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The Technical Side of Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition: An Interview With Joss Ellis

Only a few days remain until the launch of Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, and our excitement cannot be overstated! With the streaming preview event kicking off this Friday, October 8th, everyone on the Age of Empires Franchise Team is ramping up for an exciting week where you get to enjoy and share in all the love poured into making the Definitive Edition. While you wait, we’re keeping hype rolling with a new behind-the-scenes look at the journey of Age of Empires III: DE!

Today, we’re happy to welcome and introduce you to Joss Ellis from Tantalus Studio—the team behind Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition—to answer a few questions about the technical side that will be supporting the new and improved game!

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World’s Edge: Hey Joss! Thanks for joining us. Can you please introduce yourself and what you do at Tantalus Studio?
Joss Ellis: My Name is Joss, and I’m the Director of Development at Tantalus. I started out as a games programmer and have worked on both the publishing side (EA, Virgin) as well as game development for a ridiculously long time! I’ve been very hands-on as a producer on Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition as I oversee all the development that we do.

World’s Edge: How has Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition been rebalanced with input from the community? 
Joss Ellis: We actively reached out to the ESO Community, as their patches were the starting point for the rebalance; the Age of Empires III community has refined much over the many years! The game has also been through numerous beta flighting programs throughout 2020, and much of that input has been included—especially with all the work that went into the two new civilizations: the Swedish and Inca. Additionally, we made adjustments as part of our close collaboration and consulting with the Native American communities.

The Swedish civilization in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition

World’s Edge: What kind of work went into all the graphics improvements for Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition?
Joss Ellis: First, we overhauled the entire engine: moving from DirectX 9 to DirectX 11. Each texture and model has been updated, as well as all the in-game cinematics which were re-rendered with higher fidelity. This means players will see significant changes from when comparing the original Age of Empires III to the Definitive Edition: including improvements to the cliff visuals and readability with triplanar texture projection—all part of a reworked procedural generation code with new pixel shaders. The terrain was also redesigned with a better blending system that gave our artists more control over blending between the materials, including a brand new FFT-based water system and river generation.

Under the hood, we also put in a Physically-Based Rendering system and SSAO & TAA graphic options. The physics engine was upgraded to the newest Havok system, and the particle system was upgraded with new dynamic lights. Not to mention, we put in an all-new destruction system! All of this was done with significant performance improvements, so the game now better utilizes the GPU and multi-cores where possible.

World’s Edge: The original Age of Empires III came out at a time where resolution sizes were smaller than what we have available now. What kind of work went into supporting the wide range of modern resolutions?
Joss Ellis: We support almost anything! The game is mostly designed around 16:9—be that 1080p, 1440p, or 2160p/4K—but really wide monitors are also supported (giving us a good excuse to go buy some 😉). You can even play in windowed mode and expand the screen over multiple monitors, and we also support higher refresh rates! If you have an older system or a device like a Surface Pro, you can also play in 4:3 and other resolutions ideal for those systems.

Graphics comparison from Age of Empires III to Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition

World’s Edge: Can you explain the new camera system for Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition?
Ellis: You can pull the camera out further than was the case in the original Age of Empires III, but you can also push in closer. Being able to pull the camera out allows players to get a good overview of all the action, while the new zoom allows for cool screenshots of the improved models.

We also changed the way it tracks across the terrain. Imagine a thick blanket draped over the landscape: we follow that blanket’s curves rather than pixel by pixel, so you get a smoother feel while panning. The difference may be subtle, but I wouldn’t want to go back to the original camera.

World’s Edge: Does it matter which version of Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition I buy from either Steam or Windows Store?
Joss Ellis: No; they are the same game, and we support multiplayer cross-play so everyone can game together regardless of what platform they’re on. The achievements are the same across platforms, but you do get the added Xbox Live features in the Windows Store version.

World’s Edge: What kind of quality of life changes were made for Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition?
Joss Ellis: We have spent a lot of effort addressing accessibility. For example, we’ve added a screen flash option for deaf players so they know they are being attacked, and implemented a complete rework on traditional color blindness modes—where, rather than a color remap, we applied outlines or a pattern overlay on key items (or both) to really make them stand out.

