—Guest blog written by RadiatingBlade (AoE Town Center)
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is the latest entry in a series of remastered Age games, and the first remaster that utilizes a full 3D engine. In true Definitive Edition style, every art asset was recreated for this release; the team who took on this monumental task includes Han Randhawa (Art Director at World’s Edge), Brad May (Owner/Producer at Zero One), and David Giles (Senior Producer at Tantalus). It was my pleasure to ask them a few questions about their work on the game.
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RADIATINGBLADE: What did you use for inspiration when creating the definitive 3D models of units and buildings?
HAN: Inspiration for us came from the original models, looking at history, and from the incredible atmosphere created by Craig Mullins in his paintings (by the way, look for his interview a little while ago). Ensemble had done a seriously great job, so we had our work cut out for us. The water was beautiful and the Home Cities had a really energetic, bustling vibe.
Internally at World’s Edge, we look to our studio pillars to guide us—crafted by our Creative Director, Adam Isgreen—as with other Definitive Edition projects to be respectful to the legacy art and cultures being represented—and ultimately, our goal is very happy Age fans.
Craig Mullins’ ‘Musketeers’ Concept Artwork
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition Musketeers Cinematic Shot
RADIATINGBLADE: For those interested, you can read the Craig Mullins interview here.
RADIATINGBLADE: When recreating all of the art assets, I imagine it becomes quite the task to ensure that they’re true to the original. How did you strike a balance between nostalgia and historical accuracy when recreating the unit models?
HAN: Man, this is so tough to do. The fans of Age of Empires are constantly on the forefront of our minds, and preserving their memory of the game is very important—nostalgia is incredibly powerful. It always makes me nervous when we start a project like this, because there’s a danger of changing the art too much…but there are also fans who want art that’s drastically new. Changing the game’s visuals too drastically can be detrimental to gameplay, as long-time fans have trained their muscle memory based on visual recognition; but at the same time, players wanted innovation. We were hyper-aware of all this, and took learnings from Age of Empires: Definitive Edition and Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition—both of which went through the same challenges.
We worked relentlessly to preserve the legacy art—cherished for so many decades by so many fans—while bringing a new fidelity to the visuals. We worked very closely with the community to get a good picture of what they wanted, and any time the visuals started to veer drastically far from the “look” that folks remember, we had to reel them back in.
The art also needed to balance serving the game’s needs while respecting the culture and history of the civilizations portrayed. Our Narrative Franchise Director, Noble Smith, worked with consultants from Indigenous Nations to review the historical and cultural accuracy of the Native American and First Nations civs represented in the game. And then Tantalus and Forgotten Empires expertly implemented their suggested changes.
Higher fidelity was a major key, but so was clear readability. As an example: we’d found that the bloom was very high in the original game, and that exposure would blow out the lighter areas of the game. So, we had to strike a balance between how much of that bloom to leave versus what was needed to preserve that nostalgic memory. Reading the comments folks make when they see the new art and share that the new Definitive Edition art looks exactly how they remember it is a big win!
RADIATINGBLADE: What were some tweaks you made to the classic 3D models that make the Definitive versions more appealing or more distinct from the perspective of the player?
HAN: Just a little clarity on the art production: folks might not know that every 3D model asset was completely re-created from scratch. Every unit, building, skydome, blade of grass, tree, barrel etc. was rebuilt. The increase in 4K details on a unit suddenly became much more visible: from actually seeing the details on a unit’s face to the lovingly-crafted details on a piece of wood.
Materials were crafted using modern digital content creation tools: allowing for vivid color and an increase in sharpness which helped highlight details like stitching or rope textures not previously apparent.
DAVID: We also made extensive modifications to the engine: including support for PBR (Physically Based Rendering) materials, post effects, lookup tables, and a host of sophisticated lighting improvements which allowed the artists to build on the existing assets and push them closer to the concept art created for the original game.
BRAD: Part of the design brief was to make the units and buildings feel like they had been hand-crafted by a physical model-maker. So the units were to have slightly exaggerated silhouettes like the miniatures found in Tabletop RPGs. The increased poly count allowed us to create buildings with elements that extend out from the silhouette like eaves, as well as wooden barrels that were actually round!
RADIATINGBLADE: I certainly remember how amazing the game looked for the original release; playing that game now, it is plain to see how the units are blocky in appearance. I’m amazed all over again with how everything appears so lifelike.
RADIATINGBLADE: What is your favorite 3D model to recreate in the Definitive Edition, and why?
HAN: My favorite models to see come to life are the new Swedish and Incan Home Cities; they’re so gorgeous! Also, I’m a huge fan of ships; they are so beautifully crafted, and need to be 3D printed!
BRAD: There are a couple: the first of which is Barry the Capybara! He represented one of our earliest forays into establishing the scope of additional detailing, and many of the lessons learnt re-vitalizing his chubby rodent features informed every asset that followed. We also knew we were on the right track when the villager was attacked during combat: you felt much more sorry for them, as the additional detail made them appear more human, and Barry more like a Capybara.
