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Interview: Age of Empires III explored, part two

Lead designer Greg Street discusses AoE III's 'killer feature', combat, unit diversity and more in the concluding part of our interview

On Monday we embarked on our exploration of Ensemble Studios' sequel Age of Empires III, sitting down with lead designer Greg Street to get the scoop on the developer's latest outing in its established 'Age' strategy series (if you missed that, you can read up on what Greg had to say here). Today we follow in with the second and concluding part of the interview, Greg talking about AoE III's 'killer feature', combat, unit diversity, what the future holds of the 'Age' series as a whole and more.

Over to Greg...

We understand that in AoE III players have been given greater rein in determining the strengths of their civilisation. Could you elaborate?

Greg Street: Our "killer feature" for this game is the Home City. It works like a persistent tech tree - an upgrade you choose in the Home City sticks with your civilization for many games (we also have a more traditional tech tree in the New World that you re-research every game). At low levels, a civilization has fewer buildings and units than an Age of Kings civilization has.

As you play, say every few games or so, you earn enough experience points to get a new level for your Home City. Every level gets you a new upgrade. Upgrades run the gamut from adding more hit points to your Musketeers, to allowing you to build a new type of warship, to improving your mining rates, to making your Explorer unit better. Some upgrades are prerequisites to other upgrades, and there is a lot of differences between say the Dutch and British Home City tech trees.

Games have tried the "build your own civilization" feature before. That's not really what the Home City is about. It's more like a MMO character where you start simple and weaker and over time become more powerful with lots of options. Unlike an MMO, skill still plays a critical role. I can beat a player who is maybe 10+ levels above me if I use the right units and attack at the right time.

You've talked about unit diversity in AoE III. How wide ranging are the units in the game, and how challenging is it proving to ensure game balance and maintain the fun factor in this regard?

Greg Street: Because we are doing a historical game, we have to deal a lot with perceptions. A lot of players expect for a guy with a musket to basically beat anything else on the battlefield because they have this expectation that modern firearms are so deadly. That didn't happen of course. Muskets were used largely because they were cheap at a time when national armies were growing larger and larger, not because they were particularly effective. They weren't particularly deadly until the 1850s, around the time of the US Civil War.

To deal with this kind of confusion, we try to emphasize a unit's strength and weaknesses. Units with long range are better than units with short range. Fast units are better than slow units. If you look at a soldier and see that it is fast and has a long range (say a dragoon or a Comanche horse archer), you should have a pretty good idea of that unit's strength and weakness.

We do want to make combat fun, perhaps more so than in any of our previous games. It's not as much fun when a cannon shoots a formation of pikemen, and all of them lose a few hit points and keep marching. It's fun when a cannon shoots a formation, and flattens them all. Our battles tend to have high casualties, but that fits expectations of the time period. This isn't a time of two knights duelling - it's a time when hundreds of infantry marched in a line towards a battery of artillery up on a hill.

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