This is a German interview (PCGames Hardware) from a few days ago (27.01.2018) with “Maestro” Bruce Shelley talking about the Age of Empires games, the closure of Ensemble Studios and the reasons behind it, the canceled Halo MMO they were working on, Microsoft’s intention to compete with Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, Ensemble’s plan for an underwater RTS before closure and his own personal vision for Age of Empires 4.
While I’m not fluent in German by any means, I have tried to comb the translation a bit. You can find original article in the link below.
. . . This is how an Age of Empires 4 of Ensemble’s founder (Bruce Shelley) could look like. [title] . The world is waiting for new information on Age of Empires 4. But while we are hungrily waiting, we had a wonderful opportunity to dig into some memories: ex-Ensemble boss Bruce Shelley had set up his webcam, a few strategy fans had shown up, and we did not miss the opportunity to listen to the maestro and the fans. Bruce Shelley is the big lord of strategy: Railroad Tycoon 1, Civilization 1, Age of Empires 1, 2, Age of Mythology, Age of Empires 3. There aren’t many people in the gaming industry who have worked on so many big titles as him. Following the closure of Ensemble Studios in 2009, he and some colleagues created Bonus XP and have been working for nearly a decade on slightly smaller Mobile RTS titles such as The Incorruptibles and the official Netflix hit Stranger Things: The Game. In a casual talk with other strategy fans, he talked for an hour about Age's development, about how much he had to adjust to work on this AAA title [AoE], which aged very well, from the four colors in his first game. Age of Empires 2 still looks acceptable today. Above all, he also talked about what Ensemble Studios had in mind: a Halo MMO, an underwater RTS with James Bond-like hero, and how his Age of Empires 4 would look like. The following are the statements of Bruce Shelley. . **Bruce Shelley on technology: How exciting he would the find real-time destruction on Iron Harvest by German studio King Art for an Age of Empires game?** _Very intriguing, I still remember how we came up with the idea of the trebuchet in Age of Empires 2. We were in the concept phase. I made a sort of catapult out of two straws, a piece of wood and a bit of tape during lunch break and shot a peanut on a colleague, the kind of non-sense you do in the office. However, one of us said: wait, this was actually a military device in the Middle Ages. You have to understand, it was the Stone Age when it came to Internet, you couldn’t just google. We went to the library, read all about the trebuchet, found a lot of technical information and sketches, but no real illustrations, until we found a children's book about the Middle Ages, everything was in the same color. Children's books were an important source of research for Age, as strange as it sounds (he laughs). We had coded a complex math-based physics system so that the angle of impact would have a major impact on the damage dealt. I was really impressed by what our designers made of it. I come from a school where we only had four colors for games, but the trebuchet alone in Age of Empires 2 looked really good with its wood grain as well as the fine animations and looks very close to the original. Why did we discard that? [angle physics] Because it was very difficult for a player to handle, the trebuchet would have been too ineffective. One of the reasons why sieges took so long in the Middle Ages was the lack of precision of the weapons, so we decided on the fun factor and kicked away some of the realism. We have generally "cheated" a lot: our legionaries had the breastplate and the tunic of the praetorians, the bodyguard of a consul - simply because they looked cooler. Back to the topic, I find real-time destruction interesting, but you have to give the player weapons that can be handled easily. Iron Harvest has these 'mechs’, that's fine. But with the cannons from Age 3 this would have been difficult, unless you had a built-in function to adjust the angle of the tubes, which would then sink too much into micro-management. In addition, such a thing can be very frustrating, such as when own foot troops are killed by collapsing towers, so you have to implement that very, very well._ . **Bruce Shelley on his vision of Age of Empires 4. What are his ideas, concepts and what age would he prefer?** _Difficult, there’s too much that can still be explored. Sid Meier is still my best friend today, we often meet, play board games and such, and I remember that we once winded around with this idea of installing railroads and trains into an Age game. I love historical trains, Railway Empire is certainly my must have game for 2018. Railway tracks would serve as an extension of the base, you would have to build them, think strategies for defense, etc. Personally, I am interested in the history of the British East India Company, who have moved their British troops in India and China with their trains. One could certainly incorporate interesting factions, I am thinking of horse riding tribes that would block rails with trees, or would try to board trains, or bring trees on mountains and let them roll on enemy soldiers. There would also be opportunities for classic counterparts, local rulers fought with French troops and mercenary armies against the British kingdom. But all these are just confused ideas, not finished concepts. In general, I am fascinated by the age of Discovery. Colonialism was already a topic of Age 3, but there is so much military and economic to try out._ . **Bruce Shelley on the closure of Ensemble Studios:** _It was certainly one of the saddest days of my career. We thought we had some time left, we were maybe a bit naÃ¯ve. Age of Empires 3 had sold quite well, 2.5 million units only on PC isn’t bad. But it was far too little to Microsoft and from today’s point of view I can understand their decision: Halo 2 had