Here at Mobile Game Faqs it's no secret that we love the Ancient Empires series. The game even got an ice cold award from us and you can check out our review to see what we thought. We managed to sneak a chat with the developer of the game recently (that's apparently him in the picture :), so read on!
- With the gameplay so well rounded in the first game, how hard was it to come up with a sequel to surpass the original?
When we started developing the first Ancient Empires game back in 2003 we always planned to create a series of games around the Ancient Empires universe. Ancient Empires went on to be one of our best selling games last year, and it certainly won more than its share of awards! In fact we got more emails from gamers about Ancient Empires than any other game.
As soon as the first Ancient Empires was done we had a rough idea of the areas we wanted to change for the sequel ?? we knew that within a few months handset technology would have progressed enough for us to expand the sequel.
Ancient Empires II is bigger across the board, with more units, more detailed graphics and animations and more levels. We have put a lot of work into the Skirmish mode, so now instead of a straight-up battle in 2 player or 1 player Vs the computer, we now have the option for a 3 or even 4 player battle. On higher-end handsets the game will have a lot more skirmish maps already loaded when you buy the game, and there also the ability to download new levels for free from our online game servers.
- Can you tell us a bit more about what exactly you have changed in Ancient Empires II compared to the first one?
A lot of the changes come from having updated the game characters and how they are handled by the AI. Some of the favorites from the first game are still there, like the archers and infantry. Other units have similar abilities to characters from the first game, but can be used in different ways. This allowed us to learn from some of the character imbalances in the first game, to make the sequel more of a challenge for experienced players. The Captain is a new unit for this game, which we feel adds a bit of extra flexibility to the gameplay. By making it so that they can be killed without it ending the game (unlike the King, which is still Game Over if you lose him in battle) it gives the player an incentive to keep going. Good gameplay is always a fine edge between reward and frustration, and as designers we need to do as much as possible to give games that ??one more try?? feeling.
Another new character that we are really happy with is the Water Elemental, which like the Lizards of the original are much more powerful in water than on land. They look really cool too! There are other new-look units, but you??ll just have to play the game to see them.
One of our aims in making the sequel was to add more depth to the gameplay, so I this installment we have added a level-up mechanism, much like traditional RPGs. By rewarding players with increased attack and defense stats for keeping units alive it adds another layer of tactical complexity. Infantry units are still critical to progressing in the game, as only they can occupy villages and so earn money for more units. In a new twist there are also ruined villages, which soldiers can repair at the cost of an extra turn. So I think overall there is more balance: even with the ability to level-up units they all have certain weaknesses that can be exploited in battle.
- The in game sprites are fairly small, what improvements did you make to distinguish them from the original?
We spent a lot of time was spent on the graphics, adding as much detail to the characters and animations as we could. If you see the game on a phone with a QVGA screen like the Motorola E1000 or Sony Ericsson s700 you are seeing something that??s almost equal to a GameBoy Advance game in terms of visual quality. We used changes to the sprites to address some of the gameplay issues that were present in the original; now, a unit becomes greyed out once you have moved it. There are also more frames of animation, which makes the transitions in the game smoother. There??s a lot more incidental detail in the game, like puffs of smoke from occupied villages. We made some small graphical changes to the navigation and the menu system as well. The result is something which I think is both graphically rich and intuitive to play.
- The AI seems to be much more improved. Was this a conscious decision and how did you go about improving the AI so much?
When we began out initial planning for the sequel, we decided to focus on enhancing the AI to really ??take it to the next level??. It is now more aggressive and intelligent, in if you have a weak spot the game will find it and try to exploit it. Again, good game AI is always a balancing act between being tough and downright unfair. In Ancient Empires II you??ll soon get caught if you don??t think about the strategy behind your moves, as the AI will focus on strategic points on the map, making life very tricky for you if you are not on the ball mentally.
With the AI in Ancient Empires II we spent a lot of time in play testing trying to get an as good a user experience as possible. Towards the end we found that it was rewarding for a wide group of people, hardcore strategy game players and even first time strategy players.
We completely rewrote the AI from the initial version and found a new and better approach that didn??t require too much more code or computing time. However we have identified certain areas that we want to improve on for the next version of Ancient Empires.
- Are the tactics of the AI based on any developer in particular?
Its funny you should mention that. I have had some comments from people here that the AI plays just like I do, which is a nice compliment! When balancing the AI you will normally end up having it make decisions similar to those you would will make as a player .,However, it??s important to make sure that AI decisions don??t always follow the same path. Trying to make the AI as ??context?? sensitive as possible also was a real challenge as was making sure that units will actually try to accomplish the goals set for them in a level. It??s a lot harder than just making them avoid or attack the enemy.
