Microsoft has explained why it created a "Min Spec Mode" for Age of Empires 4.
The PC real-time strategy game, which launches this week, is the first brand-new Age of Empires game in 16 years. It was developed by Microsoft-owned studio World's Edge and Sega-owned studio Relic Entertainment (Company of Heroes, Dawn of War).
Its Min Spec Mode lets people using older and lower-powered machines play the game, Microsoft said. It's triggered via a combination of in-game settings, made up with help from an auto-detection system when you first launch the game (this can be referenced or tweaked from the settings menu).
Here are the specs:
In a blog post, Michael Mann, executive producer at World's Edge, said the game's Min Spec Mode was about letting more people than ever play the game.
"When looking to bring this new game to the franchise, we knew we needed to support a diverse set of PC configuration," Mann said.
"Even looking forward to the next few years, we expect 50 percent or more of our player base will be playing on machines that use the low spec renderer."
According to Microsoft, a "large part" of that playerbase is still playing games such as Age of Empires 2 from 1999 and Age of Empires 3 from 2005.
Microsoft's research on the Age of Empires 4 audience found a significant number of the series' community still play the old Age of Empires games on laptops or on old desktop PCs with discreet and integrated GPUs.
So, the developers had to consider both configurations and design the game for GPUs that have their own RAM, as well as those that use some of the system's RAM.
This led to the creation of Age of Empires 4's low spec renderer - it's meant to prevent a system crash that might have occurred from integrated GPU usage.
The low spec renderer is equivalent to what Microsoft would have built for an Xbox 360, World's Edge technical director Joel Pritchett explained.
"We know how to do that. We just needed time to do it right. Art, on the other hand, had different challenges, such as building multiple asset sets for example."
As you'd expect, playing Age of Empires 4 in Min Spec Mode comes with a number of limitations, such as lower resolution textures, less destruction, simpler lighting, less visual flourish, and four-player battles instead of eight-player battles.
"You won't be getting some of the added spectacle of larger-player battles or high-end image and texture quality, but you'll still be getting a great one without having to spend a bunch of money upgrading your gaming desktop or laptop," Microsoft said.
Pritchett said some players with more powerful machines may even want to give Min Spec Mode a try.
"It's worth noting that some of our competitive testers preferred the low spec renderer because its visually clearer and you get a better framerate," said Pritchett. "So, you may want to try out different settings when you play for the first time."
Microsoft also considered strong Age of Empires communities in regions that tend to have lower spec'd machines, such as Southeast Asia and Latin America. "The developers wanted to make sure that the people who still play Age of Empires 2 and Age of Empires 3 today can enjoy Age of Empires 4," Microsoft said.
Microsoft's explanation for Age of Empires 4's Min Spec Mode brings to mind EA's explanation for why FIFA on PC continues to offer a last-gen experience - much to the annoyance of some PC gamers.
In November, EA told Eurogamer FIFA 21 on PC did not get the next-gen features that came to the game on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and S in order to keep the game's minimum specs down.
Executive producer Aaron McHardy said EA took the decision to keep the PC minimum specs down "so that we can open the doors and be inclusive to everybody who wants to play FIFA".
"When we looked at what generation to put the PC game on, we looked at our fans and what capabilities they had with the hardware they have," McHardy said.
"And we have that information to understand what the power of the PCs out there in the world are. And when we looked at that, in order to run the gen five game, our min spec would have been at a spot that would have left a lot of people out in the cold not being able to play the game.
"So we made the choice to keep the PC version of the game on the gen four version of FIFA so that we can open the doors and be inclusive to everybody who wants to play FIFA."