Age of Empires 4 developer interview: Celebrating history and creating the true successor to Age of Empires 2

Age Of Empires 4
Age Of Empires 4 (Image credit: Microsoft)

Age Of Empires 4

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Real-time strategy fans were treated to a spectacular demonstration of upcoming content on April 10 at the Age of Empires Fan Preview event. New Age of Empires 2 and 3 Definitive Edition content was revealed, as was a whole bunch of Age of Empires 4 information.

The standout news? Age of Empires 4 is expected to launch later this year. And while it certainly has a bevy of new tricks to show off, it's still most certainly an Age of Empires game both in style and play.

A few days after an advance preview I was able to sit down with World's Edge Senior Executive Producer Michael Mann, Relic Entertainment Game Director Quinn Duffy, and Relic Entertainment Art Director Zach Schläppi for a more direct conversation about what we can expect from Age of Empires 4.

A true successor to Age of Empires 2

One of the overarching themes pulled from the preview event and following Q&A session is that Age of Empires 4 isn't attempting to reinvent the RTS genre. More specifically, the new game was referred to as "a spiritual successor to Age 2" by Game Director Quinn Duffy. Resources, including wood, food, gold, and stone look the same, and the ages begin with Dark and end with Imperial. Going deeper, core gameplay should also seem familiar to those who have played Age 2.

Duffy: You mentioned resources, you mentioned ages, those are obviously core parts of the experience. Managing your villagers, tech tree, how to get through the tech tree to unlock upgrades and build units; all those things will be familiar to longtime franchise devotees.There are also things around the core balance, the core rock, paper, scissors of archers and ranged units, spearmen, pikemen, and horse units. We wanted to maintain that core. In every civilization there are those understandable and recognizable units. Players can appreciate how they work. They all have little wrinkles here and there with, say, the ability to charge and do extra damage. Spearmen and pikemen can kind of brace against cavalry so it gives them some little microplay opportunities there and the ability to maneuver your units and utilize a bit of skill for some of our more hardcore players and fans. A little bit more micro — we wanted to maintain some of that.

Core and surface gameplay mechanics aren't the only thing that will be familiar to series veterans. Art direction has also been heavily influenced by the older games. Even though Age 4 is using a brand new version of Relic's engine, players are going to immediately recognize that this is an Age of Empires game. And that feat falls on Art Director Zach Schläppi. He emphasized that the art team consists of many Age fans, so pulling traditional colors and landscapes made sense for the new game.

Schläppi: We did direct color pulls from Age of Empires 2 and used that as sort of the accent color anchor. And then just deepened the color values [...] and adjusted it so that the low-fidelity detail was the most important thing to read. Such as the units, weapons, things like that. We put a lot more time into the procedural environments, which actually even though are algorithmically generated, a lot of their profiles are from Age of Empires 2 maps [...].

Schläppi also talked about architectural decisions and how they play into the core gameplay mechanics. It wasn't just a matter of creating attractive buildings; each structure had to contribute to the overall accessibility of the game.

Schläppi: An important thing for us was making sure that — for buildings — we keep sort of the ghost of the buildings that people will recognize because buildings are sort of like elaborate buttons. [...] We whip the camera from a battlefield back to a village, you want to be able to quickly recognize your structures. We try to make that as clear as possible by having unique identification for the rooftops, the banners, logo of the buildings is the same as the logo on the UI HUD. All the units are very identifiable. We exaggerated the weapons, the helmets. The read is stylized for maximum readability from far camera and near camera for the players.You're going to see a lot of echoing of the same templates that you're familiar with from Age of Empires 2, just that things have been deepened in terms of the visual fidelity, 4K graphics, physical-based rendering. We've improved the lighting engine, we've improved the water shaders, and the majority of the textures are procedurally generated but still have all the care you'd expect from this production.

The takeaway here is that Age of Empires 2 and its flanking entries have heavily influenced Age of Empires 4. Veteran players are going to be able to sit down and immediately pick up the core values. But what sets Age 4 apart?

Going places Age of Empires has never gone before

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Age of Empires 4 might look and feel familiar, but it's not without a ton of new gameplay mechanics and systems. Most intriguing to me, a lifelong Age 2 player, are new siege, wall, landmark, age-up, fire, ambush, and conversion mechanics.

Duffy: We wanted to put a little more emphasis on some of the defensive gameplay. For more casual players, it gives them an opportunity to kind of feel a bit safe for a little while. The advantage will ultimately swing to the attacker, as was usually the case historically. [...] Siege is also intended to be maybe a little more powerful, and a little less frequent. We don't want 15 trebuchets wandering around and snapshotting. They're intended to be heavy and powerful, and you probably need to defend them a little more. [...] And so when something like a trebuchet or a cannon shows up on the battlefield, it should have an impact.

While we've already seen in Age 2 how siege plays an important role in late-Imperial battles, we've never seen units atop walls. And this new mechanic will factor in heavily when defending your city.

