I am Dave Pottinger, a lead developer of the Age of Empires & Age of Mythology games, Halo Wars, and Cavemania - AMA!
Hey Redditors, Dave here. Verification: http://twitpic.com/de7atn
Update, [7:10PM EST]: Thanks for all the great questions. It's been fun to relive some of the Age days. I must have 15 emails from Ensemble folks enjoying the trip to Memory Town. I hope you download and play Cavemania. Let us know what you think! Follow us for updates on Twitter (https://twitter.com/cavemaniagame) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/cavemaniagame).
I’ve been a game developer for eons, first with Ensemble Studios where I helped create the Age of Empires and Age of Mythology games, along with Halo Wars. After Ensemble, some of us founded a new studio named BonusXP. This week we’re publishing our latest mobile game, Cavemania. I guess you could call it "match-3 meets Age of Empires". It's free-to-play for iOS and Android here: http://yodo1games.com/cavemania/
You'd have to ask MS.
But, sign me up! I wouldn't literally kill to work on AOM2, but that'd be an automatic slam dunk.
Heh, nice. I don't think that one's quite as popular as Wololo, but it's definitely one of the AOM unit sounds that sticks with you. I always wondered what the VO actor looked like; he sounds angry.
Just wanted to say thank you. Age of Mythology is one of my favorite games of all time!
What made you (and others) choose BonusXP over Robot Studios?
Mine, too! I actually was at Robot for a little while. Bonfire after that. In the end, I came to the hard realization that I wanted to do something different.
But, knowing that and then doing it are two very different beasts. It took a while to put together the right founding crew. John and Jason are such fantastic partners. And, we've been fortunate enough to attract some other great talent, too. Up to 15 people and two teams now, in fact.
Coming back to the question... I'm proud to look at what we've started building and see it tie back to the original ideals from Ensemble. I was at Ensemble really early and take a lot of pride in how great it was (and the commensurate responsibility for how it ended). I look at all the ridiculously excellent studios that spun out of ES and am amazed that we managed to field that team for so long.
I'm happy to be part of Bonus and keep a bit of that old ES spirit alive.
Age of Mythology-inspired RTS on Kickstarter: Possible?
Anything is possible.
I'm a little less sold on Kickstarter for games compared to other folks, but I would love to know how much interest there is in that idea.
Age of Empires 2 is the only RTS I routinely come back to year after year. The more modern ones just lack, I don't really know, just that casual complexity, if that makes sense.
I can be a complete noob and enjoy just throwing units at villagers and building giant sprawling cities. Or I can rush the Castle age and spam Eagle warriors like a boss.
I would back anything even remotely Age like.
Considering that we do get alot of Kickstarter supporters on reddit, I'm sure everyone would like to hear an industry veteran's reservations on Kickstarter.
Just to see the other side of the coin!
Reservations is maybe too far.
I love the idea of Kickstarter. I think it's opened the door for many things that would never have gotten a shot. I do think it has worked better for more tangible, physical items than for software.
Software is inherently difficult to predict. I don't think crowd funding has a good handle on that risk, yet. To get your game funded, you have to promise a lot. Unfortunately, many games over-promise.
To be clear, I'm mostly talking about the Kickstarters for guys who've been in the industry. More power to the non-industry folks using Kickstarter to break in. Knock 'em dead!
I am disappointed in the successful game Kickstarters that have subsequently run out of money. Triply so in the case of industry vets who should damn well know better. They should know how to take a budget and leave room for iteration/mistakes/oh-shit situations.
So, yeah, maybe I'm just more frustrated with the state of the current game Kickstarters. I wish they were more dependable.
Bonus does get asked about doing an RTS Kickstarter a LOT. Given our heritage, it's understandable. It's not something we're currently planning. If a few more good success cases come around, then we'll probably give it some more serious thought.
Related, there are already a ton of threads running around the studio email in the last few hours that all have the tone "See, everyone LOVES AOM!!! Let's make that!!!"
Quick thank you for helping create one of the defining games of my childhood (AoM) and thus feeding my interest in mythology right up to uni (final year Classics student!)
You're welcome! It's been funny watching my kids go through elementary school and be exposed to all the various times that mythology comes up. They know everything already because of AOM:)
Who thought of all of the silly cheats that you could use in Age of Empires, like adding cars with machine guns and whatnot?
Always a group effort, though probably driven a little more by the art staff. After all, it's not really a very good cheat if there's no art:) Our concept artists came up with a lot of the crazy ones (Lazrbear, George Crushington, etc.). The Monster Trucks from Age3 were actually a big favor I called in to make my boys happy.
Ah, the great flying purple hippo.
One of our designers mistakenly sent an email meant for his wife to the entire studio. Sadly (for him), he signed it "Wuv Woo". We never let him live that down.
One of the artists came up with the hippo as a prank. Another modeled it, and so on.
Those trucks were tucking amazing.
Thank you ;-;
Nice. It's "tuck" because my 3 year old (at the time) couldn't pronounce his r's very well. He doesn't find it funny these days, tho.
I'm in my thirties and my Stepfather is a 60 year old farmer and not a video gamer in the least bit with the exception of Age of Mythology. For over 10 years now, he's been playing that game. Hours upon hours almost every day with no clear sign of him stopping or slowing down. He works 12-15 hours in the field on the regular and always comes in the door excited to get some AOM in before eating and going to bed. I'd just like to say thanks for giving him something he enjoys.
You're welcome. That kind of story is awesome to hear.
I'm a 39 year old gamer and Age of Mythology is by far by favorite video game of all time. I don't know if this has been asked but is there ever going to be an app version? If so, I hope you triple your fortune as you deserve it!
I don't know if there's ever going to be an app version of AOM.
