A lot of the success of titles like FarmVille is down to the fact that they can be played on anything from a netbook up to a high-end PC. How scalable is your engine?
I would probably exclude netbooks from it’s list of likely compatible candidates. You go one step up from that to a relatively low-end laptop and it will actually run quite well. You can dial the graphics back – I’ve played it on a two-year-old laptop of mine and it plays quite well. Then you can dial it up to hi-res and super advanced lighting.
Is the art style a deliberate attempt to court a broader audience?
That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. The art style is quite a bit different to the past versions of Age, and some people have responded favourably, some not. I was actually one of the latter; when I first saw the look I was like, "Whoa, what are we doing? This isn’t right." But we’re trying to do something here that’s different, that isn’t just Age 4 or a typical sequel. If we want it to be a very different game, we should have it look like a different game, too. It’s also quite a bit more timeless: If you try to really push cutting-edge graphics, which the past Age games have attempted to do, it works pretty well for about twelve months and then you look back at it and suddenly it’s not quite so great looking any more. And it’s also about accessibility in the sense that it will run on a much wider variety of machines than it historically has, as well as hopefully appealing to a broader audience without offending that core audience; it still has that depth of gameplay and actually quite a bit more. There’s an extra layer of strategy for that really core player: "How am I going to optimise my civilisation around certain skills and styles of play?" But for the casual player its really about having more options that they can taylor to their desire: "I don’t really want to be a hardcore PvP player, but I really like archers so I’m going to up their abilities, the way they look and the way they play."
How are you going to communicate to core players that that depth is still there, beneath the new visuals?
I think the best way is for us to communicate that [the game’s] here and that you can try it for free. If you’re worried about that depth and complexity, just give it a try; download and play it for 100 hours and see if you get hooked or not!
How will the game be supported over time?
We think of it as a service. It’s always on, it’s always live and we’ll update it with new features and new content for as long as the market is willing to consume them. We have three teams that are working on it: a ready team that’s looking after bugs and patches or any issues that crop up with, for instance, compatibility or new graphics drivers; there’s a team that’s doing new feature work that’s thinking about what’s the next wishlist item we want to add to the game; then there’s a pretty substantial content team that’s producing art and civilisations and missions and so forth. We expect to have new content for players on a monthly cadence.
One of the questions in the beta sign-up asks whether potential testers have played FarmVille and Mafia Wars, as well as StarCraft and Rise Of Nations. Do you think there’s any cross-over between these audiences, or are you expecting two distinct sets of feedback?
This is more of a personal response, because I see this casual audience that’s coming into gaming through Facebook and mobile devices, and they’re a lot more core than we would typically ascribe them to be. So if core players are playing FarmVille or FrontierVille or one of those games – and there’s a bunch of them out there that are a lot of fun – it’s because they want to try every game that comes out. But if you’re more casual and enjoying those games, I would suggest that you would probably enjoy Age Of Empires as well. So we’re trying to move them toward each other: take that core RTS player, introduce them to more social gaming concepts, and take that very social gamer and move them towards more core concepts. I think to a certain degree we’ll have two very different groups of people, and really those questions are filtering them into a couple of buckets so that we know how to think about features that are designed for a very casual audience vs features that are designed for a very core audience. We’ll run a lot of user tests against that audience to see what they think of feature X, Y or Z, then use that to inform our design. For example, we’ve gone from having very little training to, I think, way too much, and we’re trying to dial that back. A lot of that is coming from those two buckets.
Do you think this kind of social treatment is the future of the RTS?
It certainly fits this genre very well, I think. But if you look at a core shooter, does it fit in quite the same way? It’s a little different. You see the business models of other games like Battlefield Heroes, which is a great example of going in another direction with a real core IP. I actually enjoyed that game, I played it quite a bit! I think this is one way, and you’ll see other games and genres that will fit this model, and other games not so much – I’m curious to see what happens. I think we’re onto something interesting here and we’ll test it with customers who will then let us know how much they like it by transacting or not, and then we’ll make some decisions based on that. But I hope it stimulates new ideas, and other games and companies to go in new directions; I think that’s good for all of us.