- The music for the game has a great feel to it. How important do you think music and sound effects are in mobile phone games and what did you want to accomplish with them this time around?
Music and sound effects are becoming increasingly key to mobile gaming. Technology advances like multiple channel audio have allowed us to add a rich soundtrack and audio effects which greatly enhance the gaming experience. Larger phone memories also mean that we can create bigger audio tracks within the game, creating different themes for different levels and events. All the music for Ancient Empires II was created in-house, and the team have done a great job. Good audio is important to just add that final polish to the whole package; it??s something you see a lot in PC and console, where a strong soundtrack really lifts the whole game. Although the technology is a lot more basic, there??s no reason why the same shouldn??t be true for mobile.
- There are a lot more skirmish levels and the game is now multiplayer. Do you see this improving even more in the future, say maybe having the game playable on Bluetooth?
As you say, we have increased the number of skirmish levels, as well as adding pass-round multiplayer options. Technically Bluetooth is possible within the Ancient Empires gameplay, but we didn??t think that Bluetooth was the right option for the style of gameplay. Ancient Empires at its core is a turn-based game, and Bluetooth works much better with games that are fast and quite fluid. We launched Fatal Force last year with Bluetooth multiplayer, and next month you??ll see our mobile version of Speedball 2 with Bluetooth modes, so it??s certainly something we are comfortable with.
What we did do with Ancient Empires II was add downloadable maps for the higher end handsets. This means that gamers will be able to connect to a server and download new skirmish maps, completely for free. As well as being a very cool feature, it expands the life of the game even more ?? as if 20+ hours of gameplay and 12 skirmish maps wasn??t enough!
- Did you have as much fun in designing and testing the game as I had in playing it?
Creating Ancient Empires proved to be a challenging and rewarding process for pretty much everyone at the London studio of Glu. It was challenging in that we tried to push the handsets to their technical limits, and we certainly had set the bar very high with the first game. When you are trying to create a totally new brand for mobile you have to make doubly sure that the product is of the highest quality, as there isn??t a big-name brand to hide behind. I guess for us games like Ancient Empires that are based on original ideas are a labour of love, so it??s really rewarding to get such great reviews and feedback from the press and public.
- The combat system is a very potent mix from various strategy board and computer games. Did you analyse a lot of these games before coming up with the different attributes for each character and movement options?
The combat system was inspired by both other computer games and pen & paper role-playing games. We wanted to strike a balance between ??too simple?? and ??too complex??. There were many discussions on which attributes to include in the unit specs and how many variations of attacks to include. In the end we were happy with the system we created, for a mobile game we think it gives a good degree of detail without becoming to cumbersome.
- What's your favourite strategy game aside from AEII?
There have been many strategy games that have inspired us over the years both real-time and turn-based. X-com, Warcraft, Heroes of Might and Magic and Advance Wars spring to mind. We are forever playing other peoples games to learn new ways to approach problems.
- Is there anything you wanted to put into the game but couldn't?
Of course there are always compromises in any development project between what you??d like to include and what??s realistic for the platform. I think with Ancient Empires II we incorporated pretty much everything that we planned to include from our early concepts. When you are developing games for mobile phones it is possible to do a whole range of advanced components on high-end phones, but you must always consider the mid and low-end handsets, as they still make up a big proportion of downloads. Successful development for mobiles is always about scaling a game across all the different devices, and making sure that the gamer gets a great experience regardless of whether they have the latest handset or an old pay-as-you-go phone. With this game I think we struck a good balance between high-end features and mid-range compatibility.
In addition to adding more variation in the units available to the player we had dreams of adding a complete new race for the enemy. We had resources ready for this but in the end the majority of the devices we were targeting we??re not highly enough specced to cope with the amount of additional data. We hope to include this in the next version!
We would also have liked to include more cut-scenes and animations, to give more of a cinematic feel. Some of the small touches that give that extra bit of depth to the whole story.
- Is there going to be an AEIII and what can we expect to see from it?
Well, anyone who has already played Ancient Empires II right through to the end will know that the story ended on a real cliff-hanger, so I think it??s safe to say the Ancient Empires story has plenty more twists and turns to go through yet! It??s been a bit over a year between Ancient Empires I & II, so fans of the series will have to keep their eyes on our website in 2006.