Bruce has been a professional game designer/developer since 1980; he has helped
start, or worked for, five game companies and has been involved with computer
games since 1987.
His best job prior to Ensemble Studios was working with Sid Meier at Microprose
for five years where he helped design several award winning games including
Railroad Tycoon and Civilization. He's authored many game manuals and rulebooks
plus five published computer game strategy guides.
Happily married and living in the Chicago suburbs, his favorite sports teams
are the Chicago Bulls and Baltimore Orioles (he grew up in Baltimore). His
hobbies include reading (history, mystery, science, and literature) and
collecting Boy Scout memorabilia.
What do you feel sets Age of Empires apart from all the other real-time games
flooding the market?
The historical theme based on the rise of ancient civilizations; a great AI
that makes the random solitaire game an outstanding play experience and gives
Age of Empires endless replayability; multiple victory conditions and
adjustable levels of difficulty that allow players to set both a suitable type
of game to play and a challenging computer opponent; Eight player multi-player
including allies and cooperative play (two players directing the same units);
12 differentiated cultures that each play differently; a comprehensive scenario
editor for those who wish to build their own; mesmerizing graphics; great
sounds and original music.
Why did you decide to do a real-time game that was historically accurate versus
completing a sci-fi or fantasy based games on the market?
The historic theme of Age of Empires gives us some advantages. Players already
have some pre-conceived notions of what should be going on and thus have some
ideas about how to play. They do not have to learn a pseudo-scientific
rationale for what is going on. History gave us a framework upon which we could
hang our game. We could pick and choose which interesting parts of history to
include or discard. Since so many forthcoming games in this genre are based on
sci-fi or fantasy, our topic helps us stand out.
Why did you decide to focus on the 10,000 BC to 0AD time period in Age of
Empires versus another time period?
The rise of civilization is a big topic but one that starts at a very low level
of technology and development. This works great for the resource gathering,
building, and exploring aspects of the game. Our technology tree is historical
and easily understood. There are a lot of interesting units in this time
period, but no flying units. The absence of flying units makes our game more
point to point. There is no vertical envelopment where enemies suddenly appear
behind your defenses.
While you have 12 civilizations in Age of Empires, are there significant
differences between these civilizations in the way they look and play? Can you
give us some examples about how they differ?
Bruce Shelley: The 12 cultures in the game use four different building
sets. The buildings of an Asian
culture will look quite different from those using the
set. Each culture has a unique tech tree. No culture has all the possible
technologies. Some have better soldiers, some better cavalry, some better
ships, some better priests, and some have economic advantages. For example,
Shang (Chinese) villagers move faster than the villagers of other cultures,
making them more efficient in resource gathering. The Egyptian priests can
develop the greatest range, making them more useful for converting enemy units.
Each culture has to be played differently to take advantage of its strengths
and overcome its weaknesses.
There seems to be civilizations in Age of Empires that have never been included
in a PC game before and there is little known about them, why did you choose to
do this? How did you research them?
We wanted a lot of cultures to provide different playing experiences. Some were
predominately traders and some were not aggressive, while others were very
aggressive. Adding important but little known cultures enhances the historic
and authentic feel of Age of Empires. Asian history outside of China is not
well documented but we made an effort to include that area because we wish to
broaden the appeal of Age of Empires in that part of the world. The research
for Age of Empires was done in the local community library. Extensive, detailed
research is not necessary or even a good idea for most entertainment products.
The best reference materials are often found in the children's section because
this is the level of historic interest for most of the gaming public. If you
build in too much historic detail you run the risk of making the game obtuse.
The players should have the fun, not the designers or researchers. We are
trying to entertain people, not impress them with our scholarship. The words
"model" or " simulation" are often a warning signal that the game is not fun.
Are there other notable historical elements in the game?
We have included a 40,000 word encyclopedia that provides historical notes on
Age of Empires. These discuss briefly the different cultures available for
play, the game technologies, the rise of civilization, and the rise of ancient
Why did you and Ensemble decide to do a game like Age of Empires?
Ensemble Studios was a start up company and we felt we had to make our first
product attractive to major publishers. We drew on what we liked about the most
successful games on the market and on our past experience. We felt that a
real-time strategy game that built on the best features of that genre and that
added elements from Civilization would be an attractive product and one that
had a chance to be a major hit if well done.
How does this compare with other games that you have worked on before?
Age of Empires compares somewhat to Civilization in that it includes some
resource gathering and empire building. The real-time element makes it quite
different from turn based games I have worked on in the past, however. One
major advantage of Age of Empires is that it is usually completed within a hour
As technology advances, multiplayer games are more and more involving, where do
you feel that computer-based games are headed?
I don't have a high level of confidence in my ability to predict the future,
but I see multi-payer games becoming more important. We are just at the
beginning of what multi-player games can do. How far this trend goes may depend
on how accessible and efficient internet gaming becomes and how soon internet
connections get off the telephone lines and onto cable modems. Even with those
advances, however, I think the majority of gaming hours logged will continue to
be in solitaire play.
What excites you most about the future of the gaming industry?
People out there right now are figuring out how to incorporate new technologies
into new game genres that the rest of us cannot conceive but that we will want
to play as soon as we see them.
What's the most difficult part of creating a quality gaming experience?
Making a game fun to play is the most difficult part of development. Games that
fail do so because they are not sufficiently fun. Games are a great success
usually because they are a lot of fun. Graphics, sounds, and music enhance the
experience but are all secondary to gameplay in importance. The key to fun is
providing the player with a continual stream of interesting decisions that lead
to a satisfying conclusion. When decisions are not interesting or lag, fun
falters. Developing fun gameplay is primarily a function of testing and
You seem to definitely have an interest in history and the way events shape the
future, what periods are you most interested in?
One of the great things about designing games is that you get to immerse
yourself in a topic for a while and then move on to something new. I have
worked on a number of games over the years that drew on historic topics like
the development of railroads, the origins of civilization, the American Civil
War, World War II, and ancient Britain. All of those topics became major
interests for at least a while. Outside of game work, the topic of most
interest to me now is pre-Columbian America.
Was it always clear to you that you would find a way to mix history and
At an early date I was interested in historical games. Games are generally
about conflict and it is natural to find game topics in the historical record,
whether that conflict be militaristic, economic, or political.
Was there a particular point in your life where you realized that you were
definitely headed towards game development?
I was a graduate student in economics at the University of Virginia but decided
I would give the game business a try before getting a real job. I am still
involved with games 17 years later.