Funny story (well, funny now, not very funny then)... AOM was largely considered a disappointment when we launched it. We were coming off of Age2 which had gone stupid gangbusters, of course. Expectations were crazy high. We bungled some bits of the project and had totally bitten off more than we should have (remember, this is when 3D RTS games didn't really exist yet). So, we had to slip the project an entire year, making it a three year game.
When it launched, it "only" did a million or something (don't quote me on those numbers) early on. Lifetime, it's done over 3M, I think (again no quotes). So, it's no slouch. But, compared to Age2, it's nothing. So, TLDR, there was a lot of disappointment when AOM shipped and it didn't do as well as Age2.
Looking back, we were incredibly naive to think it would top Age2, of course. But, you don't think that way when you're on the game. No one wants to think "Yeah! This game won't sell as much as our last one! Woohoo! Let's crunch!". You want to believe it's going to do better and be bigger. It just wasn't.
BUT... There is a lot of love for AOM. Age2 was Ensemble's big game. No one can argue that. AOM was, IMO, the cult favorite.
How did Age3 do relative to AoM?
That aside, there's also been some discussion over why Age3 was... relatively poorly received? Bruce Shelley during his 2011 Kotaku interview, for instance.
AoEO seems to have panned out badly as well, and may fare even worse if GFWL's rumoured shutdown goes through.
Any thoughts as to what went wrong? In the early 2000s there was a lot of experimentation with the RTS genre - Warcraft III, CNC Generals, Dawn of War, etc. Warcraft III was a bestseller but CNC Generals sold badly, as I recall. Do you think tastes just shifted, or is there still a niche with new audiences for a game with Age2-like gameplay?
Lots of discussion about Age3's reception.
We all remember the huge interface jokes:) We did kinda address that, but that didn't help.
I think the renaissance time period is just boring. Muskets look cool, but we ended up cutting the formation combat that made them look really cool. But, it's not as fun as medieval.
The campaign was a huge source of discomfort for some people who really wanted a traditional, follow-history-exactly story.
Age3 still looks amazing, though. Hats off to the artists and programmers who pulled that off (I'm sitting next to many of them at the moment).
And, in the end, Age3 had to try to live up to Age2. That's a tall order for any game.
I think RTSes got oversaturated. Too many. Too similar. Tastes change as the generations turn over, too.
Personally, I'm excited about the "newfound" excitement for RTS games. It's fun to go back to revisit that genre for us (as developers). I think people are ready to get back into them, too.
...I still ahve a copy of age of mythology / the titans and all the age of empires.... THANKS FOR THE MUUUUSIC ♫
I'll pass that love on to the awesome Stephen Rippy and Kevin McMullen. They did all the sound and music for the Ensemble Age games. They, quite literally, rock.
It's very unusual to see the same composers change their styles so much between games of the same franchise - there's a huge leap between Age of Empires and Rise of Rome, and then another huge leap between Conquerors and Mythology. Props to them.
Stephen is so, so, so good at moving styles.
We prototyped a secret agent adventure game. He wrote the best "Bond" song of all time. Well, maybe until the Jack White one...
Which Age of Empires game are you most proud of, and why? I personally feel that while they're all great, 2 was the best. Loved that game so much as a kid.
Can I have two answers? ;)
It's hard not to be proud of the overwhelming success and pervasive-ness of Age2. I remember a cool moment when my wife and I were in a local movie theater and heard some kids talking about trebuchets. They weren't quite as common place back then (no Mythbusters, no Punkin Chunkin, etc.), so it was really neat to see such a direct effect.
But, personally, I will always love Age of Mythology the best. It was, in so many ways, a dream RTS to work on. The team was just awesome to work with, too. I loved the variability in multiplayer games with the minor gods. And the myth units:)
I also loved the Egyptian's Roc that can carry 15 fully loaded siege towers. =D
Heh, I'd forgotten about that. Total screw!
As Ensemble is now defunct, who currently owns the rights to AoM and AoE?
Yes. Google helps.
Yup, MS owns the rights. Though, Age is always in our blood. I think there are a lot of spiritual sequels that have come out or are in the works.
I think my favorite spiritual sequel was Empire Earth. What did you think of it? It always felt like a super expanded Age of Empires.
EE was pretty cool. We obviously knew those guys very well (Rick Goodman was lead designer on Age1). I think EE was great if you wanted "more more more" of Age1. I do think it was too much for some folks (in that way that everyone can play Risk, but not everyone is up for Squad Leader).
Is there ever going to be a second Age of Mythology?
That's really up to MS. I think there are some spiritual successors in the works, though. In other words, we are working on something.
Will we ever see Age of Mythology 2? It's by far the best RTS I've ever played in my life.
Up to MS.
Per some of the other answers, AOM was never as big as Age. Were I MS, I think I'd be crazy to start with the smaller franchise vs. trying to resurrect Age.
Either way, the more time passes, the harder it will be to rez either franchise.
Halo Wars is my favorite game in the Halo Universe. Thank you for this slice of fried gold.
We have a quote board where we put the best sayings of the day. "Slice of fried gold" now sits atop said board.
I hope you still know that Age of Empires flagship is still quite famous worldwide and recently Age of Empires 2 HD released on Steam. Even though it is famous and will surely generate revenues, then why did the company stop the franchisee?
PS :- BIG FAN OF AGE OF EMPIRES
Age is a beloved franchise, no doubt. Happy to see it get a little refreshed love with the HD remake. We did get a kick to see all of the old pathing and movement bugs still alive (John and I did most of that code for Age2, so we're allowed to bag on it).
