Asian Dynasties in Polish Mode: We recently got a look at box covers to be used in different parts of the world and a new version of the trailer. Big Huge Game is completing the content and polishing what is there. We are waiting to hear how much of a presence the Asian Dynasties will have at the Leipzig Game Show, the year’s biggest European trade show for games.
Our internal balance test team reported recently that in their opinion Asian Dynasties is on the right track and is reasonably balanced. There are no known critical bugs or balance issues blocking progress. They are aware of a number of smaller issues that need attention but feel that the condition of the Y pack is comparable to both Age of Empires III and The Warchiefs at a similar time.
Patch 1.04/1.12: This patch for The Warchiefs and Age of Empires III has been tied off for balance and feature coding. It is now going through hardware testing and localization into languages other than English. Sometime during the week of July 30th we expect to post notes previewing the patch, which we hope to publish a few weeks later. Check out our community site for the latest news.
Halo Wars Nominated for E3 Award: Congrats to our Halo Wars team for creating a great demo and to Chris Rippy and Graeme Devine for keeping their energy up through all those presentations. That work has paid off with the game being named as one of the five nominees for Best Strategy Game at E3. It is nice to see that the X360 led all platforms with 38 nominations and that Microsoft had a good showing with 8 nominations. Check out the other nominees here at Kotaku.
Peter Moore Leaves Microsoft for EA: Peter was the executive at Microsoft who ran the games and Xbox group, two down from CEO Steve Balmer. We were part of Peter’s organization. We were as stunned as the rest of the gaming world when news came out that he was moving to EA to take over their sports game group. We have a lot of respect for Peter and were happy with his leadership. We wish him the best.
Microsoft’s XNA at SMU’s Guildhall: Microsoft is partnering with this academic institution in our home town to experiment with and improve XNA, a tools and technology program especially targeted toward game developers. XNA was created with amateur game designers in mind, but this new relationship opens the possibilities of it becoming a useful tool for teaching and professional game development. Several people at Ensemble Studios have offered support to the Guildhall since the inception of its game development curricula.
Global Growth of PC Installed Base: Patrick Hudson, the guy who watches the numbers for us (among many other roles), recently passed around links to stories about the explosive growth now underway in the number of PCs in use around the world. Forrester Research predicts one billion PCs in use worldwide by the end of 2008 and 2.25 billion by 2015, up from 775 million today. Most of that growth will be coming from China, India, Brazil, and Eastern Europe. These same areas are showing big growth in online gaming, as well. Catching this wave will be a big challenge for game companies, but Blizzard has demonstrated already that it can be done (we hear there are 9 million WoW accounts worldwide now).
Mountain Dew Game Fuel: Pepsi has announced a new soft drink by this name that it plans to launch in partnership with the X360. I like the Dew, though I drink sodas rarely these days, but I think it is cool that sharp marketers like the Pepsi people want to brand up with my company’s game machine.
Guess What Book ES’ers Are Reading? Certainly not everyone is reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but quite a few are. Within three days of publication Dave Pottinger passed around his opinion that he was happy with the book half way through but that the last 100 pages made it one of the best final books of a long series ever (“Really. Read it.”). Paul Jaquays read it straight through (with a break for sleep) and concurred with Dave’s opinion. Karen Swanson found the book very moving in many places. My wife and I are good for maybe 2-3 chapters a night, obviously way behind Charles Tinney and . Anyone in game development or another creative enterprise shouldJhis fiancébe considering what makes these stories so entertaining and popular.
Germany’s GameStar Magazine Turns 10: While PC magazines fade away in some parts of the world, they’re still big in Germany. GameStar, Germany’s largest PC game magazine by circulation for 7 years, turns 10 in August and we sent them a congratulatory note. Their reporters have always been prepared and knowledgeable. They are the only magazine that asked to take video of our studio at work. Many of their articles on the Age series are framed on our walls. Their GameStar Awards for games are prestigious and they recently started a magazine about game development called /GameStar/dev. Our games and their magazine have grown up at the same time. We wish them the best for the next 10 years and beyond.
Drive to Work/Get on CNN.Com: Justin Randall was approaching an acetylene gas storage facility in Dallas when it started exploding and he was quick to get some video with his cell phone. When pieces of flaming debris the size of car mufflers started falling nearby he tossed the phone aside and wove his way to the office. His experience made it to the front of page of CNN.com together with other eye-witness accounts. Patrick Hudson chastised him for not getting Halo Wars mentioned in the story or at least splicing a screenshot into his falling debris video J. Here’s a phone interview with his video.
Halo Wars Web Site Live: Our community team, lead by Oscar Santos, got our site up recently and it is just in time to provide links to the incoming E3 coverage. We like the site a lot and will be using it to keep you informed of progress on this big title.
Halo Wars at E3: This once huge industry trade show may be a shadow of its former self but it is still a key opportunity to get new games in front of the world game press. Our team worked hard preparing a special demo for the event. After a wow preview for the entire studio last week, it was carried to Santa Monica by Producer Chris Rippy and Lead Designer Graeme Devine. Their brief reports so far suggest they put in long hours showing the game to a steady stream of media reps. Our community team is trying to list the many links to comments on the game published so far (see the link above).
Graeme and Chris sent us several messages over the course of the show. After the opening night Microsoft Game Studios press briefing, Chris and Graeme rushed back to the hotel suite to be available for demos. Microsoft’s PR team brought up Electronic Gaming Monthly first and a steady stream followed until about 1 AM local time. They went on to do more demos from 1-6 Wednesday, Thursday 9-6, and Friday 9-2 (Chris told us that he believed that over 300 journalists stopped by, mostly in groups). That is a lot of meetings, but Graeme and Chris both reported the demo was being very, very well received. We hope that shows up in the coverage. Graeme’s big complaint was that the nearest Starbucks was a mile away.
Here is a photo Graeme sent us of the demo set up. The extra dev kits were a precaution but were never needed.
Asian Dynasties News: There is lots of news about our Y pack of late, including an interview with Brian Reynolds of Big Huge Games (developers of Asian Dynasties), the box art, a trailer for the game, and some reports on E3 from Producer Brian Lemon. You can out check all of this at our Age of Empires community site. We continue to be very positive about this expansion to Age of Empires III. It is coming together well and is a real Age of Empires game.
Halo Wars Controls: A big concern when moving the real-time strategy genre to the X360 is how the controller will replace all the input available on the PC from the mouse and keyboard. We have designed Halo Wars from the ground up to be a console game and work effectively with a controller. At E3 Chris and Graeme demonstrated the new control system as a key feature. We were pleased to read that Gamestop and others were picking up on the basic control system.
Harsh on Paul Barnett: A few blogs ago I called attention to some of Paul’s web videos related to working in the game industry, but I completely missed that they were made with tongue firmly in cheek (“flippant, irreverent, anecdotal, British styled humor”). Paul has put me straight and I promised to correct my error. Paul was concerned that his mum might think he was an idiot. I made the mistake of taking the videos out of context from his pod casts and video diaries, that you can check out here.
The Warchiefs Mac Version: Graham Somers pointed out that the version of the X pack is now available. All of the Age of Empires games have been converted to the Mac so far and I believe they are some of the more popular games on that platform.
Age of Empires III User Education Award: The Quick Reference and Manual has received an Excellence Award from the Society for Technical Communication’s International Publications Communication Competition. We understand that only four software guides in the world received awards this year (three Excellence and one Distinguished). Our publishing team puts a lot of effort into making these aids easy to use yet informative and it’s nice to see them get recognition. Congrats to Brent Metcalfe, Jack Turk, and their colleagues in publishing, plus our people who provided much of the content and reviewed the materials many times.
Inline for IPhones: You would expect to find some hardware fans among 100+ game developers and we have our quota at Ensemble Studios. Programmer Paul Bettner and Studio Head Tony Goodman were both in line all day at a Dallas Apple store to get their IPhones, and offered by email back to our offices the second one they were allowed to buy. Both were taken J.
Games Outside of Work: Getting a lot of comment lately is the new Xbox Live Arcade game Pacman Championship Edition. In Dave Pottinger’s opinion, it’s pretty close to a perfect single player XBLA game. He finds it “just flat-out superior to the original game” and a terrific example of how to make a sequel totally different without complicating it too much.
