Interview: Chris Rubyor discusses the challenges of bringing Age of Empires 4 to Xbox

 Age of Empires 4 Holy Roman Empire.
Age of Empires 4 Holy Roman Empire.

Anyone who loves real-time strategy (RTS) games knows that Age of Empires has long been considered a king of this genre. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of working on our Age of Empires 2 review when this classic was brought to Xbox. Thanks to updated console controls and menus, this traditionally mouse-heavy PC game plays extremely well on a console. Now, as you can see from my Age of Empires 4 for Xbox review, the latest game has also finally come to Xbox in a beautiful way.

I had the chance to speak with Chris Rubyor, Principal Design Director at World’s Edge, to discuss the challenges faced when bringing Age of Empires 4 from PC to Xbox. Rubyor has worked on various RTS games since 1995, such as Dune for Sega Genesis as well as Command and Conquer, and has a deep love for the RTS genre.

Disclaimer: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Age of Empires 4: Anniversary Edition for Xbox | See at Microsoft

Building upon what made the originals so good, the latest entry in the Age of Empires series once more delivers satisfying strategic combat within historical settings. The controls have been updated to feel intuitive on Xbox. View Deal

Windows Central: Was it always the plan to bring Age of Empires 4 to Xbox, or was that something that was decided later on?

Rubyor: ...You know, we were focused on getting the PC version out. That was the most important thing. And then Age 2 was kind of spearheading this front on the Xbox. And you know, we came back around and said, you know what? We're gonna fast follow Age 2 with Age 4, so I give a lot of credit to the teams that worked on Age 2 for kind of spearheading this path and kind of paving the foundation for things to come.

But, I'm sure if you've played 4 already, you're gonna notice it feels very familiar, right? You probably picked it up and were like, wow, some of these controls are almost identical, so the great thing is Age is Age for the most part, so we were able to translate a lot of controls and functionality over so that players like yourself that would come over from Age [2] would go, Wow! Maybe I don't have to play the tutorial. This feels really good. So that was always our intent... I'm sure you probably heard in other interviews with Age 2, they spent a long time experimenting with the controls, and we were all part of that process as well... so this evolution of taking all that experience and then working with a new generation of designers to kind of get new ideas... came together and the teams did an amazing job, and we were able to kind of benefit from a lot of the legwork that they did. It was a lot of fun and incredibly challenging.

Windows Central: What was one of the biggest challenges of bringing Age of Empires 4 to Xbox?

Rubyor: Controls and UI. Yeah, the systems... the way of controlling units, you know, select a unit, move a unit, you know, all those actions and inputs that you execute on — will they translate over to a controller, or will they translate well? And for the most part, they do.

The second of the biggest challenges is panning — panning the screen and selecting units, right? Drag select is the core way that you select masses of units in addition to using the keyboard to kind of scroll around, right? ...So over time, [our] teams have kind of experimented. We got to this point where we came up with the marquee system, which is you hold the A button down; it creates this kind of little circle radius that makes it super easy to select. But then... we thought... this works, but we also need faster ways to be able to select units, and that's where the D-Pad comes in.

Actually, for me, the D-Pad is actually one of the best ways to actually interface with units because you can quickly find things. I actually find it more intuitive than the keyboard... Myself and Adam Isgreen, [who] is the creative director for the franchise, we worked with the teams, and we talked about all these different mechanisms that we've used, and kind of landed on— we looked at Halo Wars, which is a great game by the way, it's one of my favorite RTSs as well on the console — we looked at all those games like, you know what, there's something to this marquee. And so we put it in, and it just actually works. It works really well, and we get players a lot of flexibility to tune it however they want...

When Age 2 released... we watched all the feedback that came in, read all the reviews. You know, it's very important. What are the pain points that players experience? What are the core friction points? So we've looked to kind of alleviate a lot of those as well.

...One of the things we did too when Age 2 was released, we on the Age 4 team, we watched all the feedback that came in, read all the reviews. You know, it's very important. What are the pain points that players experience? What are the core friction points? So we've looked to kind of alleviate a lot of those as well. So, for example, one of the things that I was really big on...[is] I actually added a panic button... a lot of players...when they're under attack, they'll just drag select everything on screen or select all and throw them at the [opposing] player. So in Age 4 [on Xbox], if you hold the Y button, you'll select everything on the screen, and then you can throw whatever [units] you've got in the immediate vicinity of the view space and be able to throw those at the enemy player... There are a lot of little niceties here and there that we've added on top of the core layer that we built from for Age 2...

