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The old and new in Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition: “we’re done adding civs”

We speak to series creative director Adam Isgreen about the challenges of remastering the RTS

Dec 16, 2020 It seems they are not, in fact, “done adding civs”

Following Microsoft’s announcement at E3 that Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition will release this autumn, many of the series’ million regular players are no doubt keen to learn exactly what the shiny new version will bring. We know the RTS is getting a 4K graphics overhaul, remastered audio, and an all-new campaign, The Last Khans. The E3 trailer (below) offers glimpses of these features, but how it will compare gameplay-wise to the now 20-year-old base game is more of a mystery.

As Age of Empires IV looms, Age II: DE faces a particular challenge. In giving players a reworked take on a game they already love, it needs to preserve everything that made the original a classic, yet Microsoft is also keen to reintroduce it to a new generation. That means polishing some of the rough edges of its ‘90s origins without losing any of its character.

To find out more about what Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition has in store, how the devs are finding the balance between old and new, and what they think about how the RTS genre is faring in general, we reached out to series creative director, Adam Isgreen.

PCGN: In a recent interview, you said that in previous versions of the game the AI cheated, but that in the Definitive Edition, it’ll play fair. How did the old AI cheat, and what have you done to keep the new AI competitive?

Adam Isgreen: The old AI did two things that allowed it to cheat pretty heavily. One was it had resources beyond what a normal player would have, so it basically got free resources.

The other thing was that it saw the whole map. So the AI didn’t have to scout, didn’t have to do anything to learn what you were doing, and didn’t grant you opportunities when it missed what you were doing. It had complete knowledge of the map, so it could build strategies on just seeing what was going on rather than actually reacting and playing well.

The team has eliminated that, so the AI actually has to scout now. You’ll see it be a lot more active with its scout units, especially early game, and even into mid-game, as it’s looking to see what you’re doing.

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It then has to manage resources just like a player as well. It doesn’t get any bonuses like it used to. We still keep the option in the DE to play the old AI; it’s pretty fun to throw one new AI against the old ones, and watch it totally mop them up.

What the team has been doing is, since there’s been 20 years of meta on Age II in terms of competitive play, they’ve started to program a whole bunch of the strategies that competitive players use in the Age II community into the AI itself. So the AI will actually micro and macro strategy play, just like a lot of ‘strats’ that you’ll see in the Age community.

The community has been clear in its desire for the gameplay to remain the same. How difficult is it to achieve that with a base game that’s 20 years old?

AI: Bringing back any series that’s been dormant for a while is always such a challenge, because you have to have a lot of respect for what people want, but you also have to figure out the ways to modernise things. For us, because the feel of the moment-to-moment of Age II is so important to the community, it was always a matter of ‘what can we do around that, how can we make the game more fun to play, without taking away the play?’ That’s a lot of back and forth with the community.

We’ve been running councils with all of our Age teams, all doing closed tests for over a year now, to get feedback and let the community help us make the right decisions. We try things, some of which the community and pros don’t want touched and freak out over, and other things they don’t. We kind of go back and forth until we understand what they want, and they understand what we’re trying to do to make the game more accessible, or easier for people with a modern RTS sensibility to understand.


Age of Empires 2 already has an HD version. Is the DE a hard sell for players who own that?

AI: We just want people to play Age of Empires and be involved with the series. If people want to stay on HD, and that’s what they want to play, we’re not going to take it off Steam, it’s still gonna be there. We’re not going to actively support it though – our support is going to shift to the new one. For us, we just want you playing our games. If you want to play it on Steam that’s fine. If you want to play it on the Microsoft store, that’s cool. If you want to play the old version, great.

Definitely there are incentives for people to switch – if you own HD, you’re not going to have the new civs and the new campaigns that DE has, you don’t have the new AI, you don’t have the multiplayer backend that we’re bringing in from AoE4. All of that you won’t have, but if people want to do that, that’s cool. We’re not going to shut it down, we’re not going to take it away from you.

How well do you think the game’s oldest campaigns hold up in comparison to the new missions?

AI: The team did a whole bunch of polling for all of the missions over 27 campaigns. Some of the missions they left alone if people really fondly remembered them and how they played. But there were some that were really rough and boring, because they were built in an age where people didn’t think about RTS in terms of plot, or emotional beats, or a beginning, middle, and end – they just dropped you in a map and said ‘have fun’.

