(Bloomberg) – Microsoft Corp. is a pioneer of the personal computer and one of the largest manufacturers of video game consoles. Still, it’s largely irrelevant at the intersection of these two worlds: developing PC games. The company is finally hoping to change that.
A result of this effort is Age of Empires IV, the first installment in 16 years. It is a strategy game set in medieval times, where players take control of the Holy Roman Empire or the Islamic Caliphate of the Abbasids with the aim of taking over the world. The game, which releases Thursday, is receiving favorable reviews. It has an 83% average on Metacritic, placing it in the top 10 for new PC games.
The project is led by Shannon Loftis, who got the job five years ago after telling her bosses it was time for Microsoft to take computer games more seriously. As Loftis recounts, she “begged” to oversee the reboot work of Age of Empires, a franchise that dates back to the 1990s.
While Xbox and related content account for the bulk of Microsoft’s $ 15 billion in annual gaming revenue, Loftis saw an opportunity. “I said, ‘Hey, you know this console thing, it looks like it went well, but if we really want to talk to gamers, we have to go beyond the console,'” Loftis recalls. , 56 years old. “We also need to talk to gamers on PC. “
The original Age of Empires helped demonstrate Microsoft’s ambitions in PC gaming, but the company’s commitment to the medium has faltered over the decades. Now, however, it is reinvesting in hopes of attracting a larger player population than consoles. According to research firm Newzoo, 1.4 billion people around the world play computer games. Although the console market is more lucrative, the PC has a dedicated fan base and is a key gaming platform in places where Xbox is not strong, such as China and South Korea.
PC games are also valuable to Microsoft in other ways. They are driving customer demand for high-end Windows computers and attracting more gamers to Microsoft’s larger gaming empire. The company is repackaging many of its console games for purchase on Steam, the most popular PC game store, and has shifted from console sales as a sales engine to its subscription services which work on PCs, consoles. and mobile devices. Some of the most popular Xbox games have started on the computer, like Minecraft and PUBG: Battlegrounds. Last year Microsoft released a new Flight Simulator, the first in 14 years. It was ranked third best PC game of 2020, according to Metacritic. Three months ago, the company released a version for the Xbox Series X with similar success.
Sony Group Corp. is preparing plans to emulate Microsoft’s strategy, said George Jijiashvili, analyst at Omdia. The Japanese company has said that it is working on setting up several PlayStation titles on PC, and a few months ago it acquired a Dutch company called Nixxes Software, which specializes in this area.
But console thinking doesn’t exactly translate to a PC, said Loftis, a 26-year veteran of Microsoft’s games division who was seen in the office wearing a t-shirt that said, “Think outside the box. Xbox “. Age of Empires IV and Flight Simulator have been specially designed for the keyboard and mouse audience and play according to their sense of nostalgia. “Some of us never stopped playing Age,” Loftis said. “In fact, it’s actually quite a large number of people.”
Loftis’ pitch in 2016 fits perfectly with the company’s expansionist vision for gaming. It is a priority for the company. Satya Nadella, the CEO, has already invested $ 10 billion in game-related acquisitions and added Phil Spencer, the head of games, to his management team in 2017.
“If we’re going to connect with a global audience of gamers, that means meeting them where they love to play,” said Matt Booty, the head of Microsoft’s game studios who approved Loftis’ original pitch. “We also know that PC gamers and console gamers can have different needs and expectations, and it’s important for us to be as good on PC as we are on console. It hasn’t always been that way, and we know we will have work to do.
Microsoft was making computer games as far back as 1982, when he released the original flight simulator on floppy disk. She developed a series of children’s CD-Rom games based on the Magic School Bus books and a very popular version of Solitaire in the 90s. But most gamers, and even Microsoft employees, never took it. the business seriously at the time. Ed Fries left a sought-after position on the Microsoft Office team in 1996 to take on his first major leadership role overseeing the company’s games. Fries recalled that his office managers had said he committed suicide during his career.
Among Fries’ new charges was Loftis, who had just become a chief game producer. While not working directly on Age of Empires, she served as an internal tester on the first game and remained an avid gamer after its release. (The game clearly took inspiration from Sid Meier’s Civilization, which debuted six years earlier and became a college obsession with Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg.)
Age of Empires II arrived two years later. Partly distributed in Kellogg’s cereal boxes, it was the most popular episode of the series, but the company was starting to get sidetracked by the Xbox and left the game developer, Ensemble Studios, to work in the dark. . “Over time, Xbox ate up my whole group,” said Fries, who left in 2004. During the 2008 financial crisis, Microsoft shut down Ensemble and ditched Flight Simulator a few years later.
Microsoft has spent much of the past decade bringing mobile versions of Age of Empires to partner studios and remastering the first three games. Meanwhile, a core of fans obsessed with old games. Bert Beeckman, an avid Age of Empires II gamer, found soul mates on a web forum called Heaven Games. He and his internet friends worked together to create unofficial expansions to the game.
By Christmas 2012, Beeckman was selling the content. They sent a LinkedIn message to someone who listed Microsoft and Age of Empires in their bio. Months later, they got a response, forged an alliance, and formed a company in 2013 called Forgotten Empires. More recently, while Microsoft was working on the new game, Loftis brought in Beeckman’s company to evaluate the work.
Age of Empires IV, developed by the Canadian studio Relic, returns to the same setting as the second game. Players build cities, amass fighters and resources, and face rival peoples. This iteration brought fewer civilizations, an effort to eliminate those that were too similar – with apologies to the Welsh, who were preempted by the English.
To ensure an authentic experience, Microsoft has assembled a group of seasoned gamers for what it calls the Community Council. He flew the first 11 to meet Relic in 2017. He now has 109 members. Their feedback convinced Relic to integrate naval combat and make the game buttons easier to read. There is also a group of 23 players who advocate for issues of diversity and inclusion.
World’s Edge, overseen by Microsoft studio Loftis, takes the portrayal of history seriously. Emma Bridle, who works with the Boards as the studio’s client voice director, performed Age of Empires as a child in the UK before earning a Cambridge University Masters degree in Theology and in religious studies. When she started working on the new game in 2019, the team showed her an in-game medieval surgery video that deals with the events of a battle in her hometown of Shrewsbury. “I learned the history of English which I haven’t learned in 17 years of British education from Age of Empires IV,” she said.
For the first time in an Age of Empires game, there is a fully mobile civilization, the Mongols, allowing players to pick up and move just about any structure. For research, the company sent a team to Mongolia to meet with archery specialists on horseback. The Chinese group in the game also has gunpowder, the French fight with knights, the English have longbows, and the Delhi Sultanate can potentially unlock elephants.
Making sure one team isn’t more powerful than another, that’s where Beeckman’s group came in. Forgotten Empires has given Microsoft expertise that only comes from playing the same game over and over again for two decades. The company tested the early versions of Age of Empires IV and gave its opinion on the balance of power between the game’s many teams and its adherence to the lore of the series.
The game’s developers wanted reviews, but they also hoped to impress him. They were successful when Beeckman got his first glimpse of the sheep. In previous games, sheep found roaming digital pastures had to be manually sent back to town for slaughter. Now the sheep “happily jump” behind a player’s scout unit and follow them home. “It’s a personal thing, and it’s such a small, such a small improvement,” Beeckman said, “but I love it so much.”