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The Age of Empires Heaven Interviews

Mark Terrano
Ensemble Studios

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: (Communications Programming)
Imperious Rex: (Editor of Gamestats News Network)
Archangel Michael: (Age of Empires Heaven)
Mark: (Mark’s Age of Empires)

Imperious Rex: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Comweasel. Most of the readers will not know you by that name. Please fill them in as to who you are and what you do. 🙂

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: My real name is Mark Terrano, handle Comweasel. I did the multiplayer and communications programming for Age of Empires.

Imperious Rex: It is rumored you built the soapbox and wrote the gospel of Wonders in AoE. Please explain. 🙂

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: I always enjoyed the economic side of the game – I guess its just the frustrated merchant in me 🙂 – anyway we knew the game needed more on the economic side… we knew we had combat but there was still something lacking… For design changes we would usually gather in the conference room with the designer (as a team) and brainstorm ideas to improve the game, enhance portions of it, etc. Wonders was actually a team sort of a concept – they were used (as a concept) … In Civilization of course though in a different way. I ‘evangelized’ wonders – sold the concept to everyone – by explaining we could use it as a kind of “Armageddon Clock” – that would tick down to the end of the world if not stopped. I also thought it was important to show where the wonder was being built… the rationale is that historically *everyone* around would start hearing rumors of this giant statue, the pyramids, etc… I think I was surprised as anyone how much fun Wonders actually turned out to be – we all knew the change to gameplay would be interesting – but there is that mind-numbing panic that sets in when someone starts building a wonder… It really throws a curve to any plans you have made – and team games people go nuts trying to coordinate (usually poorly) the attack strategy. Some of the most interesting games we have had with Wonders is where one team started building a wonder – but my team was able to start one moments later and beat them to the finish. We were simultaneously building 2 wonders and attacking two wonders. (Theirs came down with 100 years left).

Archangel Michael: Good Morning CommW, thanks for joining us today – Multi Play is a big part of Age of Empires, tells us about some of the more difficult challenges you faced in doing some of the communications support..

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: There were a few challenges – the most notable technical challenges were adding communications code to our Genie engine. We also wanted to be able to support a *lot* of units, plus be lag tolerant on the internet. of course… on the internet there *is* only one challenge – handling wildly variable lag, and unexpectedly dropped players. We are using Direct Play throughout – with some serious code that rides on top of it… Direct play handles moving the ‘raw’ packets – but the game does all of the guaranteed delivery (by doing it ourselves instead of TCP/IP we get better performance) and handles controlling he game… so it still performs acceptably even when the lag is hitting a couple of seconds.

Archangel Michael: Talking about lag, What do the Multiplayer symbols mean? The colors and symbols next to your name & the Turtle?, I have seen different post on this on several AoE Sites. (And) is the dropping of players being addressed by you in the future? (Letting the computer take over for a dropped player)

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: Without the -readme- file in front of me I’m not sure what millisecond latencies are shown by the colors. Obviously red is the worst – over a second definitely, an yellow is slow – over half a second or so. The turtle shows the slowest player in the game – that slowness is by their machine speed. The lights are purely latency that I calculate. As to letting the computer player take over – that is actually something we would have liked to have added but didn’t have time to put into the game. DaveP has written a really killer AI – and I was disappointed not… to be able to have computer players along with the multiplayer users. As for the future – I definitely can’t comment on future products, same with questions of Age2 – no matter how much I would like to. I can tell you that there will definitely be a sequel – but not what is in it. Ensemble Studios is always ready to hear suggestions and comments too.

Imperious Rex: A lot of players have asked about a Multiplayer save feature. Is this a feature being looked at? What are the drawbacks of multiplayer save to the efficiency of the game?