We’ve tweaked a lot of them. Can I say for sure that they’re going to be better than the new ones? I don’t know, I haven’t played through all 200 hours myself. But it’ll be interesting to see what people respond to. I think they’ll probably be more story-oriented, or filled in with more story than maybe some of the earlier ones, but they have taken the time to go back and actually touch all of the missions throughout all of those campaigns that some people felt weren’t living up to the standards of some of the others, so hopefully it’ll be a more even experience.

Does the existence of HD and its recent expansions mean that balancing/rebalancing Age II is easier?

AI: Forgotten Empires has been doing a great job balancing the game ever since DE came out for the first game. One of the fortunate things about the way Age was designed is that because the civilisations are more symmetrical than asymmetrical, they’re not as radical as, say, Starcraft. There’s some balance nuance that can go on, which you couldn’t do with an asymmetrical game, because you have to take into account radically different tactics in order to accomplish the same goals and balance.

There’s a nice mix there, but I definitely think that the team has felt the weight of adding four new civs. One of the biggest compliments that I know of is a lot of the pro players play random, which is crazy for an RTS game. But people in Age will do that, because even though there are counter-picks, the balance is such that there are probably some seventy-thirty matchups in there, but the pro players can still make those work. I think that’s a big compliment to the balance of Age II throughout the years.

It’s always going to be a concern, but when the game is shipped, that doesn’t mean it’s done, so we will keep balancing, and if there’s anything that’s going to completely break the game we’ll make sure to address it.

How did you decide on the new civs, and how far do you think Age II in particular can spread in terms of bringing new civs in?

AI: These civs were arrived at because we were wondering ‘what’s left?’. We were trying to find a period in history which still fit the general time scope that Age II occupies. We’ve covered so much of the world now in terms of that period that, after a lot of discussions, we finally fell on to telling the stories of the fallout of the Mongol empire, which is what The Last Khans is all about.

At this point, I think we’re done adding civilisations to Age II. I do not foresee us adding any more civs to the game. I think we’ll add more content, campaigns, new game modes – all those kinds of things we’ll explore, but even our pro players are kind of saying ‘we’re done, we have enough civs at this point to last us forever’.

It’s a lot to hold in your head, and I think that they would love to get comfortable with the game rather than trying to push into even more civs. There comes a saturation point, and I think we’re there.

Read more: Check out all the latest details on Age of Empires 4

When it comes to Age of Empires IV, we’ve been hanging on one trailer for a while. When will we hear more?

AI: I’m happy to tell you that we’re going to start talking about Age of Empires IV later this year. As you know, there are two major events right now – Gamescom and XO – that Microsoft always does stuff for. So one or the other, maybe? I can’t be specific, but suffice to say that we’ve got Gamescom coming up, and then XO later this year in London, so at the latest, you’ll hear more about Age of Empires IV by XO. I will say that later this year, we will start taking the wraps off both Age III and Age IV.

What do you think of the general state of RTS, particularly when you’ve got games that are 20 years old (or older) up against much more recent titles?

AI: I think AoE has an advantage in that, because it’s about history, it’s relatable. I worked on RTS games that were very science-fiction-based, and you had to explain most things to people. But with history you understand the difference between a bow and a gun, and what a wheelbarrow would do for somebody that’s trying to haul stuff around.

Some things are obvious, and that’s one of the nice things about Age specifically. But talking about RTS all-up, we see – we have all the data on how many people are playing Age of Empires – we have over a million people a month playing Age of Empires games, and the numbers keep going up, and the products keep selling. So it can’t just be nostalgia, right? There are new people coming to the series, and I think the interesting thing is that for a lot of RTS games, there is pent-up demand for more ‘thinking games’, the games that require you to plan and strategise.

The numbers seem to back this, adn we got a lot of feedback at E3 too of people saying ‘oh man, I missed this kind of game, where I’ve got to make choices, and I’ve got to think, and you have to see further into the future to do what you want to do.’ Not to the point of a 4X game, but I think there’s been such a focus [in the genre] on APM [actions-per-minute] and insane micro performance, and Age was never really that serious. Most people play with that unwritten ten-minute treaty where they don’t even fight.

I can speculate a lot, and cut up data a lot of different ways to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a bunch of different rationales, but it feels like we’re back to a point where people want games that they can sink their teeth into, take their time, and grow with the game. And going back to the accessibility of history, it makes it so much easier to jump into. We had people come up to us and say ‘I learned history from your game.’

I don’t think RTS ever went away. It got subdivided and split into everything from the Farmvilles to League of Legends. Those all took everything that was RTS, and used that in different ways to create different genres, but it’s always been there. It’s nice that everyone seems to be responding to the idea that it’s back.