Rumors of Trojan in Age Related Hack: Our community team is investigating rumors that downloadable software that supposedly allows you to cheat in Age games has a little bonus inside. We are trying to confirm rumors that at least one of these hacking programs places a Trojan on your PC and then steals your account information. The hack gives a losing player a chance to take a losing game and turn it into a win. Apparently enough people are looking for a fraudulent edge that a market exists for this software, but the price might be unexpectedly high.
Age III Ladder Reset: At the end of April we are reset all of our ladders. Players collected any medals for which they qualify and the ladders have been restarted. The civilization ladders are being dropped and being replaced by a new set of Treaty ladders. Treaty games, which set a time period at the start during which there can be no attacks, have become very popular, but they were lumped together in our rankings with Supremacy games. Supremacy players, especially, disliked this. As for both Supremacy and Death Match, the Treaty ladders rank total wins, wins in each of 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3 games, and power rating. We believe the new ladders will make Treaty games even more fun and attractive to play, and we believe the Supremacy players will like their undiluted rankings.
Play Age III like an Expert: Top Age III player Parfait has posted some video strategy tips on the web site RTSProfessional.com that may help you raise your skill level a notch or two. Parfait took second place in the World Cyber Games last year so he is one of the best and most experienced Age players in the world. There are currently three video guides available on the site- Attack Move, The Art of Espionage, and Crossbow Contain (how Germany can contain the Dutch). You watch a video of a game in action while Parfait himself describes the strategy as it unfolds on screen. These are very cool and a great example of how players can invest in a game and make it a better value, far beyond what a developer can ever anticipate. It will be interesting to see if more guides appear. Check them out here.
Halo Wars Update: This game makes progress every day as testing and revising proceed, and new content goes in. I saw archive build #620 go by today. There are some rumors about this project floating around but we can’t comment on them at this time. We believe we have a great game in the works and hope to be able to tell you more about it soon.
ES Family Picnic: Our studio held a spring picnic at a Renaissance Festival near Dallas on a recent Saturday. The company arranged our own picnic area with food and tickets to the jousting event. Watching the mock battles and seeing so many people in period costumes brought back some Age of Kings memories. There was a large turnout of families and at least one ES alumni stopped by to visit. Here are a couple of photos thanks to Paul Bettner. The first shows the jousting at the festival. The second shows Dusty Monk on the left (wearing his Age of Empires III t-shirt) with his family and Ian Fischer on the right. You can see all of Paul’s photos here.
Office Design Input: Studio head Tony Goodman solicited feedback from the entire studio on some aspects of the new office space we are considering. He was interested in themes for individual office areas and a cool art piece for our foyer. Art piece ideas included actual historic aircraft suspended from the ceiling and dinosaur models. The theme thread was one of the longest I’ve seen at ES, and that is saying something, but I know Tony loves doing stuff like this when it gets so many people involved.
Theme ideas were all over the place, including the wild west, modern minimalist design, swamps, historic periods from our games, natural landscapes, open skies, video game favorites (PITFALL with the coffee machine on the far end), industrial/institutional looks (pig farm, landfill, seat shop, meat packing, prison), underwater, tree house, mountain lodge, Tuscan villa, favorite cities (Tokyo), and other company spaces (Pixar was popular). I believe some of theseand it will be interesting to seeJchoices have a better chance than otherswhat Tony decides.
What ES’ers Are Playing: We’re in a crunch period right now for Halo Wars, but that didn’t keep people from buying GTA IV. It is being played during lunch or other break periods, and drawing interested bystanders, and I’m sure many of those new games will get playing time over the weekend. Early opinions are that it is amazingly content rich. An email thread about the games pros and cons went over 25 messages very quickly. Meanwhile WoW is getting some new life as several people who gave it up for a while have gone back for more.
Muffin Bandit Mystery: Our studio has provided snacks and drinks since our earliest days, and each week we get delivery of sodas, energy drinks, beef jerky, fresh fruit, vegetable trays, nuts, candy, yogurt, cookies, etc. A popular item is packages of muffins, with one package usually delivered to each of our three floors. Several months ago someone started ripping off the tops of muffins, leaving the rest behind. The depredations of the muffin bandit have continued intermittently ever since, providing a lot of amusement. We don’t know if we are dealing with one muffin bandit, or several imitators of the original. So far no one has been caught, or at least publicly exposed.
TAD Patch Update: It didn’t take long for the community to find and exploit a bug uncovered by Patch 1.01. The bug allows players using the French Home City team Church card to obtain an unfair wood advantage at the start of a game. Basically we intended that the card drop the cost of team Churches by 80% from their original cost of 250 wood. Instead of an 80% drop we mistakenly set the card in the original Age III to drop the wood cost by 200. Then, when Patch 1.01 reduced the cost of the Church to 100 wood, the door was opened to create a ploy where players could get 100 free wood for every Church they built, destroying game balance.
We are seeing players with 2000 wood before the 6 minute mark. A British player on a team using this ploy and a Manor boom can get to 40+ villagers a little after hitting Colonial Age.
We were able to quickly identify the problem when it came to our attention. We will be issuing a hotfix patch shortly, using our new plan to bypass the normal rigorous patching process to correct issues like this very quickly. The correction will be patch TAD 1.01a.
We continue to be amazed at what the community can find in such a short period of time. Congratulations, I guess
Patch Well Received: Despite the problem noted above, the community seems to be happy with the patch overall. The response in the forums is positive and the number of games played has been jumping. It may be receiving the best response ever for a patch of our games, which is a tribute to our community, design, and test teams who put in the work to make it happen. The patch also benefited very strongly from the involvement of our E Team, a group of top Age players who worked with us throughout the process. We remain committed to improving the game as necessary and making it as good a multi-player experience as we can.
Banned Accounts: Our community team reports that the number of banned Age III accounts went over the 1800 mark recently (not counting banned CD-Keys). We know that cheaters can spoil the online experience for others so we try to keep after them aggressively.
New Halo Wars Swag: We recently passed out to the entire studio new Halo Wars ball caps and t-shirts featuring the logo of UNSC ship Spirit of Fire. The hats are black and the shirts are gray. When I visited the community team recently half of them had on the hats. Lizette Atkinson, our office manager, provided shirts in small sizes for the growing number of children in our studio family.
Halo Wars News: The game just went through a major review at MGS headquarters in Redmond, and feedback from our team is that the game was very well received. We continue to run at least two test sessions each day and new builds are coming rapidly. I saw archive build #591 announced recently. Designer Dave Pottinger is conducting this week a series of feedback sessions from everyone on the team and anyone else in the company who has opinions.
Books on Game Design Theory: Matthew Goldman recommended a book he has been reading, Prisoner’s Dilemma, by William Poundstone. Rob Fermier suggested another book outside traditional game literature- Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.
Innovation Lessons from Blizzard: This blog post passed around our office and is worth a read if you are interested in the game development process. It lists 11 lessons from this premier game development on how to achieve successful innovation in games. The lessons could well apply to any organization required to innovate. I am happy to say that Ensemble Studios does all of these things more or less, employing them ourselves independently over the last 13 years. We too have cancelled a number of games along the way. Blizzard has been much more open of late about their internal workings after years of being secretive, or at least non-communicative. I remember trying to get them to speak at game development conferences and being told that was against their policies. Apparently that has changed and I think that can only improve their already well-deserved high reputation and benefit our industry as well.
Goodbye Stormfront Studios: Another month and another fine game developer closes down. Don Daglow, Stormfront studio head, is one of the pioneers of our industry and this excellent studio had been around for 20 years or so. Apparently they could not fill a pipeline of sufficient quality projects to keep going. Examples like this, and the recent closing of Iron Lore, make me skeptical when new studios pop up with limited experience and big expectations.
Age of Empires III Patch Update: Oscar Santos from our community team tells me that the patch is getting very close to shipping. We are waiting for the localized versions (international languages) to be tested and for our counterparts in Redmond to sign off on the work.
Response on the forums has been among the most positive for any patch we have done. Keys to that response seem to be twofold. First, the patch team addressed the single unit strategy where a player could succeed by building a single unit, say Crossbowmen. By reducing the Crossbow basic damage and increasing its bonus against the unit it should beat (infantry in this case), we made it very risky to use only this unit when other enemy units (specifically cavalry) were used against it. Now counter-units and combined arms armies should be much more useful, as we originally intended.
Second, the patch addressed what some have called “laming” strategies, where certain civs got overwhelming advantages from a game feature, often a big button technology. An example is a big button tech that gave the Aztecs boats that outranged land buildings in the second age. In the right situation, using this ploy was unstoppable. With this patch we hope to have addressed similar game features that imbalanced the game.
