Age of Ensemble, Part 2: Perfecting the Formula
"I think Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings was our best game," says Bruce Shelley. Dave Pottinger agrees, as does Tony Goodman. In fact, if sales were a reliable indicator of quality, the gaming world's judgment would probably be the same. Two million copies were shipped on release, and they, too, quickly sold out. "People still play it online," says Shelley. "When Microsoft wanted to take down the servers, we stepped in to provide them because of demand."
Goodman credits the success to a team that was "hitting on all cylinders."
The campaigns were still roughly historical, though Braveheart has no gold-mining scenes.
"It was our focus. We had our 2-D engine. We had all these features that we didn't get to put in Age of Empires. Age II was an evolved Age I. We still had our purist mentality about what was fun about the game." He argues that some of this purity has been missing in subsequent Ensemble games. "People who play their own products sometimes become hardcore and lose the ability to see what's fun and simple. With Age II, we were still in that stage where what was simple was still fun for us."
Designer Sandy Petersen is especially proud of how Age of Kings made defensive strategies (which he acknowledges were not universally popular) viable. "You could garrison units you were building in your barracks so that they weren't killed one-by-one when you were under attack. Town centers and castles, though they could be used offensively -- and often were -- enabled you to wall in and protect yourself, something you couldn't do in other games. This made games longer. In other games, you would worry about an early attack. In Age II you can say 'Let them come.'"
Age of Empires II had larger armies, larger buildings and larger maps.
Brian Reynolds of Big Huge Games sees Age of Kings as especially significant in RTS history. "It had a surprisingly realistic sense of scale between people and buildings, and at the same time evolved RTS gameplay in a direction which seemed richer than what was going on in the genre at the time. Other than the anomaly of StarCraft, we weren't seeing a lot of gameplay innovation in RTSes, and here was a game full of it." Reynolds cites Age of Kings as his inspiration to make real-time strategy games, and BHG's Rise of Nations is an obvious descendant.
"Age of Kings was the first major RTS to have units march in formation," says Greg Street, the lead designer on the expansion Age of Empires II: The Conquerors. "It was a huge innovation. Not only did it look great, but it changed the way you played the game. You could actually keep your troops together. You could actually defend siege weapons or mountain passes."
And, though it clearly followed Age of Empires in having over a dozen slightly different factions, it gave each side a unique unit and, in Conquerors, a unique technology. The distinctions between sides were not as stark as in Blizzard's StarCraft, which was the paradigm of wholly different factions in an RTS. But they were a chance for Ensemble to integrate their own understanding of what made each culture different, especially in its military arm. And they got to introduce one of the most significant superweapons in gaming history -- the trebuchet.
As powerful as defenses were, nothing in the game could stand up to a mass of trebuchets, a once-obscure siege weapon that no game had used before. It is a tribute to Ensemble's influence that the trebuchet is now everywhere in games using a medieval theme. Shelley finds this both amusing and rewarding. "Little things like that, we take pride in. We actually set out to make a game we wanted to play, and were probably a little na?ve. Microsoft loved the fact that [their] game ? made history alive. There are kids that now know what a trebuchet is because of our game."
Queuing multiple units of different types was a big advance.
For Tom Chick, Crispy Gamer's real-time strategy columnist, the history stuff isn't as important. "Ultimately, that was a superficial contribution to the genre. Their real contribution was much more subtle, important and unappreciated. Although it earned them criticism, Ensemble wasn't afraid to be complex. In and of itself, this isn't necessarily a good thing, but with Ensemble, there was a lot of inspired design deep in that complexity."
The complexity helped to mask a game that Dave Pottinger admits is full of imperfections, the sort of thing that would be impossible to get away with today. "We love [playing] our games at a population cap of 50 or 75, so we were pissed off when people online wanted to play at 100 or 125. For us, that ruined the game. Nowadays we plan for that. I think we tend to overbalance our games now [for the hardcore audience]. Age II shipped with tons and tons of problems and, in the end, they're not a big deal.
