The Art of Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is the latest entry in a series of remastered Age games and the first 3-D engine Age game to be remastered. In true definitive edition style all of the art assets were recreated for this release.  The team who took on this monumental task includes Han Randhawa, Art Director at World’s Edge, Brad May, Owner/Producer at Zero One, and David Giles, Senior Producer at Tantalus.  It was my pleasure to ask them a few questions about their work on the game. 

RadiatingBladeWhat did you use for inspiration when creating the definitive 3-D models of units and buildings? 

Han: Inspiration for us was the original models, looking at history and also the Craig Mullins paintings and the incredible atmosphere he created (BTW look for his interview a little while ago) Ensemble had done a seriously great job, so we had our work cut out for us. The water was beautiful, and the home cities had a really energetic bustling vibe. Internally at World Edge, we look to our internal studio pillars to guide us, crafted by our Creative Director Adam Isgreen, as with other Definitive Edition projects to be respectful to the legacy art and cultures being represented – and ultimately our goal is very happy Age fans. 

Craig Mullins Musketeers Artwork
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition Musketeers Cinematic Shot

RadiatingBlade: For those interested, you can read the Craig Mullins interview here. When recreating all art assets, I imagine it becomes quite the task to ensure they are true to the original. How did you strike a balance between nostalgia and historical accuracy when recreating the unit models? 

Han: Man, this is so tough to do. The fans of Age of Empires are constantly on the forefront of our minds and preserving their memory of the game is very important. Nostalgia is incredibly powerful. It always makes me nervous when we start a project like this because there’s a danger of changing the art too much, but there are also fans who want art that’s drastically new. We were hyper aware and took learnings from Age of Empires: Definitive Edition and Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, which had the same challenges.  

We worked relentlessly to ‘preserve’ the legacy art, cherished for so many decades by fans, while bringing a new fidelity to the visuals. Changing too much in visuals is also detrimental for gameplay as longtime fans have built muscle memory, based on visual recognition, but at the same time folks asked for innovation. We worked very closely with the community to get a good picture.  There’re so many new graphical tricks we could have employed but anytime the visuals started to move ‘drastically’ away from the ‘look’ that folks remember then we had to reel it back in.  

Art needed to balance serving the game needs as well as respecting culture and history. Our Narrative Franchise Director, Noble Smith, worked with consultants from Indigenous Nations to review historical and cultural accuracy for the Native American and First Nations civs represented in the game. And then Tantalus and Forgotten Empires expertly implemented these suggested changes.  

Higher fidelity was key, but also clear readability. As an example, we’d find the bloom was very high in the original game and that exposure would blow out the lighter areas, so we had to strike a balance between how much of that bloom to leave vs preserving the nostalgic memory.  Just reading the comments folks make when they see the new art and share that the new Definitive Edition art looks exactly how they remember it is a good win.  

RadiatingBladeWhat were some tweaks you made to the classic 3-D models to make the definitive versions more appealing or more distinct from the perspective of the player? 

Han: Just a little clarity on the art production: folks might not know that every 3D model asset was completely re-created from scratch. Every unit, building, skydome, blade of grass, tree, barrel etc. was recreated. The increase in 4K details on a unit suddenly became much more visible once they were re-created – from actually seeing the unit’s face, to the lovingly crafted details on grain of wood. Materials were crafted using modern digital content creation tools allowing for vivid colour and an increase in sharpness which helped to show details like stitching or rope details not as apparent before. 

David: We also made extensive modifications to the engine  – including support for PBR (Physically based rendering) materials, post effects, lookup tables, and a host of sophisticated lighting improvements which allowed the artists to build on the existing assets and push them closer to the concept art created for the original game.  

Brad: Part of the design brief was to make the units and buildings feel like they had been hand-crafted by a physical model-maker. So the units were to have slightly exaggerated silhouettes like the miniatures found in Tabletop RPGs. The increased poly count allowed us to create buildings with elements that extend out from the silhouette like eaves, and wooden barrels that were actually round! 

RadiatingBladeYes, I certainly remember how the game looked amazing for the original release but playing the game now it is plain to see how the units are blocky in appearance. I’m amazed all over again with how everything appears so lifelike. What was your favorite 3-D model to recreate for the definitive edition and why? 

Han: My favorite models to see come to light are the new Swedish and Incan Home Cities, so gorgeous. Also I’m a huge fan of ships and they are so beautifully crafted – need to be 3D printed! 

Brad: There are a couple, the first being Barry the Capybara! He represented one of our earliest forays into establishing the scope of additional detailing, and many of the lessons learnt re-vitalizing his chubby rodent features informed every asset that followed. We also knew we were on the right track when the villager was attacked during combat – you felt much more sorry for them as the additional detail made them appear more human, and Barry more like a Capybara. 