MS made a biz choice in closing Ensemble. I don't think too many of us Ensemblers agreed with the choice, but MS had different needs and goals to answer to. Ensemble had gotten big and a bit unwieldy. We didn't really want to work on Age much anymore (15 years with one franchise can wear on you). We wanted a break and tried to do other games. That vision just wasn't aligned with what MS needed at the time. IMO, anyway.
We're actually digging into some of the pathing / movement right now with HD, if I hear any cursing coming from over in that corner of the building I'll make sure to point them in your direction ;)
Always glad to see more original AOE folks on here, and best of luck with Cavemania!
Haha, suckers:) Oh, wait...
Evanson and I'd be happy to help if they do have questions:)
I just want to say "Age of Empires; Age of kings" changed my life. I had no interest in History before that game but am now doing my masters in History. Cheers!
Badass. Can't take credit for history being cool, but happy to have a little part in packaging it up in a sandboxy-but-inevitably-genocidal strategy game;)
Loved Aged of Mythology, thanks for that.
What are your thoughts on a company basicly just releasing a game you and your team coded 10 years ago and selling it for 20$ without changing anything but the amount of pixels the screen can hold?
Well, the studio that did the Steam port has hardcore ties to Age2. They're run by one of the co-lead designers for it;) I think that gives them plenty of street cred to release that game.
So many of my friends and I owe just about everything to the success of those games. It's been bittersweet to see RTS kinda fade into the background. It's cool to see it get some attention again. Yes, I know about LOL and SC, but the quasi-historical RTS just isn't as big anymore.
Age of Empires was my first video game, and I played Age of Kings and The Conquerors nearly exclusively for several years. I loved AoM, too. The Age games remain some of my favorites, and I was always curious after Ensemble Studios shut down: did you guys have any plans to continue along a historical timeline with the Age of Empires series, like an AoE 4 based on the World Wars or something to that effect?
Yes, the loose expectation was that Age would move forward in time. We even put a hint of that in the Age3 art book.
That said, I'm not sure that would have worked out so well. So much of what made Age "Age" is that romanticized version of history. The closer you go to modern times, the less you can do that. Plus, I think an RTS game is better with believable melee (non-ranged) units. Harder to do that with a gun-centric time period. Not impossible, but harder.
It's funny, I've always seen Age of Empires as a fast-paced Civilization (my favorite game ever). AoE has often been a very close second and it's always been my favorite RTS BECAUSE of the historical focus like Civilization. How did you come up with the idea for AoE? Do you see games like Rome: Total War as your progeny?
The idea process there wasn't more complicated than you allude to... We all liked Civ. For a long time, we had a tradition in the studio where we'd take a day before holiday break, cram into a conference room, and play a 9 hour game of the Civ boardgame. It's surprising to me, always, that many people don't realize Civ was a boardgame, too. Hell, 89% of our the technology names from Age1 are straight outta that thing.
Anyhow... We all liked Civ. We liked Warcraft, too. It didn't take much brainstorming to do the chocolate/peanut butter "twist" and stick 'em together.
And we certainly rode that pairing hard. If you look back on all the marketing and whatnot for Age1, it's "Civ meets Warcraft" everywhere. I'm not 100% sure we lived up to that because the game was always more Warcraft than Civ (increasingly so over the versions). But, the Civ elements were a fantastic flavor and backdrop. There's something really comforting about not having to explain what an Archer does.
I'd never be so presumptive as to assume stuff like Rome:TW was our progeny. I'd hope they were perhaps influenced by what we did, but that's about it.
Age of Empires III is my fav game, even if it's old...
I have a more technical question. Why didn't you guys implement some trig functions in the XS language, so map scripters can use them to place objects in random maps? I'm one of the (very few) map scripters left for this game and I have to say defining workable trig functions can be cumbersome in this game.
Another question would be: Did anyone from Ensemble think of including a native observer mode in AoE3, so we don't have to make custom maps to observe games or to stream them online? Thanks.
LE. Another question I forgot. Does the Developer mode actually work in Age3? I managed to get the console to work, but not the Developer mode.
Is there any other secret game mode in Age3 that you can get into with modeEnter()? I managed to get into a secret game mode with showGameFromPostgame (from the console), which basically puts you in age 1 against a Ports player in age 3, who is attacking you with explorer and one baracks next to your town center. ^
XS & Trig: We never needed it. We would have put that type of function in C++ for speed reasons. I will sheepishly admit that we never anticipated the "10 years later use case";)
Yes, we did think about an observer mode for Age3. Ran out of time.
Dev mode worked, but I can easily imagine that it wouldn't in a final build (i.e. you need to recompile the source).
Your knowledge of Age3 modes exceeds my memories, I'm sorry to say. I don't know of any other modes to suggest.
What was the thought process in making AoE, AoM and halo wars?
How long do you have?
We were very team focused, particularly in the early days.
One of my favorite memories of Ensemble was when we got together after Age1 shipped and we had an all day meeting about what we wanted to do next. We were only 25 people at the time, so it was a really tight group (who'd just been through 11 months of 100+ hours a week).
TG, our president, really wanted to do a medieval game. So, we brainstormed ideas inside of that box. One artist really wanted to do cannibals (zombies before they were hip, who knew?). There was a big push for an Asian-centric focus, but we ended going with the European focus based on the belief that most folks think about European stuff when they think medieval. I'm not sure we'd make the same call today, but that's why we made it back in '97 (holy crap, I'm old).
Fun fact... Age2 was supposed to be the "quick redo of Age1 with new medieval art" and shipped in a year. Two years, and a sh'load of crunch later, we ended up lucking into something that became huge. Anyone who tells you we planned it that way is full of it, tho;)
No question, just wanted to say good luck. I was one of the QA contractors on Halo Wars.
I still remember you giving a speech about wanting to go out with a bang and a good legacy. The studio knew what was coming and you helped keep it together. I think it was inspiring, at least from where I stood.
