Interview: The story of Forgotten Empires – its origin and its future

Italians_preview1

The following piece is the story of how Age of Empires II mod Forgotten Empires was made, written by its lead designer and manager, Cysion. It concludes with a brand new interview conducted following the release of Age of Empires II HD, covered recently in a Port Report.

How it all began

Chinese inventions

In the summer of 2011, whilst having my day off from bar tending I was once again wondering if it would be somehow possible add a new civilization to Age of Empires II. I had my mind set on a submission from 2009 in the archives at aok.heavengames.com where a Taiwanese guy under the name of kdpp6512 submitted a guide to add a 19th civilization to the game. With limited possibilities though, only 1 extra civ was possible, no working tech tree and would only be usable in single player. On top of that the documentation came with a language barrier. He attempted to translate it into English but the screenshots of the software he used all came in Chinese. Two years went over this post and judging from the comments section nobody seemed to have figured out this “Holy Grail” of modding. But the Taiwanese dude managed to do it, so I knew it was possible. Armed with Google translate and a good portion of time to spend on trial & error, I started messing around with my newly acquired Chinese software.

By the end of the day I managed to get where he got, I had 1 extra civ. It would crash my game more than it would actually enhance it, but it was something. And for the next few weeks I spent my free moments figuring out how to improve this additional civ system.

Into China

In the meanwhile on the other side of the world, I wasn’t aware that there was also someone else working on a similar project. A guy going by the name of DJeronimo was also working on adding new civs and at that time he was a few steps ahead of me. He managed to add 5 civs but they were only usable in single player mode. And not even in the scenario editor. It still was a limitation but at least he had 5 more or less working civs, with new unique units and all. However, I only discovered his project months after I managed to fix these hazards.

Funky Bugreport #1: In the first version where the Italians appeared, their UU had 1000 armor. Needless to say my opponent (Justin, the first ever tester on AoFE) won that game :D.

Maygars_preview

Expanding

A hard choice

It was thus possible to add new civs without crashing the game. It was still buggy, but playable. Now the hard decision came up, which civs to add? I think we all thought about this before: what civs would we add to AoE2 if we had the chance to? Many essays and long discussions in various online communities were held on this topic but none could be turned into reality so far. I still remember my first list, it consisted out of 5 civs. Why 5? It seemed like a good number and it it was also the number of civs added in The Conquerors Expansion. My first list had: Lombards, Tibetans, Incas, Magyars, Scythians. The Lombards turned into the more general name “Italians”, the Tibetans changed to the more military orientated Indians, the Incas stayed Incas and so did the Magyars. The Scythians felt too out of place and were changed to the broader and more beefed Slavs. None of these changes were decided by the flip of a coin, but came by reading through history article after article, trying to figure out which civs would fit into Age of Empires II and could bring up interesting units, tactics or story lines to our favourite virtual battlefield.

Eventually the decisions on the civs seemed to have some surprising support from the past. Apparently when making the decisions on which civs were to be added for The Conquerors, the civs that we eventually picked were all considered in the design process and were only left out in the final voting round. Magyars and Slavs lost to the Huns, Italians to the Spaniards, Indians to the Koreans and the Incas already had two brothers up north.

Funky Bugreport #2: While playing around with the unique technology for the Indians, one version came with self destructive hand cannons. If the hand cannoneer would fire a round, his weapon would explode in his face, killing him.

A long road

So far, only design and coding problems have been solved, not a single graphic was drawn, not a single tune was composed and those aren’t my strong points at all. At first I thought this wouldn’t matter too much, the modding community for AoE2 is almost as old as the game itself and it couldn’t be that hard to find some goodness in the extended archives at aok.heavengames.com. After all, they were filled with many small projects where people made a beautiful unit but these mini mods were never widely used because all players would need the mod for full use of the little gem. A project like this seemed thus the ideal opportunity to give all these mini mods a place in the spotlight they deserve. Most modders were also very helpful in sharing their graphical work, slowly turning this solo-enterprise into a community geared project.

He-thought-of-cars

What would they say?

