Interview with expert player "The_Sheriff"
Date: Febr. 12th, 2001
PlanetAgeofEmpires, one of the most active fansites at the moment, recently interviewed expert player Kevin "The_Sheriff" Holme who now works for Ensemble Studios but still plays quite often in the zone.
Question: Tell us a little about how you got your job at ES and what your position there entails.
The_Sheriff: I got my job here at ES after working on The Conquerors at Microsoft as a playtester. While working on the x-pack, I got to meet Greg Street, Mike Kidd, and a few other Ensemble employees. We had many discussions throughout the project about game balance and design. I enjoyed working with them and together we fixed a lot of problems with the game. After the Conquerors was finished I flew down to Ensemble for an interview. The company was amazing, better than anything I could have expected, and I knew then that I would love working here. The interview went pretty well and so as soon as Metal Gear Solid shipped and my contract with MS was completed, I moved down to Dallas to work in Quality Assurance for Ensemble Studios. I'm working on RTS3 now, hunting down and reporting bugs and balance issues.
Question: Would you recommend the gaming business to others and specifically Ensemble Studios as a company?
The_Sheriff: If you are already gamer, I think it would be pretty hard not to like the gaming industry. As for ES, there's no place I'd rather be. I've never seen so many fun and creative people in the same place before.
Question: You've probably played thousands of games over the years and I was curious if there was one AOE/ROR/AOK/TC game that stands out as your favorite?
The_Sheriff: There isn't any one single game that comes to mind, I've played so many, and I can't even remember ones I've played last week ! But for all of the Age games, the most entertaining ones I've played in were those nail-biters where a wonder was destroyed in the final seconds of the game.
Question: The recent BattleTop Tournament that was held a few months ago in New York and Korea saw some of the best players in the world compete, yet almost every match played was more or less decided by feudal warfare and some games were decided by twenty minutes (i.e. NY Finals with DBD_Jinx vs. Crexis). Since then not much has changed and feudal warfare is used constantly in most Zone-rated, tournament, and now even team games. Do you feel this is good for the community, the game, and its future having one strategy dominate?
The_Sheriff: Well it certainly wasn't intended for our game to be played with the same strategy every time. But I don't think that it affects too many people, or that the strategy is such a bad thing. If people didn't like to use the feudal rush and that is the only strategy, then why would they continue playing the game ? If you are becoming truly frustrated with feudal age attacking, you don't have to play that way. There are plenty of knobs to turn in the settings screen that would prevent this, including starting age, starting resources, and map size. But when I go out on the zone, I never see anyone use these alternate settings.
Question: What do you think is key in defending a feudal attacktowers, heavy skirmisher armies, early castles...?
The_Sheriff: The best way to go about defending the feudal rush is not so much about reaction, but about prevention. Information is the key, and if you can figure out when, where, and what will attack you it will be a lot easier to stop because you will have time to prepare. Some tricks I use to do this would be to build my houses or barrack on the outsides of my gathering sites so that I increase my town's line of site. I will also keep my scout moving in areas outside my town where I am most vulnerable to attack in hopes of catching them before they reach me. Itīs also important to take notice of when your opponent advances an age. Generally, the first thing rushers will do when they get to feudal is build an archery range outside of your town. This is the good one. As soon as your opponent hits feudal, scan the fog of war around your town with a house foundation, (as if you were trying to find a good spot to build it) until you run over an obstacle that you can't see. That will be your bad guy. Now that your know where he is, you can set up your skirmishers to intercept, and you should be able to have enough time to hide your villagers when they start coming.
Question: How did you go about reaching expert status in every game of the Age series? Are there certain stages you took your game through such as mastering the economy aspect of the game first and then moving on to different types of attacks?
The_Sheriff: One common trend I see on the zone is that people believe that the more you practice a familiar strategy, the better you will become at it. This is not at all how I learned to play well. Instead, I focused more on experimentation of new build orders and unit combinations, and on many different map types. As soon as I found a good strategy, I would use it once or twice more, then try something new. If I try to play exactly like most of the other top feudal and galley rushers on the zone, I would get beat down. But because I've learned so many different techniques through experimentation, I can keep my opponents guessing and possibly throw something at them that they have trouble countering because they've never seen it before.
Question: One thing I see often in your games is heavy use of unique units, which many players bypass because theyre more expensive than the other units and harder to mass. Is there a reason for this and are unique units often more harder to counter than regular units?
The_Sheriff: Unique units have specialized roles. The standard unit types are for the most part better general purpose units, and won't do terribly if you send them against the wrong unit. But the unique units require a lot more attention. When I am using Tarkans, I will be very careful not to engage against enemy units, but to keep them focused on what they do best - killing buildings. I will bring a secondary unit along with them to fend off the enemy units. Another example, even if you know your Samurai will beat those champions pretty well, its better to ignore them and go for the woad raiders instead, leave the champions to your hand cannoneers.
Question: Has there been one player in your Age career that has matched up with your style of play the best and been the hardest to beat?
The_Sheriff: I guess I don't play enough online to know all the top players styles. But my friend maimin_matty always surprised me the most when I played with him. I don't think I've ever been able to predict his strategy, he always keeps me guessing.
Question: A few players in our forums were intrigued having watched some of your games in which you use trade carts extensively. Could you share some input on when and how is the best time to start making trade carts, if at all?
The_Sheriff: Trade carts rule. We play a lot of games here at Ensemble when testing out the new random maps. And almost every game goes to the team that established a good trade route first (or whichever team got the Spanish player). I'm really surprised that trade carts haven't caught on. Many people on the zone simply give up when they run out of gold, or switch to food/wood units exclusively. I urge people to give the caravans a try. A good trade route (10-20 trade carts moving from one edge of the map to another) can sometimes generate enough gold to replace all of your gold miners. Think of the advantage of being able to create siege onagers and champions while your opponent is down to skirmishers and pikemen.
Question: In many of your games, assuming no flush, you sport some pretty impressive early castle times in the 14 and 15-minute range. Does this help your booming or defending of castle attacks? Many players have asked if its better to do one of these lightning-fast castles as opposed to 17 and 18-minute ones. Your ideas on this?
The_Sheriff: I prefer the quick castle strategy because its less vulnerable to a feudal rush. If I can get to castle age at the same time my opponent starts to attack, I can set up 2 more town centers that will give cover to my entire population. If you wait until 17 or 18 minutes, then you have to fend off an attack for 2 or 3 more minutes with just a single town center.