sold 8 million units, we only sold 2.5. In the days of AoE2 I think we alone financed most of the Microsoft Games division, but now the pressure on us was huge. We were a very large team of 75 colleagues for the that time, so we were expensive. Microsoft’s focus on Xbox360 was also understandable. We would have liked to bring AoE3 to Xbox, but that didn’t seem profitable. However, we were obviously still talented, so we became the second studio to work on Halo. Bungie would work on the shooter, and we would work on Halo Wars and a Halo MMO about which I can’t say too much. They wanted to compete with World of Warcraft, the title was playable [Halo MMO], but it was canceled. There were many concepts and ideas, we struggled like savages to save the studio. There was a kind of Diablo in space with space pirates and an underwater RTS with strong story focus and a character in the style of James Bond called The Agent. It would have been like an underwater AoE, just with proper cut scenes and a much stronger focus on character development, and shooter/adventure passages, because the large-scale attacks were somewhat distracting so the agent could get on board of a base. It wasn’t to be… it’s a pity, at that time it was already clear the market wanted fast games. We tried everything to make Halo wars as nice as possible. The sales figures were not good, maybe a million or so, but Microsoft had long since decided to shut us down. Ensemble was shut down in January, while Halo Wars did not appear until February._ . **Bruce Shelley on whether the closure could have been prevented:** _Maybe, it’s wrong to say that Microsoft was to blame for our downfall because they made us big. Without Microsoft's marketing power, AoE would probably not have become a global hit. Age 2 had sold very well, not only in the key markets, but also in Japan, China, Mexico, Argentina and really everywhere. Age 3 didn’t sell as well… Tony (Goodman), Brian (Sullivan) and I were just too much of a "good guys", instead, we should have been real managers: when the secret halo project (Halo MMO) was canceled, we were advised to go down from 75 to 40 employees. But these were people with families who had just moved thousands of kilometers to work with us. We were all RTS experts, we had no shooter/roleplaying experience, we needed the staff. And the others were friends, most of whom had been with us for 14 years. For the headquarters of a major publisher, you are just a number, but for us were these would have been lives we would have destroyed. Maybe we should have done the hard cut. I was mad back then at Microsoft's management, but today I can say you did the right thing, from a business point of view. We were a pure RTS studio, and we honestly did a lot of shooting and adventure development, did not make the appropriate profits, and did not fit into the Xbox family. Agent could certainly have been great, but who knows, it’s been forever._ . **On why he doesn’t work on Age of Empires 4:** _Life… I really enjoyed the time with Age of Empires, but you know - with age, priorities shift. I'm 69, thank God I'm not yet 70 (he smiles), but I have a wife that I love and a dog who misses me when I go shopping. I could not move all the way to Vancouver two years or so to develop an Age 4. I did that for The Settlers 7 and lived in Dusseldorf [Germany] for a while. Today I do not want to move anymore, I enjoy closing time at seven, vacationing, exploring African countries or China. All these things that are incompatible with a AAA title. It's also because I have my own studio, Double XP, and I don't want to let those guys down. I could certainly play some external advisory role, but that's not my thing, not at all. But not everything should be tragic, I am very excited about Age of Empires 4 and will definitely play it. Relic is a fantastic studio, the CEO is a good friend. It will certainly be something good._ . **Bruce Shelley on the direction Relic’s Age of Empires 4 might take:** _They have a lot of experience with World War II, but you have to see if that really works. And I can only speak for myself. I like the personal feeling of Age of Empires, it’s about duels - man to man combat, you can see the opponent. In the World Wars, most people died without even seeing their enemies - by artillery shelling, bombers, grenades etc. The moment tanks are rolling, this personal feeling is lost. That's why I personally don't like StarCraft and space games so much: helmets cover the face, the personal bond is gone. However, Relic has shown with company of Heroes how masterful they can handle infantry. So, honestly, I don't know, First World War maybe? There were many battles around castles and castles, a great focus on infantry. The Second World War is at least in my opinion difficult for an Age game, because it piles too many components on one another: infantry, artillery positions, armor units, Air Force. Or maybe they could go back to ancient times, planning aqueducts, manufacturing weapons of war, i'd find it interesting, but I don't think so. We live in a time when such a slow construction strategy is no longer desired as before, you would certainly find concepts to streamline everything but still offer plenty of gameplay depth. E-Sports is very important today, the multiplayer will certainly play a very big role._ And translation from one of the images: _The development of Age of Empires 2 was interesting because Bill Gates knew a lot about the Middle Ages. He found it funny that we designed some of the things incorrectly. We just used them as inspiration and kept the coolest parts. Of course, it is pointless to attach a drawbridge to a castle if it doesn’t have a moat, but it looked pretty cool, right?_ . . Source: [Click here for original German article](http://www.pcgameshardware.de/Age-of-Empires-4-Spiel-17587/Specials/Bruce-Shelley-So-koennte-das-Age-of-Empires-4-des-Ensemble-Gruenders-aussehen-1248864/ "Click here for original German article")