Interview with Brad Crow and Scott Winsett

Ensemble Studios Interview
9 Nov 1997

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Brad CrowEnsemble Studios (lead artist)
Scott WinsettEnsemble Studios (lead artist)
SmogSmog's AoE page
Archangel MichaelAge of Empires Heaven
TelcontarTelcontar's Empire of the Ages


The Archangel: Good morning, thanks for taking the time to join us today. Can you both give us some background on yourselves and how you came to be in the gaming business and at ES?
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Well I am 23 years old... And I guess I got lucky...ha ha... I got picked up right out of school to jump on AoE, and have been going strong ever since. I too received all my 3D training at the Art institute of Dallas, I was second artist picked up to help Brad. I was really impressed with Brad and with ES, so I joined open heatedly and have been happy ever since :)
Brad "The Crow" Crow: I am 22 years old and received my art training in 3d at the Art Institute of Dallas. I was fortunate enough to be the third full time employee at Ensemble Studios and the first artist to work on AOE. I was excited about the game as soon as I got my hands on the first design document. It was a very interesting start here at Ensemble... Our first office was a card table with a PC slapped on top. We were amidst tie wearing consultants at the agency downstairs.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: In a consulting office... When we first started we really couldn't act like artist at all... It was like a library job... :)
Brad "The Crow" Crow: Since then all the consultants down stairs dress like us now :^)
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: We broke out of shells when we moved up to the penthouse suite...
Telcontar: Since when did you know that you wanted to become an artist?
Brad "The Crow" Crow: Since I sat drawing in the back of reading, not at all paying attention, in 3rd grade reading class :^)
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: I have always felt that I wanted to be an "artist" since I could hold a pencil...
Smog: When did Scott come join the team After You (Brad)? Were you very far into the game?
Brad "The Crow" Crow: I was prototyping the look and feel of the game for around Six months before we tried to get Scott.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: When I started, Brad had told me that the game was... "Going to be the best looking RTS game ever..." I knew we had our work cut out for us...
Brad "The Crow" Crow: Absolutely, once Scott was there the pace picked up a lot, and the game really began to take shape.
Telcontar: Do you still use pencil and paper often or has the computer with 3d models taken over?
Brad "The Crow" Crow: A lot of planning goes into a final piece of "game ready artwork" so a lot of sketching is done prior to implementation on the computer. Sometimes however we find it easier to sketch and work though our ideas on the computer first. In the end it is whatever looks best and fits the game!
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: That's what really matters in our minds.
The Archangel: What is the multi-step process to produce "Game Ready" art work? (from initial sketch through final compression)
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: We did find ourselves doing a TON of sketching on Age to keep the consistency looking OK.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: First of course we sit with the designers and do a lot of research before we begin sketching, this allows everybody to share a common vision.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: then we will do some concept sketches to develop a look and fell for the game.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: Once these sketches are approved by the art team we begin creating them in 3d.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: We really try and work together to make sure we share a common vision, as well as assets.
Telcontar: How much have you been researching about each tribe?
Brad "The Crow" Crow: We went to book stores and spent hundreds of dollars on research material, a lot of the most useful information came from our designers like Bruce Shelley.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Bruce really is a historian...
Brad "The Crow" Crow: It is obvious we were drawing and not paying attention in Spelling class :^)
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: We had a library, of books from everywhere. We was constantly looking for reference material...
Telcontar: The appendices are very well researched indeed. - How did you merge the different tribes into 4 tilesets and 1 unit set?
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Once we had a look for the game we moved on to scale issues and prototype art.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: We worked with the historians (Bruce) to find out which cultures could share common artwork.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Microsoft helped when they could, but Bruce was our main contact.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: Of course we would have loved to have custom buildings and units for each culture but memory constraints would not allow that.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: We really did some testing and fine tuning to get to where the game felt right.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: as well as looked right.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: when creating art for this game it was important to blend what was historically accurate and what everybody expects a culture to look like.
Smog: What was the hardest unit to create in the game; like the one with most detail? I always figured either a horse unit, catapult or ballista, or maybe the elephant.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: The elephant.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Definitely the elephant...
Brad "The Crow" Crow: We spent weeks just getting it to look right and then the animation took just as long
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Everyone really likes the cats... Those only took about 8 hours :)
Brad "The Crow" Crow: we watched numerous National Geographic specials to understand the elephants movement.
Smog: wow, that's pretty good time. I thought it would take longer.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Some of the units took as long as a week before Brad and myself would let it go in the game.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: or weeks :^)
Smog: what was the easiest unit to create?
Brad "The Crow" Crow: Fish.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: They had the least amount animation.
Smog: Well, Unit you can control.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Probably the rolling artifact... :)
The Archangel: What is "Key Framing" and "Rendering to a Palette" and how was that used in AoE?
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Key framing is "old school" type of animation, its where you move a part of the unit to a specific frame and seta key frame... Then you set another, then another, and you try to make the unit as fluid as possible... It's not very easy... Lots of units have many, many objects, IE the Priest... So it was very time consuming... As for the palette issue, we have a controlled palette. By this I mean every piece of artwork you see in the game is displayed in this set of 256 colors. We designed all the art work to this 256 color palette, that is one reason why it looks good.
Telcontar: Which building set is your favorite one?
