One of the kickers with any real-time strategy game, but especially one with as many different civilisations as Age of Empires 4, is what I like to call the Dota problem.
The Dota problem — or League of Legends, any MOBA and even older RTS games like Dawn of War — is basically the information nightmare that presents new players in multiplayer for the first time. You’re barely across what your character or civilisation can do, let alone what all the others are capable of. So you join a game, get rolled by something you couldn’t see coming, or make the wrong decision because you got rolled by a unit that specialises in something you’ve never seen. And then you cop losses for another 30 or 40 hours until you can start to “play” the game.
It’s a problem that faces any new player coming into any RTS (or MOBA). It’s especially problematic for Age of Empires 4, being the first new Age game in decades and one that’s expected to attract some people completely new to the Age series — and maybe RTS games in general — because of its presence on Xbox Game Pass.
So I put the question to World’s Edge franchise creative director Adam Isgreen and Relic game director Quinn Duffy. We’d already been talking about making real-time strategy games smarter, especially since the Age developers are partnering with Microsoft Research to help train the game’s AI.
But having a smarter AI is only really good for people who have already reached a certain skill level. It’s bugger all use for people who haven’t played long enough to understand how all the different civilisations work, what units to build in advance of what, and so forth. And there’s also the imposition on the Age team as well: how much should they as developers point players towards the community around the franchise that has and will build its own tutorials, beginner’s guides and all sorts of instructional material, and how much instruction should they provide themselves?
“That’s a tough question,” Quinn, who has been at Relic long enough to be a senior designer and lead designer all the way back to the Homeworld, Dawn of War and Company of Heroes days, said. “You get the multiplicative effect of adding civs. We’re going to ship with 8, and obviously we’re going to add more, and that is a lot of information to retain.”
“There’s a number of approaches we hope will work. Like Adam said, we get to ship this thing and see what validates and what we need to continue to support and push further, but [there’s] things like the Art of War challenges and so on which get players involved in parts of the game.” And while Age does have the benefit of some similarity between the civilisations — everyone will have some form of a basic archer, mounted cavalry, and so on — it’s one of those areas that also requires a bit more data.
But Isgreen threw out a couple of interesting ideas that would be astronomically helpful for a lot of new players. “One of the great things is that there’s so much more room to get better. We do have dynamic tooltips now, that watch how you play and they suggest things if they see players aren’t doing the things they could be doing. But they don’t just pop up, so you don’t get them constantly — oh, I notice you’re not doing this, let me remind you about it if you’re unfamiliar.”
“But there’s so much that can be done. A lot of this was motivated from Killer Instinct, where I wanted to create a tutorial was great for fighting games. Having things like the Art of War added to the Age games was because of that — I want to educate people again, how do we do this,” Isgreen said. “I want more of that. I would love immediate learning — and we don’t have this yet, but this is where I’d love to go — is like you finish a match, and your score screen, ‘Hey, this is where you lost the game, right here.'”
“Like a chess engine almost,” I suggested.
“Yeah literally,” Isgreen replied. “This is where you lost, this is where your decisions went wrong. This is where your micro broke, right, and you didn’t keep up when you shifted to this age. Would you like to try a tutorial that helps you learn this? And then you can jump in and actually practice that thing. That, to me, would be a chef’s kiss in terms of getting more people to learn. Because we want more people to learn the game, and if you have someone sitting with you that’s commenting that can help you, that’s awesome. But in the age of the internet you’re not always with other people — you can look them up on YouTube and other stuff. But wouldn’t it be great if we could do it at the right time?”
As chess has proved, having that immediate reinforcement — the move you could have taken versus the one you did — is a tried and tested technique for learning. But the AOE devs’ second idea would be to expand further on the dynamic tooltips, building them out into something more genuinely helpful on the fly.
“I think there’s other things too that we can do. We’re going to look into–I keep telling Quinn about advanced tooltips. Imagine being able to highlight an enemy unit and it’s like, you need to build this to counter these. Things like that that are more contextually aware. That’s where I think there’s a lot of room to grow in ways that can really help players get into the experience that helps them learn things,” Isgreen explained.
“I think there’s plenty to do there. And with this coming to Game Pass, as well, we know there’s going to be people jumping in all the time; that’s why we have a Story Mode, that’s why we have a new first-time user experience that’s kind of like this very casual, like hey learn how to build a village. You know things like that we can get people up to speed. But I think the sky’s wide open.”
It’s not an idea that will feature in Age of Empires 4 at launch, to be clear, nor was it anything mooted for the near future like the mindless, machine learning-powered AI that Age fans can look forward to. But the technology wouldn’t be far away — you could leverage the same AI work that goes into training the AI on the decisions it makes on what units to build, what not to build and what to prepare for.
And it would be transformative outside of just the pure RTS genre, too. Imagine playing a MOBA where the game didn’t just offer recommended, preset builds, but the item shop could also make singular dynamic suggestions about particular items based on hundreds of thousands of games featuring the same heroes you’re facing right now. It’d help players bridge that gap from buying the right “kinds” of items to understanding why they’re buying the items in the first place.
All of these kinds of advancements might not matter for someone who’s been playing Age of Empires for 20 years, but it’s good to know that World’s Edge and Relic are thinking about them. Relic, after all, isn’t just working on Age of Empires 4. The studio is steadily building out Company of Heroes 3, and you’d imagine all that experience and accessibility work from Age will undoubtedly make the next COH a better game, too.