Duffy: That's kind of a fundamental part of the whole thing. We wanted units on walls. That was kind of the fantasy. You visit these castles and walk the ramparts. And it sort of seemed like a natural addition. If we can get units on walls, it spills into a whole range of new play and counterplay with siege weapons, with seizing walls, with getting your melee units up on walls, using enemy walls against them [...]. So there's a lot of additional gameplay that's been added with just that feature alone.

Speaking on the new age-up mechanics, Michael Mann explains how landmarks will now play an important role in how you aim your civilization. Age 4 won't just require a click up; it will require a decision on your part, similar to Age 3.

Mann: Your landmark is either economy [or] military, and based on your opponent — the civilization, say, is the Mongols — you may want to go military because you're worried that they're going to come raid you early.

Instead of matches devolving into what is fondly known as a "Trash War" with relatively weak armies that don't cost gold facing off against each other, Age 4 is looking to bring some new mechanics that will break up late-game stalemates.

Duffy: It gives different opportunities for different types of win conditions in the game and options to break stalemates and take the fight out into the map. So there's maybe some inspiration from that. But, you know, we'll see what players think when they get their hands on it in the Beta, and we can figure out how we want to move forward with a lot of those things.

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

As someone who enjoys drawn-out offline games against computer opponents, I had to ask how AI is being handled. Can it still be cheesed? Probably. Is it expected to be a big upgrade over an enemy that can't easily deal with early aggression? Almost definitely.

Duffy: There were a lot of tactics that we wanted the AI to be able to handle. We also wanted to ensure the AI could play all parts of the game. It needed to be able to build walls and defend itself. [...] With all of the unique abilities and options and upgrades that those civilizations have, it needs to understand those sort of landmark choices. So it's all new from the ground up. We have our own AI systems.We did some things that were really interesting in combat stuff as well for balance. It actually does machine learning on combat encounters, to build up its understanding of whether it's outmatched, or whether it has a probability to win an encounter. And so it can retreat away from cases where it feels a little more nervous.

Duffy also mentioned that these systems are bound to need tweaking as players encounter them. The team has plans to support and update the AI long term. As for the multiplayer side, the team is focused on building a strong game first. Discussions about leaderboards and ladders are still ongoing, and Duffy believes a community rallying behind an esports push must happen organically.

Age of Empires 4 is heavy on history

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

What would an Age of Empires game be without a strong focus on history? I learned far more from Age 2 than I did in any one history class, so I'm glad to see Age of Empires 4 is taking a similar approach. From the core art direction to the asymmetrical unit choices to the language spoken by those same units, the game is going heavy on history. Apart from the documentary-style campaign cutscenes that feature real-world locations in the modern day, the team explained how history is woven into the game.

Duffy: We do a lot of historical research. And part of that historical research also includes researching what the previous games have done and maybe what we wanted to do differently. So we use this 'history as a tool' idea. It helps drive some of that authenticity into the design of the civs. And we take elements from history and turn those into [...] gameplay. We wanted all those civs to feel very different. You saw on the video that the Mongols are completely nomadic; pick up and move everything. That was their thing. They were a nomadic Empire. They eventually settled down and built cities and stuff, but at the peak of their power it was their speed and mobility that gave them so much effectiveness.Whereas the English, they can put up walls and castles and defend with longbows. But they also have maybe a unique opening [...]. They can get man-at-arms right away, they can be aggressive if they want. They can also be really defensive and that gives those players some really unique early Dark Age and early Feudal options for gameplay that we think the fans will really enjoy.

Mann: So there are those abilities, and then with the Chinese there's a shot of a tax collector because that's part of that civilization [...]. You see the tax collector come to the town center to drop off gold. And then you have the scholars who will help you progress with your technology aspects. So each of the civilizations have their unique powers and weaknesses, which is so cool.Schläppi: We went a lot deeper in terms of the building identity. Buildings are characters in our game. From [Dark Age], you're starting with wattle and daub and thatch; very primitive architecture. By [Imperial Age], it's a completely different feeling. It's more unique. It's going from homogenous Western European civilizations — which are mostly based on the Danes and the northern countries — that now start evolving into their own unique vernacular. [...] I love the feel. It embodies the spirit of that civ. Watching the technological development of the architecture is just a beautiful thing to see. Again, the game is for the spectator as much as it is for the player.

Age of Empires 4 is expected later this year

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

It's clear that Age of Empires 4 is being designed within the scope of appealing to longtime fans of the series. But it's also not going to exclude players who are new, even to the genre as a whole. The four-part campaign spanning medieval generations will provide greenhorns with the tools needed to learn Age mechanics, but there will be multiple difficulty levels to challenge veterans. And the team also hopes to have a fine-tuned matchmaking system in place at launch to ensure all skill levels are matched accordingly.

Age of Empires 4 now has an expected Fall 2021 release window, and the team is confident about hitting the mark. Be sure to check out our Age of Empires 4: Everything you need to know article for a whole lot more information about the upcoming game.

Cale Hunt

Cale Hunt brings to Windows Central more than eight years of experience writing about laptops, PCs, accessories, games, and beyond. If it runs Windows or in some way complements the hardware, there’s a good chance he knows about it, has written about it, or is already busy testing it.