Pro Gaming Presses Start Button: A professional gaming league, The Championship Gaming Series, recently started its season. There are six teams of ten players each and they will compete twice a week on DirectTV channel 101. Players are guaranteed $30k for the season but they are eligible for substantial bonuses.
I first became aware of professional gaming in South Korea where there have been Starcraft leagues and televised matches with commentary for many years. I have my doubts that this will be a big success in North America or Europe, mainly because young people there have so many entertainment options that I doubt that a sufficient audience can be built to support the enterprise. It is cool that people are trying this, however. If it is the next big thing it could put even more emphasis on competitive multi-player for future games.
Game Developers Aren’t Immortal: I guess that most of the people at Ensemble Studios would chart plus or minus 5 years of 30 years old. With that demographic you rarely think of retirement, much less mortality. But Shane Kim, head of Microsoft Game Studios, last week informed us that Lee Burns, an artist at our sister studio Rare in Britain, had just passed away after a courageous fight with illness. We work at play to a certain extent, but this news should be a reminder that our opportunities and longevity are not unlimited.
Brian Reynolds on the Asian Dynasties-India: IGN has posted an interview with Brian Reynolds, studio head at Big Huge Games, discussing the Y pack for Age of Empires III. I had the Indian civilization in mind a while ago when I mentioned that I thought one would be a surprise to most of you. I am happy to see India make an appearance in one of our Age games. It has been considered before and was a reasonable candidate for inclusion in both the original Age of Empires and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. One reason we left them out in the past is that their architecture is so unique. We didn’t want to invest the resources to create a building set for just the Indians and they would have looked strange using buildings created for the Middle East or China/Japan/Korea. Our reading of history didn’t show them in conflict with neighbors in any way similar to how the Europeans have gone after each other for millennia, or the countries in the Middle East, or east Asia. So there wasn’t a natural enemy to present with them, although you could make a case for India being an empire in its own right, being made up of many smaller kingdoms. Big Huge was willing to invest in Indian buildings and they look very cool to me, so the Indians are in and so are their elephants.
Asian Dynasties Code Complete Milestone Next: Code complete sounds close to finished but actually there is a lot of work yet to do once this milestone is passed. This means all the major features are in and working, but a lot of testing, balancing, and polish is yet to go. I had a glitch in my testing where some economic buildings were failing to work, but it turns out I had just copied over a new build rather than erase and copy over fresh. When I got the build properly, everything worked as it should.
Age III on PBS NOVA: A documentary program shown recently on this program used the Age of Empires III scenario editor to portray some historical events. The program was titled The Great Inca Rebellion and discussed battles around Lima, Peru, in which the Inca tried to expel Spanish conquistadores that had occupied the city. A Baltimore graphics studio used our software, aided by the skills of our own designers Karen McMullan and Vance Hampton, to recreate some scenes for the program. Ensemble Studios was not mentioned in the credits and should have been.
I found the show interesting, as I do most NOVA documentaries. I was surprised at how many times Age of Empires III graphics were employed. I thought they fit in very well, except they did slow down a little with FPS (frames per second refresh rate) when they had a thousand units on screen.
The show considered the question of how a relatively small band of conquistadores could possibly conquer and then hold a huge empire. The proposed answer is that the Spanish had powerful Indian allies who wanted to overthrow their Inca rulers, much as Cortez was able to recruit Indian allies wishing to overthrow the Aztecs. In addition, the program presented forensic evidence of the earliest known gunshot victim in the Americas. PBS often makes these programs available for viewing online and if they do that for this one I will try to let you know. Learn more about the program here.
Mexico’s President Plays Age of Empires: Kotaku reports that President Felipe Calderon is a gamer and that his favorite is Age of Empires. Based on my experience from talking to gamers in Mexico City, I would guess his . Oscar Santos from our community teamJfavorite civilization is the Aztecstells me that the comments by the President were significant mainly because he supports the idea that gamers should be free to play what they wish. This is in contrast to the governor of the State of Chihuahua who blocked the sale of a Ghost Recon game that portrayed Mexicans from a border city as insurgents and terrorists.
Thanks IT: We lost power in our entire building one day and we were told that it would be restored sometime that evening. Dwayne Gravitt of our IT department went back to our offices at 10:30 PM, climbed 15 flights of stairs, and waited in the dark until power was restored. At that point he made sure that our servers and all other critical resources were functioning properly before heading home in the early hours of the next day. We are working toward some important milestones for Halo Wars and having everything ready to go that next morning was a good thing.
Age of Empires Board Game Published: The long awaited board game, based on Age of Empires III, has been published and is in game stores now. The early reviews on boardgamegeek.com are very encouraging and the game is currently rated very high. We will have to see how the rating holds up as more people play it and voice their opinions. Ensemble Studios ordered a copy for everyone who works here, so I expect some feedback from our own people soon. Check out reviews and other information about the game here.
Video Games Addiction Revisited: A policy group within the American Medical Association (AMA) recently proposed that video game addiction be listed as a disorder in a mental health manual to be published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 20012. But addiction experts within the AMA strongly opposed the idea. The Entertainment Software Association aligned itself with the APA position that “this so-called video game addiction is not a mental disorder,” although the APA said it would consider the proposal if the science warrants it. Of special concern are the online role-playing games that are particularly immersive and compelling. Until some definitive evidence backs up the AMA concerns I continue to believe that games themselves are not the problem, but too much playing may be evidence of other issues the individual needs to deal with.
At Ensemble Studios we recruit passionate gamers when we can, but we also want reasonably well-rounded people who can fit it. We have a large WoW interest group for sure, and many Xbox Live accounts, but also groups that together go skiing, hunting, and bar-hopping. There is a morning basketball group, a flag-football group, and golf outings are popular. I believe we include people who played inter-collegiate lacrosse, basketball, and football. We have comic book fans, film buffs, and musicians. One of our guys is an accomplished woodworker and makes his own furniture. Most of our people are married and many are raising families.
You need balance in your life like a game needs to be balanced.
Y Pack Testing: Brian Lemon recently organized a large playtest of Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties in our offices and he seemed very pleased with the response and feedback. The test was intended to get people from our other projects involved, most of who had worked on Age of Empires III itself and even earlier games. These included several of the Age of Empires III scenario designers.
The overall opinion of longtime Age veterans seemed to be that while the expansion pack has a way to go it is in a good state and is moving in a good direction. We continue to feel very confident of the choice of Big Huge Games to develop this project for us.
There is a lot of new content and features in the Asian Dynasties. It feels like a very new experience to me because there are a number of new things for me to understand and use effectively, in both the economic and military areas.
Random Map Contest – The Dakotas: We have announced the first random map contest for Age of Empires III: The Warchiefs. Our internal panel of judges will choose the submitted map that best fits the theme “The Dakotas” while providing a good balanced setting for both single and multiplayer games. The key point here is that we are looking for a map, not a scenario. The winning map may end up in a future patch of the game and the designer may get to name a building used on the map (after himself/herself or ?). Check out the details on our Age of Empires III community site here.
Age of Empires III Banned Accounts: We had a flurry of cheating at the end of the quarter as a few people tried to boost their ladder ratings by point trading (starting lots of games with the same partner and taking turns quitting right away to give victories to each other). We won’t accept that and when we can identify players abusing the system they suffer the consequences. Our own staff is watching this and a number of people in the community who hate seeing it are reporting it to us also.
I find this cheating in online gaming very disappointing. If you are playing games online you probably live in an advanced nation, you have access to the latest technology, and you probably have an excellent education. Your position in life is envied by half the people on Earth or more. But seeing your name at the top of a gaming ladder is so important to you that you are compelled to find ways to cheat. Where’s the winning in that?
Ensemble Studios After Hours: When not working on games at work, a lot of our people are playing games. I hope this isn’t a shock. Recently we had a flurry of emails to our non-work email alias about skins for Forza2 cars. Here is a sample that Artist Dion Hopkins says took him several hours to create.
