Rick Goodman about Age of Empires

Interview - Rick's view of AoE and strategy games



Rick Goodman (designer of AoE)

Telcontar: There is an option to play a cooperative game with more than one player controlling the same tribe (one of the highlights of AoE and some other RTS games). Can I also assign some topics to the computer AI? For instance, it would be great if I could take care of a battle while the AI continues to build up my city - or vice versa. Such an assignement should be only temporary, of course.

Rick Goodman: The computer knows how to ally, but does not like to cooperate. This was a design decision that makes sense when you weigh the settings and interface involved with sharing units, research, economy, military, and temporary assignments etc. This is quite a deep game and it has a "near zero" intrusive interface. We never want to take you from the action.

Telcontar: How susceptible will the game be to lag? The matter of latency is of particular importance for people in Europe (like me).

Rick Goodman: I don't know the technical answer to this question, but we are testing under the worst latencies the world has to offer. We allow for 2000+ MS latencies. If that is what you are experiencing we can handle it and we adjust this constantly on the fly, during the game. So, if the Web speeds up, so will your lag time. You won't be disappointed.

If the game is still playable with 2000 ms latency time, that will be awesome. From Europe, a lag of 1000 ms or more is quite common, and if AoE handles lag that well, it will become very popular in Europe.

Telcontar: Will there be a "dynamic strategy" that varies as the game goes on? For instance, if I see that a particular resource type is scarce, I try to get all or at least the major part of it to deny it to my opponent. If I see a narrow valley, I try to establish an outpost there. Will the computer be smart enough to adjust his strategies to the map? Since maps can be generated randomly, this would be very important.

Rick Goodman: In Age, strategy and tactics are two very different animals. The computer strategy is determined at game start, based on the map type and the civilization being played. Much like a human would do. Tactics are developed as the game unfolds and depend upon the map, resources, level of difficulty and your level of aggression. These are all done dynamically, therefore, if you play against Greece on a huge ocean map, you'll have a completely different game against Greece on a small land map, including possibly, the deployment of different units, an earlier attack, many guard towers, possibly Super units and maybe a Wonder strategy. Even playing on the same map against the same opponent will challenge you to a completely different set of strategies and tactics from game to game.

To read more about the difference between strategy and tactics, go to the corresponding page in my strategy guide.

Telcontar: Microsoft is concerned with the marketing of the game, but not with the production.
Now if MS releases a new operation system, people will sigh in relief (because they can replace the old one that they have hated so much).
If MS releases a new program, people will grind their teeth (because they will have to pay once again a lot of money for bugfixes).
If MS releases a game, people will ignore it (because MS has not released a single good game so far).
So is the fact that the game is produced under the MS label not rather an obstacle than a help? Do you feel like MS could earn the credits for your work?

Rick Goodman: It is my belief that Microsoft is the best game publishing partner in the business. The fruits of this will soon pay off for consumers because awesome games are the inevitable result of partnerships with the best in the business. If I told you that we decided when the game would ship, not Microsoft, would you believe me?

Telcontar: I have heard of the "Line of Hearing" feature that is already part of the computer AI. If a unit is attacked, other units nearby will help it. Will this also be included for human players?

Line of hearing yes, area of hearing no. Easy to do, but testers considered this a bug since they saw their units being attacked on the mini map but only sometimes received sound notification.

Telcontar: Why does AoE not feature a production queue so you can give the order to build multiple units? This is a quite useful and common feature now in RTS games.

Omission of production queues in 'Age' was, indeed, a design decision, not a programming issue.

'Age' is not just a combat game. Rather, it represents the seamless integration of combat and economics (resource management, production etc.) In Age, both are held in equal esteem and that is an important point. In combat oriented games, the actual production of units can get in the way of the action. Production queues, allow players to focus their attention on combat and reduce their attention to economics and building.

This is not necessarily consistent with the Age design philosophy.

In play testing Age, we have witnessed countless times when a decisive battle was raging in which both players were faced with a quintessential decision: Do I leave the battle field to initiate production of replacement units, or do I stay actively involved in carefully managing the battle and allow my production to remain idle for a time? This may at first appear to be a non-significant decision, however, we here at Ensemble spent many hours analyzing this very point.

Here is what we found:

In the heat of battle, this is not only a difficult decision, but it is a fun decision as well.

We consistently found that players who actively focus their entire attention on the battle field win the conflict. This is a tribute to both the strategy and depth of the game and the subtle and not so subtle interaction between units. However, managing combat in this fashion doesn't come without a cost...the neglect of something else. We found that winning the conflict was not synonymous with winning the game. What's more, we discovered that sometimes the opposite was true. Those who manage the business of economics are sometimes as good or better than those who focus on tactical combat.

Which brings us back around to Age design philosophy.

Age is designed to provide more challenge and more activity than one player can effectively manage at one time. Maintaining the delicate balance between economics and combat is one of the key ingredients to this. As a result, we hope the day will go to the player who is best able to balance the ever-competing elements of economics and combat.

Rick's view of AoE and strategy games

Personal Experience

This office consists of 20 hard core Warcraft 2 players, with over 8 months of multi player experience. We don't, however, play Warcraft at all anymore (since January of 1997) when Age became the game of choice. Not because WC2 is not a great game, it's the greatest and we all heartily acknowledge and thank Blizzard for their ground breaking Mega-game. Based on my personal experience, the Warcraft 2 people are going to be thrilled by Age. It's not the same game, but, instead, provides the next logical extension of WC2.

MS statistics

Our focus groups show wide acceptance with Age from C&C/RA and WC2 players. It also out ranks them both in numerical scores.

Game design

The vision of the game has always been one that straddles the line between action and strategy and there are two ways to do this. The first is to compromise on both, thus, taking away a little of each to find the middle ground. The second is to acknowledge that both are good and to find a way to marry both in one game. This is what we have tried to do in Age. There is more action, more strategy, there are more units, bigger maps, more cooperation, more technology etc. than in pervious games of this genre.

Instead of losing the action audience, what we have tried to do is to create a next generation RTS game. Clearly this next generation game is going to have more depth than previous generation game. In doing this, we hope not to leave anyone behind. We are simply trying to provide an ever-more challenging experience... precisely the one the RTS audience is asking for.

Rick Goodman

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