The Asian Dynasties in World Cyber Games: We were pleased to learn that this Age of Empires III expansion pack will be an event in the 2008 WCG, with the finals to be held this November in Cologne, Germany. Ben Donges from our community team worked with the WCG to make sure our game met all their conditions and our web site provided the support required. Last year 700 participants from 74 countries took part in the WCG. It will be interesting to see if the number of participating countries continues to grow, as it has each year since 2000. I found a list of the events and some statistics from past years here.
Iron Lore Entertainment Closes Down: One of the founding partners of this studio was Brian Sullivan, one of the earliest Ensemble Studios employees and one of the designers on the first Age of Empires game. Another colleague, Jeff Goodsill, became their chief operating officer. Their game Titan Quest got a lot of good press, but launched into down PC game market and never sold as well as they anticipated. Their next two releases got good reviews as well, but also posted disappointing sales. I am sorry to see the studio go and hope it is not the last we hear of them in our industry. Check out their farewell message here.
Piracy and PC Games: Michael Fitch, one of the managers at Iron Lore, posted a rant recently touching on the problems the studio had in the PC space, especially piracy and hardware issues, which contributed to the disappointing sales of their games. Hardware issues have been a pain for PC developers for a long time, while piracy was usually considered more peripheral. But piracy is getting a lot more attention now, possibly because it is starting to effect console game sales. Check out the comments here.
The conventional wisdom once was that piracy was 10% of gaming activity and this wasn’t a problem. Pirates weren’t going to buy your game anyway, was the thought. Now some are thinking piracy is much more of gaming, maybe a huge percentage. Fitch compares sales figures of games released on both the PC and consoles and suggests the wide bias against PC sales is due largely to piracy.
We know that Age of Empires III is one of the most popular games downloaded from pirate sites. Here is a snapshot our community team took of pirates downloading Age games at 1 PM in the afternoon of a recent weekday. Each of the “leechers” is a person downloading all of our games and each “seeder” is a person providing the copies. Almost 7300 people are downloading pirated copies of Age games at the moment this image was captured.
Our customer service people say that in the last several months they have received over 500 email inquiries from people trying to get online with pirated copies. The strength of the Age online multiplayer experience is what saves our business and our jobs, and keeps us going so we can make more games. You can’t play Age online without a legitimate copy, and that helps the game remain in the list of top twenty best-selling PC games for the fourth year. It may be that PC games without a strong online component requiring a legitimate copy are doomed to modest success at best.
A bigger question for me is whether game piracy and its cousins (music piracy and online game cheating, for example) are becoming so socially acceptable and widespread that they are changing our culture. Will a society that finds it increasingly okay to steal and cheat online find it similarly acceptable to lie, cheat, and steal in all aspects of offline life?
ES Gets a Snow Day: We shut our offices down Tuesday, March 4th, due to snow in the Dallas area, something that very rarely happens. Some of people reported snowfalls of 4 to 7 inches around their homes to the north and northwest. For people living in the northern half of our country this doesn’t sound like much but consider what your winter driving would be like without plowed and salted roads. The Dallas/Fort Worth area is simply not prepared to deal with icy roads and snow, and most drivers are inexperienced in this type of weather. We took the safest course and encourage people to leave early as they wished, but not early enough for one of ours guys who totaled his car in a snow related accident that was not his fault.
E. Gary Gygax R.I.P.: With sadness we noted at work the passing of the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, with many sharing tales of their D&D days. I remember playing the original rules at the university game club where I met ES studio head Tony Goodman and his brother Rick. For many ES’ers RPG games in one form or another are still their favorite genre. Gygax helped launch not only the genre of role-playing games, but computer games as well. MMORPGs are just the latest iteration of the original concept. I don’t believe I ever met him but I’ve known many people who worked with him, including current colleague Paul Jaquays. He must rank as one of the most influential people in our industry’s history.
The Asian Dynasties Patch Update: Oscar Santos, head of our community team, has told me that the design and balance changes for the long awaited first patch for The Asian Dynasties (patch 1.01) have been finalized. From this point, the patch will be built, playtested by ES and Microsoft, and verified by our Quality Assurance team and our beta playtesters while the localization teams are doing the translations. If no serious bugs are discovered, we expect to release the patch sometime “before the end of winter” as mentioned in a previous blog post. The patch notes will be posted soon by Thunder on the AgeCommunity site, so watch for those.
For this patch we recruited the help of 8 top players from the Age community. They were given beta versions of the patch and we set up a private forum for discussion. They played the beta against each other and our balance team. They did a great job of being objective, responsible, and mature about the whole process. If they lost a game, they were able to distinguish between being outplayed and running into imbalances. This type of feedback is invaluable and often difficult to collect. We think the patch is going to be excellent and a lot of that will be due to the help of The ES 8.
Crunch Music: The Halo Wars team is working extra hours this week and that reminded me of one of our crunch time traditions– playing music over the intercom at 10 PM before thanking everyone for their efforts and sending them home. Around quitting time, we hear the intercom sound and then music starts, and then the producer makes a short announcement officially ending the extra long work day.
I believe crunch music was initiated by Harter Ryan, then Producer on Age of Kings. He says he liked to play songs like Devo’s “Working in a Coal Mine” and Paul Hardcastle’s “Nineteen” at the end of long days to remind people that “well, it could be worse.” He recalls that people didn’t think much of his 70’s and 80’s music, and would try to preempt his songs with their own 1990’s stuff.
Producer Dave Rippy (Age of Mythology and Age of Empires III) doesn’t recall any rhyme or reason to his choices. One night it might have been a cheesy 80’s hair band (okay most nights), the next night a hardcore rap song, or something off-the-wall like the “all your bases” remix. His goal was to keep it fun and interesting enough to encourage people to stay until the end of the crunch day to hear what was played.
Wally Wachi, Producer on The Warchiefs, who is not a musician like Dave and his brothers Chris and Stephen, often let others on the team suggest a song. He started letting one person pick the music for an entire week until one guy played Chipmunks versions of popular tracks every night. He wasn’t picked again.
Chris Rippy, Producer on Halo Wars, tries to pick something different every night, usually with a hidden message. Last night, for example, he played a request by Dave Pottinger dedicated to Jerome Jones– “The Flame,” by Cheap Trick.
Halo Wars Builds: Every day a variety of builds, or versions, of Halo Wars are created and saved. There are four of these: Archive, Playtest, Work, and Tools. The Tools build is a completely different application that we use to create content for the X360 game. It is not the game but the software that designers use to create scenarios, maps, and other content that will then be added to the actual X360 game builds.
The Work build is the work in progress version of the X360 game that virtually anyone on the team can work in and save off. This includes not only the game itself but source files such as 3DSMAX files, photoshop files, etc. The Playtest build is a subset of the Work build. It includes only files needed to run the game on the X360 and none of the source files. The Archive build is also a subset of the Work build, but again no source files and everything is optimized and combined into archives for fast loading on the X360.
If you aren’t confused yet, we actually use the Archive build now in playtest and the Playtest build is kept around for debugging and troubleshooting (easier since it is not optimized). The actual Halo Wars game we ship later this year will be a final Archive build.
The Asian Dynasties in the World Cyber Games?: Not yet, but we are hopeful. Ben Donges from our community team is working to convince the WCG that this would be a good thing for them. Again, keep checking the Age community site where we’ll let you know as soon as we know.
New Elevator Floor: As we discuss a possible new office site, the conversation often heads to odd places. One of the oddest recently was elevator décor, especially for the floors. Here is an idea that I predict we’ll pass on.
ES at GDC: About 15 of our people went to the Game Developer’s Conference this year and I don’t think any of them gave presentations. That is relatively low attendance for us, partly due to the push on Halo Wars. Besides the DICE conference held earlier in February, some of our people will also go to Siggraph and the Austin GDC.
Good Luck Greg Street: In the last blog post Greg shared a little about the typical day for him as the Lead Designer on Age of Empires III. I gave him credit incorrectly for being in charge of the campaign in AoM. Jerome Jones oversaw the creation of that campaign; Greg oversaw the campaign in Age of Empires II. For AoM Greg was in charge of the database (balance, etc.) and random maps, plus he worked with Lead Designer Ian Fischer on the writing of the story.
I am sorry (for us) to say that Greg has left Ensemble Studios to pursue a dream of working on a major MMORPG (so great for him). We wish him the best with appreciation for his friendship, insights, and excellent work over the years.