"It took us a long time to figure out that the answer to balance is not 'nerfing.' If something is overpowered, [many designers] fix that by weakening it. It's much, much harder to look at it and say 'Everything else is underpowered. Let's fix everything else.'"
The big buy
Age of Empires II followed the same basic plan, but was much deeper.
The overwhelming success of Age of Kings was enough to persuade Microsoft that Ensemble was a developer not only worth publishing, but worth owning. For Sandy Petersen, the 2001 buyout was a reason to celebrate. "A lot of us cheered because our worthless Ensemble stock was now useful Microsoft stock."
The resources were a great blessing for Shelley and Goodman. "We could spend the money to make Age of Empires III. We set the goal to make the best-looking RTS in the world, and Microsoft was willing to let us do that."
Unavoidably, some adjustments would have to be made. "In the short run," Shelley says, "it didn't change much. We had to do performance reviews and rank our employees. Tony is a really kind person, so we probably held on to some employees longer than other companies would have. Microsoft helped us weed those people out.
"When we joined Microsoft, I had to sign a personal employment agreement, and I'd never done anything like that. I was encouraged to get legal assistance and ended up spending a lot of money on an attorney. I thought this was nuts, since I knew Stuart Moulder and Ed Fries really well. But the attorney told me, 'Yeah, that sounds great, but they may not be there forever.' And that was prophetic."
The carts are trebuchet packages, just in time for Christmas.
The turnover in Microsoft management teams meant rebuilding professional relationships on a regular basis, but Shelley and Goodman emphasized that, for the most part, they got along well with their bosses. "New people sometimes don't have any history with us."
More resources meant expansion, and that would change the culture that many of the employees were so fond of, especially Goodman. "In a company with a hundred people, even with little turnover, the average person can't keep up with everyone's name. The nice thing about grade school was that the group never broke up. Everyone took the same classes. Nobody ever talks about that." He wanted Ensemble to be like a class where everyone shared and knew the same experiences. This became more difficult as Ensemble became more successful.
For the most part, the Ensemble employees that spoke to me were convinced that the purchase by Microsoft opened up new possibilities for the team. It was a vote of confidence that the deep-pocketed publisher was grateful for what the Age of Empires games had done for its bottom line -- even if this effectively kept the studio in the Age series. An action game that Petersen had been championing was put on the cutting floor. "Microsoft had just bought Rare, which was known for its action-adventure games. So we were told not to do [the action game]. Then Rare did Viva Pi?ata, which isn't an action game at all, so we probably should have done it anyway."
A detour into fiction
Age of Mythology had a true story-based campaign, and it remains one of the best.
Even before Microsoft purchased Ensemble, there were struggles within the studio regarding how far they could break from the path laid by their success.
"By this point [the late 1990s], we'd done two historically-themed games and two expansions," Ian Fischer recalls, "and there was interest in working on something that would allow us to explore new territory. We had several all-day, full-team brainstorm sessions during which we collectively concocted and discussed the merits of approximately every possible setting for an RTS. Age of Submarines, Age of Elves, Age of Mad Max, Age of Lasers, Age of H. G. Wells' Time Machine, Age of Angry Dinosaurs, Age of Tanks, Age of Dirigibles, Age of Vampires, Age of Umpires -- somewhere there's a document with dozens and dozens of pitches."
Ancient myth seemed to be a decent compromise. It would allow the team to play to its strengths (history) but also try some new unit designs (flying units, special powers and so on).
With familiar mythologies, like Greek, Norse and Egyptian, it was easier to understand every confused melee.
For Tony Goodman, Age of Mythology sits in an uncomfortable place in Ensemble's history. It is an Age game but not an Age of Empires game, and that led to some confusion. "I hear a ton of people say that [Age of Mythology] is their favorite game in the series. But I've struggled with that from a business standpoint. Microsoft's research showed that half of consumers had no idea this was connected to the Age of Empires franchise." Both Microsoft and Ensemble were reluctant to simply stick the Age of Empires label on the game, fearing this would dilute the purely historical leanings of the series. "But we had a lot of fun with that game. What are all the favorite monsters we have from Greek mythology? [Ray] Herryhausen [had provided] the only visualization of Greek monsters in our generation." This was a chance for Ensemble to add something new to the gaming universe by drawing from our communal familiarity with classic myth and legend.
