Age of Empires IV exists to create new history fans

Age of Empires IV was released with great success and soon proved itself as one of the top critically rated titles in 2021. Whether for its addictive gameplay or its historical depth, there’s a lot to love around here, but today we’re going to focus precisely on valuing research and learning potential present in the game.

At Microsoft’s invitation, we had the pleasure of talking to Noble Smith, Phillipe Boule, and Lauren Wood, part of the team responsible for the wonderful historical videos for World Edge and Relic Entertainment. The trio told us more about the vignette production process Hands on History, and you can check the best moments of the interview below:

I don’t know if this is intentional on your part, but growing up playing titles like Age of Empires e Caesar helped me a lot to enjoy the history classes at high school. Do you work on the series taking into account the educational potential of games as well?

Noble Smith: Yes, absolutely! I’ve told this story many times over the last few weeks of interviews, but we have some developer shirts, just like the ones Lauren is wearing right now (laughs), and they clearly say “developer”. We’ve had them for what, maybe four years? And we wear them everywhere we go.

I was once on the Great Wall of China wearing one of these and someone came up to say ‘I love history, I love Age of Empires!’ And every place I go, from Los Angeles to Vancouver to London, I wear one of these and sometimes people stop me to say ‘I learned to love history by playing your game’.

Phillipe Boule: We like to say that Age of Empires is not just a game for history fans, but a game that manages to create history fans! One of our main missions is to introduce the wonders of human history to people who may not have had the chance to be introduced to it in a passionate and exciting way before. If we make more people like history, then the mission has been accomplished.

Lauren Wood: I’m looking forward to playing with my kids actually. Because at my school the history classes weren’t so nice (laughs). It was like the story only existed in old, dusty books, so I want to share this fascinating content in a fun way.

As I did my research work, every now and then it was like a light bulb lit over my head: ‘aaah, now I understand how we got to this point!’ because so much around us goes right back to what we did hundreds of years ago. So the historical component is at the heart of it all and I can’t wait to share it with my kids.

Noble Smith: Thomas, did you ever check out our Trebuchet video?

Yes, I’ve seen that! We even did a live coverage here on Voxel when this video appeared in the middle of the Microsoft conference, I thought it was very unusual and fun to receive a surprise history lesson there.

Noble Smith: How cool! I showed this video to my kids over three years ago so you can see how long they’ve been ready! And so I took the kids to England to visit the castle where the exact one where that trebuchet is, and that made them really happy, they were celebrating like ‘hey look, this is the trebuchet in the video!’

And there are a lot of these videos to watch in the game itself, right?

Noble Smith: Twenty-seven of these videos are included within the Age of Empires IV, and there is one more that is exclusive to the site.

Since we are talking about the importance of the story, a theme that unfortunately more and more people are showing themselves willing to rewrite in favor of their own narratives, especially on the internet… what is it like to work on a game like this when many can accuse them of be manipulating facts in favor of some ideology? Was it necessary to make a lot of sacrifices to get around these controversies?

Phillipe Boule: I don’t really think of it as sacrifice, I prefer to think more along the lines of ‘history is just our starting point’. Our creative process is that we planned the missions, and we insisted on having the right historical context there. You need to understand the initial context and, by the end of the phase, understand what exactly happened there historically.

But in the midst of this the player’s choice needs to be free and open to various possible decisions. How do you want to take or defend a castle, for example? We have a series of little decisions and nuances that you can mold into the story to your liking, but then we also surround the game with historical films and articles and narration. And there we tried our best to be faithful to what most historians today consider to be the most accurate version of events.

Because history is something that is always evolving, we learn new things all the time and consider new perspectives, but we do our best to get a feel for what life and the situation was like at each time, and then leave the player make your own decisions within the game. Quests need to be historically interesting, present the correct historical content, but also empower the player. You are not forced to trace the exact same steps as certain historical figures, you just need to be introduced to the context in the right way.

Noble Smith: My job is kind of stressful in a way, because I end up being the geopolitical representative of our studio, I’m always on the lookout for things that could end up causing a problem. We have one person above me on Xbox, another batch of experts, and then we have an outside consultant, a woman named Kate Edwards who started the geopolitical group on Xbox.

So sometimes we go to her to ask questions. The thing is, we want to celebrate other cultures, just as we want to celebrate their histories, but we know that different nations can have different perspectives on what really happened. So what we try to do is take an aggregate: what do most experts say? What is the view of most scholars on this subject and time? And then we go on with this story.

Any final messages for Brazilian players?

Phillipe Boule: Thank you is the biggest thing to say. Brazilian fans are a very important part of what kept Age of Empires as a continuous franchise over 25 years. The love you all showed is why we are making this game and why we hope you will love Age IV as much as they loved the previous games. Welcome to the new chapter!

Lauren Wood: You stole my words (laughs). I can only say ‘thank you’ in good Portuguese! I can’t wait to hear how you guys are feeling about the game, so check out the online forums, share your feelings and show that passion, or maybe even point out places where we can improve.

Noble Smith: Thank you very much! We love the fans in Brazil, we know you guys are there and we also talk about you guys so I encourage the community to interact, we really read the forums!

Leave a Comment