After over a decade in in the wilderness, the Age of Empires is widely accessible once more. It’s partly down to fans who have never given up on Age of Empires, but also because there’s a lot of old school fans within Microsoft.
One of those is Adam Isgreen. His current job title: creative director at World’s Edge, meaning games like Age of Empires 4 and the AOE Definitive Edition series fall under his purview. But when the original AOE came out, he was working on an RTS of a very different kind: Command & Conquer.
There’s actually not many people around with Isgreen’s RTS pedigree. After having gotten a job in the last days of Strategic Simulations, Inc. – a company famous in the ’80s and ’90s for hex-based wargames, Gold Box RPGs like Eye of the Beholder, and many others – Isgreen moved over to Westwood.
There, he worked on all the early Command & Conquer games, starting with the Covert Operations expansion, the original Red Alert and its expansions, and all the way through to C&C Generals: Zero Hour. These days, he helps oversee the broader remit of projects under Microsoft’s banner, such as the Killer Instinct remake to Ori and the Blind Forest and, more recently, the AOE: DE series.
And it makes sense, especially as a rival developer looking at the things Ensemble Studios accomplished back in the day, why Isgreen would have some measure of reverence for Age of Empires. But his career could have very nearly taken a different path, with SSi downsizing massively shortly after he joined the studio.
“When I got to SSI, we were working on multiple titles, and it was a very large studio. There were around 100 people, working on multiple games – there were Gold Box games for TSI [Games] – and the company got way too bloated. It was probably two or three weeks after I started, and I had to be the lowest paid employee there, and they had a company meeting.
“We all went to the back stairway, and only about a quarter of the people were on the back stairway. The president of the company got up and basically said, ‘All of you that are here right now, you are still part of the company.’ And everybody else had been let go, there was way too much bloat.”
To this day, Isgreen still runs into SSi alumni. “It’s amazing how small the video game industry really is,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine today where RTS games are thin or the ground, or compressed into MOBAs, but around the mid to late ’90s RTS was one of the most populated gaming genres. For every cracker like Dark Reign and Warcraft 2, there was a sea of mediocrity. Age of Empires was one of the few that really stood out, and having worked on rival products at the time, Isgreen pointed to three reasons.
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“The first one was that they had made an RTS about history. There was no explanation you had to do to anybody about what things were. Everyone understood what a club was, a sword, what the wheel did,” Isgreen said.
Many strategy games of the era were sci-fi or fantasy based – think Total Annihilation, NetStorm and even Starcraft to a degree. That meant units required a degree of explanation or instruction via some tutorial or scripted use in a mission, a trait you see quite often in Blizzard campaigns. Leveraging history, however, helps alleviate that problem and makes the game a lot more understandable and relatable.
“I also really appreciated that they had multiple ways to win. That was one of the things I absolutely adored about AOE, because all of our games were always about conquest,” Isgreen said. “That was a brilliant move on their part, and then facilitating through being able to build walls, have really good defences, and play the game differently depending on how you’d like to play … This is broadening, acceptable, I love that.”
The final feather in AOE‘s cap, one that other games struggled to replicate, was the random map generator. It can’t be overstated, especially for people playing through the MSN Gaming Zone or LANs (which were fairly massive in Australia at the time – Sydney Gamers League alone hosted several hundred people a month), how valuable that variety was.
“At Westwood, we spent a lot of time, especially when we got to Tiberian Sun – Tiberian Sun was the first time we got it up and running,” Isgreen said. “We spent a lot of time trying to find out how to make a really great map generator. And we could never get one that was as good as Age of Empires.”
If anything, the greatest indicator of the mark AOE left was that people were still playing the game. Not AOE2, and not just the AOE2HD re-release, but the original AOE, even though it was only playable if you had the original CDs. Isgreen didn’t quantify how Microsoft tracked figures on legacy AOE players, but the neverending adoration for the game ultimately was the driving force behind the latest remaster.
“This game has never died. It’s never gone away. There’s hundreds and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, that engage with Age of Empires products every day. That’s crazy, insanely impressive over 20 years. And for us, I was fortunate enough that when they want to bring things back sometimes I’m the one who ends up doing them – I did the same with Killer Instinct – this time around it was kind of like, ‘Hm, you’ve got more strategy experience than anyone in Microsoft.’ It’s been really great.”
Before the interview finished, I asked Isgreen: are Microsoft having more conversations now about these older IPs they have sitting around? By way of answering, he mentioned that he still has a boxed copy of Shadowrun. “I would love to get a shot at bringing that back,” he said, qualifying that Microsoft is “always talking about old IPs”.