Where Age of Kings could easily build on the original Age of Empires using only slightly improved technology, Age of Mythology departed from the previous games in some very important ways. First, it was 3-D, with a fully rotating map and units that looked even more realistic than the convincing 2-D sprites from the earlier titles. Animating the various monsters would prove to be a major challenge for the team. Though deeply enamored with the game, programmer Dave Pottinger is still not happy with how it turned out.
Success depended on proper use of your myth and hero units.
"[Age of Mythology] has the most interesting units and abilities. The Cyclops throw [Cyclops could pick up and toss enemies] was my idea. But it was very hard to do, and I didn't think we'd do anything like that again. It spawned a lot of other great ideas, like the Minotaur gore. But there were some shitty ones in there, too. The Sphinx [sandstorm] didn't work out right. The Anubite jump always sounded cool, but it didn't seem to work, either."
Age of Mythology was also the first Ensemble game to have a single, story-based campaign instead of a series of mini-campaigns insecurely tethered to an historical framework. Fischer credits the setting with establishing the need for a story.
"Relative to history, mythology feels more intimate and more concerned with parable. It's less about 10,000 Greek hoplites surprising the Persians at Marathon, and more about Zeus turning you into a turtle because you didn't show up for his wedding. We felt we could deliver mythology better with some story and characters."
From a gameplay perspective, AoM ratcheted up the difficulty by giving the player dual rock-paper-scissors mechanics to handle. In all Ensemble titles, certain types of units had advantages over other types: Spears would trump cavalry, which trumped archers, which trumped swords, which trumped spears. In further designating units as mortals, heroes or creatures, Age of Mythology threw another layer of complexity into the mix. Heroes would beat creatures who feasted on mortals who could swarm heroes; and some heroes shared characteristics with mortal military units. All of a sudden, the economic complexity of the game was matched by the combat model, which also varied significantly between the three unique cultures -- another novelty in an Ensemble game.
Myth units are great for taking down cities.
There were enough changes from the Age of Empires formula that ignorance about Age of Mythology was very prevalent, says Fischer. "I remember working E3 for Age of Empires III's debut. Jerome Jones and I were losing our minds at the number of people who described themselves as 'die-hard fans,' then said something like 'I've been waiting for another Ensemble game forever; why has it taken you so long? Age of Kings was forever ago.' We'd ask, 'Did you like Age of Mythology?' and the answer was almost always, 'Huh?'"
But Fischer rejects the idea that AoM was somehow a failure or less successful than Ensemble's other titles, blaming this perception on outrageous expectations for how many units could be sold.
"Within Ensemble lore, there's a famous meeting from the start of the project ? the initial sales projection was illustrated by shading columns representing the sales of Age of Empires and Age of Kings, drawing a line between these two columns, and then extending the line at the same 89 degree angle to arrive at a prediction for Age of Mythology. I don't think many people understood how much of an anomaly [in sales] Age of Kings was at that time."
The 3-D environment and attention to detail in the animations further underlined Ensemble's commitment to making an attractive real-time strategy game. The vision inspired by that animation demo almost a decade earlier was now moving faster and pushing the genre into more expensive and creative directions. For Gas Powered Games' Chris Taylor, the creator of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, this is what best exemplifies the importance of Ensemble.
"Ensemble's games are of the finest production value, and are well-tested, polished and tuned. It is among only a handful of studios in the world that can accomplish this level of craftsmanship -- not to say it doesn't come with a price, but the result has always been worth the wait ? there wasn't a single Ensemble game that I didn't immediately rush out and buy the day it released. I think only Blizzard can match them in this regard."
Read on for Part 3 of this feature.