What Made Age of Empires Great 

By G. B. Burford on at

Age of Empires is finally back. After twelve long years, Microsoft has finally decided to resurrect one of gaming’s most beloved franchises, and fans are ecstatic. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, Age’s return might not seem like such a big deal. After all, it’s not like strategy fans are lacking options. Starcraft and Company of Heroes offer a better competitive scene, and Homeworld has a more compelling story. The hype is not simply due to nostalgia. Age of Empires’ timeless appeal is thanks to its unique approach to real-time strategy.

Every friend I had growing up owned Age of Empires, so whenever I visited them, that’s what we played. When I worked retail, people bought copies all the time; it was our best-selling game. Even now, in the PC gaming section of my local superstore, I can find copies of Age for sale. Prior to the Steam re-release of Age of Empires II HD, the Age series was the most-requested retro game on gog.com. Age of Empires II HD has sold over 4.6 million copies on Steam since its re-release in 2013, according to the independent sales-tracking site SteamSpy, with almost no advertising. Age of Empires is undeniably huge. It deserves its reputation, though, having been out of the spotlight for so long, it might be hard to see why.

The Real-Time Strategy Genre Is In Trouble

When Age of Empires IV was announced, I found myself wondering how it would fare in the modern world, because RTSes are kind of in a weird place. Most publishers want a good return on their investment, so they release games for multiple platforms, and since there are (at least) two major HD consoles, that means most games need to work on a controller. RTSes—which are games that require players to create and control numerous armies of units spread across vast battlefields—barely work on a controller; some publishers, like Electronic Arts and Microsoft, have tried to make RTSes that work across both platforms, but their experiments were met with poor sales, studio closures, and project cancellations.

Even if a major publisher was willing to fund an RTS, marketers don’t know what to do with RTSes because they look like this:

Because the camera perspective never changes in an RTS, footage tends to look really boring, so most trailers avoid showing any gameplay. Best to show some cool CG videos than to actually show the gameplay, unless, like Microsoft, you really think fans will respond well to statements like “increased population” and “attack move.”

I love real-time strategy games, but they’re hard to fund and hard to sell. One of the most recent high-profile RTSes, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, sold a mere 200,000 copies, according to SteamSpy, despite being an incredible game. Even Starcraft 2 has declined, its position as the king of esports usurped by MOBAs like League of Legends.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that the RTS needs to speed up if it wants to survive, and over the past decade, that’s what it’s done. Developers have discussed the growing influence of the MOBA on RTS design. But it doesn’t seem to have helped. Dawn of War III emphasised a quicker, MOBA-influenced style of play, but released to poor reviews that criticised those same MOBA elements. Servo died in Early Access. Most RTSes right now, despite shorter match lengths and MOBA influences, aren’t performing well. Even Age of Empires Online, the speediest iteration of the series I’ve played, died too soon.

Maybe conventional wisdom is wrong.

Age of Empires Keeps Things Slow And Deliberate

Age of Empires and Age of Empires II were great because they played at a snail’s pace in comparison to modern RTS games. The games begin with you expanding a civilian populace, then you build a military force to protect them, expand the civilian populace to support the military, and gradually build your empire over the course of a match. Starcraft 2 and Dawn of War 3 missions might last you 30 minutes. Some Age of Empires skirmishes can last for hours, because the series places more control in your hands by giving you more options, which results in a slower, more considered play style.

Age of Empires games come in three basic modes: single-player campaign, single-player skirmish, and multiplayer. The campaign and skirmish modes are all about playing against the computer and trying to win a scenario. Multiplayer is a more frenetic affair, because players are craftier and focused more on total military domination than the computer.

Win conditions are different from other popular RTS games. In Age of Empires, you can win peacefully, by building and defending a Wonder, like the Great Pyramid or the Colosseum, keeping it standing for 5-10 minutes, or by capturing relics, artefacts, and ruins and holding them for a set period of time. These win conditions have a lot in common with 4X games like Civilization, emphasising more than just military dominance. It’s not surprising that Age of Empires has a lot in common with Civilization, of course. Bruce Shelley, Civilization’s co-designer, was the director on Age of Empires.