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: That was a pretty debated item early on in the development process – I’ll give you the short story. At the time we were adding communications features most of us were playing Warcraft II regularly both on LAN and through Kali. Also, our save games were rather large – several Megs of data. We considered how often people would play and resume Warcraft II games – which was a number hovering around zero. So we elected not to include the feature. We were all actually pretty surprised that it was as big an issue with some players as it has turned out to be – definitely something that should be addressed for future games (but again, that’s only an opinion not a company statement). At the office we just call a game by ‘score’ if we lose it…or just play on and you tough it out and still try to whip your opponents. If you’re a good negotiator – sometimes you can talk them out of stuff (gold, food, etc) to take em on two at a time.

Imperious Rex: Co-op play has not been talked about much. Are you surprised? I thought it was a great addition to current multiplayer options.

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: I think its something that doesn’t add too much for Internet play – I was the big cheerleader for this feature – rather a hard sell since nobody had it at the time, and I had a few reasons for pushing hard for it: One is that I’d really like to play with my wife or little boy – and control the same units while sitting side by side at null-modem or network games…Co-op play lets you get someone out of a bind because you can move their units. In network play we have had some really fantastic games co-op, it does take some getting used to – people who are used to WCII are not quite sure what co-op play is good for until they think about it a bit. First – you need to have some kind of ‘outside’ communication with your partner usually -unless you’re really playing with them a lot. Telephone, etc. is ideal. Second thing is that you have to talk about -in advance- how you are going to run the units. Dave “Big Dog” and I are a petty well-known team – My favorite strategy is to be the early explorer – by taking a lone guy and covering the entire map – while Dave (king of the 20 minute iron age build-up) makes an Empire. Then I’ll take a hit squad – my favorite is 5 upgraded (or heavy) cav and one priest. Or a small contingent with a catapult and half a dozen footmen and a priest. You can do an amazing amount of damage with a small group if your only task is to concentrate on them.

Archangel Michael: What are a couple of your Multiplayer Strategies/Tactics that your are famous for?

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: Here’s my current favorite deathmatch strategy for teams (Team games are my favorites) – I take Babylonians and my partner takes something with good catapults. We chat and pick our targets – usually the closest person we see. I give him all my surplus wood – and my partner tributes back all the food. I usually end up having gold left over. I go a mostly elephants strategy with Babylonians taking a mix of about 20% archer elephants. The civs balance each other nicely – and I’ll usually ring my town with some ballista towers just to keep away the curious.

Elephants do some serious hurt to the catapults because they can get in close. For regular games – finding the mix of civs that reinforces each other is key – you want at least one that gets chariots, and usually one that is especially good at building up. Shang plus Greek is a good mix usually. For boat games Minoan and Assyrian or Phonecian and Choson -something that offsets one players disadvantage nicely. Choson legions are one of my favorite units – and my surprise favorite for wonder-busting? Jihad / Siege-Craft villagers – if you’ve never tried it give it a shot – they might surprise you.

Mark’s AoE Site: What civ did you usually play as? Have any strategies?

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: I play a lot of team games – so I tend to like the ‘economic’ civs personally – Assyrians are pretty nice because you can cover a lot of ground with the fast villagers – they have the advantage bonus of being pretty awesome in the archery department as well. Egyptians are fun if you can survive long enough – they’re hard to touch if you’re playing defensively. Mixing Egyptians with boat-trade to generate gold keeps you pumping out the priests wo-lo-lo! My other favorite is Choson – the reason I like them is that they have a fairly low-cost unit that is good through all ages of the game (footman) -and upgraded to legions, you have a great unit that you can build a good army that is speedy and tough. I do get beat pretty often in free-for-all games so don’t go by my strategies as the end-all-be-all 🙂

Imperious Rex: What was your favorite memory of developing this title?

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: It was really great working with the programming team on this game – we had a lot of difficult programming challenges – and it was our first game as a team and a company so we had a lot of learn-as-you-go things – but the developers we have are the best I have ever worked with (I’ve been programming for 20 years so that covers a lot of people) as a team and all great guys individually. Ensemble is a great family-style company and we have a really great working with the designers Rick Goodman and Bruce Shelley – because they were completely open to new ideas and our experiences as gamers. At ES – everyone is a gamer first – we play board games at lunch, computer games after work, and we have classic video games (as well as playstation and nintendo) – so for me it was a dream environment – doing cutting-edge programming with a great group, indulging my designer side, and having fun while doing it. Other than that KICKING THE BUTT OF THE ARTISTS in AOE. (there is a great programmer v. artist thing we having going)

Imperious Rex: My last question, thank you Mark for taking some time with us. Is there one thing you would go back and change if you could?