How to Get into the Game Industry: If you are in this industry you get asked on occasion by those who are not in, how to get in. For those of us who have struggled with a good answer to the questions, help has arrived, sort of, in the form of some videos by Paul Barnett, Creative Director of EA Mythic. He has some general advice and then more specific advice for each main craft (programming, art, design). I watched the design video and agreed with some of the stuff he had to say. It was amusing at times, but it falls really short of actually offering good advice about how to get into the industry.
Ensemble Studios Artist Paul Jaquays, who is involved with the SMU Guildhall graduate program in game development, had this comment about the videos: “The specific skill discipline videos descend into a mix of valuable insight liberally seasoned with pure crap for the sake of humor.” That was my impression of the design video, as well.
The path into the industry is pretty clear if you have excellent graphics or programming skills. You check out studio web pages showing jobs open and apply where you think you would fit and want to be. If your skills are good you will find a job.
Getting into design is something else again for someone with no professional experience. Our designers with no previous experience got started by demonstrating skill in making scenarios, by being superior players and starting as balance testers, or by being able to demonstrate a passion for games, knowledge about what makes them work, and other important skills (communication, writing, leadership). It is also possible for people who start in another craft (programming or art especially) to move into design once they demonstrate an ability there.
New Office Planning: If we get multiple projects into full production our studio may have to grow beyond our current office space limits. Trying to plan ahead for that possibility, Studio Head Tony Goodman recently polled the company about what they would like to see incorporated into a new space. That triggered a flood of helpful and amusing responses (weight room, child care, pet care, Space Invader carpets, etc.). Programmer John Evanson summed up where he thought the plan was going with this graphic.
Online Virtual World Embassy: In one of the latest “firsts” for gaming, the Reuters News Service reported recently that Sweden opened an online embassy inside the virtual world of Second Life. The opening was attended online by Sweden’s foreign minister in the form of an avatar, while being announced at a press conference in Stockholm. The embassy was created to promote Sweden’s image and culture, and includes an art exhibit and a room dedicated to diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who helped save thousands of Jews during World War II. I wonder if this is the start of many such “embassies” in virtual games that promote all kinds of products and services.
Warchief’s Treaty Games: The innovation of the Treaty Game, in which players are unable to attack each other for a set period of time, seems to be working very well. Players wanted to be free from early rushes and we forced that in the Treaty Game. We hear from our community team that over 10% of Warchiefs games use this mode. The only complaints we get now about rushing come from people playing the original Age of Empires III (Age 3 Vanilla) who can’t get other players to play correctly under agreed conventions like No Rush, No Blockade, No Towers, and Half Map. We are hoping that these irritations will subside when we publish custom multiplayer scenarios because the desired rule set can be hard coded into the scenario and prevent people cheating on their agreements.
Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties: This project keeps moving forward. Big Huge delivered a major milestone recently and testing is going on to confirm that what is supposed to be in and working is so. We are very actively involved in this project and want to be sure that it is a worthy addition to the series in every way. There is a constant flow of email back and forth between our studios and test teams, and occasional visits one way or the other.
Our test group played some head-on-head games with the testers at Big Huge and our guys won these first matches handily. Our team is very strong and has a lot more experience with the series. It was bolstered recently with the addition of Donnie Thompson, a world class player, who has supplanted Zeke Marks as our best (at least temporarily J).
Age of Empires Heaven Turns 10: Our friends at this site are celebrating the tenth anniversary of their launch by Mike “Archangel” McCart. Mike told us later that he had been working on a Civilization site but was looking around for something new when he spotted some screenshots from Age of Empires I and took the plunge. We were so impressed with AoE Heaven that we hired Mike to be our community relations representative, which he did very well for many years. Now Graham Somers does a lot of that work for us and he too is an AoE Heaven veteran.
There are now many, many sites around the world devoted to the Age series, but AoE Heaven remains one of the best. We continue to work with them and greatly appreciate all they do for us and fans of the series.
First RTS Game?: A conversation with Bill Jackson, one of our Assistant Producers, drifted to the topic of ground breaking games and he brought up an old favorite of his, Herzog Zwei, which he had heard was being called the first true real-time strategy game. He later sent me a Wikipedia link on RTS games that seems to back-up his position. Herzog Zwei (means Duke 2 in German) was a Sega Genesis game released in 1990. It’s very interesting to learn that a console game may have been the progenitor of a genre that found its greatest success on the PC. Now that RTS games are returning to consoles, including our own forthcoming Halo Wars, the circle is being completed.
Ian Fischer, Lead Designer on both Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology disagrees with this position, asserting instead that the Ancient Art of War is the first true RTS.
Shadowrun- Technology Changes: I have mentioned previously the rapid technology changes in our industry that create both challenges and headaches for developers and fans. Now here comes Shadowrun developed and published by our parent company, which for the first time allows players on both PCs and Xbox 360s to play together online. We don’t know how compelling this connectivity is going to be in this first iteration and we don’t know at this point how great a game Shadowrun is in its own right. But the technology of our industry shifts slightly once more with this capability and we expect to see more games support this functionality, especially those published by Microsoft, probably, because the company wants to increase the value to customers of Xbox Live. Congrats to our friends at FASA and Panorama for pulling this off.
Game Design Methods: Over most of my experience in this industry I have seen two principal methods for designing games. The most common was sort of an engineering problem where everything was planned and specified early on, and then it all came together near the end to be published. I respected this method for its organization but I felt it was almost a matter of luck if a good game resulted.
The method I learned first in board gaming and later at Microprose was the iterative method, or design by playing, where a game would be prototyped as quickly as possible and then the design would be shaped by testing and revising until our instincts told us it was fun. I have a lot of confidence in this method, which has been used for all of Ensemble Studios’ games. I believe it is the way Blizzard makes their games also.
Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo employs a third method in which he tries to create new experiences that are fun. I see this as an organic method that starts small and grows a game. He mentioned this recently in an interview with Geoff Keighley of Gamehead. He commented that he thought he could design a game like Halo but chooses not too. He said he never looks for what people want so that he can make that game for them. His method of creating experiences, moving a character and interacting with a world, has similarities with design by playing.
Considering these three methods, the degree of planning is highest in the first and decreases going toward the third. Probably budget and milestone constraints are highest and decline in the same order. It would be tempting to say that fun and entertainment probably increase going from one to three, but that would depend on who is actually doing the work (studio and lead designer). We certainly consider what gamers want and try to give it to them, and I would suggest that others like Blizzard do also.
My take is that our method, design by playing, is a reasonable compromise. We want to create games that are fun and successful within a limited development time and budgets. And maybe there are only a few Shigeru Miyamoto’s out there who have the ability and support to take their time creating experiences that are fun.
New “Age of Empires III” Expansion Pack- “The Asian Dynasties”: A second expansion pack to “Age of Empires III” has been in the works for many months now and was announced just recently. This “Y” pack (as opposed to an “X” for eXpansion pack) is being developed by Big Huge Games of Timonium, Maryland, the developers of “Rise of Nations” and “Rise of Legends”. It will add several Asian civilizations and takes its name from that setting. More details on what is included will be forthcoming over the next several months. I will say that one of the civilizations being considered for inclusion might be a surprise.
We decided to go ahead with a Y pack for several reasons. First, we think there is a business case for it. “Age of Empires III” and “Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs” (the first expansion pack) continue to sell well and we expect another expansion will sell and be profitable also. Second, we believe “Age” fans will be ready soon for some meaty new content since “The WarChiefs” is already eight months past release. Third, we believe that releasing more content increases the value to our customers of the entire brand and helps all the components sell. We anticipate it will be a win for everyone. We had considered a second expansion pack for “Age of Empires II” many years ago but felt constrained by our resources at the time and wanted to devote them instead to “Age of Mythology.”
Why Big Huge Games: We have had a good relationship with our friends at Big Huge Games since they popped onto the scene. Microsoft has published all of their games to date, as well as all of ours, and several of us were colleagues together at Microprose in the early 1990’s. They have been avid “Age” players for many years and the “Age” series was part of the inspiration for their first game, “Rise of Nations.” They have demonstrated repeatedly that they are top-flight developers of high-quality real-time strategy games based on historical themes.