Thx! I'm sure you're remember that speech sans all the inevitable f-bombs I put in;)
Just wanted to let you know that I absolutely loved Halo Wars. It's the best RTS I've ever placed on console and in my top 5 of all time. It was a great piece of work, well done.
I am not a fan of RTS's in general (probably because I'm terrible at them), but I must say Age of Empires has been a favorite series of mine for a long time and have spent countless enjoyable hours on the games, so thanks for that! Also how's it feel to strike panic in a man with a simple sound of WOLOWOLOWOLOWOLO!?
Happy to oblige! You'd be amazed at how often we still hear that sound! You mention Age around anyone and they either talk about OP (overpowered) Paladins or they look at you with crazy eyes and start chanting WOLOLO over and over.
I've been looking into learning how to develop my own games with some friends. One has a good handle on Objective-C, another has some character and design experience, but the rest of us are fairly new to coding. Is Unity a good place to start for some of us, or should we start to dive right into a language like Objective-C?
I'm sure I'll be roasted and shot later, but I'm not much of an ObjC fan.
A big reason we love working in Unity (Cavemania and BonusXP's other games are all done in Unity) is that we can use C#. Maybe we're old, but C# suits our programming staff better.
I think it's an easier language to learn than ObjC, too. If it helps, I'm teaching my boys to program using C#.
Unity is fantastic for getting some up and running. Best prototyping engine I've ever used. I'd heartily recommend it for getting started.
Which language was used most in developing Age of Empires III? I think I've heard people say it was made mostly in C++ at its core.
All of the client code was C++. Probably a few bits of assembly here and there. Lots of shader programming, too.
Server was a mix with a lot of C#.
Most of the random map and Computer Player AI logic was done in an internal, Ensemble-built language called XS. An interpreted language built on C++ core.
Why did the age of mythology games cease to exist? I played the first one and the expansion. Both were completely awesome games with so much potential for a second one, there are so many mythologies and legends in this world.
After Titans (AOM expansion), we were obligated to work on Age3 (per agreement with MS). After Age3, we tried everything we could to not work on an Age game. We were pretty burned out. We did do the first Age3 expansion, but the second was done in conjunction with Big Huge (in part because we couldn't muster the energy).
So, some of the blame (if that's the right word) is on Ensemble for sure. We just didn't want to. We wanted to do something else. Of course, now that time has passed, maybe we'd have been up for it. But, that whole "out of business" part gets in the way now;)
What happened to the Spirit of Fire and its crew?
<Flame-laden debate ensues>
IMO, they take a long journey home. Arrive older, but in a time-shifted future (can't muss with canon). Crew ends up feel alone and isolated in a weak analogy to the Spartans/Master Chief.
Any chance of a Cavemania Windows 8 phone version?
Yes. We might, in fact, have started looking at that yesterday.
Staying past midnight playing Age of Empires at my friend's house is probably one of my favorite memories growing up and is responsible for me getting into RTS gaming.
How do you feel about the expansion of RTS games since then? And where do you think the next big RTS game will be?
Looking back, I think the RTS hey day was the time between Starcraft and AOM. It was the hot thing. If you were playing games, you were playing RTS games at least a little bit.
But, much like the Rock Band/Guitar Hero craze, I think people just got burned out. Devs got burned out making them. Players got burned out playing too many similar games. In that sense, the 'expansion' of RTS games caused some of the implosion, IMO.
Nowadays, I think it's more reasonable. LOL and other MOBAs have taken a lot of the player bandwidth that used to be occupied with RTS games. That's cool. We needed that variety. Starcraft II is obviously primo, too, so it's nice to have someone keep pushing the bounds of quality.
I think the next big RTS game is either going to be on PC (e.g. Steam) or mobile. It's not easy to make a mobile-based RTS (I know because we're trying), but the first great mobile RTS will be a watershed event. Clash of Clans (which I wouldn't label an RTS) has shown how popular some of the RTS elements can be on mobile. PC stands a chance because that's where RTS games grew up, but the pickins' are slim right now.
I hope whoever needs to take action sees this. It's quite obvious that an Age of Mythology 2 would be the next huge RTS release.
Well, we are trying to do what we can. Won't have that license, but we are drawing a lot of the inspiration from it. It helps to have a lot of the main/initial AOM team on our staff:)
How did you come up with the languages for all the different nationalities in AoE? Is there real language mixed in there? Did the voice actors just make sounds that imitated the sound of those languages?
Age1 is almost entirely made up. The work of Chris Rippy. "Rogan" is his lovely wife's maiden name IIRC.
Age2 is much more historically accurate, but still takes a lot of liberties.
Age3 is very close to right (or so I'm told).
Age of Empires provided me hours upon days upon weeks of entertainment. The joy of unleashing waves of war elephants on my enemies was unlike any other joy in the world.
How long did it take you to make Age of Empires, start to finish?
Also, did you know how big the game was going to get, or was it mostly a surprise?
Age1 was about 16 months, give or take. The last 11 months were one continuous blob of crunch. Most of us did about 100 hrs a week for that time. We were young and stupid.
We had no idea how big it would become. I mean you hope something that you work on will be popular, but none of us really thought it would become that big.
What inspired Halo Wars to be made?
When it came out I was an avid Halo 3 player and really loved the game, an RTS with the Halo theme was a great idea!
We had a team working on a console RTS at Ensemble. They'd built it up as an original IP; nothing to do with the Halo universe at all. Meetings with MS commenced. Mandate came down that the game was either going to be a Halo RTS or it wasn't going to get made. Pretty easy decision at that point.
I give our team a lot of credit, though. It took a while, but they owned the Halo decision to the hilt. They made it a great Halo game (which isn't nearly as easy as Bungie made it look).
