As we prepare to finally launch the Romans, we want to take the opportunity to spotlight Paul Flores, who was the one of the original Gas Powered Games developers of Age of Empires Online and the architect of the original version of the Romans. As we have discussed at length, our Romans draw heavily on Paul’s original concepts, though we had to make a number of significant changes to them. For the last couple of years, Paul has generously given us his time off and on to guide us along our journey developing the next civilization in AoEO. Never underestimate the luxury of having an expert to bounce ideas off.
Paul graciously agreed to answer some general questions for us to give all of you some insight into development over the years.
So glad to be finally sharing my story about Age of Empires Online! My name is Paul Flores. I’ve been a game designer in the industry for a little over 10 years. Growing up I always loved playing games and knew it was something I always wanted to do. Some of the games I played the most while growing up were Warcraft 2, Starcraft, Diablo II, and all the classic Nintendo games like Mario, Zelda, Metroid, etc. Among those games was also Age of Empires II.
Back then my brothers and I would play AOE2 multiplayer on a 56k dial-up modem using a matchmaking service called MSN Games(?), or something like that. It was absolutely awful... hah! I was never good at the game by any stretch of the imagination, but I loved the historical aspect of AoE and seeing the aftermath of a bloody battle with corpses of swordsmen, horses, and elephants strewn across the battlefield. Walls and Castles also offered a very unique experience to the game that I couldn’t quite get from other RTS’s like Warcraft or StarCraft. Later on when I was in college, I would also play a lot of AoE2 with my friends on LAN. Lots of good times playing that. My favorite civ was the Goths because I liked pumping out infantry and countering my friends' archers with the Huskarls (my friends didn’t know how to counter them back… lol).
I really hit the jackpot on this one, especially so early on in my career. On AoEO I was solely responsible for designing, tuning, and balancing each civilization. Basically I got to do all the cool stuff. I started by working with a group of testers from Microsoft on balancing the existing Greek and Eyptian civilizations that Robot had created.
I don’t remember what was exactly entailed in refining the Greeks and Egyptians, but I remember one of the biggest challenges I focused on was rebalancing Ranged units in the game (especially Toxotes). At that time, it seemed to me that Ranged units completely dominated the game. Toxotes had no bonus damage vs Infantry and their base damage was higher. I remember almost nothing countered them except other Toxotes and Slingers. And even when the Tox were closed in on by infantry or cavalry, the infantry and cav couldn’t kill them quick enough because they also had higher base health. What made things even worse was their ability to kite much more effectively back then. To solve this I gave ranged units (especially archers like tox) a significant wind-up time before firing. This drastically decreased their effectiveness at kiting, and their low health made it so that when they were closed in on, then they would be severely punished. The goal was to shift the micro gameplay towards more focusing on initial positioning of Ranged units and protecting them with your infantry.
If I recall correctly, I don’t think the testers were too thrilled with these core changes… haha! So if you don’t like this general gameplay, then you can blame me! I think as the game continued to evolve and mature, it all worked on in the end... yeah?
I didn’t choose which civilizations to make. That decision was up to GPG leadership and/or Microsoft leadership. While I don’t know exactly what went into that decision making process, I know there was a lot of consideration regarding the single player campaign focusing around Mediterranean before going East. Like most businesses, I think the plan was to make new civs as long as the game was profitable. That didn’t last long though, now did it?
I think that’s something a lot of people (especially younger folks) struggle to understand. I see a lot of people want free new content, but then get upset when the developer or publisher is trying different ways to make money from that. At the end of the day, if they don’t make enough money, they stop updating the game (and even shutdown servers). No one wins at that point. So give your devs of your favorite games some slack when they’re trying to make a buck.