It was a major decision for Ensemble to give the go ahead for someone else to create an official “Age of Empires” game but we are very confident that Big Huge Games is going to deliver. We have gone through many reviews of the project as it has moved forward and no hurdles have impeded it for long.
“The Asian Dynasties” expansion is being co-managed by Microsoft Game Studios Publishing and Ensemble Studios. A number of Ensemble staff members are contributing to the project, led by Brian Lemon acting as the external producer. There is a lot of work involved in syncing up the art styles, programming, and game play. We want the Y pack to be a worthy addition to the “Age” series and will remain very actively involved to help reach our shared goals.
“The Asian Dynasties” Status: The game is in regular multiplayer testing now. Many of our in-house expert testers play the game daily, and are working on gameplay and balance issues. Everyone at Ensemble has been invited and encouraged to play it as well. It is still rough in terms of balance and we are at the stage where we uncover big screws frequently in both combat and the economies. Content has a long way to go (parts missing). Overall, however, it is clearly an “Age” game and the design by playing process, which Big Huge Games also endorses, should get it to a good place.
Patch Update: Interest in the next patch is huge thanks to the coming of multiplayer scenarios. We want to get that capability into player hands as soon as we can. Because the next patch is to be Windows Vista compliant and sync up with the coming new expansion pack it has to go through extra test regimes, not just our normal gameplay, hardware, and balance testing. We are working diligently on the patch and will have it to you when it works as you and we expect it to. This patch is an extra big effort.
“Age of Empires III” Board Game Published: The board game should be on store shelves on May 11 or soon thereafter. Look for it in hobby game stores. It should also be available online from these sources: www.brownboxinc.com, www.eaglegames.net, and www.funagain.com. We had several goals for authorizing an official board game. A high quality game based on our PC game would be an excellent way to extend our brand. We have a lot of board game players at Ensemble Studios and we wanted to see a game created that would appeal to them. We thought it would be a cool thing for everyone who works here. An excellent board game sitting on store shelves and being talked about by gamers would assist in spreading awareness of the entire “Age” series.
“Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery” is designed in the “Euro” style with an emphasis on the play rather than the rules. The components are top-notch. We were involved in testing it from almost the start and we think it will be a great addition to the “Age” family. We look forward to seeing reviews and hearing what people think of it.
Four Million Pre-Orders for “Halo 3”?: This amazing number of pre-ordered games has been reported on the site Xbox Evolved, based on conversations with game retailer Gamespot. In comparison, pre-orders for “Halo 2” are reported to have been 1.5 million. Since the game is still months from launch, the number is likely to grow. We hope all of those “Halo 3” players will be interested in trying “Halo Wars” also.
Official Halo 3 Web Launches: Great to see this long awaited site up. We should have news of interest about Halo Wars soon also. halo3.com
ESO Accounts: Our community team reports that we recently went over the 500,000 mark in ESO accounts created. That seems like a big number to me. I remember when we were hoping to sell that many copies of Age of Empires I. Our community team tells that we also are nearing 16 million Age III games played online and more than 1.6 million WarChiefs games played. That is a lot of entertainment created without counting the solitaire games played.
Games Outside Work: X-Box Live Arcade (XBLA) games are very popular with us and there was a lot of favorable comment recently following the news that Puzzle Quest from the DS was coming to the Arcade. In the words of one of our guys (who shall remain nameless), “my wife is level 31 or 32 in this game and has not done the dishes or fed our children in two weeks. But I love it!” Other people are looking forward to the Settlers of Catan on XBLA. That is one of the all-time favorite board games at ES.
PS3 Has Lost This Round?: A recent article on CNNMoney.com asserted that SONY has already lost this round of the console wars (to Ninendo’s Wii) and that Ken Kutaragi, the driving force behind their twelve year run atop the console game industry, was leaving the company on a sour note. The writer seemed to base his assertion on the relative sales of the major consoles in Japan only and extrapolated that to the world market.
I don’t believe that success or failure in Japan will determine necessarily who will win or lose in this competitive business. And I think making the call a little over one year into the current cycle is probably premature. The current console cycle has years yet to go and counting SONY out this early seems very aggressive. The independent game publishers are happiest when all the platforms are competitive so they can sell the products on each. They don’t want to see one manufacturer in the driver’s seat.
However, if Microsoft is going to continue pushing the technology side of this business and bring a new X box out in a couple of years, the pressure on the PS3 might be heavy.
WoW Visa Card: You know games are going mainstream when one offers its own Visa card that accrues points toward monthly fees every time you use it. Our people wanted to accrue WoW gold instead of credit toward their fees.
Playing Shooters for Real Money?: ES’r Chris Van Dorn noticed recently that developer Valve is working with a group called Tournament.com to establish an official Counter-Strike/Half Life 2 multiplayer game competition service. Basically players ante up a small amount for each game and the winner takes the pot. You win $1 for a kill and lose $1 for being killed. When you are out of money you are out of the game. The set up now is for small stakes (six players with a total $18 pot), but if takes off and tests out okay, high stakes games could be coming.
But John Evanson pointed out some potential problems with this model. First person shooters (FPS) have a lot of possible client-side hacks. If people use them when playing for free then they will obviously try them when playing for money. Also, to continue playing for money people have to think they have a chance to win. It helps for a game to have a luck element. In a FPS game it is possible that really highly skilled people would drive out the average players without some way to fairly balance player skill. Every competitive online game is already wrestling with that problem, without having money involved.
People have been monetizing their skills as game players now for some time. There have been professional Starcraft players in Korea for years, playing on sponsored teams in leagues.
There are more cash tournaments each year and a few top players earn a good living. There are the people farming gold for MMOs. We have recruited top Age players to work with us, as have other studios. But this new model reaches out to players who are not at the highest skill levels and is accessible to anyone with a broadband connection. It will be interesting to see if it becomes popular and spreads to other genres besides first person shooters and to other platforms beyond the PC.
Ensemble Studios Acquisition Anniversary: This past week marks the sixth anniversary of our acquisition by Microsoft. Our studio has probably doubled in size since that event but for those of us who were here then it was, and remains, a good thing. And with the sales of our games approaching 20 million units worldwide I am pretty sure our colleagues in Redmond feel the same way.
Vista Games to Blow Console Games Away?: Fox News reported recently that forthcoming Vista platform games supporting DirectX 10 will have graphics far superior to current generation consoles and thus have a competitive advantage. I am not getting too excited about this idea. There is no doubt that PC technology improves rapidly and continually, while console technology is mainly a snapshot of the best current technology around the console launch. But console games have other advantages, particularly tray & play, which give them a huge advantage with casual gamers. High end graphics are critical mainly to first adopters and really hard core gamers, and there aren’t enough of those people who have to have the latest technology right now to outspend the average gamers buying consoles for their family rooms.
Scenarios Coming Soon: The next patches for both Age III and The WarChiefs will include support for custom designed scenarios for multiplayer games. This should open the door for lots of new content from fans around the world and bring a new dimension to really competitive play. A tournament, for example, might be played on a series of custom designed maps released ahead of time. Players taking part would have a chance to practice on the tournament maps prior to the competition.
We stand behind our randomly generated maps as a great feature in most situations. But for really top competition a custom designed may be superior because it can be designed to be supremely fair for placement of resources and terrain and player position. Fairness is a higher priority than how good a map looks for high level competitions. Age III becomes something like a chess match. This feature has been on our wish list for a while and we’re very excited to be able to make it happen.
Strategic Objectives Challenge Concluded: Moshe Levi reports that the single player scenario contest he designed for Age of Empires Heaven Games went very well and he has hopes of doing more. He forwarded to us many positive comments from players who took part. Several mentioned looking ahead to the day when they can play a similar contest online in multi-player.
Halo Wars Trailer Day: The Halo Wars team regularly hosts events to show off where their project is or refresh our understanding of the Halo universe. Last week our Halo Wars team hosted a showing of all the cut scenes from Halo 1 and Halo II for the whole company. Material like this keeps the story and characters fresh, and is a good introduction for new employees.
