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Age of Empires
Behind the Scenes
Bruce Shelley
Tony Goodman
Dave Pottinger
Bruce Shelley
"Bruce Shelley, co-designer of Sid Meier's Civilization, is involved in this project so expect remarkable things from Age of Empires later this year."
Canada Computes, May 1997

BBruce Shelley

ruce Shelley



Bruce has been a professional game designer/developer since 1980; he has helped start, or worked for, five game companies and has been involved with computer games since 1987.

His best job prior to Ensemble Studios was working with Sid Meier at Microprose for five years where he helped design several award winning games including Railroad Tycoon and Civilization. He's authored many game manuals and rulebooks plus five published computer game strategy guides.

Happily married and living in the Chicago suburbs, his favorite sports teams are the Chicago Bulls and Baltimore Orioles (he grew up in Baltimore). His hobbies include reading (history, mystery, science, and literature) and collecting Boy Scout memorabilia.

Games Web: What do you feel sets Age of Empires apart from all the other real-time games flooding the market?

Bruce Shelley: The historical theme based on the rise of ancient civilizations; a great AI that makes the random solitaire game an outstanding play experience and gives Age of Empires endless replayability; multiple victory conditions and adjustable levels of difficulty that allow players to set both a suitable type of game to play and a challenging computer opponent; Eight player multi-player including allies and cooperative play (two players directing the same units); 12 differentiated cultures that each play differently; a comprehensive scenario editor for those who wish to build their own; mesmerizing graphics; great sounds and original music.

Games Web: Why did you decide to do a real-time game that was historically accurate versus completing a sci-fi or fantasy based games on the market?

Bruce Shelley: The historic theme of Age of Empires gives us some advantages. Players already have some pre-conceived notions of what should be going on and thus have some ideas about how to play. They do not have to learn a pseudo-scientific rationale for what is going on. History gave us a framework upon which we could hang our game. We could pick and choose which interesting parts of history to include or discard. Since so many forthcoming games in this genre are based on sci-fi or fantasy, our topic helps us stand out.

Games Web: Why did you decide to focus on the 10,000 BC to 0AD time period in Age of Empires versus another time period?

Bruce Shelley: The rise of civilization is a big topic but one that starts at a very low level of technology and development. This works great for the resource gathering, building, and exploring aspects of the game. Our technology tree is historical and easily understood. There are a lot of interesting units in this time period, but no flying units. The absence of flying units makes our game more point to point. There is no vertical envelopment where enemies suddenly appear behind your defenses.

Games Web: While you have 12 civilizations in Age of Empires, are there significant differences between these civilizations in the way they look and play? Can you give us some examples about how they differ?

Greek building Bruce Shelley: The 12 cultures in the game use four different building sets. The buildings of an Asian culture will look quite different from those using the Egyptian or Greek set. Each culture has a unique tech tree. No culture has all the possible technologies. Some have better soldiers, some better cavalry, some better ships, some better priests, and some have economic advantages. For example, Shang (Chinese) villagers move faster than the villagers of other cultures, making them more efficient in resource gathering. The Egyptian priests can develop the greatest range, making them more useful for converting enemy units. Each culture has to be played differently to take advantage of its strengths and overcome its weaknesses.

Games Web: There seems to be civilizations in Age of Empires that have never been included in a PC game before and there is little known about them, why did you choose to do this? How did you research them?

Bruce Shelley: We wanted a lot of cultures to provide different playing experiences. Some were predominately traders and some were not aggressive, while others were very aggressive. Adding important but little known cultures enhances the historic and authentic feel of Age of Empires. Asian history outside of China is not well documented but we made an effort to include that area because we wish to broaden the appeal of Age of Empires in that part of the world. The research for Age of Empires was done in the local community library. Extensive, detailed research is not necessary or even a good idea for most entertainment products. The best reference materials are often found in the children's section because this is the level of historic interest for most of the gaming public. If you build in too much historic detail you run the risk of making the game obtuse. The players should have the fun, not the designers or researchers. We are trying to entertain people, not impress them with our scholarship. The words "model" or " simulation" are often a warning signal that the game is not fun.

Games Web: Are there other notable historical elements in the game?

Bruce Shelley: We have included a 40,000 word encyclopedia that provides historical notes on Age of Empires. These discuss briefly the different cultures available for play, the game technologies, the rise of civilization, and the rise of ancient warfare.

Games Web: Why did you and Ensemble decide to do a game like Age of Empires?

Bruce Shelley: Ensemble Studios was a start up company and we felt we had to make our first product attractive to major publishers. We drew on what we liked about the most successful games on the market and on our past experience. We felt that a real-time strategy game that built on the best features of that genre and that added elements from Civilization would be an attractive product and one that had a chance to be a major hit if well done.

Games Web: How does this compare with other games that you have worked on before?

Bruce Shelley: Age of Empires compares somewhat to Civilization in that it includes some resource gathering and empire building. The real-time element makes it quite different from turn based games I have worked on in the past, however. One major advantage of Age of Empires is that it is usually completed within a hour or two.

Games Web: As technology advances, multiplayer games are more and more involving, where do you feel that computer-based games are headed?

Bruce Shelley: I don't have a high level of confidence in my ability to predict the future, but I see multi-payer games becoming more important. We are just at the beginning of what multi-player games can do. How far this trend goes may depend on how accessible and efficient internet gaming becomes and how soon internet connections get off the telephone lines and onto cable modems. Even with those advances, however, I think the majority of gaming hours logged will continue to be in solitaire play.

Games Web: What excites you most about the future of the gaming industry?

Bruce Shelley: People out there right now are figuring out how to incorporate new technologies into new game genres that the rest of us cannot conceive but that we will want to play as soon as we see them.

Games Web: What's the most difficult part of creating a quality gaming experience?

Bruce Shelley: Making a game fun to play is the most difficult part of development. Games that fail do so because they are not sufficiently fun. Games are a great success usually because they are a lot of fun. Graphics, sounds, and music enhance the experience but are all secondary to gameplay in importance. The key to fun is providing the player with a continual stream of interesting decisions that lead to a satisfying conclusion. When decisions are not interesting or lag, fun falters. Developing fun gameplay is primarily a function of testing and revising.

Games Web: You seem to definitely have an interest in history and the way events shape the future, what periods are you most interested in?

Bruce Shelley: One of the great things about designing games is that you get to immerse yourself in a topic for a while and then move on to something new. I have worked on a number of games over the years that drew on historic topics like the development of railroads, the origins of civilization, the American Civil War, World War II, and ancient Britain. All of those topics became major interests for at least a while. Outside of game work, the topic of most interest to me now is pre-Columbian America.

Games Web: Was it always clear to you that you would find a way to mix history and technology?

Bruce Shelley: At an early date I was interested in historical games. Games are generally about conflict and it is natural to find game topics in the historical record, whether that conflict be militaristic, economic, or political.

Games Web: Was there a particular point in your life where you realized that you were definitely headed towards game development?

Bruce Shelley: I was a graduate student in economics at the University of Virginia but decided I would give the game business a try before getting a real job. I am still involved with games 17 years later.

The problems of victory are more agreeable than the problems of defeat, but they are no less difficult.
-- Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), British statesman, writer. Speech, 11 Nov. 1942, House of Commons. From The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations: Copyright (c) 1993, 1995 by Columbia University Press.