Age of Empires at E3

Part 2: Interviews

Published by Microsoft and Ensemble Studios
July 31st 1997

Age of Empires was still called "Tribe" when shown at the E3, so don't be confused :-)

Meet Bruce Shelley!

Bruce Shelley was recently asked to respond to questions put forth by Computer Player about strategy game design. Here is the text of the questions and his responses.

In your opinion, what separates a blockbuster strategy game from the merely mediocre?

I think a blockbuster strategy game has several key attributes. First, the topic is big and easily comprehended by a majority of players. Tight little topics appeal to a smaller audience and limit their potential market. Second, the game has a big goal/payoff at the end and many smaller, satisfying payoffs/rewards along the way. In Civilization, conquering the world or being first to colonize space were big payoffs toward which a player could strive. Along the way there were small rewards for conquering cities, achieving new advancements, wiping out rivals, and so on. Third, the game offers more than one path or plan to victory. There is more than one way to succeed. In Civilization you could emphasize either economics, diplomacy, or military conquest and still win. In Railroad Tycoon you could emphasize either finances, operations, or competition. Fourth, a superior game grabs and holds a player's attention by posing interesting and well-paced decisions. The provision of interesting decisions is the key to making a game fun. Trivial or random decisions are boring and kill player fun. Fifth, the game interface and technical execution are not a source of frustration. Bugs, crashes, and frustrating game play kill player interest. Sixth, game art and audio enhance the playing experience without being intrusive or disruptive.
Art, sound, and music do not have to be outstanding technically or even industry standard so long as they do their job. My colleagues and I at Ensemble Studios considered this question as part of the development of Age of Empires. We hope we have the right answers and that Age of Empires meets the criteria.

When you're not working on Age of Empires, what games do you find yourself playing? Can you name some products-from other developers - that you admire?

I spend so much time alone in front of my computer during work that I play games during my spare time only occasionally. I concentrate usually on the project underway or on existing games that could be a source of ideas or competition. I prefer games that make me think rather than react. Lately I have been playing the solitaire scenarios of Warcraft II and Command & Conquer. When I am in Dallas we play three-on-three team Warcraft II over our network. Old favorites that I still play are Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, Colonization, and Empire Deluxe. For a quick game fix I might play Shanghai, Hearts, or Free Cell.

What game projects have you been personally involved with over the past few years?

I worked at Microprose Software from 1988 through 1992. Major projects I worked on there were F-19 Stealth Fighter, F-15 II, Railroad Tycoon, Covert Action, and Civilization. During my last year I worked with Sid Meier on a tactical/operational Civil War game that has never been completed. After leaving Microprose I did almost no game design work for two years and then we started Ensemble Studios. We have been working on Age of Empires for the last year and have started outlining specifications for a second game.

Are there any other game developers who you admire in this industry?

Game developers are largely anonymous to me. They don't get the publicity that movie stars, sports heros, and movie directors receive and few have consistently developed games I enjoy playing. The one that stands out is my ex- colleague at Microprose, Sid Meier. I wanted to work there because I enjoyed playing Pirates!, one of his earlier designs.
It was my privilege to work closely with Sid on four games. I think he has developed more quality games than anyone else in the history of the business and has a better understanding of what makes them fun than anyone else I've encountered. Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds developed Colonization and Civilization II together with Sid. I would guess that whatever those three are working on now will be the next strategy game that I definitely want to play.

Meet Angelo Laudon!

We hope to interview one Ensemble Studios employee each issue to get to know each other better. We lead off with Angelo Laudon, Studio's first programmer. In every software company there is a hierarchy among the programmers based on who can answer the questions of others. There is usually one person at the top of pyramid who has the answer for just about every question. At Ensemble Studios that person has been Angelo.

Q: Angelo, what is your major responsibility on Tribe?

A: I'm the lead programmer. I mainly work on interface, sound, database, and graphics programming.

Q: What is your current priority task on Tribe?

A: I'm currently working with Tim Deen to make the game engine more robust and run more efficiently.

Q: What part of your work on Tribe have you found most interesting?

A: I've most enjoyed working on making the game faster. It is an interesting challenge to figure out how to squeeze a few more frames out of the code.

Q: What is your background in your field?

A: My parents bought me a TI-99 4/A computer when I was ten or eleven. Then I taught myself Basic and really got into programming. Video games and computers have always been some of my favorite things. I've been programming professionally for nine years. I started working at Ensemble around three years ago and I was one of their first employees. While at Ensemble, I wrote a product called Renaissance. It allows you to visually create database applications and it won an award from the Paradox Informant. I've always wanted to program games, so around two years ago, I started getting into graphics and game programming. I've been at Ensemble Studios since the company was started.

Q: What computer games have you particularly enjoyed, past and present?