Top 25 Video Game Cinematic Moments: Having just watched the Halo series cut scenes, it was cool to see this list published by Gamespy and find our Halo Wars trailer at #25. There are at least four Halo related trailers in the list of 25.
Halo Fan Movie: Check out this fan movie put together using clips from a variety of Halo trailers and other film parts. There is some borrowing of ideas from The Matrix, but for a home made film it is pretty remarkable. There is certainly a lot of energy here.
Halo Wars Testing Update: Assistant Producer Karen Swanson announced that next week there will be open company playtests for Halo Wars. Most testing now is done within the team only, although when a seat is available anyone is welcome to join. These new sessions are intended to get a much broader involvement from people not working closely with the game already. We will be testing multiplayer only but eventually there will be other types of testing also.
Curt Shilling Seeking $48M for Game Company: A website devoted to news about private equity (venture capitalists and non-publicly traded investment companies) reported recently that Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Shilling and his new game company, 38 Studios, have been pitching private equity groups trying to raise $48 million. The new studio is planning to develop online multiplayer games based initially on storylines from author R.A. Salvatore and visuals from comic book creator Todd MacFarlane. There is no word on topic or era, but Curt had a strong interest in the tactical World War II game Advanced Squad Leader at one time. We also hear he is a huge Everquest fan.
The article noted the unusually large amount of money being sought up front (the first round). Apparently new companies raise single-digit to very low double-digit millions in the first round, and then come back for more once they have something underway. One example give was RealTime Worlds that was launched with $3 million in 2004 and later obtained $31 million more in a second round.
We’re interested in how this works out. If we were venture capitalists we would be more inclined to support a WoW-like model (casual and hard core gaming) rather than the EQ model (more for hard core gamers only). The difference is 8 million customers versus 200 thousand, or close to that.
Native American Exhibit at the Field Museum: I recently toured a major new exhibit on Native American cultures at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. If you live in the Chicago area, or plan to visit anytime soon, I recommend the exhibit strongly. It concentrates mainly on a selection of pre-Columbian cultures, including those that are best known (Aztecs, Maya, Inca) and others less well known (Cahokia, Hopewell, Mississipian).
There are many impressive scale models of ancient cities that make it very easy to grasp the magnificence and technological advancement of their architecture. There is also a wealth of amazing artifacts, including very early Clovis spear points of the big game hunters, mundane stone choppers and grinders, beautiful stone pipes, jade amulets, pottery, textiles, religious items, copper ceremonial items, and incredibly intricate gold castings. Exhibits go into detail on how people in different parts of the Americas lived and how they adapted over time (hunters gradually became farmers; seacoast people learned to hunt whales and large fish).
It was interesting to consider what we borrowed from this period to make Age III and how much we skipped over in the interest of making an entertaining and successful game. The places and people we touch on in our game were real. The exhibit brought home why basing strategy games on historic periods can be a big differentiator, and often an advantage for creating broad appeal, over sci-fi or fantasy.
ES Work Life- Starbucks In: A big Starbucks coffee machine has been installed in one of our break areas to wide acclaim. The share price of SBUX was up only $.03, which probably doesn’t represent the long term effects of the installation on their company profits.
Play Age of Empires – Study History in College: We got an inquiry recently from a college student majoring in history who is writing a paper on how and why history was used in RTS games over the last two decades. He tells us that he believes playing Age I and Age II is what got him interested in history as a field of study. I have said many times that we are in the entertainment business, not the history business, but we do believe that our history based games could be a good introduction to the eras we have portrayed. This fellow seems to be proof of that.
The Relative Success of the Age Series: One of the questions our history major asked was why did we think that our games sold so well in comparison to other RTS games in general and historical ones in particular. I don’t think there is a clear or obvious answer to that question but there probably several factors at work. Here are some we think are important.
We were the first to really do a historical RTS and we did a good job with that first game (at the time everyone else was doing fantasy or Sci-Fi RTS).
Our games look beautiful; the sun always shines in an Age game and that helps make the worlds inviting.
We provide a lot of different gaming experiences inside the same box (single player campaigns, skirmish games, multi-player, randomly generated maps, different map themes, levels of difficulty, different play modes). Players of different skills and tastes can all find a satisfying game to play.
Our games are polished; they are well-balanced and run with little technical difficulty.
We provide a huge amount of content and value for the price.
Microsoft has been our publisher (but that did not guarantee success for all games in their portfolio over the years).
Age III Board Game Coming Soon: We recently got a chance to review the box art for the game, which is a close replica of our software cover. We also got a look at the cool plastic pieces, the colorful map, and other components. Everything looks to be of very good quality. We believe most of the business-side hurdles have been overcome now and the game should be on store shelves in May.
A number of ES’ers were involved in testing and giving feedback on this game. We think it came out very well and look forward to trying the published version shortly.
Best New Studio: Congrats to Brian Sullivan and Jeff Goodsill, colleagues at ES for many years, on their start-up studio, Iron Lore Entertainment, being selected Best New Studio in the 7th Annual Developer’s Choice Awards. Brian was one of the earliest employees at ES and was credited with co-design on Age of Empires 1. He and longtime friend Paul Chieffo founded Iron Lore, investing their own money in their dream. Their first game, Titan Quest, got great reviews and is considered the best of the many games that attempted to follow in the footsteps of Diablo. Their expansion pack to Titan Quest just got a very positive review in Games for Windows magazine. It’s great to see good guys (and old friends) win and get recognized.
Mark Rosewater on Creativity: A link to an interesting paper on creativity by the designer behind Magic the Gathering was passed around this week by Rob Fermier. The paper discusses what creativity is and how one can become better at it. A creative person has the ability to generate and act upon new ideas with regularity. Creativity flows from seeing connections between things that others do not. Mark lists five attributes in people that lead to creativity and then also a list of 10 things to do that will improve your creativity. He has obviously given this a lot of thought and the paper is well worth reading.
When I consider the design staff at ES I see a lot of the attributes in my colleagues. Our brainstorming sessions are very lively and productive. We recently had a thread going for coming up with ideas for games on an entirely new kind of platform. We quickly generated a lot of ideas that I would consider creative. The 10 things that Mark lists for improving creativity (play games, do puzzles, read talk to others, etc.) I see going on every day in our teams.
I have written before that I see our industry gradually establishing a foundation of learning and science upon which we are building the art of our craft. I see this paper as more bricks in that foundation. Check it out here.
Resignation at Atari: Word has reached us that Bruno Bonnell has resigned as chairman and chief executive of Infogrames Entertainment and all of its subsidiaries. He was the founder of Infogrames almost 24 years ago and until his resignation was the chairman, director, acting chief financial officer, and chief creative officer at Atari.
My first introduction to Infogrames was back in the 1980s when I was just getting into the computer game industry. I tried several Infogrames games on the Atari-ST (as I recall). They were beautiful for the time (PC games had four colors), but they seemed to come up short in fun (especially compared to games from Microprose at the time, like Pirates! and Silent Service).
At the Australian GDC several years ago I took part in a panel discussion that included Bruno and I was a little taken back by the philosophy he espoused. Basically he said that he preferred to make a lot of inexpensive “B” quality games and hope that enough of them would turn out great and carry the rest. That was completely different from the philosophy at ES where we set out to make games of the highest quality. When I look at the really successful studios and publishers, I believe they too push for quality.
I don’t know the details of the problems that Infogrames/Atari are having but I believe that setting out to deliberately cut costs by publishing lesser quality games, at least for a period, had to cause some of them.
Office Reorganization: Last week over 50 people in our studio changed offices. This happens periodically at the start and end of major projects when people move to something new. In this case we were just getting our teams together and looking ahead for when those teams might be growing. Each project now has pretty much its own floor in our building with space available for growth.
We try to make these moves as painless as possible and hire professionals to help us get it done in one day. The most harried people are in our IT department; they have to make sure all the machines are set up properly, with Internet and Intranet connections, and all phones are working. We probably average about 4 PCs per employee. We hope this is the last of these reshufflings for a while.
Buzzed by a B-17: I was sitting in my office looking out over the expressway below when suddenly a real B-17 bomber flew by my window heading north. Then another bomber went by on the same heading. I thought it was a B-24 but Ian Fischer tells us it was a B-25. Harter Ryan confirmed a B-24 did go by later. (There is an air show in town and you can pay for rides on these planes). For the history buffs in our group this was cool.
