Bruce Shelley is considered one of the world’s best game designers and, of course, everybody knows him for the ‚Age of Empires‘ series. We had a chance to talk to him about his career, the latest iteration of ‚Age of Empires‘ and Ensemble Studios‘ future projects.
Hi Bruce! Your biography as a game designer reaches far back to the 70s. At the beginning you made many strategy board games. Did you see a relation later between the flair of oldschool board games and the new possibilities of the first homecomputers that let to your change as a game designer?
I believe that the principles of game design are constant across platforms and for strategy games in particular. Those were my favorite board games and became my favorite computer games. In a basic sense the change is just one of the type of canvass on which we paint, but computers allow a much more immersive and gripping experience. It is one thing to push wooden blocks or card board pieces on a board and another to see hundreds of soldiers marching and hear the gunfire. I made the change because I thought the opportunity was better with computers.
At MicroProse you worked together with Sid Meier amongst others on titles like ‘Civilization’ and ‘Railroad Tycoon’. But it seems that your vein for strategical war games in realtime was stronger and you left MicroProse after five years?
I loved working at Microprose, especially those years as Sid’s assistant designer. I left because my wife got a job offer that paid her three times my salary. At the time I was the lowest paid of the eight or so designers at Microprose and the VP of development refused to do anything about it. Being willing to leave worked out for me in the end.
I have had a long and abiding interest in history. My parents were both teachers and I was being educated all the time as a child. We were always visiting historic places and museums. I found I enjoyed games that made me think and those were often strategy games. That remains true today.
How did you meet Tony and Rick Goodman and what circumstances led to the foundation of Ensemble Studios?
I met Tony and Rick Goodman back in the 1970s at a game club associated with the University of Virginia. Tony’s father was teaching there and I was a graduate student. I lost track of the Goodmans when their dad took a job at SMU in Dallas. Meanwhile I helped start a game company in Virginia and went on to other companies. When Tony and Rick began talking about a game studio many years later, Tony found me and we got re-acquainted. He eventually asked me to join the studio and I became employee #4. Brian was a longtime friend of the Goodmans and I had actually met him once in Virginia also. He joined ES not long after I did. All of us shared an interest in strategy games and we found a good topic to launch the studio: ‘Age of Empires’.
Let’s talk about Ensemble Studio’s latest release ‘Age of Empires 3’. Isn’t it a little bit far anticipated at the release of part three to simultaneously reference with artworks on a possible ‘AoE 4’ or even a ‘AoE 5’?
Yes, it is a little premature to suggest what AoE 4 or AoE 5 could be about. We thought it was cool to get people thinking about what the entire series could cover. At this point, however, we are not thinking about those games at all.
By the way, this step could contribute to the actual phenomen of forgetting even actual blockbuster games after a relatively short time of its release compared to the past, couldn’t it?
I am not aware of many blockbuster games being forgotten after a short period of time. Most publishers would want to follow up a success very quickly. We want people to keep ‘Age of Empires’ at least in the back of their minds because sooner or later there is likely to be a successor. We want the market to be ready and anticipating it. Right now the team is focused on the creation of the new expansion pack [of ‘AoE 3’], but we don’t have further details to discuss on future titles.
At the german launch event of ‘AoE 3’ in Hamburg, I heard Greg Street speaking of an ‘Age of’-MMORPG. What is it about this game?
I doubt Greg spoke of an ‘Age of’ MMORPG being in development. He may have said that is an idea that has been considered or it is something people have asked for. All I want to say today is that we have some small teams of our best people building prototypes of their dream games. These could be anything, with the caveats that they have to be doable and make business sense. Any topic or genre or platform is possible at this point.
Innovation in general of the current generation of real time strategy is the introduction of physic engines and graphical high-end effects. What do you think: Will we see changes in gameplay in future RTS games or changes in other elements of RTS?
We put a lot of effort into the physics and graphic effects of ‘Age 3’, but that was not done at the expense of game play and game play innovation. We believe strongly that games must be different at both the high level (new topic, new look) and game play level (innovation). You can’t successfully sell the same game twice. People want new experiences. RTS has now caught up with other genres in technology and will probably keep pace in that area. Future RTS games have to innovate in game play, however, to continue being successful.
Bruce, thank you for the talk.
Thank you. We have enjoyed making these games over the years and hope to continue for many more years to come. We’ll keep you posted on what we are doing when we can.