Rebuilding a classic in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition developer Bert Beeckman talks about the process of updating the original game and adding new content inspired by new civilizations.

In the '90s and early 2000s, the name Age of Empires stood out as one of the dominant and biggest-selling game titles in the strategy marketplace. Last year, Microsoft and game studio Forgotten Empires teamed up to release definitive editions for Age of Empires and Age of Empires II.

After the launch of Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, lead developer Bert Beeckman dropped by the GDC Twitch channel to discuss the process of revamping this series, and what considerations were needed to add new civilizations to the game. 

Beeckman and his colleagues at Forgotten Empires are a team of former modders who organized as a studio after their mods to the Age of Empires games took off and caught the attention of Microsoft. If you've ever wondered about how a team of modders could take up the mantle of developing Age of Empires, here's some insight from Beeckman on the process...

What did you see as the tentpoles for a definitive edition? What were sort of the project goals of that that separated it from previous HD editions you’ve done?

Back in the HD edition, the main goal was "let’s bring Age of Empires back to the players." There were a lot of players who hadn’t played the original, there were no CD players on laptops, for example. That was kind of the goal for the HD edition, to bring it back to the players.

And it kind of grew on that. We brought more content [to the definitive edition] because there was clearly a demand from the community. But then when the definitive editions were made it was more than "OK, let's bring back Age II." That’s actually the whole project goal from within Microsoft and from us as well. We need to make the best Age II possible. 

It was a very very different approach---[we said] "let’s make sure everything we have up to this point is the best possible thing that we can make." 

That’s kind of the biggest difference and manifests itself in many ways as well. If you look at the graphics, if you put them side by side you would see [changes] like the building style beautifully collapses, it comes crumbling down, or we have the smoke that comes out of the barrel of the cannon. All the little details make it look prettier. 

With that said, literally every asset in the game had to be remade. In the HD editions, all the graphics were the original graphics. Now we have much higher quality sprites.

What was the process of remaking an entire games’ worth of assets? 

The art direction was something we did in-house, that was all done in in collaboration with Microsoft, but a lot of the asset work was luckily done by [an external] studio that helped us out. 

With that said, it was still a crazy amount of work. When we started this we made a list of all the assets we had to remake. This is not just one game we’re making, this is six games worth of assets. 

We didn’t have any of the original assets. Those were all lost. So we literally had no choice but to make everything from scratch. One thing is that we had the original art. 

One of the things we really wanted to stick to was [that] people have been recognizing this specific unit as being a camel...We wanted to make sure you still recognized that unit as a camel, 20 years later.

So we didn’t have to go around and redesign all the assets. It might only be 100 pixels high and now it’s like four times the fidelity. We need to imagine what all those pixels in between look like, but as an overall view you kind of know what it’s going to look like. That really helped in speeding up the process. It helped us stick to the original design and we just tried to bring that back as good as possible.

Was it ever tempting to remake civilizations or make civilizations with completely unique units?

There’s a bit of an issue there, there were things to consider--like we have now 11 different architecture sets and 35 civilizations, but let’s assume we’re not going per civ. That’s still 10 sets of units you need to recognize, which makes things a lot more complicated. 

One of the beauties of Age of Empires II is that you see the units and you know what it is. That’s very, very important in RTS games. If you have 10 times the amount of units it’s much much harder to do that, let alone with 35 sets of units--not to mention it’s a lot more assets and that will take a lot more memory space and more disc space.

This game is still 2D. A lot of people think it’s 3D now, but it’s actually 2D sprites because we really wanted to keep that old feel, but at the same time it’s very, very heavy on the computers. It’s a lot of space that is taken on your hard disc for all those sprites. 

What was your team's philosophy on building out new factions not from just a fun standpoint but kind of the historical standpoint that the series is known for? 

Researching has always been very interesting; we try to look at it from various perspectives. History is always written from certain perspectives. For example when we were working on the Tatars, we reached out to some universities in the region...we read research papers from these students as well and went to libraries, we did a lot of good old fashioned research, to be honest.

It’s actually quite fun. You can start from Wikipedia but after that you need to get dirty with some actual proper research. At that point we have a lot of information to work from. At that point it’s like, ok, we’re still making a video game. We’re not just making a history book. That’s kind of where you have to say "we need to make decisions."

For example we have the Cumans we just added to the game. They went extinct before most of the civilizations in Age of Empires were around. Does that mean this civilization needs to stop being relevant as you advance through the game? Probably not because then the game would be unbalanced. This is also where you need to weigh gameplay versus history at that point. 

What did you learn when you stepped into working on factions that were based outside of Europe and how did you avoid making those mistakes leading to them being stereotyped or boiled down into something that doesn’t represent them?  

We kind of recognized that Age of Empires has always been a bit of a Hollywood version of history. There are some representations that’s more Hollywood than realism. Not completely, of course, we do a lot of good historical research. Sometimes if our historical teams are watching a movie and go "jeez what were they doing? 15th  century helmets in an 8th century spectacle? That makes no sense." That’s the level we try to go for.

Just doing history and trying to find sources outside of sources we have available. We’re going to the local library, and try to reach out to universities from that area. A lot of people speak English now and they’re very very happy to help.

Age of Empires is a very international brand as well, and if you reach out to a university in Peru, for example, and you ask them something about Age of Empires they’ll go "oh yeah!" It’s not just in the USA and Europe, it’s known all over the world.

A lot of people are very enthusiastic to help represent their country and their culture in game. And they mostly ask questions like "hey you kind of represented a certain thing that happened in history in game? Maybe that’s not the best way to do it." And then we adapt to that and make changes there. It’s a lot of iteration in that sense. 

It seems like such a great challenge to celebrate other people’s history and culture while also just bringing those cultures into an existing global community. 

Right, exactly. And that’s also what a lot of people love. Usually that’s where we get the most feedback; like we added a civilization to the game, and you can expect a lot of people from those countries reaching out and saying "hey, this and this and this and this are great." Usually we try to anticipate that as much as possible of course. 

Back from one of our first campaigns we were looking at a new civ. We were going to add a new campaign and this guy had an interesting story [for us] to tell. And then we asked the local community from that country to get some ideas. And they were like "oh, that’s kind of our local Hitler. You don’t want to glorify that guy." And we went "oh ok! We won’t." 

It can be tricky. But that’s also a perfect example of showing ok, what we’re showing here is a lot of Western history, and that’s limited. You need to be careful with that.

For more insights on the making of Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, you can watch the full interview with Beeckman below! 

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