For nearly 25 years now, the Age of Empires series served as one of the pioneers of the real-time strategy genre. It's held the role of educator as well, teaching history to players all across the world with the series' grounded storytelling of actual events that happened hundreds of years ago. With Age of Empires 4, the game's role as an educator expanded even more with its inclusion of "Hands on History."
Think of "Hands on History" as a small documentary series with episodes a few minutes long, but with the production quality of something from the History Channel (back when the channel was known for more than just theories about aliens, at least). These videos, which are unlocked as you complete different missions during Age of Empires 4's campaign, cover a wide range of topics: crossbows, horse archery, illuminated script, and battlefield surgery are just a few of the many vignettes you'll experience with "Hands on History."
The process to create "Hands on History" is certainly one that seems as laborious as creating a video game itself, and the team to accomplish such a task was of substantial size. To learn more about how "Hands on History" was made, we spoke with members of Relic Entertainment and World's Edges' narrative teams. We also spoke with key figures at Lion TV, the studio tasked with filming and directing these fascinating video segments.
A New Vision for History
After speaking with the narrative team at Relic and World's Edge, one thing was clear: for Age of Empires 4, they wanted to make the Top Gear of history. Top Gear is a long-running television show about cars and was created by the BBC. This show gained international recognition for its broad appeal and unprecedented entertainment value, despite cars being a topic some might be turned off to. Clever writing and charismatic hosts helped Top Gear gain such a massive following outside of its home country.
"World’s Edge wondered whether it would be possible to make the telling of history as engaging to non-historians as Top Gear is to viewers with no particular interest in cars," said Lauren Wood, principal narrative designer at Relic Entertainment. "So, Relic’s former narrative director, Bonnie Jean Mah, pitched the idea of using documentary film as the medium for narrative delivery and found an experienced film production partner in Lion TV (based in the U.K.)."
This approach to storytelling is different from previous entries in the Age of Empires series, as well as the spin off, Age of Mythology. Players would normally see a story unfold from the viewpoint of certain key figures in history -- Philippe Boulle, narrative lead at Relic Entertainment, described these as storybooks. He said:
"What 'Hands on History' allows us to do is to really peel back the layer and go, 'OK, let's talk about the actual process of doing these things,' of building a trebuchet, or building a castle and so on and really get to the everyday meat and potatoes that sometimes gets missed in the, sort of, large historical sweep."
But to actually pull this off? That's another story entirely. Aiming to emulate Top Gear is no easy feat, but the narrative teams at World's Edge, Relic Entertainment, and the experts at Lion TV were a dream team that could pull this off. Not only did this all have to be written, it had to be filmed as well, and Age of Empires 4's campaign spans across entire continents. Noble Smith, franchise narrative director at World's Edge emphasized the scope of this project.
"... it was shot all over the world, from Mongolia to Poland to Northern California where a lot of the stunt riding was done, to a cool place in Wales called Cosmeston village," said Smith.
While all teams played a part to make this vision possible, Wood, Boulle, and Smith once again give great credit to Lion TV. Wood said many of the the topics of the videos -- from swords and sabers to creating castles -- were proposed by Lion TV Writer/Director Mike Loades, and "the films were written and directed by them."
Capturing a Moment in Time
Interestingly, all of these videos were shot years ago; they were filmed well before Age of Empires 4 was ready to be seen -- much less played -- by the public. As such, the production of these videos was spared from the devastating effects of Covid. Because "Hands on History" was finished while the game was very much in development, Smith and Boulle offered some interesting anecdotes about this.
"One of the fun, sort of, side effects of that we had it in the can was that they actually capture a moment in time," said Boulle. "So, for the Hundred Years campaign, we took all of these wonderful drone shots of Paris, including Notre Dame. So, we have these beautiful shots of a roof that is no longer there, because in the interim years there was that terrible fire. And, you know, it was just sort of special to be like, 'OK, we captured this moment in time,' like even these buildings that we like think of as these eternal things are still evolving now through restoration, through accidents like what happened there, and it just, to me, reinforced that we're still part of history."
Smith offered another story -- "Hands on History" actually influenced some of the mechanics in Age of Empires 4. One particular video, called chevauchée, talked a great deal about the creation and usage of incendiary arrows. Many players take this piece of research for granted in the game, but were it not for "Hands on History," it wouldn't have existed in the first place.
