The Age of Empires series has some Big Huge news. Not only have Microsoft and series creator Ensemble Studios announced a second expansion pack to 2005's epic real-time strategy game Age of Empires III, but this new expansion will also be developed by Big Huge Games, the studio responsible for Rise of Nations (GameSpot's 2003 PC Game of the Year) and Rise of Legends. The new expansion will basically be a team effort from two powerhouse development studios.
Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties will focus on the Far East, and it will introduce three new civilizations, new campaigns, new wonders of the world, and a host of new units, features, and enhancements. To get the very first details on this expansion, we turned to Brian Reynolds, the noted designer responsible for some of the greatest strategy games ever made, including Rise of Nations, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, and Sid Meier's Civilization II. He's also the CEO and creative director of Big Huge Games.
GameSpot: While the first Age of Empires III expansion, The WarChiefs, added New World content and Native American tribes, this new expansion pack expands into the Orient. Why choose this part of the world as the next place to explore for Age of Empires III?
Brian Reynolds: It's the one substantial piece of the Age of Exploration that's been missing from Age of Empires III, which has had, up until now, a New World emphasis. Remember, the East Indies is where Columbus wanted to go when he set sail, and especially when you think of the spice trade, the silk trade, and all the wars that were fought over them, it seems clear that this is a really interesting region to focus on.
GS: Could you give us some context on the historical setting in the game? During what years will the expansion take place? Could you give us some examples of the kinds of landmark historical events we can expect to see represented in the game? The Meiji Restoration, the Treaty of Nanking (and assimilation of Hong Kong by Britain)...others?
BR: The game takes place from the late 15th century to the late 19th century, which is both the traditional period for Age of Empires III and the era of intense contact between European powers and those of the Far East.
GS: We understand that the new expansion will definitely build on the content from the previous games by adding new world wonders and new maps. Could you share some of the thinking behind these new additions? Will the new wonders and maps fill any gaps or enhance any specific areas of Age III that fans have requested, for instance?
BR: The new maps will represent regions from Asia and will, of course, have some uniquely Asian twists. Just to name one example, there is a map about the famous Silk Road, which will introduce some novel trade-route mechanics.
Wonders represent the great cultural advancement of the major Asian civilizations in this period. Some were substantially ahead of the European powers in many areas when the Age of Exploration began. Note that unlike previous versions of Age of Empires in which wonders were used as a victory condition, building a wonder is the way an Asian civ "ages up," and it confers a lasting power depending on the wonder chosen.
Another interesting area for the new Asian civilizations will be their consulate building, where they can choose a European country to open relations with and gain some bonuses and units from that country.
GS: What can you tell us about the single-player content of the expansion? Can we expect to see a new story-driven campaign?
BR: Since each of the three civilizations we are adding in this expansion is so unique and radically different from the others, we wanted to give each one its time in the sun. So we created three campaigns of five scenarios each, one apiece for each civilization. Oh, and I should mention one of my own favorite touches on the new single-player campaigns: If you set your difficulty level to "hard," then they're really hard. We figure many players have gotten pretty darn good at Age of Empires III by now, so they'll be ready for the ultimate challenge. Of course, the "normal" and "easy" levels will remain as you would expect.
GS: What can you tell us about the multiplayer content of the expansion? Are there any specific issues or long-requested additions that will make their way into The Asian Dynasties?
BR: I know one thing that has been requested was "a lot more hotkeys," and we have definitely added that in spades. We also talked to a group of top-level players about what features they'd most like to see added to the interface now that the game system is mature, and we've tried to implement as many of those as possible while remaining true to the spirit of the original game.
GS: Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the expansion is that Ensemble Studios will develop the game with support from Rise of Nations creator Big Huge Games. Why is Ensemble enlisting the extra help? Is there more to this than "Halo Wars is taking a lot of time and manpower to develop"?
BR: The development of this expansion occurred as a result of a series of serendipitous events on all sides. Ensemble saw that Age of Empires III was having great success and thought a second expansion might be a good idea, but its team was indeed busy making Halo Wars. Meanwhile Big Huge Games had some free time for its real-time strategy team while its new role-playing game got up to speed and the Catan for Xbox Live project was finishing up. Big Huge Games already had a great relationship with Microsoft and experience doing historical RTS games. On top of that, I've personally been a big fan of the Age of Empires series since the very beginning, so I was really excited at the chance to be directly involved in designing an expansion for it. Basically, all the pieces just fell into place as a great opportunity for everyone involved to take a break from their normal stuff and spend a few months doing something fresh, and refreshing! A big win for all concerned, and I sincerely hope this includes all of our fans!
GS: On that note, are there any specific new takes or approaches that Big Huge Games plans to bring to the table--such as any specific features or lessons learned from Big Huge's games that might make their way into the game?
BR: For us at Big Huge Games, it's kind of like getting to be the "special guest director" on an episode of our favorite TV show: We've tried to give the game our own unique "Big Huge Games" spin, while at the same time staying true to the spirit of the original game and the Age of Empires franchise. Obviously, the Ensemble team has been very kind to let us play in their sandbox, so we don't want to let them down. As far as our own background goes, certainly we've brought a couple features to Age of Empires that our Rise of Nations fans will recognize. The mechanics of wonders, for example, are reminiscent of the way they were handled in Rise of Nations, although we've made some changes.
Dedicated fans of both series may also notice a few other small "tips of the hat" to our own gaming heritage. On the other hand, the goal of this project wasn't to "turn Age of Empires into Rise of Nations" by any means, so you're not going to be seeing national borders or attrition or anything crazy like that. We've put most of our efforts into taking our favorite parts of the existing Age of Empires III system and extending them in new and interesting directions. Particularly, when we start to talk about the details of the new civs, I think you'll see that they're radically different and interesting, but always in ways that play up the best parts of Age of Empires. Honestly, I think you'll be very pleased.
GS: Could you tell us when we can expect to see the expansion on store shelves?
BR: Fall, 2007.
GS: Is there anything else you'd like to add about Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties, Big Huge Games' involvement, or the Age of Empires series in general?
BR: Only that I've personally had a great time working on it! Ike Ellis, our designer/programmer of the conquer-the-world-mode fame, has done the hard work of actually leading the team so that I can come in and do the fun stuff--brainstorming game mechanics, play-testing multiplayer maps, helping John Hawkins think of new cards, and, of course, "making the hard level really hard." I feel guilty about what a complete hoot this has been for me. The whole team has done a great job bringing this together, and I think they've had a lot of fun in the process.
GS: Thank you, as ever, Brian.