Age of Empires III 2007 Sales Ranking: Gamasutra published sales rankings for PC games recently and it was great to see my favorite RTS set in the Age of Discovery in the top ten at #7. That is an impressive performance for a game published in 2005, but it may also point to a weakness in the PC market overall. They credited the game with sales of 313,000 units. Check out the list here.
Sales- Exxon Mobil Versus the Game Industry: As gamers and game developers our industry has a high profile in our lives, but where does it ).Jrank against other businesses? We are still a blip, apparently (but growingFor perspective, note that Exxon-Mobil reported in early February fourth quarter sales $116 billion and profits of nearly $12 billion. According to the NPD Group, retail sales of computer and video games reached $9.5 billion in the US last year. If we double or even triple that figure for the rest of the world (and throw in monthly fees for online games), we still come up way short of the oil giant’s quarter.
Halo Wars Archive Builds: These have been coming at a furious pace; the last one I saw was #464.
Date of The Asian Dynasties Patch: By mentioning the coming patch recently we set off a friendly contest for trying to guess when it will actually appear. The truth is we don’t know at this point and it depends on what we find that we think needs work, how soon we can get everything we want fixed, and when it can all be tested and cleared for release. We want it in your hands as soon as we can, but we want it to be a quality effort. Check out the opinions of those guessing when it is coming on Age of Empires III Heaven, here.
Age of Mythology Artificial Intelligence Study: Brad Robnett found and shared an interesting study on the AI in AoM conducted by the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence. The authors programmed four AI agents to play the game in single player mode, each with a distinctive style: aggressive, defensive, normal, and neurotic. The neurotic was ostensibly handicapped with irrational assessments of resource value and a tendency to resort to extreme playing styles. The four different AIs won 26 out of 28 games against the game’s Hard AI, with both Aggressive and Neurotic going 7-0. The neurotic AI won its games faster than any other style, however (in under 32 minutes versus second best of just over 35 minutes). Dave Pottinger, Lead Programmer on Age of Empires III, commented that there were some cool ideas in this study that might help make future AIs feel more human, but he questioned some of the thinking, as well. Check out the study here.
Day in the Life of Lead Designer Greg Street: Greg was in charge of the single player campaign for Age of Mythology and then Lead Designer on Age of Empires III. I asked him to share with you what his typical days were like, especially as a lead. Here are Greg’s comments.
I tend to get in early. I find that the rest of the day is going to be constant interruptions so I can really only get work done when nobody else is here. On AOM and AOE3 there were days I would get in before sunrise, and man that sucked. When things aren’t in crisis, it’s more like 9 AM. This is the time of day when I can get my own bugs fixed and deal with anything else that has been neglected.
Around 10 AM most of the rest of the team is here and the rest of the morning becomes non-stop emails and people dropping in.
The artists want to know if the War Wagon is still in the game, and how many upgrades it gets.
I need to look at the latest proofs of the manual.
There is probably an interview request from a fan site or magazine.
One of the designers wants to know if I have any ideas to troubleshoot a random map bug.
Another can’t make a unit use his special attack (it’s probably a tactics or anim file bug).
MS says we need to change the name of Constantinople to Istanbul. Wait, didn’t we make the opposite change three months ago? Am I trapped in a song?
A programmer wants my feedback on the multiplayer game setup UI.
Some of these things I can answer through email. Others require a quick office visit. I learned quickly that a team wants to see the lead designer. Stay locked in your office at your own peril.
Too much of that, and you get the reputation of a holy figure handing mandates down the mountain. The game starts to become your game instead of Ensemble’s game. This is Bad.
In the spare moments between all of those mini-meetings, I constantly refresh the bug database. I assign any bugs to the other designers working on the campaign, random maps, text or the unit database. I close out any bugs that I entered that have come back to me as resolved. I enter any new bugs that I haven’t had a chance to enter yet. Copious amounts of coffee are consumed.
Ensemble tends to eat lunch at 11:30 to beat the Dallas traffic. However, when we’re in hardcore production I tend to have a lunch meeting four days a week. There just isn’t enough extra time.
After lunch, more meetings. These tend to be:
A sync with the leads. Are we on track for the milestone? Are there any big features coming unglued? Are there any programmers or designers coming unglued?
A sync with the designers. What is everyone working on? Who is being held up? What problems are people having?
A design meeting. This would be to figure out something like a feature that isn’t implemented yet, or a feedback session for something just implemented. These tend to be multi-disciplinary meetings with all departments represented. It’s tough for them to be big enough to involve everyone who needs to be there and small enough so that everyone can still talk.
A balance meeting. Our balance team will prepare a top 10 list of problems with the game. Sometimes they have ideas to fix the problems and sometimes we have to brainstorm a bit. I try to balance their feedback with the other needs of the game. No, we can’t cut that feature. Yeah, I see your point, but that solution is really confusing. Oh, good idea – let’s go with that.
In the afternoon, I might have more fires to put out. Though if I’m lucky we have an hour for a playtest with just the designers. I live for these. We can generally screw around and insult each other more in designer-only playtests than we can with the rest of the team. Sometimes we’ll make quick changes to the game, spit out a build, then try it again. I try not to address balance too much in these sessions, since we have a team for that. (Though I do confess to tinkering with those tricky Russians and Ottomans quite a bit.) Instead I try to iterate on things that aren’t yet fun, are confusing or just broken.
At the end of the day (assuming we’re not in crunch) it’s time for a company playtest. We’ll probably get 8-16 people who are on the team and on other teams to play the game. We always try to have a designer present, and I go whenever I can. We’ve learned that people just have a better time when they know their feedback is getting to the designers unfiltered, and some people want a little more back and forth discussion where you can explain why a feature was implemented in a certain way. Copious amounts of coffee are consumed.
After the playtest, I make some changes to the game, enter tasks into the bug database for things I can’t change myself (like art, sound or code) and write up a gigantic email summarizing the feedback and the proposed changes (if any). It’s important to close the feedback loop but I won’t pretend this solution is an ideal one. Not everyone wants to read a giant email, and if you get a few responses to the original message, suddenly you might have a gigantic thread of emails with more people piling on. Arguments might start. Feelings might get bruised. Ensemble is still searching for a better way to get this design info communicated back to the team.
I usually head home between 6:30 and 7:00 depending on how long it took to summarize the playtest feed. The commute home is actually some of my most productive time to think, and I’m always trying to scribble down notes while navigating the horrors of Dallas traffic. Once I get home I often dash out an email (much to my wife’s chagrin) and will probably check email 3-4 more times that evening.
Now, when we’re not in production, replace almost everything above with brainstorm meetings and lots of email. We do get to eat lunch out more often though. The copious amounts of coffee – that never goes away. You need a strong stomach as a lead here. I’m not sure if the coffee is the cause or just an added bonus of the iron constitution you develop.
The Asian Dynasties Patch: After several months on the market the China civilization is the most popular, especially in any tournament where prize money is involved. Expert China players are able to get a sizable army engaged within six minutes and are hard to stop at that point. If China is not available to play, then the Dutch or the Sioux are popular alternatives, which is interesting because that gives us one strong civilization at this point from the original game and each expansion pack.
Addressing the balance issues that favor China will be a major focus of a forthcoming TAD patch. At this point we have no critical technical bugs in the game. We anticipate releasing a combination balance and technical patch near the end of this winter season. Thereafter we will split the process into patches for either balance or technical problems, as needed. That will help us get any needed balance patches out faster.
Day in the Life of Concept Artist Bart Tiongson: The great graphics that are the face of games today are the end result of a lot of work by an art team. We are long past the day when one or two people could create all the graphics for a game. For our games any finished piece of art begins with the sketch of the idea by one of our concept artists.
These artists have particularly good hand skills, can sketch an idea quickly, and have a flare for creating expressive and engaging art. Once a concept sketch is okayed, it goes to the 3D artist who builds the object in a computer program like 3D Studio Max so it can be put into the game. The finished object is then handed off to an animator who brings the character (or vehicle, or creature) to life, making it move and act believably. Textures will also be created based on the original concept.
I asked one of our best concept artists, Bart Tiongson, to share with you what a typical day is like for him. We recruited Bart and several of his classmates out of the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto, Canada.
Early morning for me starts off with coffee, tea or “power boost” drink of choice. I will also bring 2 or 3 bottles of water to my desk to try and make myself believe that I’m being healthy. I probably won’t drink these.
I check my email (email and meetings take up a good portion of my work day).
From 10:00 am until noon I start on my tasks for the day; these may be anything from conceptualizing a cool vehicle or building, or creating unique creatures, environments, or characters.