...One of the things we added for Age 4 was... we made it so that villagers would auto-build farms. So if you have some [villagers] over here and there's no food within X number of cells, the villager will say, hey, we got a mill. It's empty. We need food. And they'll just start building auto farms for you...So the VPS (Villager Priority System), in addition to kind of fine-tuning it so villagers intelligently will harvest the right resources based on the presets or whatever pie chart you've kind of set for yourself... So if you're a more advanced player and you want to fine-tune, you can do that as well...So what we said was, like, we need some presets that are kind of for new players. And then, as players become more versed with the system, we have presets that you can kind of enable off and on at various phases of gameplay that really kind of just make your experience super awesome.

It's my favorite system, and a lot of people don't really know this, but it's actually a new feature for the genre as a whole. I was talking with the creative director, and I was like, we've worked on RTS games for 25 years...why did it take until now to figure this one out? ...So that's where that system kind of that ideation process happened, and it's just taken off, and we're like, yeah, we can't build another RTS game without this system. It's just too awesome. We're actually... like, how do we get this on the PC at some point?

Age of Empires 4 resources priority wheel.
Age of Empires 4 resources priority wheel.

Windows Central: What were the biggest challenges you faced when balancing the integrity of strategic gameplay and making it convenient to play on Xbox?

Rubyor: Well, if you look at how the game's designed, you have the core rock, paper, scissors of the units and how they play — that's never gonna change, right? You got your Spearmen— they're great against horsemen. Horsemen are great against Archers. Archers [against Spearmen]. This kind of basic rock paper, scissors wheel that will never essentially change. But when we thought about new systems — like the VPS is a great one — if we automate everything, it's just going to be ChatGPT playing for you. Right? Hey, Chat, go attack now, right?

So to some degree, we don't want to take so much agency away from the player. You feel really good when you've executed really cool tactics, and you beat your opponent, or you did some really clever when we built out the controls, it was incredibly important that one, for the console, super easy to use, right? It has to be... Can I select a unit? Can I attack? Move? Can I pan the camera?... We simplified where we needed to simplify so that players can have a good experience. We wanted to make sure that the experience was fun, it was accessible, but we didn't wanna lose that feeling of strategy. The feeling that... you're executing on these really cool tactics to have a great experience. And so again, that's why we focused a lot on controls and UI, making sure that everything was seamless. Really smooth.

We wanted to make sure that the experience was fun, it was accessible, but we didn't wanna lose that feeling of strategy.

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You could access what you wanted to access when you wanted to access it. That was core, right? You don't want to have to fight the control scheme just to execute an Attack Move command. That's just, that's silly, right? In my opinion. And that's why Attack Move is on the X button. It's actually simpler than the PC because PC, you have to select units and you gotta go hit the A button. On the console, you just hit the X button, and off they go. So it was absolutely, for us, when we took a lot of time and a lot of thought and making sure that what we brought in, what we distilled down for the controller made sense, where players could still have a really fun and engaging tactical experience without losing all that deep level of strategy and planning that takes place when you're playing the game. So hopefully that answers your question.

Windows Central: Definitely. And I kind of wanted to address [the simplified inputs] because I thought you guys did a great job, but we saw some comments (with Age of Empires 2 on Xbox) of people being like, oh, this ruins the strategy...

Rubyor: No, it plays different. The thing is, and I get you, as a PC player, I understand the argument, right? It's like, well, you have all these inputs, you got your mouse and keyboard. On the controller, you can still do the exact same thing, it's just like remapping your keyboard... to the controller. That's all we did in the grand scheme of things, and we did it well.

Now for Age 4, we had a lot of inputs. So certain villager functionality, we just made contextual. So instead of making it you go into the radial, and you click a button, we just made it so that when you panned over something, you have a villager selected. It just kind of went and did it. There was some kind of nuanced areas that we kind of cleaned up and made simpler, but other than that, it worked really well... And I can tell you, I was constantly pinging the team like, guys, number one, the UI has to be responsive. If it's not responsive, we're dead in the water. Like, it's just, they're fighting the UI, so every time we made a change, as we got closer and closer to today, I'm like, did we break anything in the UI?

