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The Age of Empires Heaven Interviews
Matt "The Optimizer" Pritchard: (Programming)
Imperious Rex: (Editor of Gamestats News Network)
Archangel Michael: (Age of Empires Heaven)
Marc: (Page of Empires)
Archangel Michael: For the one or two Age of Empires Fans out
there that don't know you Matt, can you give us a little background
on yourself and how you came to be with Ensemble Studios?
The Optimizer: I was looking to get into the game industry,
but wasn't willing to take just any job. When I came to Ensemble
Studios a little over a year ago. Prior to that I worked for Lacerte
Software working on large scale Income Tax and Mortgage Processing
software. At the time however, I had been making contacts
in the PC game industry and writing articles on high-performance
graphics and optimization for Game Developer magazine.
Archangel Michael: Sounds like an interesting start in the
business.. The Age of Empires unit animation is incredibly detailed
and fluid, the death scenes are remarkable, as are the various
Can you tell us the type of machine(s) and software you are using
to render these graphics and what kind of frame rate can we expect
from this type of animation?
The Optimizer: All of the graphics in the game have been
modeled by our Artists in 3d Studio. Typically, each artist has
one or two Pentium Pro-200 or faster machines with at least 128
megs of RAM to do their creating on. The resulting animation is
converted to 2D images and animated at 10 to 15 frames per second.
To make that look good on playback, the end user's computer must
be running the game at 20 to 30 frames per second minimum; - A frame
rate we are able to achieve on any Pentium and fast 486-machines.
John (Imperious Rex): Greetings Matt, thank you for taking
some time with us. What is it about the graphics and the graphics
technology in AoE that sets it apart from the other real time
games shipping this fall?
The Optimizer: As for the technology: We did a great job
of creating a state-of-the art graphics engine. Our engine uses
assembly language and advance techniques to produce a high frame
rate, even with the presence of the Windows GDI (for
As a result we (are the first I know of to) let the user crank the
resolution up from the now standard 640x480 to 800x600 or 1024x768
and still have a smooth, quick playing game. An Isometric engine
like ours is harder to do than a top down engine, but its worth
it. It AoE objects interact with each other visually; you see units
walk behind objects like trees or buildings, and things like shadows
moving across the ground from birds and catapult stones. The view
angle allows for terrain elevation to be clear and obvious; unlike
overhead view games. As for the graphical content itself;
Our team of Artists have tried to set a standard for 8-bit graphic
games with a gorgeous, illustrative look to all the images in the
games. Our units, buildings, and terrain are large, detailed, vividly
colored and fluidly animated. Almost 30 megs of graphics data is
used just for the game elements - i.e. the terrain, units, buildings
and whatnot. Also, when you compare our graphics to the other RTS
games coming out (mostly sci-fi), I think we have a more vivid range
of colors and have more visual variety.
John (Imperious Rex): Many gamers worry about how many frames
per second they will get when they are in a heated battle. Can they
expect the 20-30 fps you mentioned when the battle is hot and heavy?
Was the 50 unit limit added to help with this
The Optimizer: What happens during a battle is that the
AI is working overtime processing each of the involved units personal
AI, as well as any computer player's tactical AI. The graphics engine
has no problem keeping up (though it naturally runs a little bit
slower when the whole screen is going crazy). We've worked real
hard on the performance of both the Graphics Engine and the AI.
Most of the time the frame rate is going stay high enough for
to look good, but every once in a while it'll dip down on slow
and 486's if things get real heated. We made the decision that it
was better to suffer a small slowdown than make your units suddenly
go "stupid". As for the 50 unit limit, that was originally
added because we found slow machine would have some troubles with
over 400 moving units total in the game. Since then though, we found
the 50 unit limit to add strategic value to the game. We were no
longer able to just pump out hundreds of units and fling them at
each other. Also the presence of the Wonder in the game adds tactical
importance to your villager/military mix when a limit is present.
Marc: Hello Matt. Here's my first question: With the recent
big sales generated by 3D acceleration cards, does Ensemble plan
on making Age of Empires 3D compatible sometime, and if so, how
exactly would the game benefit?
The Optimizer: Your question is one we are still pondering.
We are actively developing 3D technology; but are spending more
effort trying to figure out how to improve gameplay and the game
experience with it. Basically, if we can find a way to improve the
experience with 3d, you will see a 3D game with us. We're taking
a hard look at the question of "does it make it better, or
just prettier?" Strategy games sometimes need the abstraction
and big overview perspective. Imagine if you will a first person
RTS where you could see from each unit's perspective. In a game
like AoE it would get ridiculous if in order to launch a Calvary
attack, you had to switch to each individual Calvary unit view and
give him an order. On the other hand, if you had a 3rd person
overhead view you could do something similar to what we do now.