Brad "The Crow" Crow: Greek is by far my favorite, it is to me the most elegant.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: I tend to favor the Asian.
Telcontar: What is your favorite building and unit?
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: I think it's because I like Benehanas.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: My favorite building is the Greek Iron Age Temple and My favorite looking unit is either the priest or the legion.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: My favor Buildings would be the wonders, and unit would have to be well that's top secret.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: And of course I like to hunt elephants, that is one of my favorite animations.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: By far my favorite animations in the game are the death animations.
Smog: Did you have to make each unit for different resolutions; or just 640x480, or what?
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Everything was made to fit 640x480. Only the interfaces are custom.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: You just get more realistic in other screen sizes.
Smog: What size screen do you normally play on when you play AoE? I like 800x600 because I have a 17" monitor. Sometime, after long periods 1024x768 is hard to see.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: I have a 21" so I let the "BIGDOG eat" and go 1024 all the time...
Brad "The Crow" Crow: I like to always play in 1024x768, it makes the graphics look sharper.
The Archangel: How were the cinematics done, the credit screens are pretty cool! (The Movie Set Screens).
Brad "The Crow" Crow: Thank you.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Well first of all thanks... And the cinematics well thats a hard one...
Brad "The Crow" Crow: The credit screens and the cinematics were mostly done by Thonny N., a very talented artist here. Thonny N. spearheaded the whole project and worked on the cinematics for at least six months.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: Lots of time when in to the planning of the opening animation. The movie set screens are going to be an Ensemble Studios trade mark.
Telcontar: What are the trends for graphics in computer games? They have become increasingly important during the past years, sometimes at the expense of the gameplay.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: We believe in having a strong game design before artwork.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: It has become very competitive in the game industry, who has the best looking game usually gets a ton of up front attention.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: But yes, graphics are becoming ever more important to users, and that is why we work so hard along with everyone else in the industry to keep pushing up the level of quality.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: we tried to separate good game play from good art from the start. We did have our work cut out for us, trying to combine WCII with Civ...
Brad "The Crow" Crow: Even if someone has the best looking game, people will only play it long enough to look at the art if there is not good gameplay to keep them coming back.
Telcontar: What were your expectations of the success of AoE at the early stages (i. e. before the E3)?
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: I would say our expectations were high.. Very high.
Brad "The Crow" Crow: We were focused on making the best game of 97. However we truly were not able to imagine what has really happened with the game.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: I am still kinda in shock...
Brad "The Crow" Crow: We are happy that many are having as much fun now playing AOE as we have had play testing the game for several months past.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: E3 was a big motivating tool for me, seeing all those people wanting to play our game... It was really cool. As you can see by our spelling... we don't get out much... I should say, they don't let us out much...:)
Brad "The Crow" Crow: :^)
The Archangel: Last question for me gentlemen, Can you give us some insight on the depth of character animation techniques? - The death scenes in Age are some of the best graphics I have ever seen in any game.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: well there is a story behind the death animations.... Well Brad and myself were at work around 4:00 am in the morning, and we were trying to think of something to set out game apart from others... We were throwing out ideas and letting everything get out in the open... We were playing as we were talking, and we were just killing things left and right. We had stills for the deaths, just plain old stills one a guy got killed he would just pop in to the still... That sucked...
Brad "The Crow" Crow: The techniques are all very basic... It is the attention to detail that gives an animation realism. Many a late night were we up here swinging broad swords (broom sticks) at make believe enemies in order to get a feel for how the movement really would be.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: so we thought it would be cool if when you killed a unit that he really looked like you did something... So we did some test and spent the rest of the morning doing some of the first death animations, for the peasants, and we were really proud of them...
Brad "The Crow" Crow: When we were down stairs, you could walk into the consultants offices and see a couple of men in three piece suits physically showing us how they would swing their battle axes against Greek Legions. That was pretty cool.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: then we came to work around 2:00pm the next day and our designer was in rage... He said "...heck no we can't afford the memory". So we thought we had pulled an all nighter for nothing, and that all was going to be lost... Well everyone in the office was like... THEY ROCK... Heck no!!!!! we are going find memory, and we did... Then Brad and myself got to add like another month to our schedules for custom death animations for all the units in the game... Job security.
Smog: How do you think the graphics on Starcraft will be compared to AoE? Do you think Starcraft will be a big competitor in play wise, as well as graphics wise?
Brad "The Crow" Crow: As always Blizzard can put out a game that has awesome gameplay and graphics. I am fully confident that they will again produce a title that follows this trend...
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: I think those guys at Blizzard are something to behold. They are a great bunch of guys, very talented. To compare the two, I think we scared them a bit, they had to go home after E3 and do some homework, I played Starcraft at E3 and it seems solid, It looks just as solid then, but rumor had it they were doing some more work...:)
Brad "The Crow" Crow: So yes... I do believe StarCraft will be a contender, as for which looks better, I will let the users decide that one. :)
Telcontar: Thank you for making such a great and addictive game, and for spending your time with us.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: anytime fellas, we know that if we can make you "Hardcore gamers" happy then we have done something special...
Brad "The Crow" Crow: thank you for all of your support, the users are why we try to make great games.
Scott "Strokin Ace" Winsett: We couldn't have done it with out the feedback from all of you and Microsoft... Thanks again

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