I'd go in every morning, I wake up to validate... make sure the UI is still responsive. I'm checking all sorts of various bits and pieces. Does the A button, does the marquee, still expand at the speed I want it to default expand to? So, absolutely critical that the UI is easy to use, but it's not a barrier to you having fun. And that's the key point. But a lot of time went into it. Tons of time and kudos to all the designers and the hours — not hours — but months spent getting this to work right. And again, you know, we did our research, we definitely looked at a lot of other games, and we had to build something that made sense for Age.

You know, it's funny. I actually prefer to play with controller now.

...You know, it's funny. I actually prefer to play with controller now.... I actually went back and played on the PC the other day, and I'm like, oh my gosh, I forgot all the hotkeys. Where are the hotkeys at? And then, you'll love this, I was playing, and we're in a multiplayer match. I'm like, why do I have so much wood? And then I'm like, oh my gosh, I don't have the VPS. And I'm like, sorry, team. We're dead. That's it. I can't do it. I need the VPS because I'm so used to having that system in place and just building, you know, managing the villagers and managing what I want when I want. I've just gotten so used to it, and it's a great system. That's the beauty of it. That's how I like to experience... Age in this way now. It really feels like a huge boon.

Age of Empires 4 Overview.
Age of Empires 4 Overview.

Windows Central: Does [Age of Empires 4] multiplayer have cross-platform between PC and Xbox?

Rubyor: There is no crossplay for the Age 4 version of Xbox, and we were very focused on making a great Xbox experience. That's why. So, making sure our multiplayer for the Xbox ecosystem was absolutely fun. So there's just a lot of time and energy that went into it, so that's not to say, you know, the future is wide open. We still support our game. We love the fans, and we listen to our fans, so that's critical. But our number one goal was to make sure that the Xbox experience was absolutely awesome... maybe one day... Who knows, right? We'll see.

But that being said, you know, the Xbox version, just a lot of love went into making sure that it was awesome. And again, I point out, you know you coming from Age 2 over to Age 4 — which warms my heart — you were able to pick up the controller and start playing. Because that's exactly what we wanted. You just feel right at home. So we were talking about control groups earlier, being able to create regiments or control groups... We always ask the question, is there a better way to do it, right? And can we make this even easier? And I also pushed on the design team.

Do we have to add more menus, guys? Can we reduce the number of menus? Can we reduce APM (actions per minute) for the players so they don't have to go menu, menu, and do this? Can we just make it they just go menu, right? So there was a lot of back and forth that went into tuning and polishing the experience. which is awesome... I was telling the creative director the other day, I can't imagine us making another Age game without controller support. It's just super awesome.

I was telling the creative director the other day, I can't imagine us making another Age game without controller support.

You also have the Site Menu System which gives you the ability to build anywhere on the battlefield, right? So another huge advancement for Age of Empires, which basically you can just pan over open terrain, hold down the right trigger, access the build options of a villager and just plop a foundation down in the villager will automatically be assigned to come over and build it. I mean, that's huge. You don't have to go searching for a villager anymore, which is essentially D-Pad up... you can basically pan over a resource pile like a berry bush, stone, gold, tree and it's context-sensitive. So it'll just bring up the right structure that you can build at that location, which is super awesome.

Windows Central: Are there going to be any more expansions for Age of Empires 4 coming out?

Rubyor: A lot of great stuff in the works, just not at the point where we can talk about that stuff right now.

Age Of Empires 4 Press Image Hero
Age Of Empires 4 Press Image Hero

Windows Central: I guess this would probably fall under the same category, but just in case, I'll ask. Will any future Age of Empires 4 expansions come out simultaneously on both Xbox and PC?

Rubyor: I mean, if we did content, it would be for both platforms... all of our live events that we do right now for Age of Empires 4 — when the Xbox version's released — the Xbox players will experience the same type of seasonal and live events that the PC players experience. So it's kind of all timed together. We want to make sure that players have a great experience and they can talk about those experiences. But again... we got to figure things out. So I leave that to our capable production team and biz dev teams to work out. I'm all gameplay.