Most RTS games, like Starcraft, feature two resources, which are easily obtained. In contrast, the first two Age of Empires games feature a whopping four different resource types (food, wood, gold, and stone), offer multiple ways to obtain those resources (food, for instance, can be farmed, foraged, fished, or hunted), then spread those resources out in ways that require multiple buildings and building types to manage effectively. Put a dock along the seashore to fish, set up a storage depot next to a forest to gather wood, and build farms near your granary. This complexity expands the player’s decision tree, slowing them down and encouraging them to think more carefully about how they build their cities.

These resources are crucial to progressing through Age’s eponymous Ages. When you start a game in Age, your units are weak and your technological options are limited. With enough resources, you can purchase an upgrade to the next Age. In the first game, for instance, you have the Stone, Tool, Bronze, and Iron Ages. Progressing through the ages unlocks new building, unit, and technology types, which are all essential to victory.

On top of that is one of the largest technology trees I’ve ever seen in an RTS. There are upgrades to your buildings’ line of sight, villager carry capacity, farm crop yield, attack and defence stats across multiple unit types, and more. By emphasising both civilian and military upgrades, Age gives its players plenty of things to do without ever overwhelming them.

This might seem like needless complexity, but it’s crucial to Age’s function, because it introduces an element of city planning. In Starcraft 2, most buildings exist either to produce new military units or to facilitate their production. This means you can place them wherever you please, as long as they’re safe from enemy assault. Age of Empires’ expansive tech tree and resource gathering options mean you’re spending a lot more time thinking about real estate, making matches feel more like something you’d find in Banished or Tropico, which sport a more leisurely pace than Starcraft 2.

Age of Empires III, which was released in 2005, is much less popular than the first two games. I believe this was in part because it de-emphasised city planning. Villagers no longer had to travel between the resource they were gathering and the drop-off point, which meant that less attention needed to be paid to placing structures like defensive towers and logging camps. It didn’t matter how you laid out your town, because you didn’t need to think about the paths your villagers would take. This made the empire-building aspect of Age of Empires a lot less fulfilling.

Age of Empires has always leaned closer to the Civilization end of strategy games. While RTSes have gradually lost market share to MOBAs, 4X games like Civilization and Total War (which blends 4X and RTS mechanics) have thrived, and city builders like Banished and Cities: Skylines have sold millions. I believe Age works for this same reason: it’s slow and sprawling, and lets you focus on more than just military engagements.

This isn’t to say that a slow pace is the only thing needed to make a great real time strategy game; plenty of slow RTSes haven’t performed well. After Ensemble closed, Bruce Shelley worked on The Settlers 7, an engaging hybrid of city building and RTS. While it’s a great game, the always-online Settlers 7 features one of the most complicated economies I’ve ever seen, limiting its appeal. Rise of Nations runs into the same problem as Age of Empires III, streamlining its city building mechanics by limiting most research to just one building and letting villagers gather resources without requiring drop-off locations. You spend a lot more time fighting or waiting for resources to arrive than managing your city.

They’re not bad games, but when games are slow because there are too many resources to manage or because they’ve streamlined so much that there isn’t a lot to do, they stop being fun. Age of Empires’ first two games worked because they were complex enough that there was always something to do, slow enough to keep you from feeling too pressured, but quick enough to avoid becoming boring.

A Game For Old Men

When I worked retail, we sold lots of copies of Age of Empires, but our customers weren’t your typical gaming crowd. They were generally men from their 30s to their 60s. When people are asked if their parents play games, “my dad plays Age of Empires” is a common response. Sometimes, pictures of older men playing Age of Empires pop up on the internet.

Part of Age of Empire’s tremendous success is because, instead of appealing to the hardcore strategy players, chasing League of Legends’ extremely competitive player base, and looking for a home on streaming services, it appeals to groups other than average hardcore gamers. Reaching different types of gamers is good strategy.