I began to think immediately of two personal experiences. The first was the research I did on the 8th Air Force years ago when I prepared a board game about B-17s for publication. Secondly, around that time I got to climb on board a real B-17 at an air show. I was amazed at how small it seemed compared to planes of today. The fuselage was very narrow and cramped. I thought the whole aircraft could sit on the wing of modern passenger jet. I gained a deep respect for the very young men of my parent’s generation who served in those planes.
The 100 Best Hobby Games: ES colleague Sandy Petersen and I both participated in the creation of a book discussing the best hobby games of recent time. Mostly board, paper, and card games were considered for inclusion, not electronic games. We both were assigned one game to write about from a list that we helped compile. We couldn’t write about a game that we had been involved with personally in design or publication. We have been asked not to reveal at this point which game we wrote about. The book is titled Hobby Games: The 100 Best and is being published by Green Ronin Press of Seattle. The editor in charge is James Lowder and the book is targeted for release at Gen Con 2007.
Hockey and Age of Empires: An interview with Craig Conroy of the Calgary Flames brought up teammate Jarome Iginla, who is into computer games, especially the Age series. A few years ago we invited several of the Flames to our office for a visit when they were in town for a game with the Dallas Stars. We recall that Jarome wiped the floor with all of us in the Conquerors. The interview is here:
Designer Lunch: The designers at ES get together for lunch usually each week. Work is discussed but it is also a chance for people on different teams to meet semi-socially and discuss stuff outside of work, including games we did not make. What is good and not so good about new games is a popular topic. Last week’s meeting took us to a different part of town so the group could look at new office space the studio is considering. Our long term plans call for multiple teams and growth related to that. Our current space won’t hold us if we are able to deliver. The discussion at my end of the table ranged from NCAA basketball to the paper on game design I mentioned last time to whether you put your console in the family room (yes if you have children) or the office with your PC.
Raise $150M- Make 60-100 Games in Five Years: No problem. A news item that caught our eye reported that the executive producer of the film 300 was partnering with a dot.com entrepreneur to launch a new game studio. They are apparently looking to raise $150M and already have 20 people at work in Atlanta. The games are to be based on big brands from film, literature, and other media. Our first thought was this was another misguided attempt by the Hollywood types to double down on their intellectual property by cranking out hit games. This gets tried fairly regularly but rarely with success. If a blockbuster game today takes $20M to make with 30-50 great people over 2-3 years, we don’t get the math. But colleague Rob Fermier pointed out that you could probably push one casual game onto seven platforms (DS, PSP, 360, PS3, PS2, PC, Wii). So creating 60-100 games in five years would really require 10-15 original moderately sized games over the period, or 2-3 each year. And that is within the range of what some studios can do, especially if they are able to effectively use outsourcing, as they plan to do.
What ES is Playing This Week: Of course it is Halo Wars every day and some Warchiefs as we keep an eye on balance. But after work or at lunch there are other options.
The newest game being discussed is God of War II; the consensus is that it is excellent. People are amazed at how good it looks on the PS2. WoW’s Burning Crusade is generating a lot of mail regarding how it plays and the new stuff. Our WoW email alias usually has a weekly report on a new instance experience. One of the board game groups is looking to try Ticket to Ride or Metro this week. At lunch there are usually several WoW card game battles going on.
Age III and Warchiefs Patches: Patch 1.11 for Age III and patch 1.03 for the Warchiefs have both been released. The big feature is the new Ozarks map that I mentioned previously. Other changes are mostly behind the scene bug and exploit fixes and several balance changes for the hard core gamers. Balance changes are based on the advice and experience of Kevin Holme and Donnie Thompson. Donnie is new to our balance team. He was a participant in our Warrior’s Path tournament and test group last year. He is an expert player and a welcome addition.
Freeze Hacking: One of the behind the scene fixes in the patch stops a cheat that exploited playing in Windows mode, an exploit known as freeze hacking (although no hacking of a player’s computer is actually taking place). If a player in Windows mode paused a game, the other players had no recourse if the pausing player would not restart. This would force everyone else to quit eventually, thereby preventing the addition of a loss to the pausing player’s record. Programmer Michael Capps has inserted new code in the patch that opens the drop screen when a game in Windows mode is paused too long or repeatedly. This allows the other players to drop the offending player from the game. That player is given a loss as soon as he or she is dropped in this manner.
Age III Cheaters Beware: Cheats like the one mentioned above are a fact of life that every developer in the online gaming space has to deal with. The freeze hacking exploit was not the only one that was fixed in the patch. There are other hacks and cheats out there that we are working on and watching being used. Accounts that are using cheats and hacks will be banned. If being banned is going to spoil your gaming, we recommend you cut out using any hack or cheat. Play fairly. There probably won’t be any warning before bans are implemented.
Strategic Objective Challenge and Give Away: At the Age of Empires III Heaven site Moshe Levi has presented a contest based on new solitaire scenarios for both Age III and The Warchiefs. Prizes will be awarded for best scores at both Normal and Hard difficulties. Ensemble Studios has contributed some of the prizes. A new feature for the scenarios is being able to capture AI buildings and receiving economic or military bonuses for doing so. Players will also be able to build Fixed Guns anywhere on the map.
The scenarios are based on the Russo-Turkish Wars (Imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire went to war nearly a dozen times from the 1600′s to World War I). Moshe has provided links to historical information on the conflicts.
This is a great alternative contest for players still a little uncomfortable with the pressure of multi-player gaming. Check out the details and prize list at the Heaven site here: Strategic Objectives Challenge
Age III in the World Cyber Games: Word reached us last week that the Warchiefs expansion will be an event in the 2007 WCG. We owe some thanks to our colleagues in the Games for Windows group for helping to make this happen. Real-time strategy games have been popular in the Games since they started. It is great to have one of ours be a competition again.
I remember attending several of the early WCGs in Seoul, usually as a speaker at the game development conferences they held in conjunction with the Games. Age II was a competition in the original games, as I recall. One year I joined several game developers for a lunch with Korean businessmen sponsoring the games, including the chairman of Samsung.
ES Work Life- Skiing, Biking, “300″: A couple of things going on at ES recently reflect the spirit of getting people away from their work stations on occasion and having balanced lives. A small contingent of ES’ers went skiing up at Whistler in British Columbia and shared some humorous photos of their trip on our internal site. A new thread on our internal non-work related email alias discussed good places for trail biking. The studio sponsored a field trip to catch the opening day of the film 300, which portrays an event that was actually incorporated into an Age of Empires I scenario.
Congrats to Grunt: Byeong Geon Kang, better known to RTS players as Grunt, won the Rise of the Ultimate Champion/Rise of Legends tournament in early March. First prize was $40,000. This is the same fellow who won our Age II tournament last year. He has to be the early favorite for the WCG Warchiefs competition.
Age III Version for Phones: At GDC last week Glu Mobile, a leading global publisher of mobile games, announced an agreement with Microsoft to publish a mobile adaptation of Age III. It is obviously too early to know how the game will play. It is scheduled to appear in 2008. Glu launched a mobile version of Project Gotham Racing earlier this year.
A Recommended Presentation from GDC: Designer/programmer Dave Pottinger passed around the link to a GDC presentation by Clint Hocking of UbiSoft. Dave said he thought it was one of the best game oriented presentations he had ever seen. If you think you might want to get into game development someday, or if you want to delve a little bit into the philosophy behind game making, check it out.
The presentation made me think about game making in new ways (the player as an explorer). I was interested to see Clint credit other books and thinkers. Game development is still a relatively young art, but the foundation of research and thinking continues to expand. I hope to check out the books he mentions soon.
Warchiefs Patch Coming: We are working diligently on a new patch and perhaps by the time you read this there will be details about it published on our community site. I don’t want to speculate on a release date or content, other than the new Ozarks map I mentioned recently. The patch is being tested daily and moving along well.