But okay, so far we’ve only been dwelling around in the past. Polishing up old graphics and contacting old users to use their graphics. But what would the current community say? After all, we’ve all been playing this 10 year old game for… 10 years. If a random unknown guy would pop up “hey, let’s add new civs to the game”, what would you say? “We’ve been having fun for 10 years, the game isn’t broken and we’re having fun. Leave us alone!” Luckily it didn’t went like that. I wouldn’t talk about en enthusiastic reply either, but let’s call it “mildly approving”. Which for me was good enough to carry on.

Funky Bugreport #3: Whilst fixing the effect that chemistry has on Trebuchets, I accidentally took away their ability to destroy buildings. Leading to quite annoying and comical warfare.

Meanwhile in the AI community

Debugging AoE2

A few months before I even thought about this project, things were brewing elsewhere. A small community of AoE2, namely the AI community, started their own little project to fix the game. The original AI system was quite brilliant at its time, but as time passed, it showed some obvious shortcomings. The most familiar example being that AIs can’t hunt boars, which gives them a huge disadvantage over human players. But once you start debugging something seriously, you find many corpses in the closet. The little project soon started to grow bigger and so did their buglog. Not only AI related problems were fixed, but general features like widescreen options, windowed mode and even networking improvements were implemented. UserPatch was born.

Incas_preview

I had the honour of meeting the guys and soon discovered we were on the same line. And after all, if you’re expanding the house, you might as well fix the leaks in the other rooms. I kept an interested eye on their progress and tried to help out with writing bug reports. Over time, all the functionality necessary to add new civs, migrated to UserPatch as well.

Bugs, bugs, bugs

Soon the community caught news of the UserPatch project and bugs started to flow in from everywhere. Many big bugs that have gone unnoticed for many years were suddenly discovered and consequentially fixed.

Funky Bugreport #4: Fervor, the upgrade to make your monks move faster, never worked in Age of Empires II, it was discovered 13 years after the release of the game. Talking about a strong placebo effect!

The first flaws

Balancing

AoE2 is a very balanced game. The game is played for over a decade and sometimes new tactics still emerge. However, in competitive games, about half of the civilizations are never picked, and some units are never to be seen. A shame, but as said earlier, when you’re building a new room in your house, you might as well fix the leaks in the others. So it was time for some expert balance testing. A first big test for the popularity of the project and the will of the community. I was very happy to sign up the first 12 testers out of about 100 applications. Beta testing could kick off and with the help of the then emerging streaming (under impulse of FeAge and DreaIVIS) we would finally have the chance to show the expansion to the rest of the community.

Resources

Another big problem that emerged was the necessity for original resources. At first we shamelessly copied resources to play around with in our new modding tools. Intro tunes were ripped from soundtracks and songs, history files were copied from various pages across the web, but as the project came to look more professional and the anticipation of the community became larger, the need for original content was simply unavoidable. And as our needs grew larger, the pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place.

Funky Bugreport #5: The early Italian gates turned invisible when you opened them. Enemy units would bump their heads into an invisible wall.

Italian-Town

Spreading the word

The Messenger

In February 2011 after releasing the first trailer, many gaming sites big and small alike caught up with the news that some fans started to work on a new expansion for AoE2. At the time of writing, the trailer has been viewed 100000 times, hopefully the amount of people that will check out the expansion ;).

Marco Polo

Right from the start, the main focus of the project was on the occasional player. The guys that would round up with friends to play a match of AoE2 or that would have fun in completing a quest with their favourite medieval hero. As far as I was aware, the community in Belgium was nearly non-existent, but in a united Europe, one must look across the borders. Thriving communities still exist in Germany (thanks for the invite, F_aLc_enSchrei), the Czech Republic (thanks for the invite, The_Prophet) and Hungary (thanks for the invite TLW_Priby). I was happy to be invited for those events to present the project and get their feedback straight away. Unforgettable experiences for someone who loves to travel!

The team expands

The Power of AoE2

Slavs_preview

We had to expand our team drastically to meet the quality standards on music, graphics, sound effects and history. After all, we weren’t going to release the damn thing if it wasn’t better or at least of equal quality as The Conquerors Expansion. But where do you find these people and how can you get them warm for “a modding project”. This is where the power of the Age of Empires II brand comes into play. Ensemble Studios described the game as “lightning in a bottle”, and that’s pretty much the impact the game had on the lives of so many youngsters in the late 90s. And even though I can’t tell from my own experience, once you’re struck by lightning, it stays with you for a lifetime. That love so many people had for this game bubbled towards the surface again when they read about Age of Empires II: Forgotten Empires, but this time, they had the chance to help out. It was very nice to see how many people still care so much for this golden oldie!