We also added a grid hotkey mode, right-click mouse scroll, and made the UI more informative: such as information that identifies why a player cannot acquire a particular asset. We also made it so you can copy other people’s decks in multiplayer! In fact, a lot of work was done for multiplayer support: including a new server-based multiplayer infrastructure, integrated leaderboards, ranked ladders, and matchmaking!

The team also overhauled the UI: making it scalable and familiar to veteran Age fans. There’s also a new in-game tech tree, and we added range and progress indicators for buildings.

This—and a whole lot more—went into the game to make this a truly familiar, yet new, experience for Age of Empires III fans!

Updated Model Asset Comparison in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition

World’s Edge: Can you talk about the new AI difficulty, and what the team did to present a new challenge for players?
Joss Ellis: Overall, the AI is improved across the board. It now makes better choices on when to attack, where to attack, and more importantly, what units to attack with. The AI makes much better army compositions and sends more relevant shipments from their Home City.

Additionally, on the higher levels, it can now micro-manage better—including hit-and-run tactics. All of these improvements pushed us to add a new difficulty level, “Extreme”, which is much stronger than the original “Expert” AI!

World’s Edge: One of the unique pillars of Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is the Cards & Politicians – how much do players need to play to access all the unlockable Cards & Politicians?
Joss Ellis: We made the decision very early on to completely unlock the Shipment Orders (Cards) and the Age-up Politicians. In the original game, you had to grind for hundreds of hours to unlock all the good cards for each Civilization, and we felt that it gave an unfair advantage to experienced players.

The Cards are a really special feature in Age of Empires III and really sets it apart from other games. You pre-select a ‘Deck’ of things that you can ship from the Home City to your colony as you progress through the game. The Decks allow you to form new strategies—especially when paired with a Civilization’s strengths to devastating effect. You can be on the brink of disaster when a well-timed delivery of, for example, 9 Heavy Cavalry units staves off your opponent’s last-ditch, but overwhelming, attack.

Interlinked with the cards are the Age-Up Politicians, who offer various one-time benefits when you Age Up; usually, these are free units or resources that can form the core of fast-advancement strategies.

World’s Edge: One frequently requested feature is spectator mode—are we getting that in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition? If so, can you talk a bit about it?
Joss Ellis: We most certainly have included it! You no longer have to use up a multiplayer slot to watch a game; you just log into a server and jump into a live game (with a small delay to stop cheating)! We’ve added controls to view from any player’s perspective, reveal all the map, pause the observer match, and more! This allows a large number of people to watch a single game.

World’s Edge: Another new thing for Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is in-game mod support. What changes were made in the Definitive Edition to have them included, as the original game did not have them, and where can players find and share favorite mods?
Joss Ellis: Although the original game didn’t have any mods right out of the box, it did ship with an editor—and the community made a great number of cool customizations with it. Since then, we’ve created a central hub (located at where you can upload your mods, browse for content, and add it to your game. A few mods for the original game will work with Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, such as scenarios and maps. We even included some ESOC competition maps as official additions to the game!

Updated Model Asset Comparison in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition

World’s Edge: Is there something we put in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition that the community wanted for the original game?
Joss Ellis: We made it so the unique systems and mechanics of the game were made more accessible and easier to learn. There are now way fewer clicks to jump into the game: including a one-click continue option to pick up exactly where you last left off!

World’s Edge: Is there anything you are looking forward to the most with the launch of Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition?
Joss Ellis: Getting it released and out to the community, engaging with players, and the continued support to make this the best Definitive Edition yet! We’re looking forward to incorporating great ideas and new quality-of-life improvements, as well as welcoming both experienced and new players to this great game!

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From all of us at World’s Edge, thank you so much, Joss, for talking to us about the features and improvements coming to the game! We hope everyone is just as excited as we are for the release of this remastered classic title!

If you want a preview of the features mentioned above, be sure to tune in for the Streaming Event taking place between October 8 at 17:00 UTC / 10 am PT / 1 pm ET through October 14thWe hope to see you there!

—The Age of Empires Team

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