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: to future titles, so I really do get the go-back-and-change-it opportunity. We as a company and team are really devoted to continuous improvement and doing absolutely the best games we can do.

Archangel Michael: With all the great graphics in AOE (Love those ES Art types!), I heard around 35mb worth, Was that a real draw back for you in the communications area, having them update on all multi players machines?

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: Well it was a concern – but we are using a ‘modified frame synch’ model for the communications – the game is actually calculated (except for the computer players – which ride like invisible players on the host’s machine) on every players machine – and we pass around the player commands. This had some trade-offs, one is that synchronization is very tricky – because all the games must decide to do everything the same way. The advantage is that our packets are relatively small and a little more latency tolerant for resend times and things. So in essence – it was a drawback – but I knew taking this route we would actually be able to have more moving units on the board than we could have otherwise – and we would be more latency and bandwidth tolerant. The artists are fantastic – I couldn’t believe some of the death animations that they did during the game – stunning.

Archangel Michael: Last question for me also – As one that gets his butt kick into the Stone Age every time I play Age of Empires in the Zone play – can you giving a helping hand on what you think is the best Tribe to start off with and why?

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: I like the Greeks – good units all the way through – so you’re not especially vulnerable at any one point. One of the fairly interesting features of Age is that you can see your status and compare it to others *while you are playing* – some folks don’t really realize this… That you can look at the achievements screen and ‘analyze’ what your opponents are doing. Some good exercises are to play single-player random games with easiest computer opponents and just practice building up through the ages as quickly as possible. Try to figure out what your opponent is doing – I know I always built too many houses early on (using up too much wood) – I have a pretty standard ‘opening’ now that I’ve seen in at least one FAQ.

Mark’s AoE Site: Does the AI ever run out of resources? In other words, does the AI need resources in order to produce units? In what ways does the AI in AOE differ from other RTS games?

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: Well, I only know a little about the AI – mostly from a player standpoint and that I sit next to the guy who wrote it all. One amazing thing is that at all the lower levels (up to Hard I think) that the AI –does not cheat–. It doesn’t know where the things are on the map in advance, and it doesn’t get any special bonuses – well other than by being a computer. The AI has to gather things just like you and I do. Where the AI excels is using its catapults or priests – it stomps you then pulls back, and does it again and again. Very infuriating. I find the AI very challenging – it whips me pretty regularly. One special challenge we had with testing AI and Scenarios and things is that as the testers got better, they kept saying the AI was too easy: I think the AI is just a little too vicious some times 🙂 I haven’t played a huge number of games against the computer – I almost always was playing multiplayer since that was my ‘baby’.

jd: I have a question about something you alluded to in earlier conversation -Something about a patch- Any details available??

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: I can only tell you that MS is going to do a patch sometime before too long- there are lot of rumors flying around about what is in it, some pretty wild rumors too having followed the discussions. Microsoft will release the patch when it has been completed and thoroughly tested to their satisfaction (they have some of the greatest testers). They’ll release the details when they are available.

Archangel Michael: Thanks Comweasel – its been great! Enjoy what is left of your weekend. IRex thanks to you and Gamestats for hosting another great interview! Mark thanks for dropping in.

Mark’s AoE Site: Thanks for the invitation. It’s been fun.

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: No problem guys – appreciate the support from you all – its always fun talking with people who enjoy the game (and games in general) as much as we do.

Imperious Rex: Thanks all, See you on the battlefield.

Mark’s AoE Site: Later. Thanks for the chat.

Mark “ComWeasel” Terrano: Anytime!

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