Age of Empires IV wants to appeal to both casual and hardcore players

The iconic real-time strategy series is back

Age of Empires IV

Coming off the well-received Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, the iconic real-time strategy (RTS) series has more momentum behind it than it arguably ever has.

With Age of Empires IV (Age IV) — the first entirely new entry in the franchise in almost 16 years — looming on the horizon, I sat down with a few of the key minds at Vancouver-based Relic Entertainment behind the rebirth of the series.

We delve into several topics, including Age IV‘s modern but still decidedly throwback art direction, its emphasis on siege combat and — more importantly for me, personally — how the game aims to appeal to casual players like myself, but also the hardcore demographic that has remained loyal to the franchise for years.

Question: One of the things that I took note of about the Age of Empires IV gameplay you’ve shown off is that the game’s visual direction seems to really take inspiration from Age of Empires II, but it’s also modern in its own way.

Could you talk about how you struck the balance between a modern look and a throwback visual style?

Zach Schlappi — Art Director: It was taking the best elements of the previous Age of Empires games. When I joined Relic about four years ago, one of the things that was said to me was, “we’re really taking our spiritual inspiration from Age of Empires II.” So I looked at that and looked at all the colours, did sampling of the colours, took those colours, and we couldn’t do what we did with Age of Empires II.

Zach Schlappi

Relic Age of Empires IV art director Zach Schlappi.

We had to really give it a little more sophistication and more depth in terms of colour. For me, it was really about bringing in a broader audience. We wanted to open it up so that it was easier to read the battlefield, it’s a lot more fun to build. You can really see the investment into the amount of detail in the buildings and the evolution of your towns from Age of Empires to Age Empires IV. There’s a lot more attention paid to the building aspects of the game. And taking those colours, those palettes and applying them to the team colors, as opposed to the entire environment. We really used those accent colours to build the look and feel of the game.

“Players love to build these big towns and cities surrounded with concentric walls and put keeps and all kinds of things. It gives them an opportunity to kind of feel a bit safe,” — Quinn Duffy

For example, we reduced the amount of detail for small items like soldiers and units and stuff like that for better readability from your camera. We also allow for painterly type detail for the buildings and things like that. We made sure that we kept the buildings in a sort of a what I would consider the coffee-table book-tourist-town-style that’s very colourful; there’s flowers, it’s still historical, but it’s not old and rundown. It’s maintaining the celebratory view of history the franchise is known for.

Q: During the reveal event, there was an emphasis placed on siege combat, which in a way feels like a new direction for the series. I was wondering if you could expand on what that means in the context of how Age of Empires IV plays?

Relic Age of Empires IV director Quinn Duffy.

Quinn Duffy — game director, Relic Entertainment: Yeah, we did want to add a little more siege elements to the game. We wanted to get walkable walls in and that was kind of the primary motivation there, because you go visit these castles and inevitably, you’re up on the ramparts and walking between the battlements and that’s what you see in all the movies set in the Middle Ages. It’s The Lord of the Rings; it’s all those kind of fantasies of having units on walls and then there’s a lot of gameplay that emerges out of that decision.

We have siege towers that can deliver units onto walls and then maybe you want to bash the wall down and scale the wreckage and seize the wall. So we have siege weapons, cannons, trebuchets, rams — those have returned from Age of Empires, but they not only allow you to destroy a wall, but also to have access to the wall so you can sometimes use your opponent’s walls against them.

There’s some fun play and counterplay around walls; they can be used defensively and they can also be used offensively in certain maps. You might build across a choke if you’re playing on a map with clumps of trees to impassable areas. We also put towers on the walls now and you can upgrade those towers with different weapons. There’s a lot of play around siege.

There’s a couple of reasons we did this and it’s not just for that sort of core fantasy. Casual players love to build up bases. Players love to build these big towns and cities surrounded with concentric walls and keeps and all kinds of things. It gives them an opportunity to feel a bit safe. They’re not impenetrable. At some point, the advantage will swing to the attacker, but it’s just a fun new element of gameplay we think players will really enjoy.

Q: Does terrain elevation play more of a role in Age of Empires IV than in previous titles? There are at least a few battle sequences in the gameplay reveal video that make it seem like that might be the case.

Age of Empires IV screenshot

Duffy: Yeah, we’re playing with things like line of sight around terrain, giving you that sort of height advantage. There’s a lot of new line of sight systems in the ‘Fog of War’ that open up opportunities for ambushes — you saw some of the stealth woods, for instance.

Normal woods will block the line of sight for your army, so you really do need to scout around the map, and take the high ground and build towers on cliffs. We wanted that kind of important advantage for the player that that felt realistic.

Q: What about battles? Are they on a larger scale this time around compared to, for example, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition?

Duffy: We tried to get the proportion of your villager economy and your army force to be a little more even. You get a lot of games in Age II where you maybe have 150 villagers and you’re just turning out smaller raiding armies. We wanted to reduce the villager load and beef up the army load a bit, so you do have larger armies.  We’re sort of capping out right now at 200 per side, so it’s in that ballpark of the Age II sweet spot, but we wanted to change that ratio of villagers to military a little bit.