A: My favorite computer games have been Wing Commander I and II, Civilization, Day of the Tentacle, Doom, and WarCraft II.

Q: Do you have any favorite magazines, television programs?

A: My favorite magazines are Computer Gaming World, Next Generation, Wired, and Details. I don't watch very much television, but when I do, it's usually MTV or E. My favorite shows are Beavis and Butthead and Talk Soup.

Q: What would you be doing right now if you hadn't ended up in the game business?

A: If I wasn't programming games, I would probably be programming another type of product since I really like product development. Most likely I would be doing something for the Internet since there is such a big opportunity there.

Q: What is the all-time best game you have ever played and what makes it so enjoyable for you?

A: The best game I have ever played is definitely WarCraft II. It is such an awesome game, and I've been hooked on it for over six months! The game play is fun and addicting and the graphics and sound are very good. I think the balance between action and strategy is perfect. Playing multi-player WarCraft II on the network is one of my favorite things to do.

Meet Scott Winsett!

Scott came to Ensemble Studios directly from the Dallas Art Institute's 3D Studio program. He and Thonny Namuonglo joined us on the same day as reinforcements for Brad Crow in our art department. Scott and Brad share a windowless office known as The Cave that features black lighting and the best sound system in the building. Most of the great looking characters and creatures in AGE OF EMPIRES came out of that office. Scott has a hobby that is unique within our team, at least for now.

Q: Scott, what is your major responsibility on Tribe?

A: Most of my work has been in character animations. I worked with Brad to make the people and creatures look life-like and interesting as they moved about the map.

Q: What is your current priority task on Tribe?

A: Several of us are working on cinematic sequences to be linked to individual campaigns. I also fix animation bugs as we discover them. The cinematics are a huge undertaking and soak up most of my time.

Q: What part of your work on Tribe did you find most interesting?

A: The character animations were the most interesting work that I have done on the game. It was fun and challenging to make the characters look real.

Q: What is your background in this field?

A: I studied commercial art at Western Kentucky University before coming to Dallas to study computer animation. Working with Ensemble Studios was my first industry job.

Q: What computer games have you particularly enjoyed, past and present?

A: I was not much of a computer gamer before joining Ensemble, but I got hooked on Warcraft II when we were playing it multi-player here after hours. Lately the game I have been enjoying the most is Nascar II.

Q: What would you be doing right now if you hadn't ended up in the game business?

A: Racing, if I could have found a way to support myself doing it.

Meet Brad Crow!

Our interview for this issue is with Brad Crow, Studio's first full-time artist. Brad is a graduate of a very popular degree program at the Art Institute of Dallas that teaches 3D Studio, among other tools. The top graduates from this program, such as Brad, are highly sought by entertainment software companies from Dallas and nearby, as well as other businesses. Brad toiled on his own as our only artist for many months and made many important contributions as Tribe moved from demonstration to full-blown software product.

Q: Brad, what is your major responsibility on Tribe?

A: I'm an animator. I'm responsible for the humans and creatures that move about the map. I have to make their motions look realistic as they go about their tasks.

Q: What is your current priority task on Tribe?

A: Most recently I have been upgrading the units and their animations. All units in the game have been reworked completely and a few new units have been added.

Q: What part of your work on Tribe have you found most interesting?

A: Character animations are the part of my work that I find most interesting. It is a challenge to capture the natural movement of a person or animal. It is also a challenge to reproduce believable emotions in our characters. I am especially pleased with the new versions of the chariot, cavalryman, and war elephant, including the animations of their deaths. I really enjoyed creating the animations of the animals (lion, gazelle, birds, whale). Most game animations deal with humans and it was fun to attempt to replicate the motion of these creatures.

Q: What part of your work on Tribe have you found most difficult?

A: The most difficult part of my job, I must confess, has been working inside the database. On several late nights I have had the programmers in my office responding to my wild cries for help! They saved me by replacing any table entries that I deleted accidentally and put back whatever else was out of place. I also had a great deal of difficulty with the elephant animation. I watched a lot of videotape trying to get that motion to look real.

Q: What is your background in your field?

A: I have been interested in art as far back as I can remember. When I was in elementary school, my teacher would ask if I would rather sit in the back of the class and draw while she read stories to the others. Of course she already knew my answer. I took art courses all through my years of schooling. I received an Applied Science Associates Degree in computer animation and multimedia from the Art Institute of Dallas. Soon after graduation I received a phone call from Tony Goodman, "We are creating this game called Tribe...," he said. Things have been good ever since!

Q: What is the all-time best game you have ever played and what makes it so enjoyable for you?

A: I haven't always been a game player, but believe me, I am catching on quickly. The game I have most enjoyed playing, though I am not the least bit good at, must be the game of Chess.

