When Age of Empires came out in 1997, it marked the dawn of a dynasty, weaving 20 years of real-time strategy sequels and spin-offs. Now, 20 years later, it’s being rereleased for the first time.
Age of Empires Definitive Edition is coming out Oct. 19, bringing the original Age of Empires out from the unplayable depths of archaic computer requirements with a fresh coat of paint and a handful of modern improvements.
The idea to bring Age of Empires back from the dead came from Jörg Neumann, the head of production for global publishing at Microsoft. I spoke with Neumann about what changes have been made to the game and how the project came together.
When Neumann decided he wanted to redo Age 1, he started reaching out to some of the original game’s developers.
“I asked them, ‘Hey, so if I want to redo Age 1, how am I going to go about this? Does anyone have the code?’” he said. “And they were like, ‘Dude, there’s this one guy, and his name’s Matt. Without him, you can’t do it.’”
The Matt they were referring to is Matt Pritchard, one of the programmers on the original Age of Empires. Luckily for Neumann, Pritchard lives right near the Microsoft studios in Washington.
“We had lunch and I said, ‘Hey dude I want to make Age 1,’ and he’s like, ‘I want to make Age 1!’”
With access to the original Age of Empires code and one of its original engineers, Neumann just needed a team to help develop the remake. He reached out to Forgotten Empires, a team of Age of Empires modders that have been active since 2012, Neumann said.
“It’s almost like restoring a famous car”
Modders like the Forgotten Empires crew have been a big part of Age‘s success, Neumann said, and their passion and love for the game was necessary for making Age of Empires Definitive Edition a success.
All told, the Age 1 remake team had about 50 people working together.
“It’s a lot of people involved, actually more than the original game,” he said with a laugh. “The original game’s team was pretty small, about 20-something people.”
With a team assembled, it was time to make Age of Empires accessible for the first time in over a decade.
Modernizing Age of Empires
The idea to develop of the Definitive Edition partially stemmed from the fact that you can’t just download and play the game on modern computers anymore.
“There’s a nostalgia factor with some of these games and Age 1 hasn’t been playable in forever,” Neumann said. “We haven’t sold that thing in — I don’t know how long — since 2000 or something. So if you really want to play it right now you basically have to go to a ware site.”
The goal was to modernize Age of Empires while staying honest to the original game.
“We redid every piece of art, every sound effect, we rewrote all the music, but we kept its soul intact as much as we possibly could,” Neumann said. “It’s kind of like how you remember Age of Empires 1 from ‘97, just better.”
The Definitive Edition actually runs on the same engine as the original game. That said, there are some notable quality of life improvements seen in the remake, including improved path finding for units, the ability to queue units being created, upping the unit population limit, redoing the UI, enhancing animations, and balancing some elements for multiplayer.
“There are actually some people in the world who still play Age 1 competitively — they’re mostly in Thailand — so we watched a bunch of videos and it turns out they only build three units,” he said. “The original game was so unbalanced that you could completely screw the multiplayer.”
On top of that, some of the game’s campaigns have been sped up, and some wonky and tedious victory conditions have been changed (like needing to kill 100% of your enemies’ villagers).
“It’s almost like restoring a famous car,” Neumann said. “[Age of Empires] is a monument in gaming so we didn’t want to just change it, we did what we could to keep exactly how it was intended.”
To appease some of the purists out there, the team gives players the option to play the game exactly how it was with no changes whatsoever. Neumann brought up George Lucas’s treatment of Star Wars and how he would like there to be an option to watch either the original version or the “enhanced” version.
Sticking with the spirit of the Age series, the Definitive Edition will have a map editor and mod support.
“Why has Age existed for 20 years? I think because there’s something like 15,000 mods on Steam,” Neumann said. “We want to enable that.”
The project is all about giving players the best experience that they can expect, and being able to bring that to the world is something Neumann is really proud of.
“If you think about the games industry, Age of Empires is one of five or 10 properties that really means something to people, like really multi-generational,” Neumann said. “Getting to redo that and make it better, to make it be able to stand the test of time for the next 20 years, I think that’s great.”
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