Warchiefs Contributers Win IGF Award: Several graduates from the game development program at Southern Methodist University’s Guildhall recently shared an award from the GDC’s Independent Games Festival. The students created the Weekday Warrior mod using the Half-Life 2 engine and it was chosen as the best single-player first person shooter modification in this year’s competition. Two members of the group, Phillip Escobedo and Bobby Simpson, helped us out last year finishing up the Warchiefs.
The Guildhall is one of several new graduate and undergraduate programs teaching aspects of game development at universities. Several ES’ers have been involved with the SMU program here in Dallas, particularly artist Paul Jaquays. Paul’s son Zack is a graduate of the program and also worked temporarily at ES on the Warchiefs.
The Weekly Standard on Civilization: I was recently sent a copy of the magazine The Weekly Standard (February 26, 2006 issue) that featured a cover story on the classic computer game Civilization. The author had interviewed me, along with many others, for the article, which is an interesting look at the game, its effects on players, and the mind of designer Sid Meier. I also received recently from Firaxis Software a copy of their boxed edition of the entire Civilization series, The Civilization Chronicles. Again, I had provided some anecdotes from the development of the first edition for their history of the series.
I think it is great that this particular game has touched so many lives. It is a fine example of the promise of good games, which can do much more than just entertain. At ES we are proud of the Age series for the same reasons.
Gaming Lives in the Twenty-First Century: This is the title of a new book by James Paul Gee to be published next week. The blurbs say the author explores the relationship between gaming environments and literacy development through case studies of computer gamers today. One of his goals is to examine the claim that computer games can provide better literacy and learning environments than U. S. schools. If you have read recently, like me, that standardized test scores of U. S. students have declined over the past decade while grades have gone up you may have a bias already on Gee’s question.
Mr. Gee is an academic and published several years ago the book “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.” Whether you find his work interesting or not, it is a sign of the growing importance and maturity of games that they are being subjected to serious academic study.
Serious Games: The idea of using games for a variety of non-entertainment purposes is a relatively new area of game development called Serious Games. I was a speaker at one of the first Serious Game Summits (SSG) several years ago in Washington DC. That whole event took place in one day in one relatively small conference room with a single track of speakers. Almost all the attendees that I met were from departments of the U. S. government interested in how games might help them plan or answer policy questions.
At the recent DICE conference, I ran into Ben Sawyer, one of the people behind the SGS. He told me that the SGS now draws hundreds of people from all parts of the world. There were six tracks and 55 speakers over two days.
Consider that today’s strategy gaming traces back to board wargaming in the 60’s, and those games trace back to the Prussian General Staff’s 19th century Kriegspiel (wargame), which was a serious game. Now entertainment gaming is fostering serious games to complete the circle.
Halo Wars Forums: I checked out our forums recently and writers seem quite keen on the game. I count almost 20,000 posts in the General Discussion forum, over 10,000 discussing the Halo universe and its inhabitants, and nearly 10,000 more offering suggestions for the game. The team is jazzed to see this interest and takes the input seriously. Thanks and keep it coming.
GDC Last Week: The Game Developer’s Conference was last week in San Francisco and there a contingent from ES attended. This is the granddaddy of developer conferences tracing back to small gatherings in the 1970s, I believe. There are tons of speakers and there is stuff to learn. Over 10,000 attendees were expected, many looking for jobs, so it has a quite different feel from the smaller conferences. It is also a big social event with lots of sponsored parties, loud hotel lounges, and lots of press representatives looking for stories. I won’t be there but will be interested in what friends who do go have to say.
Age III Board Game Update: The game is moving toward publication, though not completely clear yet. We reviewed the manual this week and found a few typos and confusing sections. We should be reviewing the other components soon as well. It is still not known when it will appear in stores, but we think it will be worth the wait.
Age III Further Reading: The historical research behind our games is generally very basic because we want our games to appeal to a broad audience. (The players should have the fun, not the historical researcher, game designer, computer, etc.) We do delve into more scholarly and detailed resources on occasion for story background, names of country specific units, and technologies. Research can be a very interesting part of making history based games and I particularly enjoy learning much more about a period, even if most of that knowledge ends up having little impact in the game.
The Age of Discovery is a particularly rich and interesting period that has spurred a vast amount of published literature for general (non-academic) audiences. One of the really profound books in this area is Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond, which presents a compelling explanation for why the Europeans arrived in the New World with so many technological and biological advantages. This book won a Pulitzer Prize and I strongly recommend it.
I recently read 1491 by Charles C. Mann and recommend it highly also. The author’s thesis is that the native cultures of the Americas just prior to their discovery of Europeans and vice versa were much more populated and advanced than previously believed. Based on the latest research (not all completely accepted), he makes the case that much of the Americas was a much more pleasant place to live than Europe. Here are a few of the many interesting positions the book makes.
1. The Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact. The rain forest population in 1491 may have been equal to that of today, supported then by very clever forest management (agro-forestry) that turned much of the area into extensive orchards of fruit and nut trees. They had developed techniques for greatly improving the richness of naturally poor soils that are being actively studied now for application around the world. Slash and burn agriculture that is consuming the rain forest today appeared after the European arrival with steel axes that could easily cut down trees.
2. Attempts by the French to settle the New England coast in the early 1600s were easily rebuffed by a dense coastal population of natives that prevented some crews from even landing to get water. Following a devastating three year epidemic starting around 1616, the local population collapsed. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 the natives were largely gone and the colonists were able to occupy abandoned villages for their first winter.
3. Between 1492 and 1600, the native population of the Americas may have shrunk by 95% due to the ravages of diseases to which the natives were particularly susceptible. The Black Death plague that struck Europe several centuries earlier and killed 30-40% of the population does not compare. The mass death of natives led to the replacement of native cultures by those from Europe and to the importation of slaves for labor. In India, Africa, and other parts of the world the Europeans could not supplant native cultures, despite their technological superiority, because the native populations were not devastated by disease.
4. In many other areas besides the Amazon the natives did not live lightly on the pristine and primeval land. They were often very active land managers and converted wide tracks to farmland. In the northeast they regularly burned extensive forests to clear underbrush and encourage plants and animals they favored.
More Games ES’ers Play: Another game popular with a segment of our staff right now is Zelda: Twilight Princess. I haven’t tried it yet but I’m told it is very, very good and is providing inspiration for a potential future product.
We also regularly download demo versions of games and place them on our network for people to try. This week the game people are trying is Supreme Commander, from old friend Chris Taylor.
Art Pipeline Wiki: Chris Van Doren was trained as an artist but has managed much of the technology of art for us for many years now. He keeps track of our art pipelines, which can get very complicated. As art pieces go through various steps (concept, model, animation, revision, etc.) he helps us keep the right version in place. His job gets more complicated each day as we ramp up multiple projects and art technology continues to change. He recently created an internal Art Wikipedia to be a central repository for art information. Our artists can turn to the wiki first for answers to questions, hopefully speeding productivity. As new issues come up and are resolved, useful information is added to the wiki. This is a new initiative so it is early to judge its usefulness, but it sounds like a tool that will be very useful, particularly to newcomers who might need help and to our veterans who won’t be called upon as much for mentoring.
Violence in Games: One of the top German gaming magazines asked me recently to take part in a discussion about violence in games. Apparently this is big topic in their country where games like Gears of War can only be purchased in adult entertainment shops next to the porn. I am not interested in making or playing games that are over-the-top violent but I understand that violence is a dependable way to add gravitas and drama to a story. I am uncomfortable using legislation to prevent others from making or playing the games they want.
I believe in personal freedom and in free markets. I think the game ratings system in place now is a reasonable guide. If an M rated game sounds upsetting, don’t buy it or let your children play it. If a particularly violent (or immoral product) is really successful, I think the real question would be why are so many people attracted to this subject matter, not whether the product itself should be banned or not.
Age III Warchiefs New Map- Ozarks: Karen McMullan and Nick Currie have created this new map that will be released in a forthcoming patch. It is loosely based on the hilly terrain of the Ozark hills of Missouri and Arkansas. The key features are the hills spread around the map, especially down the middle. A Trade Route (TR) runs across the hills from east to west with the Trading Posts on top. The north and south faces of the hills are impassable cliffs giving access to the hill tops only on their east and west edges.
