Castles, Kings, and Community: An Interview with the Team Behind Age of Empires IV
Later this year, Age of Empires IV will usher in the latest chapter of this long running and acclaimed RTS franchise, sending us back to the age of castles, kings, and empires. As part of the Age of Empires: Fan Preview event (check out the full recap here), we had a chance to sit down with Relic Entertainment’s Game Director Quinn Duffy and Narrative Lead Philippe Boulle as well as World’s Edge Director of Customer Voice Emma Bridle to talk more about the upcoming strategy game, its unique blend of history and gameplay, and how its passionate community has kept the series alive for over two decades.
Xbox Wire: Relic Entertainment has a strong pedigree of creating excellent strategy games (Company of Heroes, etc.). What experiences are you drawing from in developing those games that you’re bringing to Age of Empires IV? Is there a studio mantra that you aspire to?
Quinn Duffy: I think what we’re building on most strongly is our approach to historical strategy games and linking history and authenticity to gameplay. We want to make sure we’re capturing the history and what makes the civilizations in Age of Empires unique, but we want to be able to turn those into gameplay elements that are balanced, that are understood by players, and that provide some fun options for players of the franchise to explore the new civilizations.
Philippe Boulle: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things we had done on previous projects like Company of Heroes is to try and evoke a documentary style or period film style and this time we could go and do it. We could build full on, BBC-level documentaries that led you into each mission and out of them and stitched the missions together so that you understood the historical context.
So, it’s that attention to detail, that understanding, that we were celebrating real cultures and real events and real people and bringing a sense of respect and appreciation and celebration to those moments.
I think that’s the big thing Relic was able to bring to the table into a franchise that was already wonderful, that had so many great things going for it. We didn’t come in here to make a Relic game that had Age of Empires printed on it. We were here to make an Age of Empires game.
Xbox Wire: What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned through the replaying the Age of Empire Definitive Editions. What are some of the things you’ve seen that have aided in the development of Age of Empires IV?
Quinn Duffy: Oh, lots of things. I think our development of Age of Empires IV pre-dates the Definitive Editions as well. We started before those were out, but playing the original games, the HD version of Age II that was out on Steam in 2013, we saw the reemergence of Age back then. Maybe not the complete depth of it, but the important thing was involving the community, the people who were passionate about those games. You can play those games and there’s things you can appreciate but there are people who’ve been playing them for 20 years, and they understand this incredible nuance and they understand the formula of what makes a great Age experience.
So, we brought the community in in 2017 and we’ve been working with them all the way through development. That’s people who’ve played Age I, II, III, Age Online, Mythology… they’re all represented. There’s modders in the mix as well, so we tried to capture all aspects of the community. And we’ve been working a lot with Forgotten Empires who did the Definitive Editions of the games. They’re helping us out with a number of aspects for Age of Empires IV in terms of balance and how they built the Art of War challenges. I’m sure Emma can talk more about that as well.
Emma Bridle: Yes, evolving the Definitive Editions, running them as a service, adding new content, rebalancing, fixing as we go. We’ve really learned that the Age community — not that we didn’t know it before — are super passionate and let us know what they want to see in our games. So that means building really strong feedback loops, gathering everything they’re telling us, taking it to the game teams and then informing the community on how we evolve the game.
It’s been a great process. It obviously helps inform how we’ll run Age IV, and having the community really involved in every game in some kind of way, whether through the [Community] Council or once the game is out, that providing us that feedback has really helped us to make the games better for our players. They get a seat at the table for development, and we get to work in partnership with them. It’s very collaborative between Relic and Forgotten Empires and all our partner teams and World’s Edge and the community. We’re all working together which is wonderful.
Xbox Wire: On the topic of the Community Council, obviously it sounds like it’s had a tremendous impact on the development of Age of Empires IV. And it seems like at an early point you realized their importance. Was involving them ever a hard sell to the development team?
Philippe Boulle: Not at all. We’re very aware that if it weren’t for the Age community, we wouldn’t be making Age of Empires IV. They are the ones who have brought this franchise back and who kept it alive and are its beating heart. The idea of making an Age of Empires game without the community was a non-starter from the get-go. It was important to Microsoft when they came to Relic, and it was important to Relic when we started the conversation.
Without the community, this game wouldn’t be happening in the first place, but it also would be nowhere near as good a game as it is now. Obviously, there’s been years of work with the Community Council behind the scenes on Age IV and that’s just a prelude of years of future work with the community on this game once it launches.
Emma Bridle: There are tangible things in the game that are a result of feedback from the Community Council. We actually issued a charter to them, to theme it to the period, as we understand that they were giving us time and energy outside of their lives and their jobs and we committed to ensuring that they knew what changes we were making, what impact they were having, how they were shaping the game.
The feedback wasn’t going into a void. Every piece of it was being digested and taken to the game teams and reviewed. We’ve really committed to letting them know what changes we’ve made so they know how they’re playing a part in shaping the game. And that’s everything from the look of icons in the UI all the way to the game systems. So, they really played a part in the game as people will see it as we head towards launch.
