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Rick Goodman Interview Part Three

March 17, 2003 by Stainless Steel Studios

Rick Goodman talks about life before Stainless Steel Studios

How did you start Ensemble? Were you lucky enough to have an inheritance to help you get started, or did it start on a shoestring budget?
Hehe… the latter! I started Ensemble Studios with my brother who was president of a small computer consulting company. At the time, 1994, I was working for him. We decided we would rather be programming games than computer applications. We went into work one day and gathered up the programmers. We asked them if they would rather be programming games than database applications. The programmers looked around the room, then, a few hands went up in back. I think they must have assumed this was some kind of test, and if they raised their hand they would be fired! But, they took a chance, and discovered we were serious.

The three of us got together after the workday and began the process. Our programmer learned the C programming language and I started thinking about what types of game we should create. We didn't have any artists at the time. After 4 or 5 months, Angelo, our programmer, learned the C programming language and had completed little sprite-based FPS game, in which the player drove a tank around and could fire at an enemy tank.

As for the game we wanted to design, we all discussed several ideas, including a Cowboy & Indians game, a Railroad Train game and a game about being marooned on a deserted island where you had to solve puzzles to figure out how to get off. Finally, we decided on a concept we called "History of Man" which we described as Civilization in real time.

We then hired one artist to fill out the team of 4 people. We paid the artist, but the rest of us worked for free in our spare time after work. Nine months later we had a game in which a little villager was able to chop 1 tree down and deposit the wood he had gathered back at the Town Center. We showed this to Microsoft and they liked it enough to offer us a publishing agreement.

When did Ensemble Studios and Microsoft hook up?
When we invited Microsoft to visit us, they came and we spent about 10 minutes demo-ing a man chopping a tree. Truly, there wasn’t much to show, you couldn’t construct a building, research a technology or conduct combat. But, a villager could chop a tree. Microsoft saw this and concluded that we were working on a “Life Sim”. Apparently, they needed a “Life Sim” in their portfolio. So, soon afterwards Microsoft offered us a publishing agreement. I’m still not exactly sure why.

At what point did you realized Age of Empires was going to be a huge success?
I guess there were a couple leading indicators for us. As I recall, Microsoft forecasted world-wide sales of around 425,000 units over the game’s life time. That doesn’t sound like large sales by today’s standards, but back then, only Flight Sim and MS Golf were bigger for Microsoft.

Initially Age of Empires sold well, so that was a positive sign. But, soon thereafter, stores ran out of stock and MS was not prepared to replenish the game. So for about 10 days during Christmas season, you couldn’t find a copy of AoE on the shelves. I guess that was also a good sign, too, in a way.

What other games influenced the early design?
Warcraft 1 & 2 and Civilization were the biggest influences. There were elements of all three games, which I liked. I liked the epic scope of Civ. and the random maps, but I really wanted our game to be multiplayer. I liked the graphics and action orientation of Warcraft, but I felt that a historical “realistic” game, would have a broader world-wide appeal.

Age Of Empires has on many occasions been called a ‘real-time Civilization’. Was this the game’s vision from the start?
Yes, that was, indeed, the very original vision. Over time, the vision changed, as development progressed from the conceptual stage to the implementation stage. Its safe to say that none of us had any experience creating a game, so we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. As a result, the game charted its own direction, much more so than any one team member charted the direction for it. Are philosophy was this: As long as the game was becoming more fun to play, each day, then we felt were on the right path.

How much research was done into the subject matter before work on Age of Empires began?
None. We liked historical subject matter. We thought it would be readily understood by a world wide audience. Civilization seemed to be a good data point proving this. And, we felt that the ancient Greek and Egyptian time period might have an especially compelling interest for gamers. It did for me =).


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Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is a game by Stainless Steel Studios and published by Activision.