Once Upon a Time… an Age of Empires Retrospective

With the release of Age of Empires: Definitive Edition on Windows 10, Xbox Wire goes back in time to help you discover the story behind a saga that became a legend. This article was authored by and originally appeared on Xbox Wire France.

The year is 1997. The Spice Girls have a top-selling album, France has yet to win the soccer World Cup, and Minitels are as popular as PCs. But all of this is about to change, as is the world of strategic videogames.

A small development studio decides to try and do something new with real-time strategy games (RTS). Tony Goodman and his colleagues at Ensemble Studios have an idea: to take the foundations of the genre made popular by Warcraft and Command and Conquer — the most famous of the harvest-build-conquer games – and apply them to a game about human history like Civilization.

And thus, Age of Empires was born. It was an ambitious game in isometric 2D that offered players the chance to guide one of twelve civilizations from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. In other words, players had to transform a tribe of hunter-gatherers into a great imperial force. Doing so would require managing their (non-renewable) resources, developing their technology, and building armies while also resisting opposing units – all in real time as opposed to taking turns like in other history-based games.

While there were several game modes available, players fondly remember experiencing history via RTS gameplay in several campaign scenarios. These campaigns covered four great civilizations: In the first, ancient Egypt, players had to help villagers on the banks of the Nile construct the great pyramids through twelve missions. The scene then changed to Mesopotamia, with eight scenarios inspired by the history of Babylon. The eight objectives of Ancient Greece went from founding the city of Athens to the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great. Finally, the eight missions of the Japanese campaign concentrated on the rise and fall of the Yamato Imperial Court.

Once Upon a Time… an Age of Empires Retrospective

In addition to campaigns, it was possible to play against the computer on randomly-generated maps or in a “death match.” Multiplayer via LAN or internet – one of the game’s strong points – could accommodate up to eight people simultaneously, and players really appreciated being able to create their own scenarios and share them with the community, especially as the editor was considered one of the best available at the time.

Despite all these new features, the game’s publisher Microsoft was cautious about the success of this new concept, expecting around 400,000 copies to be sold over the game’s lifespan. To everyone’s surprise, success was immediate. Upon its release in October 1997 in North America, followed by the rest of the world in February 1998, Age of Empires was a critical and commercial success, with one magazine calling it “Microsoft’s greatest masterpiece”. On GameRankings, the game earned an overall score of 87%. AoE quickly became the top-selling game not only in France, but also the USA, United Kingdom, and Germany, with over 3 million copies sold in three years, making it one of the ten biggest hits of 1998. To this day, Age of Empires remains one of the top-selling franchises – reaching over $1 billion in sales along with Halo, Gears of War and Minecraft. Age of Empires left a lasting impression on the world of RTS games, so much so that it encouraged numerous other licenses such as Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds and Cossacks to follow the same format. It also made Microsoft one of the biggest names in videogames.

Once Upon a Time… an Age of Empires Retrospective

The Beginning of a New Era

After the Rise of Rome expansion set in Ancient Rome, Ensemble Studios released Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings on September 30, 1999. This too was an instant success with Microsoft announcing sales of over two million copies in just three months, and AoK stayed in the Top 20 sales for over two-and-a-half years. The game even surpassed its predecessor on GameRankings with a score of 92%.

Once Upon a Time… an Age of Empires Retrospective

For many players, this new episode remains the most popular of the entire saga. Critics loved the choice of era — the Middle Ages — and the numerous improvements to the game system. The animations had been reworked and improved as well as the sound effects – one of the series’ strong points – remained just as realistic.

Age of Empires II had a second lease of life in 2013, when an HD remake was published on Steam, together with three new extensions, and the episode continues to be successful to this day: more than 5 million copies of Age of Empires II: HD Edition have now been sold on Steam, and there are still around 400,000 active players!

Once Upon a Time… an Age of Empires Retrospective

A Temporary Change of Scenery

But let’s go back to the beginning of the century. In 2001, Microsoft was preparing to launch the first Xbox. To reinforce its gaming division, the company bought Ensemble Studios to demonstrate its investment into game development, and in 2002 released Age of Mythology, which experimented with the now-classic Age formula by moving away from actual historical events to concentrate on Greek, Egyptian, and Nordic folklore – allowing fantastical units like cyclopses, mummies and frost giants to fight alongside archers and cavalry. The gameplay innovation and 3D game engine delighted players and specialists, so much so that over a million copies were sold in less than four months.

Once Upon a Time… an Age of Empires Retrospective

In 2005, Ensemble Studios returned to its favorite theme: history. Situated in the colonial era between 1492 and 1850, Age of Empires III invited us to discover the New World by establishing a colony in one of eight civilizations. Once again, the game was warmly received and praised for its incredible graphics, great sound effects, and multiplayer mode directly integrated with the interface. The game was also a commercial success, with over two million copies sold in two years. Age III received two extensions: The WarChiefs in 2006 and The Asian Dynasties in 2007 as well as an HD re-release on Steam in 2012. This sold 2.4 million copies and still has nearly 100,000 active players today.

Once Upon a Time… an Age of Empires Retrospective


In 20 years of existence, the Age of Empires series has taken nearly 30 million players through seven centuries of history. Today, the first game is getting a welcome new lease on life with Age of Empires: Definitive Edition. This new version contains not only all the original game content, but also lots of new features. The most noticeable improvements are the graphics and animation, both of which have been entirely remastered for 4K displays on modern devices. The gameplay has been modernized – for example, there are several levels of zoom and a new interface – and the content hasn’t been forgotten either, with completely revised rhythm and narration, new options to share and find custom scenarios and campaigns built with the scenario editor, brand new competitive modes and, of course, lots of multiplayer options. Even the soundtrack, which was celebrated 20 years ago for the historical research that went into it, has been re-orchestrated and expanded. To top all of this, those nostalgic for the original can choose ‘classic’ mode, allowing them to relive the experience exactly as it was imagined twenty years ago.

Once Upon a Time… an Age of Empires Retrospective

And this is just the beginning. At gamescom 2017, Microsoft announced they were working on definitive editions of Age of Empires II and III as well as the eagerly-awaited Age of Empires IV developed by Relic Entertainment.

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