It had been a long time coming, but Age of Empires IV finally released in late October 2021. Despite the weight of expectation heaped upon it – not only is the series one of the best real-time strategy IPs of all time, this is the first original Age of Empires game fans have seen since 2005 – our review called it a “highly competent revival of a landmark RTS franchise.”
As the designers of Age of Empires IV explain below, inspiration from the past lies at the root of many of the game’s design decisions. For example, while the choice of civilizations included in the game was partly informed by the developers’ ambition to satisfy the community that have kept the original games rumbling on for over 20 years, their mechanics were tuned following consultation with experts.
“This all came from history”
“Some of the civilizations would feel familiar to players who had experience with the previous games,” says Narrative Lead Phillip Boule. “Those who played the Britons in Age Of Empires II would be at home with the English Civ in the new game – even though there are plenty of new mechanics.”
All civilizations were intended to play asymmetrically. “Even a civ that we started with at the beginning, the English, can still do something that other civilizations can’t. They can get their Men-At-Arms out very early, which creates some very interesting gameplay and counterplay.” Meanwhile, “the Mongols can just pick up their camps and buildings and move them around the map, and the Chinese can create dynasties that can open up new units and new mechanics.”
“This all came from history,” says Boule. “We consulted with experts very early on in the development process to get a sense of these civilizations and draw out aspects that made them unique, which we could build the gameplay around.”
Boule points to the standing shield ability of the French crossbowmen units as an example. The inspiration for that came from one of the documentary films that the team worked on for the game which explored how crossbows were used at the time.
“There were broader choices as well,” says Boule. “When we did the Abbasid Dynasty, we took a great deal of inspiration from the Golden Age of Baghdad. We gave that civ one landmark called the House of Wisdom as a reference to that golden age in order to bring out its essence.”
A discovery process
Being asymmetrical in nature, the game was quite a challenge to balance. A focal point was the rock/paper/scissors relationship between the spearmen, cavalry and archer units, which has existed throughout the Age of Empires series. Each civ also has economic relationships with the other factions that progresses through the ages.
“We really wanted it to be a discovery process for players,” says Boule. “In the competitive space we do expect that players will find the civ that suits their playstyle the best and become experts in that civ. But Age of Empires isn’t only about the competitive space.”
Given they were developing the first Age of Empires game in a while, Relic were conscious that it would likely attract both veterans and new players. They decided that the central campaign needed to be welcoming to players of all stripes.
Welcoming players to the game
“One of our aims was to welcome people into this game,” says Principle Narrative Designer Lauren Wood. “I know from my own personal experience trying to play strategy games in the past, I found them a little bit intimidating. You know, there’s a lot of UI that has so many buttons, and you go through a tutorial and then pretty soon you’re getting walloped by some kind of enemy.”
To combat this, Wood says, the game funnels the player towards the Norman Conquest campaign first, which is built in such a way as to introduce mechanics mission by mission. There’s also a feature called Art of War, which is a series of challenges in which players achieve gold, silver, and bronze medals depending on how well they do.
“The mode also comes with a narration piece which teaches you a little bit more about different kinds of strategies that you can use in different situations – and critically, I’m so pleased we managed to get in the story mode difficulty level,” says Wood.
Step into history
Alongside its welcome-mat tutorial, Age of Empires IV makes every effort to immerse players in its historical setting. The architecture and unit veneer are note-perfect. Units even begin speaking archaic languages that over time evolve into more recognizable dialects. On top of that, Age of Empires IV comes stacked with over two hours of documentary footage that informs players of historical aspects of its central campaign.
History, says Franchise Narrative Director Noble Smith, was in the game’s DNA from its conception. “It was intended from the very beginning, and we have over two hours of 4K HDR BBC-quality video in the game. Those have been in the can for over 2 years and were begun over three years ago. Our partner is Lion Television, the makers of Horrible Histories.”
The game’s Hands On History videos are short history lessons that function as unlockables in the game. One of the main writers and directors is Mike Loads, a historian, ancient weapons expert, and “a true Renaissance man” according to Smith. “He’s one of those guys who can ride a horse at full gallop and shoot a bow and arrow.”
When Loads’s rough cuts started coming through, the developers at Relic and World’s Edge were bowled over, says Smith. “They also started to kind of influence the gameplay,” he says.
Celebration of history
“Everything really starts with the initial vision,” says Boule. “The idea that history was central to this game – that it was a celebration of history.
“This is a game that has a tradition of not only appealing to history fans but forming a gateway into appreciating [history]. We always saw history not as a limiter, but as a sort of font from which we were gathering all these wonderful things that we could turn into gameplay.”