Designer Biography – Ingo van Thiel

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Bio – Ingo Van Thiel

When a friend showed me the Age of Empires game on his computer, he didn’t dream what would become of that. My first attempts at designing weren’t good at all. Another friend who was a regular gamer gave me honest, but not very positive, feedback. He found my first scenarios too easy and not very original either. And he was right.

Then I played Kyle Leach’s famous AoE scenario “The Fortress”. Apart from being a great scenario overall, there was this mysterious little muddy river in it which I had never seen before. How did he do that? I spent hours and hours cracking my brain about this trick. Then I finally figured out how he did it (desert patches) and developed his idea a bit further. And hey presto, suddenly I came up with something that hadn’t been there before either: swamps.

That was a kind of “Aha!” experience, because designing was much easier after that. Instead of recreating things I had seen, I tried almost everything in the editor in a new combination. New ideas just seemed to spring up out of nowhere. In the end, I had a campaign about a fictional tribe of fishermen who were called Tai Gun. My critical friend liked it and suggested I submit this stuff to AoE Heaven. Back then, I didn’t have any Internet experience, and no clue how to download something, let alone upload! He uploaded the campaign for me in December 1998. In January 1999, OldGrex reviewed the campaign with a 5.0, the top rating at HeavenGames.

A lot of things changed after that. Along with the initial boost such a success gives you, there came the pressure to repeat that success. It is way cool to start out with a top rating. On the other hand, there is no way to top a top rating. You can only keep up that standard… or fall below it. Or try to top yourself. That’s the way I tried.

My next campaign, Budonian Tales, was a royal pain to finish. There was no way those scenarios seemed to fit together. In the end, I do think I came up with a reasonable story, but only after discussing this stuff with many people. Another iron roadblock in Budonian Tales was editing AI files – frankly, the thought scared me. Tai Gun worked out fine with the in-game files. But in Budonian Tales, the AI (artificial idiocy) did cause some major problems: Why did those computer villagers keep building houses, dropping them down in village entrances or in the middle of the road? And how should I keep them from wandering about? And what about the oh-so fearsome enemies who launched just one reasonable attack, and then were gasping for air for the rest of the game? OldGrex helped me a great deal there by writing some files for me. It wasn’t until later campaigns that I finally tackled ai and per files myself. Finally the Budonian Tales was finished. A good time to stop now, I told myself. Consequent as I was, I almost immediately started working on Tai Gun II… This time, though, I was taking a more relaxed approach and designing became fun again.

Somehow, there would always be new ideas. This was mainly thanks to the great designing community at AoE Heaven. I learned a lot from many people, especially OldGrex and Rich Parker. One designer had an idea; the next designer would build upon that idea and develop it further. The development in the designing scene made a huge leap forward in 1999. It’s been fun to be part of it.

My works in Age of Empires are
Tai Gun
Budonian Tales
Tai Gun II
Ghengis Khan – Early Struggles and Conquest of China
The Two Brothers

Ghengis Khan was my submission to the Mongolian Campaign contest. It was easily one of the most exciting contests that happened, because the four winners had a head-to-head race until the very end: Ty Freeborn and Eggman won with a tie (overall score: 4.92), I made a reasonable third place (4.88), and the Rasher made a very close fourth place (4.78). Trouble with my campaign was, a judge did not manage to catch some carrier pigeons before they reached the enemy capital, and he considered this part impossible. A lively carrier pigeon debate followed in the design forum at Age of Empires Heaven. It kept everybody entertained for a while, and then finally petered out.

My last campaign for Age of Empires was The Two Brothers. It was the only campaign that I made for the original version of AoE, all my other works had been designed for the Rise of Rome expansion pack. It was inspired by Imhotep, one of the most influential designers at AoE Heaven, who left the place shortly before me. I wanted to try a couple of map design techniques that were not possible with the expansion pack anymore. The style of the intro bitmaps with their brownish tinge was a kind of tribute to Imhotep.

Then came the sequel “Age of Kings”. It had been long awaited, and it offered lots of new possibilities – because it had triggers. Suddenly, you had much more influence on the in-game events than you could ever have in Age of Empires. This aspect has always fascinated me about Age of Kings. All the same, I still crank up my old AoE or RoR CD every once in a while, and I still love its graphics: While Age of Kings is more monumental and refined, Age of Empires has a completely different kind of charm.

In late 1999, I got hired by a German firm to design a German add-on CD for Age of Kings. Working with deadlines was a completely different experience for me – no time to play around, much less time to experiment, only rush, rush, rush to meet the deadlines. It was interesting though, and gave me a lot of practice with the AoK editor. After an interruption of several months, the project was finished in 2000. So far, it’s the only time I actually made money with my design work.

Apart from the add-on project, I was also quite active in the AoK fan community. My first fan submission was The Quest. It became the first 5.0-rated campaign at Age of Kings Heaven, and it was also featured in the July 2000 issue of Computer Gaming World Magazine along with works by Gordon Farrell, Chiang Ning and Gregory Koteles. Half a year later, I submitted the sequel The King’s Best Men. I worked on it for five months – up to then it was the longest time I had ever spent on a campaign. Then there was a break because the Add-On had to be completed. Besides, a new job in real life took up a lot of time and energy. In May 2001, I submitted an AoK:TC scenario called Gyda’s Challenge, one of the few times I actually made a historical campaign rather than a fictional story.

If I noticed one big difference between Age of Kings and Age of Empires, it is that the effort has tripled until a reasonable scenario is really finished. I also came to depend much more heavily on helpful people who playtested my work before it was submitted. The more triggers there are in a scenario, the higher the risk gets that players will get some really weird bugs if they do something unexpected. Back in Age of Empires, one or two playtesters were usually enough to make sure a scenario ran fine. In Age of Kings, you can have twenty playtesters, and still some bugs will slip through. Of course this can get annoying, but on the other hand, it can lead to hilarious “war stories” by players. Last year I made a scenario which began with a hopeless fight against a crassly superior enemy camp. You don’t stand any chance with your handful of soldiers – when your last guy falls, the scenario continues. So far, so good. But then there was this player who didn’t know that he had no chance. He took his small and hopeless handful of soldiers and razed the whole ridiculously superior enemy camp with them. And then, trigger after trigger fired with merciless logic: “Now that you have lost this battle…” “Hey, but I won it!” The scenario ended in a complete chaos of nonsensical messages, and the last thing he got was a woman screaming and a defeat message. Needless to say, I updated that scenario quite quickly, but… wow, what a story. I guess I learned a lot from it, especially about nasty battle tactics that some players will use when they play your scenario.

I am currently working on another campaign project for Age of Kings that has been cooking for more than a year. I’ll also take a look at other editors of new games and see if they are fun to work with. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind spending more time with my other big hobby again, music. I have been writing songs since I was a kid – if I ever quit designing, music will probably be the thing I go back to.