Identifying and fulfilling the fantasy in a game has always been my guiding principle as a game designer. Fantasies can be anything like flying or other simple actions, to something more complex and general like being a badass in the city that’s able to do and steal anything. For Age of Empires, I believe the overarching fantasy is, “who would win in a fight between two powerful civilizations from different periods and regions,” which is sort of like, “who would win: a velociraptor or a tiger?” It sounds sort of silly to have to say something so obvious, but what it does it provides answers and guidance for questions that inevitably come up throughout all phases of development. So going back to my previous experience where a coworker said there should be bear riders, I argued it goes against the core fantasy of Age of Empires. It’s like giving the tiger a laser-eye to fight against the raptor… while it’s certainly awesome, it doesn’t speak to or answer the fantasy of who would actually win in a fight had you somehow used a time machine to bring a real velociraptor to a tiger pen.
Continuing with this tiger vs. velociraptor analogy in a sort of who-would-win fantasy, we next get into what we as viewers would expect, or more precisely, what we would hope to or want to see. While most of us have never seen a tiger fight, we know generally how they attack based on movies and cartoons. They stalk. They prowl. They jump. They bite. They claw. It’s pretty easy to design what a tiger would do in an imaginary fight. But what would a Velociraptor do? What do they look like? Are there any pre-existing fantasies we can harness and bring to life? Velociraptor are actually only 3 feet tall and likely had feathers (they’re basically giant killer chickens), but that’s not something people would expect nor likely like to see. This is a perfect example where fantasy triumphs reality, and I think it can be difficult deciding where to draw the line. If the fantasy is based on reality -- fantastic -- but if it isn’t, that can be okay too. For the velociraptor, I would likely follow the already so well-defined conception of a Velociraptor from Jurassic Park (6 feet tall, jump attack, memorial snarl, that “clever-girl” moment -- all that good stuff that I think people hope/want to see).
Bringing it back to Age of Empires and designing civs, I apply this same thought process on civilization. I try to find the fantasy of each civ based on what we widely understand today (even if our understanding only comes from Hollywood), then try to filter it through history and reality to make that fantasy work while still upholding the integrity of the original core fantasy of who would win a fight between Civ “A” and Civ “B”. So looking back at the Persian civ, I followed much of the fantasy from the movie 300, featuring “our arrows will blot out the sun” (which I think I named a research tech after?), and the super badass masked Immortals. The Persians the 300 also had other crazy fictitious beasts and personas, but because that wasn’t rooted in history and wasn’t the main fantasy from 300, I chose not to bring in those elements.
Fortunately the Persian Empire has a rich and well-documented history to fill in the rest of the civ roster and theme, but that isn’t always true for other civs. The Norse (and to some degree the Celts and Babylonians) were much harder to draw historical inspiration from, and so I had to rely more on fictitious and abstract fantasies to fill out. I think I did a decent job straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction, and brought in some resemblance of who they actually were as a civilization (I hope).
I also consciously made some decisions that broke precedence with established AoE titles and pop culture. For example, the Celts in AoE2 had the best siege in the game, but much to my disappointment, I later learned that wasn't true at all. I also later learned that the Persians didn't make much use of war elephants like I was once again led to believe from the Persians in AoE2. I made it my personal mission not to teach the next generation of kids’ falsehoods about civilizations like I had been.
You might be surprised to hear I actually worked very little with the quest designers. I was what you call a Systems Designer, so I didn’t work on any “content” per se, like quests or dialog. I recall having some of the Quest Designers come up to me with some specific requests in mind, but for the most part I worked independently (aside from the testers, who I talked with pretty much daily). I actually worked more with artists than I did with other designers, but mostly I just gave minor feedback on what they were making. The artists were very much self-sufficient in doing their own independent research to come up with quality visual identity for each civ.
As far as units were concerned -- yes, everyone pretty much waited for me to give the final list. I spent about 1 full week doing nothing but watching historical YouTube videos and scouring the internet for what relevant historical information I could find in terms of culture, weapons, and army compositions.
If I recall correctly, concept art either started slightly before or in parallel with when I would be drafting a civilization design. I think the main thing they would be focusing on was what basic units and buildings would look like, like Town Center, Houses, Villagers, Spearmen, etc. I feel like one of the biggest starting points was what the roofs would look like, but maybe that's what I just noticed the most.