At lunchtime a lot of artists here will grab a quick bite and do a speed painting on the computer. We usually pick a random topic (although warrior, vampire, robot… um … warrior, comes up a lot) and start painting. This is purely for fun and it helps us stay passionate about our craft, while keeping our “pencils sharp”, as we say.
After lunch it’s back to the drawing board, literally. Some artists do thumbnails and concepts traditionally with markers, pen and ink, or graphite; others will do their designs solely on the computer using a digital painting program like Photoshop.
The ideas for art concepts are based on written descriptions from the designers, backed up by references to photos, movies, other games, and the work of other artists. We try to meet the game needs while creating a cool look.
Our sketches are reviewed regularly by the project’s Lead Concept Artist.
A lot of the scheduled daily meetings will be with game designers to discuss the look of the game. We discuss the color palette or mood and lighting, and just the overall visual appeal of the game.
At least once a week all the concept artists sync up to be sure our drawings are staying on track with the game’s design and art style, often with the game’s Art Vision Lead, Art Producer, and Lead Designer also giving input. It usually takes multiple adjustments or complete redraws to get the image to look just right.
At some point during the day I’ll play our game; it’s a good way to stay in tune with changes that are being made on Halo Wars in both on the visual look and game play.
When not in meetings or playing Halo Wars, most of my time is basically spent drawing, drawing, and redrawing. If there’s free time after that then you draw.
Drawing for a living is absolutely amazing. I’m surrounded by like-minded and exceptionally talented individuals. There is really no other job that I would want — aside from rap artist, or maybe NBA player…
Around 7:00 I’ll wrap things up and get ready for home. There are still 3 or 4 unopened water bottles sitting on my desk.
Age of Empires III Concept Sketches: Here are two examples of Bart’s work, the concept sketches for the Mayan Spearman and Russian Oprichnik.
Halo Wars Moving Along: We are still keeping the details on this game under wraps but it progressing very well. I got in several games this week and they were fun. I thought there were lots of interesting things to consider, like in any good RTS, but not enough time to do everything. The early game was a nice mix of economy, exploration, and combat. The maps encouraged me to get out and do things. It all felt like a game progressing well, though a lot of work remains.
I noted in a message posted by programmer Sergio Tacconi that he had assembled build #394 for our archive. We are saving about one archive build every day now, with many more playtest builds.
Age of Empires in Uruguay: Patrick Hudson is one of our two Executive Producers and in a past life he spent some time working in Uruguay. He was recently invited to return to Montevideo and be a judge in Uruguay’s second annual game development competition (there were sixteen entries). The contest was sponsored by one of the local game companies (Powerful Robot), the Uruguay government, and the US Embassy. Gonzalo Frasca of Powerful Robot was the chairman of the competition. While there Patrick was asked to give a presentation about Ensemble Studios to the attendees (about 120 people). He was amazed at the welcome he received and how knowledgeable the game community there was about our studio and our games.
For most gamers in the advanced nations of the world Uruguay sounds like a very exotic place, but Patrick’s photos and account of his trip made it appear like a game conference anywhere in the world. The city itself is located on the beaches of Rio de la Plata, the widest estuary in the world, and looks very inviting. Although proficient in Spanish, Patrick spoke in English with translation, but says most attendees listened to him in English. Here are photos of his visit, one of the audience, one of game developer Batovi Games, and a third of the recreation room at Powerful Robot (office is a converted home).
Best Microsoft Games of 2007: Last year was maybe Microsoft’s best year for publishing games and some (my local newspaper, for example) say it was the best year ever for video/computer games. One of the perks associated with working in games for Microsoft is receiving a copy of everything they publish. Since many of us worked in the past for companies that threw nickels around like they were manhole covers, these regularly appearing gifts are pretty sweet.
I did an informal survey asking everyone at Ensemble Studios to list their favorite games that our parent published last year, other than Halo 3 and The Asian Dynasties. Seven games got mentioned by at least one person and many people added comments on what made their choices favorites. Here is the result of my unscientific survey, in order of most popular, with some of the comments that came with the votes. (Disclaimer: Viva Piñata and Gears of War released originally on the X360 in 2006, but the PC in 2007. Most of us played the X360 versions.)
My whole family got to play together over Christmas vacation (we played with 4 teams of 2);
Was fun to actually have a game that my mom could play with us and compete in;
A fun game that anyone could enjoy;
Get a drink, some chips, and sit down and play;
Perfect game for movie nerds, groups, and family (wives).
Easily my favorite game from any publisher in 2007;
Awesomely fun to just navigate the world and full of quests you could give yourself through a really clever use of achievements;
Dizzying heights, spectacular jumps;
Incredibly visceral ‘platforming’ and combat that made you feel like a badass;
The way your character upgraded his abilities, and the way this increased your options while traversing and exploring the city, was very well executed;
It was clear that someone loved the idea of making jumping cool;
It’s fun beyond belief to jump around that city;
Best game ever for achievements;
Great sensation of power and freedom, and the whole orb-collecting RPG mechanic was a blast;
Generally just great mayhem and a fun game to pop in and just screw around;
Played with my daughter in sandbox mode and we laughed more in that game than we have in any game in a while.
I liked the universe;
It hit all the right notes to feel like epic science fiction, but was still something new that was fun to explore;
The music was particularly fitting- it had a really retro sci-fi feel without being too campy;
The various races, for being of the bumpy-headed alien school from Star Trek, had recognizable traits, characteristics, and histories ? I hope there is a chance to visit the universe again;
Great plot, wonderfully detailed world, and haunting music;
Great RPG and development of the ideas started in Knights of the Old Republic;
Overall experience was very enjoyable to the point of me starting over to explore choices not taken the first time through;
Delivered on story and setting.
Forza Motorsports 2:
Like it so much I bought the Forcefeedback wheel and a Playseat chair;
The car physics and driver AI is unmatched in the car sim racing world;
The car customization/painting feature delivered much more than anyone anticipated, allowing the user to paint “anything” on their car and share it with the world;
The auction house was also something not realized in console games previously;
Beautifully detailed simulation, great graphics, and a matchmaking system that generally kept me in competitive games.
The depth and polish on the game were very satisfying from the piñata ecology to the encyclopedia of all critters and their behaviors;
Excellent sounds and animations throughout;
A more freeform, creative, and less competitive game that spanned all age and experience groups.
Gears of War:
By FAR my household’s favorite.
My 11 year old son found it the PERFECT multiplayer game;
Age of Empires Collection Charity Auction: The large set of Age of Empires products we offered on e-Bay last month sold for $720, with 25 bids. The proceeds after e-Bay fees will go to Child’s Play, a non-profit group that donates toys and games to children’s hospitals. Thanks to the winner and other bidders.
Shooters Blues: We noted that two first-person shooter (FPS) titles with substantial expectations launched near the end of last year without making a big splash in sales. Rob Fermier, one of our Lead Programmers and a very active gamer, shared his opinions on what is going on.
Great graphics are no longer enough to propel PC game sales; Crysis was positioned as the best looking FPS ever but that was not enough.
FPS is a brutal market to be in; they aren’t cheap to make, there is a lot of competition, and even the best don’t sell well or have long shelf lives.
The “old” PC market is in pretty serious shambles compared to the sales of console games. Casual games, WoW, and a handful of older PC franchises still can move reasonable numbers, but no new intellectual property has been launched on the PC for years.
Way too many games are coming out in the holiday season; some games that came out recently might have done much better if not part of the huge glut; our industry needs to develop additional key release seasons, like Hollywood has.
Child’s Play Charity Auction: The guys at Penny Arcade have been raising money for a charitable program called Child’s Play for a while and this year we got on board. The Halo Wars team donated some original artwork for the live auction at the Child Play dinner next week in Seattle.
We are also auctioning off a group of 14 Age of Empires/Mythology items in one e-Bay lot that is live right now. Included are copies of all of our games and expansion packs, some “making of” DVDs, sound track CDs, and even the DS version of Age of Kings. We tried to get everyone available in our offices to sign most of these items. The proceeds from the sale, minus some minor fees, will go to children’s hospitals. Follow the links on our community page to learn more about Child Play and Penny Arcade. The e-Bay auction is here. http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=330195474269http://www.agecommunity.com/
Halo 3/Halo Wars Slurpee/Dorito Sweepstakes: We had in our offices this week the winners of a contest sponsored by 7-11 Stores and Mountain Dew. We believe several hundred thousand people entered the contest with the winner getting the opportunity to provide some voice acting for Halo Wars. A very thrilled young man from Oregon accompanied his mom to our offices this week. He had encouraged her to enter, as only adults could do the voice parts because of some legal requirements. They got a tour of the office and visited with some of the Halo Wars team, and then mom stepped up to the microphone for her video game debut. We think they had a great time.
iGames The Asian Dynasties Tournament: Check out the Age of Empires community site for more info and a link to this contest with a $3000 first prize. We will be following this tournament to see how the game is playing.