Q: I would describe myself as a casual fan of the Age of Empires series despite having played every entry in the series, including the HD and Definitive Editions.

If someone was from the hardcore or esports side of Age of Empires, is there anything significantly different in this game that might turn those players off? Do you feel like you’re taking any chances with any of Age of Empires IV‘s core design elements or mechanics?

Age of Empires IV screenshot

Duffy: I think there probably are, to be honest. We looked at a lot of things that were part of Age II that were kind of so idiosyncratic to that engine and that technology that they turned into gameplay memes at this point, like walling off your city with houses and things. We wanted to put the emphasis back on walls, so the Palisades and the stone walls. But I think we really built the game for that broad audience.

I want my kids to be able to play the game and my son has actually played briefly, so we’ve got some good feedback from him on that [laughs]. But we’ve been playing a lot with hardcore players like our balance team. There’s some real hardcore players at Microsoft and we’ve been working with Forgotten Empires. We also have the community council and a number of those players are competitive Age players. And then we also have Zero Empires, who actually work at Relic now and they’re helping us with the game. So we feel that those different constituents are really well represented.

Michael Mann — executive producer, World’s Edge: I would add that we’ve been working with our community and that gives us Age 1, Age 2 and Age of Mythology people, hardcore or mid and very competitive players, as well. They’ve been with us on the journey from the very beginning. Relic hosted a community event where they came in and actually got to play prototypes, and we continue that journey with them.

World’s Edge executive producer Michael Mann.

Relic has been communicating with them and is like “hey, here’s the changes, we’re going to make, how we’re going to modernize it, we’re gonna have to give up this, to get this and this is the vision we want to take, what you guys think?,” and some things work really, really well and some things they’re just a little more resistant on.

It takes them a month or two and then they see the vision and play it and they’re excited about it. So it’s been a great journey with our community council. To your point about new beginner newbies or casual players, Relic really creates a first-time user experience to bring players like that because we’re going to bring in a whole bunch of new people through Xbox Game Pass. We want to make sure they get the tutorials, the Art of Wars; the mission is to really understand RTS because sometimes it can be a cognitive load.

Q: Is there anything that’s been taken from previous Relic games and applied to Age IV?

Duffy: There’s a few things. There are some small gameplay elements here and there, but we wanted to build, first and foremost, an Age game. I think it’s a lot about the approach. We’ve done a lot of historical real-time strategy games; I was on both Company of Heroes games. We take an approach to our research and the aspect of taking a piece of history and turning it into some element of gameplay that can be kind of abstracted and understood by players — it’s always a really fun challenge.

One of the things we’ve done on previous games is visited the battle sites of some of these locations. We did the same for Age of Empires II; we went to England, we went to Normandy, as part of our analysis of the first campaign that you saw. So we were able to go to the birthplace of William the Conqueror and kind of trace his route to Hastings, and we went to medieval reenactors.

Age of Empires IV screenshot

It gives you a sense of what things are like and the importance of trying to capture that history as accurately as possible. We also scouted the locations for the great films that we’ve put into the game. But there might be a game mode or two that draws some inspiration from our previous titles as well. You’ll certainly see some of those in the multiplayer.

Q: I have a rapidly ageing gaming PC. One of my fears is I’m going to have to upgrade it to play Age of Empires IV. Is targeting a wide variety of PC specs something you have in mind when developing the game?

Duffy: For sure. You know, it’s a global game and there are lots of parts of the planet where people don’t have high-end i9s and 3080s. So we’re targeting a lower-end machine. Mike can probably talk to that a little more as well since they’ve got some great numbers on the market.

Mann: A lot of our community plays on integrated laptops, so low-powered machines that don’t have a discrete video card. We wanted to make sure that we were able to put the game experience in their hands and Zack and the team have done an amazing job of delivering that visual and audio showcase on lower-end machines.

Age of Empires IV screenshot

Zach: In fact, the strategy for the lighting and textures is such that we use painterly texture so that it’s still readable and consistent on lower-end 1080p monitors, and 4K monitors, so you don’t get stuck with lots of noise and stuff. It helps clean itself up and makes it very clear, readable, which is a nice little feature.

Q: There’s a question I always like to ask when I get the opportunity to talk to the developers of a real-time strategy game. As a kid, I had this unique experience where the first time I encountered Starcraft was on the Nintendo 64.

Obviously, a console and a controller isn’t the most ideal way to play an RTS game, but has there ever been any thought to bringing Age of Empires IV to the Xbox One or Xbox Series X/S after it releases on PC?

Mann: Our focus right now is the PC and we want to make sure the game is good. We have eight diverse civilizations, the graphics; we want to make sure that we deliver to a spectrum of PC machines and hardware first and land that this year.

Age of Empires IV is set to release in “fall of 2021” on PC and Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription service. For more on the Age of Empires series, check out my interview with the development team behind Age of Empires III.

This interview has been edited for style and clarity.