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When  Company of Heroes  vets build the next  Age of Empires ...
When Company of Heroes vets build the next Age of Empires...
August 28, 2014 | By Mike Rose

August 28, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Business/Marketing

When Smoking Gun Interactive was offered the chance to pitch a mobile Age of Empires to Microsoft, the studio didn't need to be asked twice.

You may not be familiar with the name Smoking Gun, yet the team is in a rather good position to take the reins of the Age of Empires franchise.

The Vancouver-based company was founded in 2007 by a band of creators who produced the Company of Heroes series, including a former creative director, former engineering lead and former art director on the beloved RTS series.

Smoking Gun has, for the most part, created numerous Kinect games since its founding -- but it was the team's experience in real-time strategy games that saw Microsoft request their help with the new Age of Empires: Castle Siege.

There's a lot riding on this release. It's not only Smoking Gun's first attempt at bringing its Company of Heroes experience to the Age of Empires franchise, but it's also the first AoE game to be both built for touch (Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8) and free-to-play.

"Primarily you have to respect the franchise you’re working with and try to keep an AoE experience foremost in your ideas," Smoking Gun CEO John Johnson tells me of the move to mobile. Prior to founding Smoking Gun, Johnson was director of Franchise Development at Relic Entertainment.

"Touch devices pose difficult challenges for translating the gameplay," he continues, "and we worked to incorporate a nice balance between building and combat. We developed a good control system for combat that allows players full control of all their units while in battle using touch and drag motions, as well as developed unique AI for each unit that helps make the combat easier the handle and gives greater tactical control."

Johnson notes that mobile as a platform heavily dictates your game's design, far more than other platforms. The team knew, for example, that play sessions couldn't last hours like they do in a usual Age of Empires title, since that's not how mobile players approach games.

Nor could synchronous multiplayer be part of this new package, since once again, this isn't how mobile works.

"But we still wanted to give the players a level of tactical control more akin to a PC RTS experience," says the dev. "Battles are short, which works for mobile well. We feel we’ve added a level of tactical choice and depth that's much higher than you typically find on the platform."

"We hope we’ve struck a balance for people open to trying something a little different," he adds, "and opened up the franchise to a new audience while still allowing PC players to jump in and enjoy the experience."

Since the announcement of the game, there's been plenty of backlash, as you might expect from a keystone PC strategy game moving to mobile. The official trailer has an abundance of "dislikes", and the announcement blog post is filled with people complaining about the move.

In particular, many have said that Microsoft is looking to cash-in on the success of Supercell's Clash of Clans. Says Johnson, this couldn't be further from the truth.

"While Castle Siege is a top-down, touch-based strategy game, we differ in a few unique ways," he argues. "We have a deeper tactical experience with direct control of all units, much more akin to an RTS. We also really wanted to make a game where player skill matters along with historically accurate civilizations, weaponry and heroes."

"We want to make the game accessible for the mobile audience while encouraging players to learn more skilled tactical play," he says. He believes that veteran Age of Empires fans will enjoy Castle Siege -- we'll find out when it releases next month.

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Stephen Korrick
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It saddens me that Microsoft felt like this was a more financially secure move than to create a new PC-based entry in this extremely beloved PC franchise (at least as far as RTS games go). It saddens me even more that it's possible that their assessment is correct, though I like to believe that the name coupled with an earnest desire to revisit the popular design of the earlier games would have secured them tons of money (didn't the HD edition sell quite well?). It's no fun to watch the genre that marked my youth die and my favorite franchise in the genre turn into something I have no interest in playing. But such is the way of the industry, I suppose.

I guess we should be grateful we got a re-release of Age of Empires II at all. And at least this way the franchise continues to create jobs for fellow developers.

Mikhail Mukin
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Yep... But I would not buy $50+ full PC game now - I know I just do not have time to play it "seriously" enough. And F2P will likely be pay to win, so at some point there will be no much satisfaction of beating somebody (or I would not care if somebody with vastly superior army killed my base). I stopped playing CoC/Boom Beach/Game of War/Galaxy Empire/War of Nations and so on and will likely not play another game like that soon. Some were very nicely done though (and in terms of extracting user's $ in all possible ways too).

Some $10 mobile game where there are no "pay per win" purchases and matchmaking works nicely (not that "medals" approach that almost forces you to loose on purpose, to avoid being constantly matched with opponents 10 levels above you - like in BB) would be nice for me (on iOS, of cause) but I don't think I'm the majority.

Jair Wallace
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I'm rather excited to see how they execute this, and how it feels on a mobile device. The studio I'm at is working on a similar title, basically a blend between Clash and AOE. So to see how the tactical nature of a full RTS is translated to touch devices while not coming off too 'lite' feeling will be very interesting.

Taylor Voth
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At least we still have Stronghold...

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Samuel Verner
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@Voldemaras what else should they say? "hey, everyone is building clash of clans clonse and so do we, but we use an oldshool lizence like EA did with dungeonkeeper, so it will be super good and everyone will love our clone becuse the lizence implies something new"? ;-)

john smith
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I'm a fan of AOE 2 and even though it has a simpler UX I'd love to check out this new game. It looks like fun!

However I think it's incredible dumb to make it Windows 8 / Windows phone only. Nobody - and I mean nobody - uses Windows phone. And I'm sure Microsoft isn't too happy with the Windows 8 usage numbers either.

Methinks they are not committed to the game but instead are using this as a marketing tactic to drive Windows 8 / Windows phone adoption.

Robert Herman
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They could also be using Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8 as a testing ground before a larger roll out to Android and iOS.

Codrut Nedelcu
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I guess this will be the first "W8" game I will play on my W8 PC. Because my phone is iOS. It looks good and I was a big fan of AoE1: Rise of Rome.

AoE is one of the strongest Microsoft game licences and it makes sense to give a sense of exclusivity for W8 users; it's even more likely to do so given the lack of good games on W8 market. It's the same as owning an xbox and feeling good it's only you that can play Halo or Gears of War.

As for the game being a clone of CoC I see it another way: think about RTS genre on PC. Think about the line Dune 2 - Warcraft 1 & 2 - Command and Conquer & Red Alert - KKnD - StarCraft 1 - W3 - StarCraft 2 etc. Do they look like incremental improvements of the same formula? It happens again on mobile/tables for a genre we can call "strategy". If they deliver on "more skill involved in battles as you can control movement of your troops" I call it a big improvement.