But maybe we would be missing something be if we didn't have 1st
person... or maybe we need to... Anyway, you should get the idea
that the game comes first, ahead of the technology. We are going
to push the technology for all it is worth, but don't forget that
there a lot of lousy games out there full of technology and empty
Marc: Graphic wise, the game is far superior to most games
on the market right now. I'm sure the graphic design wasn't done
overnight. How long did it take to develop the amazing graphics
used in Age of Empires?
The Optimizer: It has taken us over two years to get where
we are, both in the actual art content and the graphics engine.
Archangel Michael: Graphics questions; With the normal
fighting and death scenes for each unit, how many different images
did you have to make for each unit to display all these different
views? Are the graphics made in normal pixel size or do you render
them from a larger graphic?
The Optimizer: I don't know the exact numbers, but "a
lot" is a valid answer. The artists render the animations out
to the final sized 2D images, though if you could zoom in, you would
find them to be more detailed. The Calvary unit for example is a
3D model with more than 20,000 polygons. In fact the same models
used to create the in-game units are also seen in the cinematics.
Archangel Michael: There also has been a lot of talk about the number
of Units per side in AoE, As most beta testers know, the scenario
editor seems to have no limit, and priests can convert in normal
game play over this 50 limit. I just played one of the beta scenarios
that seem to have hundreds of units/buildings is there a top limit
on the number of icons per side or per game?
The Optimizer: In any game, there is no limit to the number
of buildings, towers and walls, other than resources available and
space to put them. The population limit applies only to movable
units. In scenarios, you can place down any number of moving
John (Imperious Rex): Does your nickname "The
have to do with your rewrite of a portion of the AoE code in
How much faster was it after your rewrite?
The Optimizer: Yes it does. One of my strengths I brought to
Ensemble studios was my Optimization skill. When I came to Ensemble,
the game was getting 8 to 15 FPS on a P-166 with many performance
spikes in other areas of the game. I set out to study the game
and create an improved design. One of the main elements was a
graphics core, written entirely in assembly language. In addition
to being faster, it would fix many graphical bugs and provide some
new features. When it was finished, the game was getting 50 to 55
FPS on a P-166. My work has not been limited to the Graphics side
though. I've worked on the AI and other portions of the game engine
that needed tuning.
John (Imperious Rex): Impressive !Is there any pressure on
your team to live up to the Bruce Shelley "Civilization"
standard? Civilization is truly one of the greatest games ever made,
making it a tough act to follow.
The Optimizer: Not really. The pressure is just to make a
great game. AoE is not in any sense of the word, a sequel to
If anything we compare it more to Warcraft II. Bruce Shelley and
Rick Goodman have done an outstanding job on the game design, and
I think it will stand completely on its own merits.
Marc: Well, I can only ask one more question because I have
a meeting which is required to be attended :( Anyway, here it is:
I noticed while creating some scenarios that futuristic laser
gunners were included in the game's unit list. Is this a hint at
an upcoming game from Ensemble?
The Optimizer: I can't say. But the history of those is units
is quite interesting. Basically they are one of the "easter
eggs" we put in the game for people to have fun with. I've
enjoyed it, Marc.
Archangel Michael: I know your "wish list" of items
for Age of Empires II - is getting quite long! - But has there been
discussions on making AoE II Campaign Scenarios Dynamic? (Carrying
over units and resources from scenario to scenario), this would
add a whole new level of experience for Ancient Army Campaigns.
The Optimizer: It has been discussed here many times, along
with a branching campaign tree where you have multiple victory
and the first one you achieve determines which scenario you play
next/what gets carried over. I'm sure you'll see an evolution of
the scenario to scenario process in any sequel or expansion pack
Archangel Michael : You kind of answered this already, but.
.After the game is released, can we expect add on CDs from Ensemble
Studios, (Scenario CDs, maybe more graphic tiles and units)?
The Optimizer: I can't say for sure what will be next, but
if AoE is any sort of success, you will see some sort of follow
up in '98. If we do an expansion, we will include new features and
goodies in it.
John (Imperious Rex): I know the gaming community screams
for release dates. This has caused companies like id software to
come up with "It's done when it's done." When is the date
for "code lock" on this project? Are you confident you
will be able to ship on the current release date?
The Optimizer: Age of Empires will be on store shelves on
Oct. 31 1997. We have set this date in stone, and are on track to
John (Imperious Rex): Fantastic News! My last question. I'll
let you get back to the game and to Real Life. :) Thank you very
much for your time today. Is there anything you feel the gamers
out there would like to know about the graphics in AoE or the
that we have not already covered?
The Optimizer: Not really. It been a labor of love for us,
and we are confident enough in our work to let people find out for
themselves what a wonderful experience awaits them.
Archangel Michael : Its been a REAL Pleasure in chatting
with you Matt, we will have to ask you to join us again! thanks
for your time and very detailed answers.. & the great support
from the ES Team...
The Optimizer: Thank You, Michael.
John (Imperious Rex): Thanks again Matt. You and the Ensemble
team are class acts
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