Age of Empires Is Part of Microsoft’s Bid to Conquer the PC Game World
(Bloomberg) -- Microsoft Corp. is a pioneer of the personal computer and one of the largest video game console makers. Yet, it’s largely irrelevant at the intersection of those two worlds: developing PC games. The company hopes to finally change that.
A result of this effort is Age of Empires IV, the first installment in 16 years. It’s a strategy game set in medieval times, where players take control of the Holy Roman Empire or the Islamic Abbasids caliphate in a bid to conquer the world. The game, which comes out Thursday, is receiving favorable reviews. It has an average of 83% on Metacritic, placing it in the top 10 new PC games.
Leading the project is Shannon Loftis, who secured the job five years ago after she told her bosses it was time for Microsoft to take computer games more seriously. As Loftis tells it, she “begged” to oversee work on rebooting Age of Empires, a franchise that dates back to the 1990s.
Although the Xbox and related content account for most of Microsoft’s $15 billion in annual game revenue, Loftis saw an opportunity. “I said, ‘Hey, you know this console thing, it seems like it’s been OK, but if we really want to speak to gamers, we’ve got to go beyond console,’” Loftis, 56, recalled. “We’ve got to speak to PC gamers as well.”
The original Age of Empires helped demonstrate Microsoft’s ambitions in PC games, but the company’s commitment to the medium has wavered over the decades. Now, though, it’s reinvesting in the hope of attracting a population of gamers that exceeds that of consoles. There are 1.4 billion people worldwide who play games on computers, according to research firm Newzoo. Although the console market is more lucrative, the PC has a dedicated fan base and is a key game platform in places where the Xbox isn’t strong, like in China and South Korea.
PC games are valuable to Microsoft in other ways, too. They drive customer demand for high-end Windows computers and are drawing more players to Microsoft’s broader game empire. The company is repackaging many of its console games for purchase on Steam, the most popular PC game store, and has shifted from console sales as a driver of sales to focus on its subscription services that work across PC, consoles and mobile devices. Some of the most popular Xbox games started on the computer, like Minecraft and PUBG: Battlegrounds. Last year, Microsoft released a new Flight Simulator, the first in 14 years. It was rated the third-best PC game of 2020, according to Metacritic. Three months ago, the company put out a version for the Xbox Series X to similar acclaim.
Sony Group Corp. is laying plans to emulate Microsoft’s strategy, said George Jijiashvili, an analyst at Omdia. The Japanese company has said it’s working on bringing several PlayStation titles to the PC, and a few months ago, it acquired a Dutch outfit called Nixxes Software that specializes in doing just that.
But console thinking doesn’t exactly translate to a PC, said Loftis, a 26-year veteran of Microsoft’s games division who has been seen around the office wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Think Outside the Xbox.” Age of Empires IV and Flight Simulator were built specifically for the keyboard-and-mouse crowd and play to their sense of nostalgia. “There are some of us who never stopped playing Age,” Loftis said. “In fact, it’s actually a fairly significant number of people.”
Loftis’s pitch in 2016 fit squarely in the company’s expansionist vision for gaming. It’s a priority for the company. Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer, has already plopped down $10 billion for games-related acquisitions and added Phil Spencer, the head of gaming, to his senior leadership team in 2017.
“If we’re going to connect with a global gaming audience, that means meeting them where they like to play,” said Matt Booty, the head of Microsoft’s game studios who approved Loftis’s original pitch. “We also know that PC gamers and console gamers can have different needs and expectations, and it’s important for us to be as good at PC as we are at console. That hasn’t always been the case, and we know we will have work to do.”
Microsoft was making computer games as far back as 1982, when it put out the original Flight Simulator on floppy disk. It developed a series of children’s games on CD-Rom based on the Magic School Bus books and a very popular version of Solitaire in the 90s. But most gamers, and even Microsoft’s employees, never took the business seriously then. Ed Fries left a sought-after position on the Microsoft Office team in 1996 to take on his first big managerial role overseeing the company’s games. Fries recalled his Office managers saying he was committing career suicide.
Among Fries’s new charges was Loftis, who had just become a lead game producer. Although she wasn’t working directly on Age of Empires, she did serve as an internal tester on the first game and remained an avid player after release. (The game clearly took inspiration from Sid Meier’s Civilization, which debuted six years earlier and became a middle-school obsession of Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg.)
Age of Empires II came two years later. Partly distributed in Kellogg’s cereal boxes, it was the most popular installment in the series, but the company was becoming distracted with the Xbox and left the game developer, Ensemble Studios, to toil in obscurity. “Over time, Xbox ate my whole group,” said Fries, who left in 2004. During the financial crisis of 2008, Microsoft shuttered Ensemble and abandoned Flight Simulator a few years later.
Microsoft spent much of the last decade farming out mobile versions of Age of Empires to studio partners and remastering the first three games. Meanwhile, a core group of fans obsessed over the old games. Bert Beeckman, an avid player of Age of Empires II, found kindred spirits on a web forum called Heaven Games. He and his internet friends worked together to create unofficial expansions to the game.
By Christmas 2012, Beeckman was selling the content. They sent a LinkedIn message to someone who listed Microsoft and Age of Empires in their bio. Months later, they got a response, forged an alliance and formed a company in 2013 called Forgotten Empires. More recently, as Microsoft went to work on the new game, Loftis tapped Beeckman’s company to assess the work.
Age of Empires IV, developed by the Canadian studio Relic, returns to the same setting as the second game. Players build towns, amass fighters and resources and square off against rival peoples. This iteration has fewer civilizations, an effort to eliminate ones that were too similar—with apologies to the Welsh, who were preempted by the English.
To ensure an authentic experience, Microsoft assembled a group of veteran players for something it calls the Community Council. It flew the first 11 to meet with Relic in 2017. Now there are 109 members. Their feedback convinced Relic to incorporate naval combat and make the in-game buttons easier to read. There’s also a 23-person group of female players who advocate for diversity and inclusion issues.
World’s Edge, the Microsoft studio Loftis oversees, takes depicting history seriously. Emma Bridle, who works with the councils as the studio’s director of customer voice, played Age of Empires as a kid in the U.K. before getting a master’s from Cambridge University in theology and religious studies. When she started working on the new game in 2019, the team showed her an in-game video about medieval surgery that discusses the events of a battle in her birthplace, Shrewsbury. “I’ve learned English history I wasn’t taught in 17 years of British education from Age of Empires IV,” she said.
For the first time in an Age of Empires game, there’s a fully mobile civilization, the Mongols, allowing players to pick up and move pretty much every structure. For research, the company sent a team to Mongolia to meet with people there who specialize in horse archery. The Chinese group in the game also has gunpowder, the French fight with knights, the English have longbows, and the Delhi Sultanate can eventually unlock elephants.
Making sure one team isn’t more powerful than another is where Beeckman’s group came in. Forgotten Empires offered Microsoft an expertise that only comes from playing the same game over and over for two decades. The company tested early versions of Age of Empires IV and gave feedback on the balance of power between the game’s many teams and its adherence to series traditions.
The game developers wanted critiques, but they also hoped to impress him. They succeeded when Beeckman got his first look at the sheep. In previous games, sheep found wandering the digital pastures would need to be manually sent back to town for slaughter. Now sheep “happily hop” behind a player’s scouting unit and follow it home. “It’s a personal thing, and it’s such a small, little improvement,” Beeckman said, “but I like it so much.”
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