Day in the Life of Balance Tester Donnie Thompson: For those of you interested in what goes on inside a game development studio, I thought I would talk to some of my colleagues about what their typical day is like. For example, our balance team is responsible for testing our games for balance and fun, particularly at the high skill levels. We rely on them to tell us when the game is not working well and to uncover strategies that break the game. As you can see below, they are often in the front lines with gamers around the world, learning what people like and don’t like, which helps us with adjustments down the road.
This might sound like a particularly fun way to make a living so I asked Donnie if that was true and what his work life is like. Here is what he had to say.
The start of the day is typically spent either browsing community forums for Age of Empires III or playing it over ESO. I sometimes play on my ES tag, but more often I ‘smurf’ so I can get a game quicker and easier.
There are meetings constantly whether formal or informal. We typically have 2 formal meetings a week to discuss Halo Wars. The informal meetings are typically just us discussing things in either Age of Empires III or Halo Wars. I’d wager we spend the same amount of time debating things as we do playing .Jgames
We of course play games a lot, sometimes back to back to back; other times we play games then discuss them immediately afterwards before going back to playing. There are plenty of talented gamers here, as well as completely different play styles, so coming to an agreement can often be difficult.
A really cool thing to me is being able to see the people that when I was younger I could only read about (Greg Street, Kevin Holme, Ian Fischer, etc.). Being able to have conversations, and discuss game design with the people who created my favorite games of all time has been an awesome experience.
Lunch time generally involves a board game of some sort; it’s a good way for us to feed our competitive nature but in a way that doesn’t involve sitting at a computer desk.
There is plenty of bug finding/reporting going on, which in my opinion is the only part of the job that feels like ‘work’.
I constantly monitor Age of Empires III forums through the day and read people’s different opinions on the state of the game. As such I’ve almost become .Ja lightning rod for criticism and flaming
In my short time here (11 months) it seems there is a constant struggle between design and balance. We (balance) are usually pushing for things that would make the game more fun for the hardcore multiplayer community, while design remains very concerned about keeping the game fun for the larger casual gaming community as well. This debate comes into play in both Age of Empires III and Halo Wars almost daily. I never considered that there were trade-offs between the two camps before working here, but I understand now how these issues come up and why we work hard to find a good balance between them.
Ensemble Studios Gift Exchange: We held our Christmas gift exchange and office party last Friday. As is traditional now, whiskey (especially Crown Royal) was a popular gift and each bottle unwrapped was “stolen” the maximum three times before someone got to keep it.
The Osbourne’s Trivia Game was re-gifted for the umpteenth year in a row. I can trace the provenance back three years and thankfully each year we have newer employees who don’t recognize the box shape. The lucky owner for the next year is Andy Gotcher, a user interface artist on Halo Wars.
We set up Rock Band and the pounding of the drum pads was the background music for the event. There was a gingerbread house decorating contest, won by Josh Powers (Doug Marien and Woody Smith were runner-ups).
Here are a couple of pictures of the party. The first shows the proud Andy and his “special” gift. Our more formal Christmas party is coming up at a hotel downtown.
Vacation Clue #1: Here is one photo I took that is a first clue to where we went. A second hint is that the country we visited has been a playable civilization in several of the Age games.
The Asian Dynasties: Our community team tells us that the Thanksgiving weekend was a very busy one on ESO, with lots of games being played. For the first time we saw TAD numbers slightly higher than for Age of Empires III vanilla (the basic game) and The Warchiefs.
We also learned that The Asian Dynasties was ranked as the 16th best selling PC game in October, despite being for sale for just a few days in the period. Age of Empires III held in there at 15th, now in its third year after publication.
Our internal balance testing team is offering strategy tips on our community site. If you haven’t checked them out yet, go here.
Halo Wars: Playtesting of Halo Wars continues every day and the game is going through our design by playing process. We hope to have more to say about its progress early next year.
Buckeyes for Age Stuff: A while ago Woody Smith requested we all sign some game posters, which he sent on to his mom who works for a bank in Columbus, Ohio. The signed posters, some Age t-shirts, and some Age games were all placed in a charity auction the bank runs each year to support the United Way. Woody reports that the Age items raised $1400. As a token of appreciation, people at the bank sent us some buckeyes (chocolate and peanut butter candies). Real buckeyes are hard round black seeds found inside round seed casings on buckeye trees; apparently the seeds look like deer eyes.
Vacation Clue #3:
Very good, everyone. Yes, we went to Egypt for about 10 days, part of these in Cairo and part further up the Nile at various places. Overall it was an excellent trip and we learned quite a bit about both ancient and modern Egypt. This is the first of the ancient civilizations featured in the Age games that I have visited and it was amazing to see the well preserved artifacts in person.
My first OMG moment came as we drove across the modern city of Cairo to the west bank called Giza, through palm trees and buildings, when suddenly the Great Pyramid of Cheops loomed out of the haze, dwarfing everything nearby. I was blown away by how big it was and that sensation only grew as we walked up to it. This pyramid and its nearby companions are staggering man-made piles of stone and remarkably well preserved. It is hard to believe that they were built nearly 5000 years ago with no metal tools, no wheel, and no mortar. They truly are Wonders.
Photo number 1 above is the burial chamber entrance to the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, located a little upriver from Cairo. We were able to enter this pyramid and it was something I won’t forget soon. We climbed down backwards because of the steep and low shaft. We could stand up to our full height in two vaulted chambers inside. The powerful smell inside was of urine. You can check out what we saw here.
The second photo is of the Nile from the town of Luxor, looking west. In this photo you can see how dramatically the land changes from lush farmland watered by the river to the harsh Saharan desert. Located in those distant hills are both the Valley of the Queens and Valley of the Kings, the burial grounds for Pharaohs after they stopped building pyramid tombs. We were able to enter King Tutankhamen’s tomb and his mummy had just recently been returned there. It was very cool to walk down the passages excavated by Howard Carter, enter the rooms where he found the king and his treasures, and see the actual body of the boy king with our own eyes in his tomb. We had seen the treasures themselves at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo earlier. We got to Luxor by cruise ship after boarding at Aswan and sailing south for four days.
The third photo is of the smallest of the three major pyramids at Giza. I liked this picture the best because you can make out the city in the background and because of the tourists riding camels in the foreground.
If you get a chance to visit Egypt some day, I recommend the trip.
What ES is Playing: The game that a lot of Ensemble Studios people seem to be playing and enjoying right now is Rock Band. Guitar Hero has gotten a lot of play time in the past so it is understandable that the same crowd would jump at the chance to be other parts of a band. We have had a variety of messages arranging groups to meet online after hours. Two ES band names that I noticed were the Metric Frijoles and El Stealer de Kibbles.
Empire Earth III: We looked over some of the reviews of this new RTS release and note that overall the response is not very positive. The first edition of this game was developed by Stainless Steel Studios founded by one of our ex-colleagues, Rick Goodman, who had been the lead designer on the original Age of Empires. Empire Earth I did very well worldwide and it looked like it was poised to launch another quality RTS franchise. Rick and his studio lost control of the game to their publisher, however, for reasons not clear to us, and the game was turned over to other developers.
The apparent decline of the Empire Earth franchise must be a disappointment to everyone involved, although mediocre reviews don’t necessarily translate into mediocre sales and it is early yet for the third version.
I was a guest at Stainless Steel twice and they seemed like talented and passionate team, but now they are gone. Considering the plight of their promising studio and the franchise they created should encourage everyone at Ensemble Studios to be thankful for the colleagues, leadership, and partners we have, and to feel good about how together we have kept our franchise moving in a positive direction.
The Asian Dynasties Launches: Jim Ying of our marketing group sent us the official launch news last week and the reviews have been coming in since. First, a big thanks to the Big Huge Games guys for making a fine addition to the Age series. We think they worked fast and efficiently to bring this to conclusion and put together a nice mixture of old and new ideas. We think all Age 3 fans will enjoy giving it a try and exploring the new content. The Japanese remain my favorite of the new civilizations to play, and that opinion seemed to be supported by two of our balance team, Zeke Marks and Donnie Thompson. We’ll have to see what you think when you start playing.
Our community team told us that by October 29th ESO showed over 3000 TAD accounts and 400 TAD players online.
The Asian Dynasties Reviews: Our community support guys are trying to keep up to date with reviews as they appear. Check out the Age of Empires community site for links. The ones I have read are very positive and I hope they will encourage you to give it a try. Go here to get the links.