In a blog post about targeting specific audiences in video games, Sergey Galyonkin, the creator of SteamSpy, points out that Wargaming’s World of Tanks, one of the most popular games in the world (it’s bigger than Dota 2, the biggest game on Steam), appeals to older men who are interested in a slower, more considered gameplay approach:

If you’re 50-something male, slow to act, but like to think things through, you have an advantage over 18 years old kid with his incredible reflexes and raging hormones. He can try to double-jump out of your artillery strike or headshot your IS-2 all he wants, but in the end, superior strategy wins.

Wargaming’s founder, Victor Kisyli, explained as much in a Gamespot interview, saying “it’s a little slower than your typical shooter or Dota-style game. So you don’t have to be clicking 70 times per second to be good at World of Tanks.”

Age of Empires’ deliberate pace is appealing because players can take their time. In high-ranked competitive matches, sure, players live or die by their APM, the number of actions per minute they can perform, but Age scales so well that players of all skill levels can play at whatever speed they feel comfortable with, similar to games like Civilization and Total War, both monstrously successful franchises.

Of course, Age of Empires doesn’t just appeal to old men. I loved it back when I was 11 and could only play it occasionally when visiting my friends. I’ve seen people who have no interest in most hardcore video games fall in love with it. Age of Empires works because it appeals to more than the hardcore without sacrificing the kind of depth hardcore players love.

In gaming, there’s a concept called “Grognard Capture,” which involves games becoming so complex that they can be alienating to lots of players. I think it applies to the RTS genre. Game designer Greg Costikyan describes it like this:

“Grognard” was a slang term for members of Napoleon’s Old Guard. Hardcore board wargamers adopted it as a term for themselves. By extension, “grognard capture” means capture of a game style by the hardest-core and most experienced players—to the ultimate exclusion of others.

You see the same process at work in a lot of other game styles; real-time strategy games layer more and more complexities onto the system over time. Fighting games have taken special moves to a ridiculous extreme, requiring you to memorize chords as complicated as anything a concert pianist uses. And so on.

Modern RTSes have increasingly fallen prey to Grognard capture, focusing their attention on their most hardcore players, emphasising high APM and streamlined economies. Focus is increasingly paid towards competitive play, ignoring the non-competitive players who are far more interested in the base-building, economy-managing, research-oriented players. Nearly every high-profile RTS is built with a heavy emphasis on this fast, competitive play style. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of game—Company of Heroes, for instance, is fantastic—but without slower games like Age of Empires, a huge niche is being underserved.

The last attempt at a major Age of Empires game, Age of Empires Online, developed by ex-Ensemble developers Robot Entertainment and Gas Powered Games, the developers behind Supreme Commander and Total Annihilation, emphasised quicker, MOBA-influenced gameplay, with shorter matches and units leveling up during missions. Age of Empires Online was shut down in under three years, and Gas Powered Games was in danger of shutting down until it was picked up by World of Tanks developer Wargaming.

Since the release of Relic Entertainment’s tactical RTS Company of Heroes in 2007, that studio’s two major franchises, Company of Heroes and Dawn of War, have focused primarily on fast, tactical play. Base building elements fell by the wayside in favor of fast-moving hero units. Competitive matches in Dawn of War III feel like they’ve been adapted straight from a MOBA, down to the 3-lane mission type and the “destroy objects and kill adds on your way to the enemy base” mechanic.

Relic is now making Age of Empires IV. I wonder if they will try to make a Relic-style Age of Empires, or if they will remain true to the series’ roots, making a game with the same kind of deliberate pacing that gave Age its universal appeal.

Age of Empires is unique because it allows its players to take their time. It is at its best when giving players plenty to do without overwhelming them, letting players build and protect cities rather than simply send their soldiers off to war. This slower, more considered play style is what made Age of Empires stand out from its contemporaries, and it’s just the kind of game the genre could use again.

GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can’t get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.