Interview: Chris Taylor on Age of Empires Online

Age of Empires Online - Pyramid

Yesterday we learned that Robot Entertainment are handing development for Age of Empires Online over to Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander creators Gas Powered Games. We had a chat with CEO of Gas Powered Games, Chris Taylor about the challenges of taking the reins on a series as revered as Age of Empires.

PC Gamer: I know you're a big Age of Empires fan

Chris Taylor: Yes I am!

PC Gamer: Last time we talked about Kings and Castles you were going on about how awesome AoE was.

Chris Taylor: Yes I was, and how it would be great if we could go back to some of those really great gameplay elements, and guess what, Robot Online was doing that with Age of Empires Online and Microsoft.

PC Gamer: How did you get involved with that, or did they come to you? We're told that they were always scheduled to hand this project off after 24 months.

Chris Taylor: I didn't know anything about all that, what I knew about was that they had a lot of content to build. Last year I was approached to help out, and quite simply to use my team to build some great content for the game. There's all sorts of stuff that need to be built, Civs, what we're calling boosters, and other content packs that basically enhance the game. So that's where we started, that's what we were doing, and then as things evolved and as things got further along things started to look like “hey, we're capable of taking the franchise and doing right by it.” The stuff that we were developing looked really good, and it just came up and we were thrilled. We said “sure, we'd love to.” Tremendous responsibility, a scary responsibility in some regards because you've got a franchise that sold 25 million copies, so this is not something to take lightly. You don't say “oh sure, I'll drive the lambourghini, I won't crash it.” So there's a lot of responsibility there. We're very excited about it. So far so good, we're having a ball and loving the game, and can't wait to talk about all the stuff we have in store.

PC Gamer: What was your favourite AoE 2 civ?

Chris Taylor: That's a good question. It was the English. My parents were both born in England, but it wasn't that, it was the archers. I loved upgrading. When I got the castle upgrade, I'd get the super mega long range archers, and I'd get as many as I could in a clump, and I think I could destroy anything with archers in one volley. That was fun! I took John Romero down at a tournament we played at Ensemble's offices, like ten years ago, and Romero attacked me with a bunch of War Elephants, and I took them down with my archers. I'll never forget that night.

PC Gamer: So we can expect to see the English out of you sooner or later.

Chris Taylor: [laughs] I think so!

PC Gamer: What about AoE Online caught your attention and made you want to be part of the project?

Chris Taylor: It's the fact that you know as well as I know that RTS has been around for nearly 17 years since Dune 2 hit the scene, and RTSes were in a rut where we were seeing this pattern, and this is a really important corner we're turning because we're going online. We're going from the packaged goods model, we're going to a live team model. We're going to a model where we can listen to the fans, listen to the community, and then include it in the next patch, and it's not like “oh we'll do one more patch,” no, we've got another patch coming, and another one. We've got boosters, we've got content, we've got all this stuff. So you can call me on the phone and say “hey Chris, I'm really excited about this” and I can say “thanks Dan” and make a note, and you could see it in the coming months.

PC Gamer: I will probably take you up on that.

Chris Taylor: That's a fun way to mid-develop games.

PC Gamer: So it's more a service than a boxed product.

Chris Taylor: Yeah, and it's got more soul to it. It's got more heart, you know. When you look at the game, there's layer upon layer upon layer of the game, there's so many dimensions, so many places to go. I don't even know how we could fully explore it in two or three years. You take a look at WoW. What are we in right now, the seventh year? There's new things happening. That's the difference between the boxed game and an online game.

PC Gamer: So you're viewing this as a long term project for Gas Powered Games?

Chris Taylor: Absolutely.

PC Gamer: Not going to hand it off any time soon?

Chris Taylor: No, no. I mean, it's all based on success, but we hope it's very successful and we expect nothing less of a franchise of this magnitude, and the wonderful work that Robot has done, all the guys down there have been really great. It's a design I wish I'd thought of.

PC Gamer: On that note, there was the recent announcement that Company of Heroes Online is shutting down before it even officially launches. It's obviously a very different model for the online free-to-play RTS. You obviously have more confidence in this model, why is that?

Chris Taylor: You've got to really look at where the market is going, and the kind of people that are playing games. Really, the world is starting to come online, and people everywhere are enjoying videogames. It's an exciting time. We're seeing our whole business change and Age is the perfect franchise to reach out to all those people online, and we're not saying “hey you have to pay before you play,” we're saying “hey you can come online and have dozens and dozens and dozens, hundreds of hourse over this next year of free gameplay,” and that is such a great model. No subscriptions, no nickel and diming folks, just honest to god free-to-play with these packs that people buy when they become fully invested in the franchise. It's a real winning approach, I believe to the future of gaming and online gaming.

PC Gamer: What else can you talk about for the game, what part of the design strikes you as the most promising?

Chris Taylor: I like the fact that we're going away from the traditional RTS. The single player campaign, skirmish mode and then you get the online matchmaking mode. What we're seeing now is something more co-op where you do comp stomps and stuff like that, which is great, but being connected through the Xbox, with the social graph from Xbox that came over to Windows Live, now all my friends are there and I can play with them co-operatively, I can PvP with them. That's really cool. We learned a lot about social connectivity. You have to have that there in order to bring the experience to the next level. That's a really fundamental part of what's going to take this game and kick it up a notch.

PC Gamer: Do you hope to someday pick the Kings and Castles project up again?

Chris Taylor: You know, when I saw Duke Nukem Forever go to Gearbox I realised that nothing's ever really done. Spielberg could go make ET part 2 30 years later, that's a dumb example, but it shows that these things are not done until they're done and we could come back to that game any time in the future, but right now it looks like we're going to be heavily invested in Age Online, and that's not a bad thing for anyone. I sometimes wish there were more of me, but there aren't. This was the right thing to do right now.

PC Gamer: We also wish there were more of you, Chris.

Chris Taylor: Awwww. You know how you kind of wish sometimes that you lived multiple lives so you could go off and do that thing as a surfer dude, or whatever, and things you also wanted to do. I don't know, whatever! You can only do one thing at a time of this scope and scale and that's what we've chosen to do. It's great for us, and it's going to be a place where we can invest a lot of our creativity and a lot of our experience. We're going to be 13 years old in May, as a company. I'll have been in the business 23 years. We're excited about bringing a lot of our experience to this franchise.

PC Gamer: I tried, and I couldn't think of a better developer to take up from where Robot left off.

Chris Taylor: You know what's terrific, too is that we're good friends with the guys at Robot. This has all been really synergistic. Everybody's really happy with the way it's gone, so what more could you ask for?

PC Gamer: One last thing. How does it feel to be the first Microsoft published PC game since viva Pinata?

Chris Taylor: You know, PC gaming picked up some heat in the last few years, and I have to laugh, because PC gaming is one of the biggest businesses right not in the world. Whether you look at what's happening in China, whether you look at what's happening in Europe. Whether you look at Zynga, whether you look at Steam, whether you look at Blizzard. Everywhere you look, there's success, and it's on a PC. Last year folks asked me what I think of gaming, and “listen, the future of gaming is on the PC.” I love being a part of it. I've never given up on the PC, always believed in the PC, I'm talking to you, one of the last vestiges of PC gaming magazines, where we're all totally devoted to it, and realise now that it was really the retail experience, and that's okay, that can die, that's not something we need. We don't need people to go buy a box with a disk. People can get it online now, they can get it fast, they can get it easily, and it's free-to-play, and it's triple A, deluxe all the way down the line, no-compromises gameplay, so what the hell, eh? It's good!