I just want to say that Age of Empires II is one of my favourite games of all time. I still have AoEii game nights with my family. Thank you.
Also, what inspired you to design Halo Wars the way you did? In other words, what makes that game unique to you?
Lots of things, but probably the biggest thing is trying to live up to the Halo name.
Age is about a lot of little bits. How many tiles is my dropsite from the forest? I need another 15 food for my 39th villie. Which of these 24 technologies do I want to research next? The sum is awesome, but it's a bit of a "brain" game (as RTSes go).
Halo is the other direction. It's big and in your face. We tried very hard to live up to that legacy.
In some places, we succeeded. We were joking just the other day about how many times I stood up in front of the studio and painstakingly pantomimed how the Spartans should jump on the Wraiths, rip off the hatch, yank out the Hunter, and take control. Seeing that happen in the game was really rewarding.
On the flip side, we never quite got jumping Warthogs to work right. I wrote some of that code, so I guess that's my fault:)
What is your favourite AOE/AOM game?
My personal fave is AOM.
I loved the art style. The topic was more "fun" than history. I thought the gameplay was also better/more interesting (minor gods, god powers, myth units, etc.).
I think it also is my fave because that was really the golden time at Ensemble. A couple of us started the engine for AOM right after Age1 (we set it aside to help finish Age2 after a while), but AOM was really the first Ensemble game that was built while Ensemble was 40+ people. Age1 had been started when ES was really small, so it was hard for everyone who came after to feel as much ownership (IMO anyway).
AOM was also the last time Ensemble was really unified on the same project. We had a couple of very small attempts at second games during Age1 and Age2, but we had everyone on AOM for the most part. After AOM, we were always split. Wasn't ever quite the same.
Do you have a hammer drill I can borrow?
Nope, still don't. I did order one bad ass new bandsaw this week. You're welcome to the old one:)
Once every month I get together with friends and family and we LAN AoM and this has been going on for the last year now so thanks for making a game so good it stands the test of time. Also as a Halo fanatic I thought you nailed Halo Wars, which is even more remarkable as it was a console RTS. So, really, Well done!
Thanks! I'm impressed you still have that many machines that will run AOM properly:)
I picked up a laptop last month. Age of Mythology and AOM Titans were the first things I installed after Firefox and Steam. Could you start a petition to MS to get AOM 2 made?
I could, but you'd probably have more luck than I would.
How different is being CEO / Founder compared to your previous CTO / Tech Director or other roles? Do you enjoy it as much as coding?
The main difference that we (the three founders, John Evanson, Jason Sallenbach, and I) see is that we can run the studio in the manner we see fit. That sounds a little egotistical, but I don't mean it that way. We've all been in the industry for a long time, so we simply have our strong opinions about how things should work. I am possibly mature enough to realize that our way won't work for everyone, though.
We started Bonus with the idea of making a team-focused studio. Everyone gets a design credit. We involve everyone in every meeting. That sort of stuff. It takes a particular person to work at Bonus; you have to be excited about working that team-centric way. It's not something everyone wants to do.
So, a lot of the difference is that. Yeah, I'm doing a lot of biz stuff. I'm the HR department. I run payroll. I write the expense checks. I handle the insurance. We're building out a new office, so we're hip deep in picking furniture and stuff. There's a LOT of stuff to do in running a studio. But, it's been fun.
And, I still get to program:)
Thanks so much for Halo Wars <3 And I've read about the 'going out with a bang' speech, really inspirational, respectable and amazing. Any chance of another Halo wars in the future? :D
You'd have to ask 343 and MS about that.
I don't specifically recall the "going out with a bang" speech. I'm sure I cussed a lot.
But, what I do remember is that we stuck together. We had ~110 people in the studio when the closure was announced. That royally sucked. But, over those last ~4 months of Ensemble's life, we only had 3 departures. Two folks left to start some podunk company that never amounted to much (the Bettners who started NewToy and did a tiny app called Words with Friends;). One person was let go.
I am amazed/honored/humbled that we had so much talent under that roof. For a long time, I was point on hiring the Ensemble programmers, but we had the crazy "Must talk to every employee" interview process for so long. We played board games with candidates. We were a family.
That's what I remember.
We might be related because we have the same last name and it's not a common last name.
Definitely not common, no.
What made you decide to make rts games instead of any other type? Do you have a particular fondness for them?
Honestly, I've always been more of an RPG guy in terms of personal preference. We tried to make an RPG at Ensemble for 10 years and never could quite pull it off:)
I grew to love RTS games at Ensemble. They're an easy game to love, certainly. I still love them. But, I definitely got a little tired of working on them. Creativity needs variety, IMO.
That said, we are working on one at BonusXP;) But, that's after doing an endless runner and a match3 strategy game. So, we're ready to dive back into the RTS water.
Do you have any unseen concept art from the cancelled Halo MMO you could share with us?
It would be illegal to be in possession of any of that art. I'm sure I do not have any.
What's your opinion on the new AoE 2 HD?
And which AoE is the best to start with?
Age2 was fun back in the day. Since Age2HD is a straight-up port, yup, still very fun:)
I'd start with Age2HD or Age3. Too hard to Age Online to actually work, if it's even still up?
Another question: Do you ever play any games you make outside of working on them? aka at home?
These days, yes. I think that's because the games are shorter.
After being on Age3 for 3 years (WTF!!!), I was definitely worn out on it. I didn't play it much at home. I probably would have if my boys were older at the time, but they weren't.
The games we're making now are shorter. Part of that is because we're tired of making multi-year games. We just don't want to do that right now.
I've played through the initial 75 launch levels of Cavemania probably 20+ times (more for the earlier levels). I found myself playing level 33 again last night to try to beat my wife's score. I dutifully bragged at her over Facebook when I did.