I don’t recall any cool concepts influencing civ design, but there was this one artist who really wanted to do crazy stuff, like making bear cavalry or something like… Haha! On more than one occasion I would get into arguments with him on why it’s not appropriate for the IP, and that (in my opinion) the one place he could push those boundaries was with caravans, since that was already a sort of precedent that had been set by the original developers who created the Greeks and Egyptians.
More often than not, I would run out of unique or interesting units to fill a civilization with than have too much. This was especially true with the Norse and Babylonians (which you can probably tell based on some of the odd units like Úlfhéðinn and super boring fillers like “Bowman” and “Horseman”). The Phoenicians (who I only did a draft on) was even more difficult, as little was known about their military history because they were mostly merchants. I remember it was so sparse, that I had a unit that was generically called “Marauder”. Ugh… I’m really glad we chose to make all the other civilizations instead of them!
In contrast, I remember the Persians worked out really well in terms of unit roster. I remember everything just sort of fit together, because there were a lot of references to unique, but also simple-sounding names, like “Sparabara” and “Asabara”, and the Immortal provided the perfect poster child that I felt was important for all civilizations. I don’t remember having to make any cuts for them. If anything, I think there were some appropriate units that I ultimately decided not to include like Chariots and Elephants, because I wanted to maintain that unique identity for the Egyptians.
Romans were more of a unique case. Their history is so expansive and well-documented that it was really easy to bring in pretty much any unit. No doubt there are likely many problems with having such a large roster, but I had justified it in my mind as being something that was historically accurate. The Romans’ reach was extremely vast and they assimilated many different peoples, and their military machines was unmatched. I wanted to bring this out as part of their identity. However, seeing the choices that you guys made to cut a lot of units was probably for the better. The much more important military gimmick was their Officers anyways (which by the way, was largely inspired by the Japanese in AoE3)
Honestly, I don’t think I had done much more thinking beyond a super builder that was limited in pop. I just instinctively thought it could lead to some interesting gameplay that would be unique and appropriate for the Romans, seeing how architecture was one the things they were most known for. I think what you guys ended up with sounds great. What likely would have happened had we continued working on the Romans is I would have gotten some early feedback from testers and made adjustments from there.
I remember one of the design leads saying the Romans were supposed to be an “adrenaline shot” for the game. Basically what that meant was it was supposed to be a really big deal, so the timing and quality had to be right. Releasing them after the Celts was thought to be too early I believe. I think there may have also been some consideration regarding quest campaign arc or something, but I’m not entirely sure.
As I mentioned before, I only designed the civs; I didn’t choose them. However I do remember there being talk about the Carthaginians being too similar to Romans and Assyrians being too similar to Babylonians. I think after the Romans it starts to get very difficult to choose a unique civilization without going east of Mesopotamia.
There was talk about eventually going East, but that was quite a ways away. I think India was the last civ I did a rough draft for (as a full civ), but it was all super early and I hadn’t done a deep dive on research yet.
Get a job in the game industry, or find a way to make money from your talents. I think it's absolutely incredible what you guys have achieved, but unfortunately making civs is just too much work (as I'm sure you're already well aware). If you REALLY want to continue making new civs, I would just do some like mirror or clone civs that inherit most of the same art and base units from a sister civ, and just a make a small number of flagship units and unique tech (ex. Carthaginians are copies of Romans, Assyrians are copies Babylonians, or Nubians for Egyptians). Basically what they did with civs in AoE2.
I think getting any or sort of traction or interest in a new game mode would be really hard, and very few people would care. If anything, maybe find a way to make Advisors more part of the core pvp (if they aren't already and you think people would care). Quality of life improvements and new civs I assume would be most appreciated by the community. They are your life blood… unfortunately you just can't directly make money from them on this game.
Paul has graciously offered to appear in a Developer Stream of the Romans and answer additional questions, so please use the comments below to ask him anything else.
We know you all are waiting patiently for the Romans, and we appreciate your continued support. Again, we have only so many hands, only so many hours, and a ton of projects in the air. We will be back with another blog as soon as we have more to share.
Thank you so much for reading, and we will see you all next time!
Project Celeste Development Team
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By PF2K on Jan 9, 2021 at 8:49 PM
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