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The Age of Empires Heaven Interviews

Matt Pritchard
Ensemble Studios


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 buildings. 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 strategy 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 internationalization). As a result we (are the first I know of to) let the user crank the resolution up from the now standard 640×480 to 800×600 or 1024×768 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 “overload”?

The Optimizer: What happens during a battle is that the computer 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 everything to look good, but every once in a while it’ll dip down on slow Pentiums 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 detached 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 of gameplay.

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 movement, 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 units.

John (Imperious Rex): Does your nickname “The Optimizer” have to do with your rewrite of a portion of the AoE code in Assembly? 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 engines and create an improved design. One of the main elements was a redesigned 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 Civilization. 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.

: 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 conditions 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 from us.

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 make it.

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 gameplay 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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