"...we were all sitting around in Vancouver one day at one of our milestone meetings and we were like 'Hey, why don't we put incendiary arrows as an upgrade,' because we having this amazing video," Smith said. "It would be so cool to have that and actually have the arrows setting stuff on fire. So, it's an important upgrade to get."
Like chevauchée, there were plenty of other topics, too. But how did they make the cut? Mike Loades played a monumental part in preparing different subjects for "Hands on History," along with other members of Lion TV such as Director of Specialist Factual Bill Locke. More than that, "Hands on History" touches on topics that not just address warfare, but everyday life in the medieval times -- that's something Age of Empires 4's team wanted to tackle most of all.
"This is a time before mass production," said Boulle, "so everything is made by hand in one way or another. And, in our video game you send out a bunch of archers, and they shoot a bunch of arrows until either, you know, you pull them back or their target is down. And then you don't really think about it, but in fact, each of those arrows is carefully produced by up to three different artisans, and then they have to do that thousands of times over to prepare for any battle. And that's just not the world we live in anymore, so we wanted to make sure we were celebrating that craft and celebrating the people that are still doing it that way, who are still keeping mail-making and manuscript illumination and medieval pigmentation alive, and armoring and all these amazing crafts."
And indeed, demonstrated within the "Hands on History" vignettes are real-life experts crafting arrows, crafting jaw-dropping manuscript, creating paint for the interior of castle walls, and more. The juxtaposition between warfare during the campaign of Age of Empires 4 and a look at how life is made possible during this time creates a wonderful lesson for anyone interested in history. But in order to capture this vision, it took a great amount of research from all teams.
"Everyone involved in the production of AoE IV has undertaken massive amounts of research," said Wood. "On the narrative side, we have read books and online articles, watched documentaries, listened to podcasts, and -- crucially -- we have consulted with many historians to get as close to historical authenticity as possible."
Much of the charm and entertainment value comes from the experts featured in these videos, too. Thanks to Mike Loades' network of professionals, they were able to amass a diverse cast of individuals to narrate and demonstrate topics ranging from blacksmithing to the usage of medieval arms in battle. Moreover, Smith notes they wanted a diverse cast. They wanted to bring in women who were experts in the field, as well as those who are ethnically diverse. As a testament to this, the expert on Mongolian horses, as well as the singers in a segment about Mongolian music, are also of Mongolian descent. In regard to the overall research process, Smith adds:
"...we have this huge responsibility to get things right and we've been fixing all the things that were historically inaccurate or sometimes even hurtful in the case of Age 3 with indigenous peoples, and correcting them as we did all these definitive editions. So, the goal with Age 4 right from the start was to not have to go back and redo anything - that future teams wouldn't have to come back and say, 'These people messed up.' We wanted to get everything right."
It was certainly an undertaking to create what is essentially a documentary series, and even more difficult when it's for a video game. This is something that has never been done before. It was a gamble to see if "Hands on History" would work, and while it paid off in the end, getting it just right took some time.
"The biggest challenge for me was making sure that all of this worked together, right, that these weren't just like a complete side thing that didn't feel like it belonged in a game, you know?" said Boulle. "Like, we wanted them to feel special and unique and, you know, 'I didn't expect to see this in a game but now that I've seen it, it makes sense to me.' The same with the campaign videos is, how do we take these beautiful films and then go into a video game and then go back out to a film without it feeling too jarring?"
But what about the other end of production -- filming "Hands on History" itself?
The Filming and Production of 'Hands on History'
TechRaptor also had the chance to speak with several members of Lion TV who were writing scripts for "Hands on History" as well as shooting footage with cutting-edge tech. Perhaps this isn't so surprising, but shooting footage for video games versus television require different approaches. Loades said "'Hands on History' films were destined for a discerning audience who already had a good knowledge of historical topics. For television, historical documentaries had to appeal to those who had no knowledge of the subject.
With Age of Empires, however, "Hands on History" was made with the knowledge that players alread know about some background of the history; at the very least, they were learning such history through gameplay. As a second point, Loades notes, "Hands on History" had to be short.
"...the films were tasked to be no more than around three minutes long -- mini-docs; though the ambition was always to make big films of short duration rather than little films. So, we had this wonderful opportunity to go into greater detail than would be usual on television but -- and it is a very big 'but' -- we had to do it in a tiny fraction of the time."
The old adage for journalism is to show and not tell, and that principle rang true while producing "Hands on History," as well. In order to do this, the team utilized the group of experts that are front and center during the many different videos. Writer/Director at Lion TV Stuart Elliot, another member of the production team, made sure to mention some tools that helped bring "Hands on History" to life.