Xbox Wire: What are some of the steps you’re taking to welcome new players to Age of Empires who have never played an entry in this series, or even an RTS before? With the game coming to Xbox Game Pass, you’re going to have a great influx of players. What are some of the things you’re preparing yourselves for with that?
Philippe Boulle: I’ve had the pleasure to work on some of the opening experience for the player and we’re really trying to roll out that red carpet and welcome people who may not be familiar with Age, with strategy games, and really just put the best parts of the game forward.
We walk you through that Age -up experience, that core Age fun of going from a small village to a large town and unroll the mechanics for you there. And then the campaigns serve as the big way to introduce mechanics. You create that historical context so you can understand what’s happening and we can introduce different parts of the game one step at a time.
Of course, there’s people who will want to jump straight into multiplayer or straight into skirmish versus the A.I. All those things are available, and people can do that, but I think for newcomers that sort of walk into the front end of the game and going into a historical campaign with these wonderful films, giving you the context and then enough help on the ground, that you can get going. And the missions are designed to let you explore that space at your own pace.
I think we’ll be welcoming a huge number of new players, certainly from Xbox Game Pass. But even just the core joy of Age in the same way that Age I and Age II 20 years ago brought in this whole audience of people who were captivated by the historical narrative, and by the connection with their own cultures, with their own lives, I think we’re set up to the same thing this time.
Xbox Wire: Was returning the series to the Middle Ages always intended to be the focus for Age of Empires IV? Can you go into some detail on what weighed you in this direction?
Quinn Duffy: I think my first reaction when I was pulled into the room that we got this offer to meet with Microsoft about Age of Empires and my head immediately went to Age of Empires II. That’s my formative experience. I loved that period of history; there’s the breadth of content, the emergence of literal empires from all over the world, so there’s great source material to draw from. It felt like the perfect place to start a new Age of Empires platform just because of the number of stories, the romanticism of the period, the exciting history of the period; there’s great conflict between great empires. Immediately that’s where my brain went. And I think Microsoft had many of the same intentions. They saw how popular Age II was and felt like a natural place to return to.
Philippe Boulle: The breadth of the Middle Ages gives us so much to work with. There are so many stories to get into there. It’s also a nice hybrid of stories that resonate directly with our lived experience. You’re talking about the events that created what we think of as England. This is stuff that resonates with people and the same is true of cultures from around the world.
But it’s also lots of stories that we don’t know as much about. Stories of the Mongols, and the stories of the details of why the Normans invaded England and so on. So, we can tell stories that can relate to today, but also surprise people, delight people, with new perspectives they haven’t thought of. We have four historical campaigns and eight civilizations at launch, each of those represents yet another story to tell. And that’s just getting started. There’s an infinite number of more stories to dive into in that period.
Xbox Wire: How do you determine the balance between authenticity and entertainment in retelling history in Age of Empires IV?
Philippe Boulle: That’s something we spent a lot of time thinking about, is how we could celebrate history in the best way and celebrate these cultures. We absolutely are a game and must think about game concepts, but our presentation of history is more than just moment-to-moment gameplay. There are also the films that come around it during the campaign, with additional materials to provide context.
So, when it came to those documentary things, we really wanted to strive for the highest level of authenticity and really echoing the best understanding of those periods. We worked with historians and documentary film makers and medieval weapons experts to really get those right. When it came to the moment-to-moment gameplay, we wanted to use all those historical facts as inspiration and motivation for creating those gameplay experiences. What makes a civilization unique, what makes a particular historical battle special… we wanted to lean into those things. But we also need to deal with making sure you can see your units on the field, making sure you understand what your capabilities are, and making sure the gameplay is compelling, and fun, and balanced. That’s always a big discussion.
I honestly feel that history was much more of an asset than something we had to work around. It was something that inspired many of those game design choices. So, we ended up with gameplay that is just as much a celebration of those cultures and that history and the films that surround it.
Xbox Wire: What are some of the steps you’re taking to ensure all the cultures featured in Age of Empires IV are authentic representations and being considerate of their history?
Philippe Boulle: We’ve worked with cultural experts and linguistics and historians tied to these cultures and had deep conversations with them, presenting our ideas, taking ideas on board from them, working to make sure that we’re always coming to these cultures with that spirit of celebration. We want to show what makes each of these cultures magnificent. What makes them resonate today. We want to do that in a way that echoes for people who identify as that culture currently.
[For example] we used Mongolian voice actors from Mongolia to do all the voices, we worked with Mongolian musicians, we worked with historians and horse experts in Mongolia to get all those ideas right. And did that across all the cultures. The idea is to create a sort of cultural resonance that if you identify as part of the culture or see yourself as a decedent of that culture. You see elements of yourself and feel that we’re getting it. If you’re not, then you’re discovering something new. We hope that will resonate across all the civilizations.
A special thanks to Quinn, Philippe, and Emma for taking the time to talk to us today. We’ll have more to share about Age of Empires IV in the coming months as we get closer to its release date later this year. Be sure to check out our Age of Empires: Fan Preview event recap for even more Age-related news and updates and keep it tuned here to Xbox Wire for all the latest gaming news for Xbox and Windows 10 PC.
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