Age of Empires 10 Year Anniversary: This October marks the 10th anniversary of the original Age of Empires launch, a big day in the lives of everyone then working at Ensemble Studios. In commemoration, we are posting some interviews with colleagues who were working here at the time. You can read these at the community site link above.
I have been asked about the creation of the first game a lot recently. One thing that stands out for me is how many aspects of that game we got right without really understanding their importance. One of these was choosing a history based topic rather than fantasy or science fiction like our competitors. Another was the bright and realistic look pushed by Studio Head/Art Director Tony Goodman. Another was committing ourselves to making a really quality game. We were lucky to have Microsoft’s support to take the extra time to do that.
We also built a strong feature list that was a blend of what was expected from RTS and some new things. I remember making lists of the key features in Warcraft/Warcraft II and Command & Conquer, and these features were our minimum bar to attain. We had to be as good as those games in most of the areas where they were strong. Then we made a list of good game features that were not in those games and these were our opportunity to innovate in the genre. Features on this list included randomly generated maps, levels of difficulty, a more robust economy, a non-cheating artificial intelligence, wonders, and multiple paths to victory. We know now that taking these various steps set up Age of Empires to be recognizably different at a high level, and an innovative and fresh experience at the gameplay level.
Even though our plan was good, we still had to deliver and make a quality game. The last nine months were a tough slog that would be unthinkable today, but key people worked incredibly long and hard to make the vision a reality. Tony did an amazing job of filling critical holes in our staff with people who could do the job. Most of the people who had a key role in creating Age of Empires in 1997 are still with the company and continue to fill important roles for us.
Age of Empires Anniversary Image Contest: Check out our Age community site for details on a new contest in commemoration of the 10 year anniversary. We believe the contest is so broad that anyone can enter. One of the prizes is a copy of the Age of Empires board game.
Home City Creation Change: We have just implemented a change in the way that players who have been playing online for some time create new Home Cities. The idea is to avoid much of the slog to take a new city from level zero up to a competitive level. The new system allows you to create a new Home City at a level very close to the highest one you currently have. There is also an increase in the amount of XP you get in games. We hope these changes will remove some tedium for experienced players and encourage people to try more civilizations. Check out the changes in this forum post.
More Driving Adventures for Justin: A while ago I mentioned Justin Randall driving by an explosive fire on the way to work and how the story made CNN. Earlier this month he and Vijay Thakkar found a funnel cloud in the rear view mirror, not far from our office.
Halo Wars Television News Coverage: A local Dallas television program, the CW, recently sent a crew to our studio for a story on Halo Wars, following up the recent headlines about Halo 3. The film crew spent some time with Graeme Devine and Colt McAnlis. The story was picked up by other network stations around the country. If you missed it you can check it out on the website of Denver’s ABC affiliate here.
ES Halloween Party: This was a fun afternoon event of “food and fellowship”, in the words of our IT head, Roy Rabey. Thanks go mainly to our office team, led by Office Manager Lizette Atkinson. Yes, there were some costumes. Here is a photo of the Mike Coker and his family, who really got into the spirit of the party, and a second photo giving an overall view. Thanks to Roy for getting me the images.
The Asian Dynasties Trial Version: We had over 26,000 downloads of the trial version from our community site in its first four days. There are maybe a dozen different sites where you can get it. Check out our site forums for opinions of the trial version as people try it out. The game itself has gone gold and is working through the duplication and packaging process.
The WarChiefs at World Cyber Games: Our expansion pack to Age of Empires III was one of the competitive events at this year’s WCG and our own Greg Street was there. He had not been at one of these major competitions in a while and was very impressed with the changes he saw:
• Korean, Italian, and Mexican teams in matching team jackets and warm-up suits.
• Big matches being played on a huge stage with the competitors in soundproof booths draped with their country’s flag.
• Three 70 foot video screens were available for the audience supported by play-by-play commentary in various languages.
• Lots of cheering and national flag waving for exciting game events.
• When someone typed “gg” (good game) and quit, fireworks went off.
• Excellent facilities at Qwest Field.
Congrats to iamgrunt from Korea (South), who defeated the US representative, parfait, in the best of three final of The Warchiefs competition. Iamgrunt is a past WCG champion in other Age game competitions. Greg says our game was played off the main floor and accessible only to competitors. But he noted that Microsoft had a significant presence as a sponsor, including a half dozen Forza cars on display and The Asian Dynasties available for playing by visitors. Overall, Greg thought the entire event was very polished and professional.
Next year the WCG moves to Germany. Go here to see all the events and photos from 2007.
The Warchiefs Championship Replay: Our friends at Heavengames.com have posted a replay of the first game from the WCG final. One of our moderators, Milo, a highly ranked player in his own right, was on hand to watch the game being played and stepped in to give better commentary than originally being offered.
Both finalists were playing as Dutch, but employed different strategies. Parfait went to the Fortress Age and began making cannons and Ruyters, while iamgrunt made mostly skirmishers and did raiding in the Colonial Age. I hear the game was somewhat slow reaching a conclusion, as both players jockeyed for advantage while being careful not to risk destruction of their main army. One of our guys who watched the replay to completion was not sure what compelled parfait to resign. Maybe you can figure it out.
Greg Street on Age of Empires III: Greg was the Lead Designer on Age of Empires III and he was invited to speak at a conference in Seattle tied to the WCG. He gave some background on Ensemble Studios, the history of the Age of Empires franchise, and our development philosophy, but the bulk of his remarks centered on the design of Age of Empires III, and the many changes it went through during development.
Pre-Design: Greg noted several of the challenges he and the team faced up front.
• The press had recently said that real-time strategy (RTS) was dead as a genre with no significant innovation in sight.
• Our team was somewhat burned out on historical RTS, even though Age of Mythology had been a departure.
• Was the Age of Discovery interesting enough as a topic?
• How do we handle Native Americans and slavery?
• How do we hit Studio Head Tony Goodman’s sweet spot: a combination of familiar old Age play with innovation to make the game fresh, but not too much of either?
Proposed Design Solutions: Greg and his design team came up with several ideas for these and other challenges in the design proposal.
• Make a really revolutionary RTS (this did not work out; too unlike Age).
• Emphasize what is cool in the time period (cannons, pirates).
• Native Americans as allies, not obstacles.
• Ignore the atrocities (we’re making entertainment, not teaching).
Big Design Features: As the design plan came together the team settled on six main features, only three of which made it to the finish.
• Out: victory points (studio split about 50-50 in favor or against)
• In: Home City
• In: Native Americans to augment your civilization as allies
• Out: Formation based combat (too difficult to polish in time left)
• Out: Grand conquest meta-game (low priority)
• In: Best-looking game ever (self challenge set by programming and art teams)
Greg mentioned examples of other innovations that did not stand up once they got into our design by playing process. These included changing the first 15 minutes of play, which had been comparable in all previous Age games. Changing this moved the game too far from being an Age game. Having players start on a ship and then land/explore/start was too risky and made losing early too easy. Allowing fighting early also meant losing early was too large a possibility. Building cities on a grid may have resulted in prettier cities, but was confusing, hard to implement, and less personal/fun for players. Innovations that did stick included allowing the training of soldiers in batches (appealed to hard core but casual gamers could ignore it), no drop sites for resources (less micromanagement), passable forests, story based campaign (more interesting), and personalities for the computer players (artificial intelligences).
Critical Reaction: After Age of Empires III got into the hands of reviewers and millions of gamers we got feedback on the decisions that we had made. Things we learned included these.
• The user interface was too big and blocked too much of the playable screen (optional minimal screen was quickly implemented).
• The Home Cities were fun (took us over a dozen iterations).
• More game modes and options would have been better.
• We really wanted a new combat look and feel.
• The story based campaigns were a good idea.
• Despite a changing PC game market, quality RTS games still sell well and have a long shelf life when supported with expansion packs, patches, and additional content.
The Asian Dynasties News Coming: Stay tuned to the Age of Empires community site for breaking news about release dates, etc. It’s all good.
The Asian Dynasties in Japan: While in Tokyo for a conference related to the Tokyo Game Show I also got an opportunity to show The Asian Dynasties to key Japanese media. I’m happy to say that they seemed pleased with the way Big Huge Games had represented their country’s history in the expansion pack. Japan is in the top 15, or so, of the markets for Age of Empires games. As part of my presentation at the conference I gave a brief demonstration of the game. I got the biggest response when I ordered villagers or soldiers to move. When they spoke in Japanese the audience found it very amusing.