We used jibs, gimbals, drones, time-lapse and high-speed photography to give it the best production values we could.
After watching the videos, many players will find that Elliot isn't exaggerating -- the production value for "Hands on History" is substantial. Players can download a 4K pack for free to enhance the "Hands on History" footage, which in itself requires high-tech cameras to film. Some cameras were capable of capturing up to 10-thousand frames per second, which some might be shocked to know was even technologically possible. As an example, shots where a trebuchet's projectile slams into a rock wall are captured in staggering clarity in slow motion. This is no small feat.
"To replicate this," said Elliot, "we built a section of castle wall at a 45-degree angle and dropped a trebuchet ball directly onto it -- filming it in slow motion with the camera also at a 45 degree angle. This gave the impression of the ball smashing into a vertical wall, and making it crumble before our eyes."
Other equipment used included drones to get these wide, sweeping shots of the landscape. Loades notes the use of macro-lenses, which were able to capture incredible and subtle details up close. Every piece of equipment was used for a purpose and goes to show how rigorous and expensive it can be to create a documentary series, even if episodes are minutes short. Loades adds:
All the equipment and techniques served one end -- to tell a story with strong images.
As was the case with writing "Hands on History" (which Loades and other members of Lion TV were a huge part of), many wondered if it would work. Loades said there was a huge unknown factor to it since no other game attempted something like "Hands on History" before.
"It was a lot of hunches, instincts, and guesses, and just a little bit scary," said Loades. "In the end every decision came down to three questions: ‘Does this interest me?’, ‘Does this offer the opportunity for strong images?’, and ‘Will this be fun?’ All three boxes had to be ticked."
Thankfully, fans reacted favorably towards "Hands on History." In TechRaptor's review for Age of Empires 4, "Hands on History" received a lot of praise for being unique, informative, and entertaining. Basing this off of what Loades and his team said, that was exactly what they were aiming for. It was a success. Elliot mentioned he wasn't sure how fans would receive all of it, but was happy to find that fan reception was strong. Loades, a man of many talents, sees "Hands on History" as a proof of concept done well and looks towards the future.
"It seems that we have ‘proof of concept,' so now the question is how can we build on that?" said Loades. "Do fans want a lot more or just a little more? What topics do they want to see covered in future? Does this style of real-life documentary footage embedded in a game become a standard benefit to be incorporated by other games in the future? Looking even further ahead, what are the possibilities of AR and VR presentations along the same lines? Age has always been hailed as a catalyst that has stimulated many people’s first interest in studying history. The game’s the thing but, perhaps, with this additional content, it can connect people with world history in an even more compelling and enjoyable way."
Reflecting on the Process
The writing team had so much work cut out for them, as did the filming crew. It was, in every sense, as difficult to create videos for games as it is for television. Some take for granted what is seen on camera and forget that there's a human element to all of this work -- many individuals are on a filming crew to make things such as "Hands on History" possible. Emma Randle-Caprez, a producer at Lion TV, told a humanizing anecdote about filming footage for the Hundred Years War. Lion TV needed a standard -- an identifying banner on a long pole that was often brought into battle -- and the production's supplier didn't have one.
"With less than 24 hours to go," said Randle-Caprez, "I turned to my, thankfully, creative daughter Sukyella to pull it out the bag. Supplying her with the blue and burgundy fabric, paints, and an image of what was needed, she set to work at 6 p.m. that evening. At lunchtime the following day she finished the final flourishes before sewing the four sections together. The standard was complete and ready just in time before the crew set sail to France and my daughter set off, with not a wink of sleep, to a festival! Job done!"
Yes, the job was done. From the writers doing tireless research to filming difficult footage (in Loades' case, getting footage for horse archery, which he says was the most ambitious of all "Hands on History" segments), World's Edge, Relic Entertainment, and Lion TV pulled some amazing feats. Boulle never thought he would get to use his history degree again after getting into the video-game industry, but reflecting on it, "Hands on History" provided the perfect chance to bring out his "inner history nerd." Meanwhile, Smith ends with a thought that emphasizes what "Hands on History" set out to achieve:
"I think that these people who are these experts in their fields really get a chance to shine," said Smith, "and I hope it encourages people to get out there and study and start learning how to make things, and become archers and keep these traditions alive and write books. You know, it's very inspirational. I know it has been for my kids."