The unexpected corner

Not only direct help emerged, elsewhere in the community things were buzzing as well. For some weird coincidence, people started to work on modding tools for AoE2. Keisari Tapsa created Advanced Genied Editor 2, the extremely powerful sequel to Scenario_t_c’s Advanced Genied Editor, which was the graphical extension of the first Genied 0.2 by Ykkrosh. Without these tools, AoFE would not have been possible.

Funky Bugreport #6: We accidentally increased the range of cavalry archers to 541, enabling them to rain terror all over the map from wherever they would shoot. Particularly funny if you target a town center, and their low accuracy makes the arrows literally rain over the whole town.

And now

And now, the project keeps on expanding. AI scripters joined in to write new AIs to make a match against the computer very challenging for a change. Graphical artists make sure the wonders and new building sets look as if they were made by professionals. Which isn’t that hard for professionals. Composers hop around in their instrumental fantasy to arrange new tunes for the game. Where it will end, god knows, but it’s safe to say we actually came to the point where we are sure that the game will be released. We have the feeling the quality is comparable and maybe even better than The Conquerors, we’re at the point of no return ;).

Indians_preview

Interview with Cysion

Interview was conducted on April 6 2013, a day after the release of Age of Empires 2 HD.

Why do you think the modding community waited 11 years to add the first additional, fully integrated civilization into the game?
The reason for this is merely technical: AoE2 didn’t come with modding tools, so people just had a bunch of data files to play around with, but no way to alter them or even read them out. Slowly, people started to investigate the data files, and little by little they revealed their secrets. However, even up till today, there’s still unknown data left.

In 2006, the first rudimentary tool came out to read and write the AoE2 .dat files, this included a way to add civs, however, you could only add civs to the data, the game wouldn’t properly read the data. So people got stuck again and we were still without new civs. At that point a Chinese guy found out a way to add civs, it required some exe editing and was way above pretty much everyone’s knowledge. That combined with a massive language barrier put the progress back for a few more years.

Until that lazy afternoon I really wanted to figure it out, and I eventually did. The result was buggy, only worked in limited situations (only multi player, no single player nor scenario editor) and things like the tech tree would simply crash. But eventually, with the help of so many people, we managed to build it, and now tools are available for everyone to add their own civs :) (Warning: it’s a long and tedious job :p)

What excites you the most about modding?
Hard to tell, I guess the designing of the new civs and units was the most fun. Making up civs with a unique play style was hard, given that there were already 18 civs in the game. Their bonuses and units also had to be inspired on history and on top of that, everything had to be balanced. For example, we really wanted a bonus for cheaper aging, would you give that to Incas, Magyars, Slavs, Italians or Indians? We went for Italians, as they went through the biggest renaissance of all the European civs, after the dark and gloomy period after the sack of Rome they rose to technological prosperity much faster than the other European nations. Which is reflected by the cheaper aging bonus.

What do you think of Age of Empires II HD?
It’s the best thing that happened to AoE2 since it’s release. Official support is what was lacking in the community for ages. And I’m sure they will resolve any issues that will come up with the game in the near future. AoE2 is a game with a huge legacy, I doubt they ever want to let go of that again.

How do you think the online community will react? Will the community change?
The community will definitely change and that’s a good thing. The community had a hard time growing because of the steep learning curve towards competitive playing. With the influx of thousands of new and returning players we will see many players trying to get the hang of the game together. And they’ll have a much easier time to find a game on their level.

What are the plans for Forgotten Empires now that the HD rerelease is out?
It’s way too soon to answer this, the game is a bit easier to mod than it was before, but a big and complicated project such as Forgotten Empires will need some more analysis before we can talk about its future. After all, the game isn’t even fully released yet :D

Many thanks to Cysion for agreeing to this interview and for all of his work on Forgotten Empires. For a a closer look at Age of Empires II HD check our Port Report, or for up to date fixes and improvements visit its respective PCGamingWiki article.

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