The new Home Cities for Inca and Sweden were great to make, as well, as we could push things a little further since they didn’t need to conform to the original game. Introducing new lighting elements and setting the time of day to dusk really made Sweden “light up,” and the highly-detailed Vasa warship moored in the harbor really, truly “shines!”
Barry the Capybara’s Makeover for Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition
RADIATINGBLADE: Barry has certainly become a fan favorite! What are some of the tools and techniques you used to take a classic unit or building model and recreate it for the Definitive Edition?
HAN: In order to be authentic to the original, many of the techniques utilized multiple types of texture maps: normal maps, specular maps, etc. However, the tools to create that digital content are now far more advanced. They didn’t have ZBrush or Substance tools back in the day; thus, our normal map creation and texture work allowed for higher fidelity control and crafting.
BRAD: Substance Painter and Designer proved invaluable when realizing the game’s textures in high definition, and allowed the art team to imbue the models with authentic materials that take full advantage of the latest in real-time rendering capabilities.
DAVID: Custom tools were also created to remove repetitive tasks for the artists: such as destroying the buildings and automating the export processes. This allowed the artists to focus on what they do best, rather than getting bogged down in technical processes.
The Zero One Team
RADIATINGBLADE: It’s amazing how much technology has changed over the last 15 years. How many months did it take the artists to recreate every 3D model in the game?
BRAD: The team started out with just 6 artists at the beginning of the project and expanded to 25 for most of the endeavor. That included a team to handle all the units, another for the buildings, and finally an environment team. We also had a cinematics team that worked on updating the pre-rendered cinematics while maintaining the spirit of the original.
DAVID: It took approximately 24 months to completely remaster all of the game’s assets from the ground up: remodeling, retexturing, and re-lighting close to 6000 unique assets in the process.
RADIATINGBLADE: That’s an incredible amount of work! I have a much greater appreciation for the Definitive Edition, now. Remastered cinematics has been a request from the fans for the past two DE titles, so it’s great to see they were remade for this new release.
RADIATINGBLADE: Were there any challenging unit or building models which went through several iterations before finally being made part of the game?
BRAD & DAVID: The Aztec Home City was the first large-scale environment we tackled, and one pyramid within it provided the team with a proving ground that would challenge every assumption we’d made up to that point. From technical issues surrounding pipeline and process, through more artistic concerns regarding style and fidelity… ALL of our hopes for tackling the broader game were pinned to that pyramid. After more iterations than any of us care to recall, an approach was agreed upon and the team moved on to the remaining 5,999 assets—fatigued, but not broken!
RADIATINGBLADE: As fans, I think we all take the Home City environment for granted. It’s a very detailed historical setting which one could easily stare at for a long time and still find something new.
RADIATINGBLADE: What did you learn from the process of recreating unit and building models for the game that you will take into your next projects?
HAN: Making these games is a combined effort, and we’ll continue to learn from fans and the community. We really looked hard at readability and recognizability in units, which will be valuable going forward. You have to remember that we played these games on CRT monitors with scanlines, and now monitors use backlit panels and other improvements that change how they look.
We also had some great learnings on making sure Age is for everyone. One of our team members is color blind, and was able to work closely with our Senior Artist, Melinda Rose, and the rest of the team to develop a color-blind overlay mode. We also looked at the models and how they fit within the environment and terrain: adding subtle color hints to improve some of the more monochromatic areas of the game without drastically changing what folks remember. It’s visual updates like those that are hard to instantly spot, but make the game look better!
BRAD: The game’s original assets provided an excellent reference from which to base their updated assets when recreating them using modern software and processes. They also showed us just how far things have progressed since then.
DAVID: Also, the sheer amount of assets that needed to be built reinforced the benefits of creating custom tools that automate repetitive tasks and increase output significantly. We would be making these assets for the foreseeable future if it wasn’t for the time saved by our Pipeline Team and Tools Programmers.
RADIATINGBLADE: Is there anything else you would like to add?
HAN: We have letters from fans who play with their loved ones or have life experiences embedded in the memory of this game. This is more than just revisiting the art; I feel like we are entrusted custodians of the emotional soul of the game, and take that responsibility very seriously. The art in a franchise like Age of Empires is, in some ways, hallowed ground.
Looking back at the wealth of assets and art, I remember that games can be such a hard-fought battle…and we get so close. Then I look at Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition and I can’t help but feel proud of the game. We have been single-mindedly driven to create visuals in Age III: DE that fans will remember: to be as colorful and bold as the original! We want fans to re-live their excellent experiences while also making it accessible to new fans of the Age series!
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RADIATINGBLADE: Thank you all for your time, and for giving us all a sneak peek into the process of remastering the 3D units and models in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition. If you would like to see all of the work from the art team yourself, be sure to play Age of Empires III: DE and zoom all the way in to see all of the fine detail in the new 3D models.
If you liked this interview and would like to find me, I’m a volunteer community moderator on the official Age of Empires forums and Age of Empires Discord server, and have a fan-site dedicated to Age of Empires called Age of Empires Town Center, where I post news, interviews, reviews and host giveaways.