I don't think we're (developers) that much diff than players in that sense. We get bored and worn-out, too. It's hard to maintain the same creative energy on a game after a while.
At Ensemble, we really struggled with that near the end. Age3 is a great example. We had a hard time putting together a team to work on it because people were just tired of RTS games. We added a year to the project because we wanted to rebuild the renderer to be "the best looking PC game ever" in order to get the team excited about working on the game. It eventually worked, but it was never the natural excitement Age2 or AOM had.
How do you get that useless sack of shit Jason Sallenbach to do any work around there?
So many ways to go with this one...
Honest: Jason is one of the best partners anyone could hope for. Funny: We put up with him because he brings in the ladies. Untrue: No doubt! We fired his ass this morning!
What’s "match-3 meets Age of Empires" even mean, anyway?
Obviously asking about Cavemania...
It would be nuts to do a match3. So, our obvious nuttiness aside, when we decided to make our prototype into a match3 (it started life as a crafting-based, Zelda-style RPG), we wanted something that would stand out.
We brainstormed some ideas and hit upon the "units on the board" thing. That was sticky. We kept coming back to it because it was intriguing and fun. You showed the prototype to someone and the could see it was something new. That was cool.
The Age bit is a little nod to Age1 (stone age), but we wanted something more obviously fun and light-hearted. Hence the Dinos.
So, while there have been some iterations, the "match3 meets Age" thing is really our attempt to capsulize what's neat about Cavemania. Yes, it's a match3. But, you do the matching to gather resources to train units. The units fight, but there are villagers, too. Buildings need to be built. And, pretty soon, you're playing this crazy strategy game that pulls in RPS (rock, paper, scissors unit balancing philosophy) and reeks a bit of a Tower Defense.
When did you decide you wanted to become a game developer? What do you believe led to this decision?
I hate wearing pants.
Backing up... I started college in Mech Engineering. Wanted to go figure out how to make cooler/better cars out of some misguided ideal I developed when my parents got laid off from Ford in the 80s.
Quickly realized that my heart was not in that. Played Wing Commander 2 (among other things). Switched to Comp Engineering. Was all set to take a semester off to intern at an IBM facility in TX. Met my (future) wife. Quickly changed plans to intern at an IBM facility in Tucson so I could stay in town (we went to University of Arizona).
Wow, did that job suck. Didn't take long to figure out I would have no desire to work in the "corporate" world. And, as mentioned, I hate pants.
So, decided to make games. My friend and I started a game company on my credit card. "Shipped" something (mostly). That project was a great demo for my job at Ensemble (which was landed equally haphazardly).
The rest is history. Still sans pants.
Was it easy to make a halo game that wasn't a FPS? Did the fact that halo was originally going to be an RTS make halo wars easier to develop?
Yes and no.
It was easy in that Halo had a lot of lore and a wide variety of units, locations, etc. I think some of that might have been attributable to its RTS origins, but Bungie just did a fantastic job fleshing out a really robust universe. I can't speak for everyone at Ensemble, but I know that I learned a sh'load about building an IP/world from working with the Halo license.
It was hard to make Halo Wars because we were reluctant to give up the "Age Feel". So, while not directly an FPS problem, it's similar because we knew what type of RTS game we liked to make/play. We knew enough to realize that we couldn't just port that over to a console. But, for as successful as Halo Wars was, I don't think we ever really embraced making a true console RTS. We definitely left some opportunity on the table there.
All that said, Bonus is working on an unannounced project that might be a mobile RTS;) It's surprisingly similar to the issues developing Halo Wars. Hopefully we'll leave less on the table this time...
Just want to express my sincere gratitude for creating AOE! It's a game so so close to my heart! I, as the only girl of three kids, spent years only being allowed to watch my brothers play AOE2 on our single computer and the greatest day was when I got to play it on my own handmedown PC. Still cherish the day I beat my twin bro in a Regicide, the monks helped alot! So much nostalgia for such a great game!
Ah, Regicide. So unappreciated as a game mode!
I loved how many types of victory conditions Age1 and Age2 had. I wish we had found a way to make more of those popular online.
Were there any really difficuly decisions that had to be made, in terms of game content, for any AoE/AoM games? If so, how were they resolved?
One, I lost track of how often we ran afoul of the "historical sensitivity" stuff. We never set out to piss anyone off. In fact, I think we were generally very sensitive to cultural issues. But, we only know what we know, so we stuck our foot in our mouth a few times and had to go back to edit content that we found out was offensive after the fact.
Of course, offensive is in the eye of the beholder. Turns out the historically accurate Janissary (Age2 unit) hats look an awful like like a certain racist organization's attire. But, in the middle of "being historically accurate", they got modeled that way. Wasn't until the day before Age2's gold master that someone at MS said "Hey, wait a minute...". On the one hand, you could argue that we should have shipped it as is. On the other, it was probably going to be offensive. In the end, the call was to give them some hair and lose the hat.
Two... We definitely had creative disagreements about what the content should be. The Age series was known for being "historically accurate" (not really ever actually true, but whatever). So, when we wanted to go do a more exciting campaign for Age3, it was a massive uphill battle. We always thought of the Age3 campaign like an Indiana Jones movie (the good ones!). So, yeah, it had a little of the fantastical in it, but it was still clearly rooted in history. We argued, internally, about that for a long time. As did the public. Some folks loved that campaign while others flat-out hated it.
Resolution is, thus, a tough word. Yes, things got resolved because the games went out. But, we didn't always agree.
Zynga gets a lot of flack, but you worked for them for a while. I'm sure there was a fair share of bad, but were you able to take away anything positive from that experience?