Q: What is the worst game you ever played? Why?

A: The worst game I ever played was Slipstream. The graphics weren't all that bad. The movement of the screen that made me sick after only a few minutes. Later I noticed the warning label on the back of the box (in very small letters): May Cause Epilectic Seizures Or Altered Consciousness!

Meet Mark Terrano!

Mark is a programmer/developer who moved upstairs to Studios from Ensemble Corporation. He is a key technical person on our Age of Empires team as you will read in a moment. Beyond his technical expertise, he is just a great team member, period. He shows up everyday in a sunny mood, shares his knowledge willingly and fervently, and leads by example. Some of us draw the line, however, when he offers to share his lunch plate of spicy cajun crayfish.

Q: Mark, what is your major responsibility on Age of Empires?

A: Officially, I'm the communications programmer, which means I get to figure out how to get multiplayer games working. Unofficially, I'm the multiplayer and cooperative play games evangelist-if people are discussing anything that takes two or more to play, I'm usually in the middle of it.

Q: What is your current priority task?

A: Multiplayer has been working pretty well for awhile. I'm concentrating on making it easy to use, robust, and bug free.

Q: What part of your work have you found most interesting?

A: Well, besides the challenge of multiplayer in the Genie game engine, it has been offering suggestions for some of the game design elements. I have really enjoyed the more 'open' design style here-where everyone has the opportunity to contribute ideas and suggest better ways for game features to work.

Q: What parts of your work have you found most difficult?

A: Keeping up with the changes in Direct Play (Microsoft's multi-player software) and making it work well on a variety of networks was a challenge. I also learned a few new APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) and in the process gained a real appreciation for Microsoft's Common Object Model-though it took me awhile. I've described making Age of Empires as a lot like climbing a mountain. First, you have to be determined enough that you're sure you'll make it up and back alive. Second, being halfway there is the scariest part because you're far enough along to kill yourself but you still have a long way to go. And last, even though it pushes you to the limit, the view is worth the journey.

Q: What is your favorite part of AOE?

A: I love cooperative play. My favorite is to have a 'warlord' partner and concentrate on resource and intelligence gathering. Oh, I enjoy combat-especially with priests (wo-lo-lo) and cavalry units-but I get the most thrills from contributing to a shared effort.

Q: What is your background in your field?

A: I've been programming and designing software systems nearly as long as some of our best artists have been alive, most of it in mission critical and communications programming. I've been writing various multiplayer games (on Mainframes even!) since 1983 in my spare time and when I had the opportunity to do games full time I jumped at the chance. I only thought I was doing cutting edge work before-in games programming we're trying to write for hardware that is barely invented yet.

Q: What computer games have you particularly enjoyed, past and present?

A: Amazingly enough (grin), the multiplayer games-DecWars, Modem Wars, Mule, Populous, DoomII/Quake are the most fun for me, but I also enjoy a good puzzle like Myst and the old Infocom games. A few years ago I co-wrote a lot of material for on-line multi-user Domains (MUDs). I think I like making games just a little bit more than actually buying them.

Q: Do you have any favorite magazines or television programs?

A: I read Boardwatch because its honest, Wired because its cool, and a bunch of techie magazines because I need to know what is going on (Game Developer, C++ Report, MSJ, Dobbs, etc). On TV, I'm just a sucker for hidden-camera video exposť's and real video shows. Babylon 5 for drama & entertainment, British comedies for humor-because they're so well-written. If I have the time I rapid-fire scan a bunch of news channels, c-span, and the like. Oh, I've also become a fan of Politically Incorrect. I have been known to yell at the people on the TV at times-until Chez pointed out that he didn't think they could hear me.

Q: What kinds of things do you do when you're on the World Wide Web?

A: Well, I'm known as the guy who "can find anything on the Web" and I usually use WebCompass to keep that reputation. I've been having fun searching for mentions of Age of Empires on the Web and in Usenet and tracking those down. I read all the game sites of course (gamespot, c|net, gamecenter, etc). I also check out the occasional massively multi-player world to keep up with the state-of-the-art. My activist spirit is involved in helping to fight Spam on Usenet and e-mail, and for Internet free-speech.

Q: What would you be doing right now if you hadn't ended up in the game business?

A: I'm not the kind of guy who does mediocre work-I get in elbows deep in anything I do-so it would definitely be something interesting, but I can't imagine anything more rewarding than what I do now.

Q: People say you're always smiling-why is that?

A: I am grateful every day that I work with the Ensemble team-folks who say you learn something new every day should work here. I think I learn about 6.5 things every day. I have the privilege of doing absolutely killer games and seeing my ideas implemented in them. I have two families that I love - my game-making office family and my family at home. Who could help but smile?

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