The design of the map creates north-south choke points along the TR that cross it where it comes down from the hills at low points between the cliff sides. To move north or south you have to pass through a gap between one of the Trading Post hills. We anticipate that these choke points will be a major focus of critical fighting. If one player can take possession of the entire TR and its posts, that would be a dominant and probably winning position. We can see walls being put up at the choke points to tie in with the cliff sides, creating a “great wall” defensive position across the map. The existence of these choke points will possibly allow a relatively secure build up, but players who sit back and let an opponent take total control of the center and the TR will probably lose.
Halo Wars Open House: This week the Halo Wars team hosted a late afternoon open house for all of ES to bring everyone up to speed on the game’s current state. It is being tested every day and cool art pieces get sent around for oohing and aahing, but this was a good chance for the rest of our group to see it running on screen and get some hands on time.
Producer Chris Rippy hosted the event and had it catered with light food and chilled beer. Then we got a chance to play. There were a series of 2v2 games going on our big screen setup and others going on the eight machines in our 16th floor test lab, which has been converted over to X360 development kits. (This was the lab where we did our internal testing for Age II and The Conquerors). Chris hopes to get some good feedback, for sure, but just as important was helping teams working in other parts of our building keep up with this major project. The event brought a work day to a nice end.
Halo Wars Design Tools: Real-time strategy games require tons of testing and one of the challenges in development is making these sessions efficient and extracting useful information out of them. The standard process at ES is to have one of the designers monitor the test and gather feedback from participants, which is collated and passed back to the team for consideration and possible action.
Karen Swanson has been using a tool from Tableau Software to improve our understanding of what is going on in a sample game. The software tool is used to analyze data captured in SQL tables. Shawn Halwes makes sure the SQL tables are populated with the data that Karen wants to analyze. From a recent test Karen was able to quickly extract a list of the units that each player built and plot a game map showing where each unit died. A second map plotted where each fighting building was placed.
We could see on cool color maps, easily and dramatically, the effect of defensive buildings. In this particular case buildings seemed too powerful as the player with fewest units by far was on the winning side. An opposing player commented that he felt he was fighting buildings all game, not another player. Dead enemy units were indeed piled up around the defensive building locations, supporting the losing player’s fedback. It looked liked the day after a World War I attack by infantry against machine gun emplacements.
In previous years we might have tasked a test team to play several more games recreating this situation to gather more data. Using the Tableau tool allows us to speed that process and skip those steps. The design team can make quicker judgments about the relationships between defensive buildings and mobile fighting units. This is a good example of how tools can improve the productivity of a whole team.
Development Conferences: We are in the time of the year for game development conferences and usually at least a few of us attend the better ones. Examples in our country are DICE (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain), GDC (Game Developers Conference), and the Austin GDC, all held in the US.
This year I attended the DICE event held in Las Vegas. It is put on by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, of which I am a charter member. This is a smaller conference (500 attendees, versus 10,000 plus at GDC) and it has a single track of speakers. I get to see a lot of friends here each year.
I was particularly impressed with the remarks of Doug Lowenstein, outgoing president of the Entertainment Software Association, about the work his group has done over the past 12 years (establishing the ESRB ratings, arguing for 1st amendment rights, fighting piracy, helping to move games into the cultural mainstream, gathering and sharing data, creating the E3 show). He also offered some useful criticism.
I was also impressed with Jordan Weisman’s presentation about alternative reality games (ARGs). He created the I Love Bees marketing campaign for Halo 2 as an alternative reality game. It was very interesting to hear how the gaming public got caught up in the puzzles, solved each in amazing time, and how difficult it was for the designers to keep ahead of them. When Jordan’s team set up phone calls to 500 pay phones around the world, including places like Mongolia, the internet players were there to answer each one and get the clues.
I’m not sure if this is the next big thing, but I thought it was very clever and innovative. Jordan is the serial entrepreneur who started FASA (Mech Warrior), Battletech, WizKids, and now his ARG company, 42 Entertainment.
Age III On The Charts: Voodoo Extreme posted recently NPD’s list of 10 best selling PC games in the US for the last week of December. Age III was #8. WoW ($20) had reclaimed #1 followed by Sims2 and its xpacks. There were three RTS games on the list but only the one MMORPG and one shooter.
More impressive to me is Yahoo’s list of the top ten PC games of 2006 with Age III at #7. The other strategy games on the list were Star Wars: Empire at War (#4) and Civilization IV (#9). The listed was topped by World of Warcraft and rounded out with four Sims 2 Xpacks and Oblivion. If it is true as rumored that Blizzard is going all MMORPG all the time (no rumored Starcraft 2) and we are serious about no new Age of Empire game for a while, there might be an opportunity for a new RTS franchise to get its footing. Great strategy games are still good business.
ES Work Life- Hawk on the Window: Our offices are located on the top floors of a building in north central Dallas and the ledges outside our windows attract wildlife on occasion. For a little while last week a red-tailed hawk perched outside Eric Best’s window and Brian Dellinger took photos that he sent around. The raptor was identified by Greg Street, one of our designers with an extensive education in the sciences. A similar hawk munched on a pigeon outside Karen McMullan’s window a few years ago. It is pretty cool to see a wild bird like this within a few feet of your chair and its presence made me think about how we have had birds of one kind or another flying over the Age game maps. If we see more of this guy on our ledges, he may get a role in a future game.
Warchief Games Pass Age III on ESO: Graham Somers reported to us that over a past weekend Warchief games exceeded Age III games for the first time. It is good to see the new content and features attracting a growing audience.
Positive Health Effects from Video Gaming: The Reuters web site recently reported on an article that appeared in a journal titled Motivation and Emotion. The original article claimed that the activity of playing video games can satisfy for many people deep psychological needs and therefore improve their well-being, at least in the short term. The researchers felt that gaming could boost a player’s sense of independence, achievement, and connectedness with others. Where research on video games to date has often focused on potentially harmful effects, this research suggested that positive things were happening as well.
I don’t think this is big news to me or to gamers I know. I have been feeling independent, achieving, educated, entertained, and connected through playing games my whole life. I liked those experiences so much that I pursued a career in the business. But I do find the research interesting for two reasons. First, I’m happy that games are being looked at for what is good about them. I think the harm that have been associated with them is relatively isolated and more a reflection of an unbalanced person’s problems than a cause of those problems. Second, as game developers we may learn from such research how to make games more satisfying and perhaps more successful.
The art and science of game developing seems crude in comparison to other forms of entertainment like films or the theater, both of which have now an extensive history of being studied and taught in academia. Seeking an education in game development has only recently become possible and probably lags way behind the other arts in its utility. If research into the psychology of game playing can help us understand what makes game successful, helps us train developers, and therefore leads to more and better games, that is obviously good for us all.
I don’t know how many studios/publishers actively recruit from the few schools now offering game development educations. I don’t think having such an education on a resume is currently considered a huge factor in a candidates favor. I believe it is a very positive factor for newcomers in film and theater, however, and very well may be in games also some day.
Blog Migration: The original intent of this blog was to report on the progress of Age of Empires III and also occasionally look inside the workings of Ensemble Studios. It has expanded recently to talk about our Halo Wars project and pretty much anything else related to gaming and our studio that I thought might be of interest to our fans. We have decided to move the blog to the Ensemble Studios web site as well, to reach readers seeking news about our newer projects and not necessarily the Age series. There may be other bloggers writing at the new location and there may be an opportunity to ask us questions. We’ll see how that goes. The blog will remain available here as well.
Gaming for Fun: The most popular game outside of work for ES’ers right now has to be WoW with the recent release of the Burning Crusade expansion pack. We have an email alias for several interest groups here and one is devoted to this game. The mail traffic on it has been heavy with a fairly deep discussion of what people like and don’t like about the expansion. People who have previously tailed off their participation on raid night have their L60 characters out of retirement and back in the dungeons, pushing for L70. Of particular interest is the news reported on Gamespot and Yahoo that the expansion sold over 2.4 million copies in 24 hours (Europe and US combined). That has to be a record for an expansion pack of any kind and you know it is grabbing the attention of developers and publishers around the world.