Windows Central: Was there an informed decision to skip bringing Age of Empires 3 [to Xbox] and go to [Age of Empires 4]? Or are you planning on going back and bringing back 3?

Rubyor: That's a good question. I know right now we were focused on 2 and 4. Age 3, it's really up to our leadership team of World's Edge, but these two, for us, seem to make the most sense right now. I mean, I don't know if you know, Age 3 is actually free right now on Steam. So, it's free to play. So go and have a great time. Definitely check it out.

Have you had a chance to play Empire Wars?

Windows Central: I have not yet. (Note: I have now, as of the time of this interview going live).

Rubyor: It's Empire Wars 2.0, so they had Empire Wars in Age 1, which was awesome... In Age 4, it's similar to fast start, but our team went in... and each civ starts off with its own unique start that was hand-lovingly balanced to ensure by our hardcore balance testers so that the civ would start off exactly how [it] would be at that point in the game. So be it, harvesting X number of sheep or X number of berry bushes and what they would have on wood. What they would have on gold.

It's really awesome to play... I love how it basically puts you at a point where you can either consider, depending on which city, or if you want to maybe do a rush on your opposing player, or after about a minute or so, you can move into the Feudal Age if you want to, so a lot of good options.

...I love [playing] Delhi. They also have free research, right? So basically, from mosques, you can essentially just kind of power up the researches and so everything builds really quick, which is awesome. If you build the right combination of structures, too, it goes even faster. But yeah, I'm getting those elephants out. And then you power up your stables... putting monks into each one of those stables, which makes the build speed even quicker, along with the upgrades... you can crank out in no time. And then you get the villager with the VPS system going. It can be game over.

...The great thing about Age is... there are 10 civs in Age of Empires 4. You could spend months learning each civ. So it takes forever, but that's a great thing. There's a lot of great content for the game. You can play through all the campaigns on the game. Unlock the hands-on history. I don't know if you watched those videos?

Age of Empires 4 elephant battle.
Age of Empires 4 elephant battle.

Windows Central: Yeah, they could be right at home on The History Channel...They were fascinating to watch. I loved it.

Rubyor: All that content that you saw on the PC, all available on the Xbox, which is great. But those hands-on histories, a lot of love went into those, and we thought, you know, because we were aiming to be incredibly, historically accurate with the product, they just hit right at home. And players love that. It's like, wow. So that's how trebuchets worked. It's like, yeah. It's pretty crazy. So a lot of good stuff went into the making of the game. A labor of love... I don't know if you know, at launch, mods will also be available for Xbox players. So, they'll be able to have access to all the mods that PC players have access to — both official and unofficial. Lots of content. So once [players] have chewed through the 100-plus hours of content, then there's even more content.

Our community has done a great job of building missions, maps. There are all sorts of fun tuning packs. I build my own tuning packs too. I've done tuning packs where I've reduced the build times and everything and just make it super-quick gameplay. There's a lot of fun. Easy stuff there's just endless content for players to enjoy... We felt it was absolutely important for players to have access to that content, to kind of keep the game going, and the PC players are constantly making new stuff. So there's there's no shortage of what players can download.

...We spent a lot of time trying to smooth things out... listening to player feedback and what they loved in Age 2, things that we could improve. We took all that to heart and just kind of moved it forward. Again, I was a stickler on the UI like this has to be, you know, super easy. And that feature that I just mentioned, it's also available on the PC, but it was absolutely imperative that it was easy to use on the console because it's a great feature. You just click, and it just builds you can do that with any structure, even houses, it doesn't matter. And you're like, done. But it's great when you're building farms around a mill. Even town centers. You just click, click, click, click, click, and they just nicely form around your structuring. Like wow, that's awesome. Alright.

Windows Central: Is there anything else you want to say about Age of Empires 4 on Xbox?

Rubyor: Age, you know, Age of Empires 4 on the console, absolutely amazing. Tons of content available for players to check out. You know, download it, have fun. Looking forward to seeing everybody online, it's gonna be great.

Age of Empires 4 for Xbox | See at Microsoft

Building upon what made the originals so good, the latest entry in the Age of Empires series once more delivers satisfying strategic combat within historical settings. The controls have been updated to feel intuitive on Xbox. View Deal