Yes, I did. Bonfire got acquired by Zynga. I was the design director on CastleVille.
Personally, the best thing I took away from my time at Zynga was a lot of learning on how to do things differently. As you mention, yes, some of those learnings top my list of "Don't Ever Do This Again". But, I also realized that there were a lot of things I didn't know.
We always thought we made casual RTS games with Age. Pfft. No way. I am appreciative of my time at Zynga for teaching me that I didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did. But, yes, after a while, I couldn't take it anymore.
From a studio standpoint, my time at Zynga was fantastic for meeting new colleagues;) After dutifully waiting for my non-solicit to run its course, we hired some folks from Zynga Dallas. As of now, Bonus is about half old Ensemble folks and half old Zynga folks.
Hard to say. I think mobile strategy games are a great shot in the arm for showing strategy gaming to the masses. Not sure where PC strategy gaming is going. SC aside, I'd like to see it pull itself out of the niche space. There are some really fun looking games coming down the pipe, but most seem to not be broad-appeal oriented.
The biz model is a tough one, too. Strategy games are really hard to make free. It's not a good strategy game without lots of options. But, if we (as developers) give you lots of options, then what are going to need to give us money for? In the end, we have to have some hope of making enough $$. I think we've all played way too many freemium strategy games where it's pay to win, etc. Those are no fun.
I'd love to see a great freemium strategy game that brought back some of the old school Age vibe. Full frontal honesty: we're working on something that is trying to do that.
- How many people are there in Bonusxp that are from ensemble? 2: any chance that there’s going to become a so-called spiritual successor too aoe mythology?
We have 9 (out of 15) former Ensemble folks. Me (programmer/designer), 3 programmers, 3 artists, 1 producer, and 1 web/community guy. And lots of beer.
Shoot, forgot #2 (no, not that one)...
Yes. Chances are good.
AoE2 was a favorite of my gaming group in the golden age of LAN, and I play AoM on pretty much a nightly basis still. Thank you! Are you working on any RTS games for pc? What types of innovation or features can we see in future RTS releases that would get fans of the older games to play the new ones?
We are working on an RTS at BonusXP, yes. But, currently, it's for mobile platforms.
MOBAs seem to have filled a lot of the old RTS bandwidth. Starcraft is obviously still a thing, of course, but I don't feel like there's another ubiquitously popular RTS out there (The Internet will correct me, I'm sure;).
I can't speak for anyone else, but I want an RTS with the old Age-style focus. Multiple paths to victory and the like. Variety of play styles. Sandbox play. If you're talking about pulling in a wide, new audience, I think you have to have some of that. Not everyone wants to try to kill the other guy in 1.6 seconds;)
Penny Arcade did a great comic about the comparison between Starcraft and Civilization. It is here, and I couldn't agree with you more about wanting to play a game that isn't defined by the rush.
The dramatically weaker buildings of AoM and Age3 do suggest that Ensemble wanted to speed up the game, at least a little bit.
The "all military units require gold, so get out there and get map control" dynamic of AoM/Age3 forces much less turtling than Age2 permits. And even Age2 is still very much pro-rush, in balance terms.
Yes, that was a definite decision. To push more combat and more interaction. A direct result of the things "more people found fun".
The shift in balance is probably also tied to how we grew up as a company. I don't think anyone would say Age1 was perfectly balanced when we shipped it. We did the best we could, but it wasn't perfect.
As we got larger, we were able to hire people who specifically tested for balance. That's all they did, all day. They were amazing to watch. But, through no fault of their own, they generally tended to prefer the aggressive, faster games. That ends up changing things, even if we didn't exactly mean for it to when we did it.
But, looking back on it, I'm still nostalgic for the wider variety of play in the earlier Age games. We used to play 4v4 constantly in Ensemble, but always with Wonders in play, etc. Our favorite games (the ones we still talk about to this day) involved Wonders. The online world didn't necessarily take to those "alternate" play styles the same way.
So, yeah, I wish we'd had stuck to our guns a bit more.
What's your take on monetization of games with advent of smart phones and mobile gaming?
It's still figuring itself out. Mobile gaming is a very new market. Many folks don't even understand that Apple or Samsung aren't behind all those free games that show up on their phones.
As someone in the industry, I'm torn. I enjoy being on the cutting edge and finding new ways to get people into games. It's exciting to have spent multiple years now in a market (mobile gaming) that didn't exist 5 or 6 years ago. We are truly in the future.
But, for all that excitement, yeah, I miss the simplicity of paying for games the old way. Whether everyone likes it or not, the freemium model (free games with in-app purchase) is here to stay. The "new generation" has grown up with that model and doesn't think twice about it. So, while the gamer in me wants to join in with the old school crowd and say "Pfft, free games suck, I only like paid games", it's just not a reasonable approach. At least not for us (as a new studio).
So, we're trying to find our way in the freemium world. We build our games without monetization. We make them genuinely fun and something we enjoy playing. Then, we figure out how to make them free with reasonable monetization. Something that's not offensive or deceptive. Something that will make the value proposition clear to someone when we give them a chance to spend money on IAP.
I know it's fashionable to hate on Candy Crush, but I really appreciate the honesty of their monetization. The timed life model may not be popular, but it's honest and upfront. They're very clear with what they ask you to pay for, etc. A lot of other games are not nearly that clear.
As the industry matures, I think there will always be paid games. Hell, I hope BonusXP can garner enough success so that we can do some paid games here and there. But, I expect freemium will always be on our plate, too.
Halo Wars 2?
My gut says that will never happen. Halo Wars, for a lot of reasons, never left a great taste in the corporate mouth.