Tokyo Game Show: I got to the show for the first day when crowds were light. The Microsoft booth was popular, with many people watching trailers and stage shows, and reasonable lines for the 10 Halo 3 machines. The Asian Dynasties was available for play in the Game for Windows area with staff available there to help people get into it. Our colleagues there are already working on the localized version, so I had some fun playing with Japanese text while trying to remember what everything did. The multiple show halls were warm and hand fans were favored give-away items. No Nintendo or EA presence, which has been the policy of those companies for a while now. Here is a virtual tour of the Microsoft booth, courtesy of IGN.
Playing Japan: In The Asian Dynasties I am most comfortable right now playing Japan for several reasons. First, I like the way their Shrines (houses) provide a trickle of wood, food, or gold. As a casual gamer, it is easy for me to find myself short of one resource or another and the Shrines let me address that quickly. Second, I like the Japanese Wonders. The Toshogu Shrine, for example, supports population itself and improves the resource generation of all Shrines, which helps me with my economy and pop cap. The Shogunate wonder decreases the training time and cost of land military units, and provides a Daimyo. The Great Buddha wonder has the power to reveal for a short time all enemies. It is also the only wonder that I have personally seen. I believe the Great Buddha is based on the massive bronze Buddha monument at the temple of Kamakura, which I visited in 2002. Kamakura was briefly the capital of Japan, some time ago.
Third, I like the Japanese units, especially the Samurai. They just seem tough against anything, especially in quantity (surprise). Their elite Hatamoto Samurai, available only during Isolation, seem particularly tough. Fourth, their Home City cards can be sent twice in most cases and there is at least one good cavalry card that can be sent unlimited times. Finally, I like the Daimyo units as leaders that can build new units and to whom Home City shipments can be sent. They are like mobile Barracks that provide reinforcements at the point of battle, another useful feature for a casual player. Daimyo units also boost the effectiveness of all nearby friendly units. They will probably have short lives in multi-player games because they are so valuable.
Embargoed in Iran: We recently received a plea from gamer in Tabriz, Iran, who wanted help obtaining a legitimate copy of either Age of Empires III or Age of Mythology. He has been playing all of our games thanks to pirated copies but could not get online for multiplayer without legitimate discs. He has a friend with a credit card but can’t find any business that will ship a game to his country. We read about trade embargos and never think of how they affect little things like wanting to buy a computer game. A situation like this is another reason to be thankful for living in free and open democratic society.
Age of Empires III in Top Ten: Voodoo Extreme’s list of the top twenty best selling PC games had Age of Empires III #7 for August. We believe that the popular MMORPGs are pushing down on the sales of other PC games right now, but we’re happy to see ours holding up well years after initial release. Strategy games or expansion packs made up 25% of the top 20, with MMORPGs strong and even a few shooters present. The new Bioshock was #1.
Halo 3 at ES: We received our copies of Halo 3 and were playing on launch day. The consensus is that Bungie did a great job and really nailed this game. Our guys were having fun playing the campaign in co-op mode in particular. Dave Pottinger commented that the second half of the final mission was fantastic in co-op (“a good 30 minutes of constant laughing and flat-out fun”). Bryan Hehmann was in the same four-player group with Dave and reported that taking part in that game was his best experience so far on the Xbox 360.
Hobby Games/The 100 Best- Sandy Petersen: I read my copy of this book during my flights to Tokyo and back. The authors had just recently learned who else was writing and what games were covered. Not only did Sandy write one of the essays (on the Avalon Hill card game Up Front), but two games he designed or co-designed (both role-playing games) were in the 100: Call of Cthulhu and Ghostbusters. He was in the credits for two other games on the list, but not as a designer. Sandy has been with Ensemble Studios for over 10 years and was the Lead Designer on both The Rise of Rome and The Warchiefs expansion packs.
The Asian Dynasties Wrapping Up: Big Huge Games and our testers, both here and in Redmond, are working through the final testing of The Asian Dynasties. Our test regimens are very rigorous and the standards at Microsoft are very high for shipping software, so publication is not imminent, but soon. It’s looking and playing great.
The Asian Dynasties Campus Visit: The Games for Windows group in Redmond invited several key media outlets to their campus to see first hand the latest update for the coming expansion packs for both Flight Simulator and Age of Empires III. Brian Reynolds and Ike Ellis of Big Huge Games were there to discuss The Asian Dynasties specifically and I was asked to talk about how the expansion fits into the Age series. Ike was the lead designer for Big Huge. The journalists present were Jason Ocampo of Gamespot, Thierry Nguyen of GameTap, and Andy Mahood from PC Gamer. Ike gave a brief demo of the game, while Brian and I talked about the overall plan, how our studios came to work together, and how we felt about the project now that it is coming to conclusion. I reiterated our position that the business case for another Age of Empires III expansion pack was strong, but we didn’t have the people to do it.
Fortunately, Big Huge Games was still near the beginning of their next big project and had some resources available. Plus, they were big fans of the Age series and obviously skilled in the real-time strategy genre. The journalists got in some hands on play and then had an opportunity to ask us all questions.
At one point we were asked if we each had a favorite civilization and we replied completely unrehearsed, India (Ike), China (Brian), and Japan (me). Ike’s short answer for why he liked the Indian’s was elephants. I don’t recall Brian’s reason for choosing China. (I like Japan because their economy just seems powerful with their Shrines [houses] generating the resource of your choice; my Samurai units seem to be able to fight anything; and I like the fact Japanese Home City cards are repeatable.) So, based on this small sample, The Asian Dynasties appears perfectly balanced J, despite my bias. While Big Huge and our balance test team have worked hard to get the new civilizations into balance with the existing ones from the original game and The WarChiefs, I won’t be surprised if we have to make some adjustments after the game gets into the hands of the gaming public.
You can read comments from two of the journalists here.
Halo Wars on Spike TV’s Gamehead: The Gamehead program is doing a one hour Halo 3 launch special, plus scattered additional interviews, on September 25th and Halo Wars will be part of this. A Gamehead crew visited our offices and spent time with the team, particularly lead designer Graeme Devine. We don’t know how much mention our game will get but they got a lot of material to work with.
Halo Wars in Vegas, Baby: Bill Jackson of our team and Josh Goldberg from our marketing group in Redmond traveled to sin city to present Halo Wars to about 5000 Gamestop store managers at their annual convention. Our game was part of a larger keynote from Microsoft Game Studios, led by Shane Kim. Also represented were Halo 3 (obviously) and Mass Effect. Bill reported the crowd was big, loud, and scary (in a good way). Bill drove the demo while Josh described the action. The crowd apparently responded positively and loudly to exploding methane tanks, grunt bowling, details like grenades, and the Scarab. Our guys got an awesome applause when they finished. The MGS show finished with a Halo 3 multiplayer demo, which rocked the house. Our company message was that Halo 3 is coming and will be the biggest game launch ever (and the Gamespot people agreed), but that we have great games coming next year also.
ES Chatter This Week: The longest work related email thread this week concerned the forthcoming Halo 3 ad campaigns. Some liked them and some hated them, but most seemed to watch them, which I guess is the idea. There was also a lot of interest in the Halo 3 diorama (12 feet tall and 1200 square feet in area) and cartoons making fun of in-game advertising. Halo 3 is not going to be surprise to people with a pulse. The longest non-work related thread concerned melting arctic ice caps and the effects of that on weather and sea levels. Many people got engaged in a serious conversation about the phenomena and its effects, but we have our jokers. We’re nothing if not hip around here and our threads usually end up with Photo Shopped cat pictures. Paul Bettner noted that he wasn’t impressed with the arctic ice cap thread’s “start to cat” time of almost two hours.
A Thinking Gamer’s RTS Wish List: A funny (and adult language) list of things one gamer would like to see fixed in real-time strategy games was recently spotted online by our Chris Van Doren and he passed the link around. This particular list is focused on the forthcoming Starcraft II, but the comments have been given some thought and are relevant to all games in the genre. Having struggled with some of these issues, we understand that there are not easy solutions to some of them. Check the list here.
Hobby Games-The 100 Best: The book of 100 best hobby games (board, paper, card) that several us at ES contributed to has received the first review that I’ve seen, and it’s very positive (A Wonderful Book). I got my copy this week and look forward to reading it.
RTS Console Controls: Our Halo Wars team has put a big effort into the controls for this game because we want playing an RTS on the X360 to be easy and intuitive. We started the research on this project several years ago by actually reprogramming Age of Mythology to be playable with a console controller. When designer/programmer Tim Deen proved he could play Age of Mythology faster with the controller than with a mouse/keyboard, we felt confident we could create a full-blown console RTS.