The new Home Cities for Inca and Sweden were great to make as we were able to push things a little further as they didn’t need to conform to the original game. Introducing new lighting elements and setting the time of day to dusk really made Sweden ‘light up’ and the highly-detailed ‘Vasa’ warship moored in the harbour really ‘shines’! 

Barry the Capybara’s Makeover for Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition

RadiatingBladeBarry has certainly become a fan favorite!  What are some of the tools and techniques you used to take a classic unit or building model and recreate it for the definitive edition? 

Han: In order to be authentic to the original much of the techniques would utilize multiple types of texture maps: normal maps, specular maps, etc. However, the tools to create that digital content are now far more advanced. They didn’t have Zbrush or Substance tools back in the day and thus our normal map creation and texture work allowed for higher fidelity control and crafting. 

Brad: Substance Painter and Designer proved invaluable when realizing the game’s textures in high definition, and allowed the art team imbue the models with authentic materials that take full advantage of the latest in real time rendering capabilities.  

David: Custom tools were also created to remove repetitive tasks for the artists such as destroying the buildings and automating the export processes. This allowed the artists to focus on what they do best, rather than getting bogged down in technical processes. 

The Zero One Team

RadiatingBladeIt’s amazing how much technology has changed over the last 15 years.  How many months did it take the artists to recreate every 3-D model in the game? 

Brad: The team started out with just 6 artists at the beginning of the project and expanded to 25 for most of the project. That included a team to handle all the units another for the buildings and finally an environment team.  We also had a cinematics team that worked on updating the pre rendered cinematics while at the same time keeping them within the spirit of the original.  

David: It took approximately 24 months to completely remaster all of the game’s assets from the ground up – Remodeling, retexturing, and re-lighting close to 6000 unique assets in the process. 

RadiatingBladeThat is an incredible amount of work!  I have a much greater appreciation for the definitive edition now. Remastered cinematics have been a request from the fans for the past two definitive edition titles, so it’s great to see they were remade for this new release. Were there any challenging unit or building models which went through several iterations before finally being made part of the game? 

Brad & David: The Aztec Home City was the first large scale environment we tackled, and one pyramid within it provided the team with a proving ground that would challenge every assumption we’d made up to that point. From technical issues surrounding pipeline and process, through more artistic concerns regarding style and fidelity – ALL our hopes for tackling the broader game were pinned to that pyramid. After more iterations than any of us care to recall, an approach was agreed upon, and the team moved on to the remaining 5,999 assets – fatigued, but not broken!  

RadiatingBladeAs fans I think we all take the home city environment for granted.  It’s a very detailed historical setting which one could easily stare at for a long time and still find something new. What did you learn from the process of recreating unit and building models for the game that you will take into your next projects? 

Han: Making these games is a shared effort, we’ll continue to learn from fans and community. We really looked hard at readability and recognizability in units, which will be valuable going forward. You have to remember we played some these games on CRT monitors with scanlines and now monitors use back lit panels, etc. which changes the look. We also had some great learnings with internal focus on making sure Age is for everyone. One of our team members is colour blind and he helped us in that effort with our Senior Artist, Melinda Rose, and the team to develop a colour blind overlay mode.  We also looked the models and how they sit within the environment and terrain – adding subtle colour hints in the terrain to improve some of the more monochromatic areas of the game without drastically changing what folks remember. It’s visual upgrades like these that are hard to instantly spot, but the game looks better for it. 

Brad: The game’s original assets provided an excellent reference from which each artist to base their updated assets on and recreating them using modern software and processes showed us just how far things have progressed since then.  

David: Also, the sheer amount of assets that needed to be built reinforced the benefits of creating custom tools per-project that automate repetitive tasks and increase output significantly. We would be making these assets for the foreseeable future if it wasn’t for the time savings brought by our Pipeline Team and Tools Programmers. 

RadiatingBladeIs there anything else you would like to add? 

Han: We have letters from fans who have played with their loved ones and have life experiences embedded into this game, thus we are more than just revisiting the art – I feel we are entrusted custodians of emotional soul of the game and take that very seriously. The art in a franchise like Age of Empires is in some ways hallowed ground. Looking back at the wealth of assets and art, I reflect that games can be such a hard-fought battle and we get so close. I look at Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition and I can’t help but feel proud of the game. We have been single mindedly driven to make visuals in Age III: DE something that fans remember – to be as colourful and bold as the original.  We want fans to re-live their excellent experiences while also making it accessible fans new to Age

Thank you all for your time and giving us all a sneak peak into the process of remastering the 3-D units and models in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition.  If you would like to see all of the work from the art team yourself, be sure to play Age of Empires III: DE and zoom in all the way to see all of the fine detail in the recreated unit and building 3-D models.

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