First and foremost, thank you! The Age Franchise is one of my favorites of all time and I will never forget the hours of entertainment they gave me(and continue to give me). My question is: What was the attitude of the studio around Halo Wars-were all of you excited to work on the property or did some wish to stick to original IPs? Also, and this is a pipedream, but was an Age 4 ever discussed and if so, which kind of era would it have been set in?
Mostly answered in another one... We definitely wanted to do an original IP. Graeme Devine and the concept guys did a masterful job building a unique, War of the Worlds-y IP. But, that was not really an option. Halo was the decision.
I was really happy to see the team step up and make a great Halo game, though. When the thing you love gets stomped, you can crawl into a corner and whimper or you can take the lump and figure out how to move on. It took a while, but we did the latter.
Age4 was supposed to move forward in history.
I recently learned that Peter Gabriel helped write the soundtrack to Age of Mythology - did you ever work with him personally? If so, what did you think about him? If not, did you hear anything off colleagues about their impressions of him who did work with him?
Well, that's news to me. I'll have to ask Stephen Rippy.
So, assuming that's true, no, I never worked with him.
But, I'd be his Sledgehammer.
Is Jason single?
Yup. He loves it when we fix him up, too!
I host a podcast that has nerds out with celebrities about games, etc. Would you be interested in being a guest to talk about Cavemania? Fantastic game!!
Thanks for this AMA!
Sure. Shoot me details: [email protected].
Is there anything on Earth that a regiment of Briton long bowmen cant kill?
We'll never know, but I'd put my money on a pack of Persian War Elephants from Age1!
How do you feel about the continued popularity of Age of Empires, specifically AoC? I imagine that you must take a lot of pride in being a part of the creation of what is most certainly a cult game.
Sure, I think anyone who was involved in those projects takes a lot of pride. It's very, very cool to help create something that other people enjoy. Everyone's so angry these days, it's really rewarding to have people love something you had a small part in.
I'm glad MS is trying something to rez the franchise with Age2HD. I hope it takes off. The world can use more Age.
big Age2 fan here! being a young developer just wanted to ask what is the advice you would give to someone who is looking to get into game developing. I have developed 2 Android games but my dream is to work on PC games written in C++.
Finish something. Anything. Finishing a game is tremendously hard, no matter how big or small the game is. But, it's an experience that teaches you so much.
Finish the game. Release it. Maybe it takes off, but at least it's a good demo. And, more to my point, it shows you can finish something.
was star wars battle ground related to the age of empires series?
They licensed the Age2 engine, yes. Best side-effect of that deal: We got to visit Skywalker Ranch.
Have you played Age of Empires: Online? How do you think it did compared to the previous AoE games?
I actually really liked the game. Getting into the game (i.e. logging in, etc.), required a 4th level degree of interstellar spice route planning. That part stunk. I remember a vivid afternoon where I tried mightily to get the 3 machines in my office all connected so I could play with my boys. 3 hours, we just had to give up.
But, the parts I played I thought were pretty great. The mission structure and evolution of the home city from Age3 were excellent. The biz model was not done well, IMO.
How was your experience working with Yodo1?
Excellent. They've been a fantastic partner on Cavemania. We talked to a lot of people and ended up picking them based on the relationship. They love our game (maybe more than we do?), which certainly helps.
But, in an industry too-filled with folks raping and pillaging all the money they can get, it was really, really refreshing to talk with Henry (Yodo1 CEO) and Jung (VP Pub) and see them aligned with our philosophies at Bonus. We want to make a great game and get people to play it. I fundamentally believe that if you do that, you'll be successful. Maybe not 10-Ferraris-in-your-garage successful, but we don't need that. Some folks do, sure. We're more interested in building a long-term studio that can crank out great hits over the next 20 years. I don't think you build the team(s) to do that by focusing on $$ first.
Build something people love. Do it again. And again. If you can stick around in the interim, you will eventually find success.
Be passionate. It's easy to half ass your way through life doing stuff you don't care about. Don't. Try to do something you love.
Do you have a fix for the "Memory System Error" box that keeps popping up randomly halfway into a game and crashing Age of Mythology?
Did you have any rivalries with Westwood back in the day?
I'm not sure rivalry is the right word. We definitely felt like we were in competition with them. They were taking RTS in one direction, we were going a different way, but both of us were competing for the same customers.
What's your favorite Civ to play on Age2?
I'm pretty good with the huns. 1v1?
I was always partial to the Goths and the "Oh look, I built a RAX in the back of your town" strategy.
Halo Wars is one of the best examples for an RTS on a console mostly because of the way it transfers the mouse/keyboard functions.
What kinds of issues did you had to face to make it as controller-friendly while maintaining the flow of the game?
Huge fan of Ensemble studio's, shame it's no more
The biggest struggle we had was trying to bring over the "Age Experience" to platform that inherently didn't want to do those things.
We wanted big army battles. We got that.
We wanted some strategy in the build up. We got most of that, but in hindsight, I think we dumbed down the build up too much. After a heavy evening of play, you're not left with enough "If only I had done this..." moments. It's too much about execution, IMO.
I think we did okay on the battle controls and whatnot. We definitely didn't want the so-called "building tetris" placement from a PC RTS. But, the node-based thing felt pretty limiting. We don't talk about it much, but we threw out the entire design about 11 or 12 months before it shipped and started over. The building placement was a casualty of that. I think there was a better idea in there somewhere, but we never had time to spend on iterating it after the redo.
The biggest thing I think we lost in the transition is the unit control. It's really easy to control 50 different units on a PC. Not on a console. We never found a great idea there. Too many people play with "All Units" and that's it. Everyone wanted control groups, but we could never find a system that was simple enough.
I like Halo Wars, don't get me wrong. I just wish we had more time. I felt like we were really close to nailing it.
What would it take to get an Age of Mythology two? What sort of hoodoo?
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