Asian Dynasties Popular in Leipzig: Our producer on this project, Brian Lemon, says that whenever he checked our Asian Dynasties stations at the Leipzig game show were busy. This show is open to the public so anyone attending could walk up to a machine and start a skirmish game or play one of the early scenarios in the single player campaign. Most of the show feedback will probably be posted on the Internet in German, unfortunately.
Vote Your Prediction for Halo Wars Sales: At a website called the Simexchange site members can vote on the number of sales they predict for Halo Wars and other games. Voters are currently predicting sales of 2.2 million for Halo Wars (and nearly 10 million for Halo Wars 3), for example. The Halo Wars numbers may have gotten a boost from the recent E3 and Leipzig PR campaigns, plus the imminent release of Halo 3. This site is a variation on similar sites used to predict a variety of things, including most famously, political elections. These experiments support the phenomena called the wisdom of crowds and when enough people take part they are often uncannily close to what really happens. Go to this site and search for Halo Wars.
Age of Empires R-P-S Combat System: During the German Game Developer’s Conference I got into a number of discussions that recalled the development of the first Age of Empires game, including one about the rocks-paper-scissors combat system. For combat in that first game we used a system where infantry (rocks) beat cavalry (scissors) beat archers (paper) beat infantry. The question we had to resolve then was how badly rocks broke scissors, etc. We felt that if rocks were two or three times better than scissors, for example, that would skew the game more toward hard core gamers, since they would really benefit from understanding the relationships and achieving favorable combat situations in play. In contrast, a very low advantage, say only 25 percent, would make the game easier for casual gamers since they would barely notice that rocks were beating scissors and didn’t have to carefully match their units against opponents.
In the end we decided that the advantage would be around 30 to 50 percent. We felt this would not greatly penalize the casual gamer but was enough of an advantage to pay off for the hard core gamer who could micro-manage his battles. This was a good decision looking back now, as it fell in line with our goal of building a game that had wide appeal. Discussing other RTS games at the conference many people thought that many were too hard for casual gamers and that difficulty limited their success. As the Age of Empires series went forward, we expanded the R-T-S system with counter units but never let the system skew too far toward hard core games only.
Age III Board Game Development Team: I got together with the people mainly responsible for creating the Age of Empires III board game for our first game together since the game shipped. The creative team is in the photo below. Left to right they are Keith Blume (marketing, plus responsible for rule and outside playtests); Glenn Drover (designer of the game and President of Eagle Games until it folded); Paul Niemeyer (artist responsible for most of the art in the game); Jack Provenzale (friend of the company very active in testing and suggesting rules changes). I took three photos and Glenn’s eyes were closed in all three.
The board game continues to rank very high at boardgamegeeks.com and the first print run is close to selling out. ES designer Sandy Petersen tells us that he has been playing the game quite a bit lately with friends and considers it the best of the Eagle games.
100 Best Hobby Games: Green Ronin Publishing released at Gencon their new book listing the best hobby games of all time (board, paper, and card games). Each game is described in an essay written by people from the industry. ES’ers Sandy Petersen, Paul Jaquays, and I contributed essays, Paul’s about Runequest, Sandy’s about Up Front, and mine about Acquire. I was not aware of who else was writing or what games were included until recently. I doubt I have played even half the games on the list, which give me something to look forward to. Check out the list of games included and the authors here.
Scouts: August 1 was the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts, started at Brownsea Island, England, by Lord Baden Powell. On a whim I took an informal poll of our studio and learned that nearly 20% of our employees were Cub, Boy, Girl, or Explorer Scouts and some are active in the program as adults. That’s a lot of exposure to outdoor adventure and leadership training for a group that might be expected to have been spending their free time with game consoles and PCs.
We have at least two Eagle Scouts, Artist Pete Parisi and Designer Sandy Petersen, and Sandy’s four sons are Eagle Scouts also. Most respondents have very good memories of their Scouting experiences (for Tim Deen, hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim in five days, for example).
Asian Dynasties at Leipzig Game Show: Microsoft has set up four stations at this show where press and the public can walk up and play. They expect to have tens of thousands of consumers pass through here over the next few days. My camera quality is not great, but here is a photo of the Asian Dynasties stations. In this photo the station to the left is actually showing Settlers VI, but it was changed over to the Asian Dynasties.
Halo Wars at Leipzig: Harter Ryan (Executive Producer) and Brian Lemon (Assistant Producer) are here to give Halo Wars demos to the media. They are set up in a conference room in the business center area of the show, away from the big halls where the companies have their big displays. Here is a photo of the Halo Wars demo room, all set up and ready for the first of 40 odd meetings over the next few days. The X360 development kit that will run the game is out of the picture to the bottom left. In the photo from left to right are Studio Head Tony Goodman and his wife Suzanne, Harter, Brian, and Jim Ying of Microsoft Game Studios, responsible for marketing our games.
German Game Developer’s Conference: Over the three days leading up to the Leipzig game show there has been for several years now a developer conference. Tony Goodman and I both accepted invitations to speak this year. I gave a solo presentation on designing games by playing them, basically the process we have used since the start of our studio to make all the Age games (prototype as quickly as possible and then play the game daily, make changes based on testing feedback, and rapidly build new versions for more testing). Tony, me, and Brian Sullivan, co-founder of Ironlore Entertainment, took part in a panel that looked back on the development of the original Age of Empires game, published ten years ago. Rick Goodman, Lead Designer of that game, was unable to attend, unfortunately.
This conference has grown in a few years to become one of the best in the world. There were about 900 attendees, a good mix of speakers, plenty of space and time for networking, and a real international flavor with developers from many different countries.
Several friends I used to work with were speakers and it was great to catch up with them. These included Doug Whately of BreakAway Games (ex-Microprose), Jennifer MacLean of Comcast (ex-Microprose), Tim Train of Big Huge Games (ex-Microprose), and Brian Sullivan and Jeff Goodsill of Ironlore (ex-ES). I also caught Jeff Strain of Arena.net (Guild Wars) speaking on the future of MMOs. Jeff and our Greg Street (Age of Empires III Lead Designer) have been friends since childhood.
Age of Empires Ten Year Retrospective: Our GGDC panel looking back on the start of ES and the development of our first game drew an SRO crowd and was apparently well received, based on feedback we received afterward. It would have been better if more ES’ers from those early years could have taken part. Questions we fielded from moderator Stephen Butts covered topics like how did we decide on the topic for the game, why did the game become such a success, how has the Age of Empires series changed over the years, and what issues did we particularly struggle with making the first game.
It struck me later that most of us involved in making Age of Empires were champions of some really bad ideas, but that as a group we weeded those out and ended up with a great game. Here are some of the things that came out of the panel discussions.
Topic: Tim Deen had insisted we play the original Warcraft and after that we came up with the idea of an RTS based in history, drawing on ideas from the game Civilization.
Focus: Tony lobbied for a shorter time frame and we decided on the rise of the first great civilizations on earth; my idea of starting the game with the map partially covered with ice that melted off (the end of the Ice Age) was correctly dumped; the early tech tree was multiple pages long and Brian pushed hard for a much smaller one; the original concept was a game that might take 8-10 hours to play but many people pushed for average lengths no longer than one hour for multi-player online.
Graphic Look: We went with the detailed, realistic look; Tony forced a brighter palette very late in the project, wanting to create a game that people would want to get into, rather than a dark, forbidding place that people would want to get out of.
Broad Appeal: We did a good job of creating a game that included enough different experiences inside the same box that the game appealed to players across world markets and game tastes, with everyone feeling they got a good value.
Different and Innovative: At a high level Age of Empires was different from the competition (including 50+ RTS games also in development in 1997) in both topic and look; at the game play level we were innovative enough to be a new experience for RTS players (random maps, non-cheating AI, levels of difficulties, Wonders, multiple paths to victory); we borrowed from other games but did not imitate them.
Artist Candidates: When trying to hire our first artist, Tony asked candidates to create an animated walking man; Brad Crow did the best animation and became the first artist hired at ES; Brad is one of our lead artists.
Quality: The team kept committed to quality throughout, even though that put a tremendous strain on everyone down the stretch.
Management: Tony, Rick, and Brian all had experience managing teams on multi-million dollar software projects and that experience helped us manage the game and studio; many start-up developers suffer for not having equivalent management experience.
At least one account of the panel discussion has appeared online that you can check out here.
Asian Dynasties Blogs: Our friends at Big Huge Games have started publishing some blogs on their experience developing the Asian Dynasties expansion on IGN. These should be interesting reading for Age of Empires fans. Check them out here.