age of Empires 2. Everybody loves this way. They love the way it plays. They love the unit interactions. We figured we can balance the game but we have to make sure the feeling stays. The great thing was the community was on board with that, too. When we went out and asked, the fans said we shouldn't change the core game but they had a huge list of other things. We used that as a guide. Sometimes there are things that we knew we had to change even though they might be slightly topical in the community. People are passionate and love the game. I don't blame them for loving it the way was. Things like the art for the briefings - we've been showing that off on Twitter comparing the old and the new. As art, the old stuff sometimes wasn't very good but at the time it was okay because it was nostalgic. Some people are still saying they prefer the old art. One thing we've recognised is that modding is so important to PC games - our team came from the mod community - so we wanted to make sure that the game is super moddable so if people want to add in the old music, art or UI, users can go for it. We hope we're providing our fans with a better and more modern experience than the original. It seems to be that way from our feedback. But if people want to customise it, they're free to do so.

What's your ambition for Age of Empires 2 Definitive Edition when it hits shelves in November? 

I'd love for people tor people to reconnect with what is so great about Age of Empires 2. You can buy this game and there's 200 hours of campaign content in this game alone. There's multiplayer, mods, everything that's wonderful. I love fast-paced games but some are so quick that it's leaving a lot of the audience behind. One of the great things we've found in demoing this is that people get their hands on the game and they've missed this sort of experience where they can build, fight and take some time to think. I'm really hoping we rekindle alot of that wonderful delight in games which are a little slower-paced than you average FPS but really allow you to think and breath and have a great time telling your own narrative through building an empire and conquering your foes.

PCGamesInsider Contributing Editor

Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist who writes about the business of games. He started out at UK trade paper MCV in 2013 and left as deputy editor over three years later. In June 2017, he joined Steel Media as the editor for new site In October 2019 he left this full-time position at the company but still contributes to the site on a daily basis. He has also written for, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK.