The openage Converter - Part I: Reading Data

In our previous blogpost series about the openage modding API, we outlined how AoE-like gameplay mechanics will be implemented in openage and how they are modeled in our dedicated database language nyan. However, one issue with creating a new modding interface from the ground up is that we cannot directly use the data files from the original games. We have to convert them to our own logic and formats for them to work with the openage engine. This process is what this new blogpost series will be about.

Today's topic will be the overall structure of the new Python converter and its data reading module. There will be at least two more blogposts in the next week, covering the transformation from AoE2 structs to nyan API objects and the export to the file formats.

Converter Workflow


Every game or game edition we convert will go through 3 different stages: Reader, Processor and Exporter.

In the Reader, we parse data or media files and put them into a structured format that we can use during conversion. The content read is passed onto the Processor where the actual conversion takes place. Here, the data are first organized into conversion objects that resemble the original games structure (AoE-like objects). These are transitioned into objects that model the openage API (API-like objects) and then put into nyan API objects that can be exported to file. An Exporter will take the converted objects and sort them into modpacks. The very last stage of the conversion is printing the objects to nyan files and other human-readable formats along with requested media files.

Every stage is modular which means it can easily be exchanged or replaced. This comes in handy when we have to consider the multiple releases of AoE1 and AoE2. For example, the Definitive Edition of AoE1 will use an extended Processor stage compared to the original version of AoE1 due to the presence of new features and different mechanics. With the modular approach we can do a lot of code sharing and do not have to build a new converter for every edition of a game.

Note that from this point onwards we will exclusively talk about data conversion, or more specifically, converting gamedata from the empires*.dat files. Media conversion is a separate topic that we will leave out for now and maybe describe in an additional blogpost in the future.

Reading and Storing

Our first goal in the conversion process is to access the data and load it into the converter in a usable format. Since AoE2's .dat file uses a binary format, we have to serialize the values before we can do anything with them. In this case, serialization means that we traverse the file byte by byte, extracting the values and storing them as Python structs. The format has been well documented over the years, so we know exactly at which offset what attribute can be found.

When we encounter an attribute value in the .dat file we have to worry about two things: How we read it and how we store it. The distinction between those two is a result of the different contraints values from the .dat file and values in our own database language nyan have. For example - depending on the attribute - integers in the .dat file can differ in:

  • Length: An integer may be stored with length 8 Bit (int8), 16 Bit (int16) or 32 Bit (int32).
  • Signing: Integers may have 1 prefix Bit to signal a negative value (signed int) or not (unsigned int).

Therefore, we have to specify the correct read type for every attribute in the .dat. Otherwise we would get the wrong values.

Additionally, even if two attributes have the same read type, we might want to use a different storage type depending on the context the attribute is used in. For example, the converter used different storage types for attributes representing unit stats (e.g. HP, movement speed, damage vaues, ...) and resource IDs (e.g. sound or animation IDs). This becomes relevant when we want to compare two units later on to calculate upgrades or when we want to determine the differences between vanilla AoE2 and a user made data mod.

Read type and Storage type

In our code, the serialization of the attributes looks like this:

    (READ, "hit_points", StorageType.INT_MEMBER, "int16_t"),
    (READ, "line_of_sight", StorageType.FLOAT_MEMBER, "float"),
    (READ, "dead_unit_id", StorageType.ID_MEMBER, "int16_t"),
    (IGNORE, "hidden_in_editor", StorageType.BOOLEAN_MEMBER, "int8_t"),
    (IGNORE, "old_portrait_icon_id", StorageType.ID_MEMBER, "int16_t"),
    (READ, "enabled", StorageType.BOOLEAN_MEMBER, "int8_t"),
    (READ, "resource_cost", StorageType.ARRAY_CONTAINER, SubdataMember(

For every attribute in the .dat file, the Reader module contains a 4-tuple that stores its read mode, attribute name, storage type and read type.

Read Mode

This specifies whether we want to actually read the value (READ) or skip over it (IGNORE). The latter read mode is used for values that are irrelevant for conversion. A lot of the time these are leftovers from old beta versions (e.g. old_portrait_icon_id).

Attribute Name

A human-readable name for the attribute. This name will be used in the Processor stage to address them and read their values.

Storage Type

Here we tell the Reader which storage type it should use for an attribute. Every type corresponds to a ValueMember subclass object that stores the attribute name, its value and its storage type. ValueMember also implements an auxiliary method for diffing.

Read Type

This determines what read type we have to use to extract the correct attribute value from the .dat file. We can either refer to primitive types such as integers or floats, but we are also able to use nested dataformat definitions, like ResourceCost in the code sample above. Nested definitions contain another list of 4-tuples which are read sequentially. Employing these definitions is very helpful for repeating structs as it lets us define its dataformat once and read it as many times as we want.


After reading the .dat file, we receive a full representation of its content in an array of ValueMember instances. While the data dump we receive from the Reader already contains all the attributes and values we need later on, this output is too unstructured to be handled efficiently yet. If possible, we would like to operate on logical entities we know from the game like units, buildings, civs or terrains, instead of cherry picking from a giant array of attributes.

To do this, we transform the dumped values into converter objects that resemble the structure used in the original engine (hence AoE-like objects). These objects (GenieObjects) are very similar to what you would see in Advanced Genie Editor, just without the fancy GUI. For example, we put every ValueMember attribute belonging to an AoE2 unit into a GenieUnit object. The same process is repeated for every unit and every other logical structure that we can recognize in the game. Afterwards, each attribute will be assigned to an appropriate GenieObject subclass. Every subclass instances receives its own list in a container which can be accessed in the Processor stage.

Dump to GenieObjects

Not only is this object-oriented approach much easier to work with, we also no longer have to worry about where exactly logical entities, e.g. units, are located in the dump. Thus we can focus purely on its content and leave the legacy of the .dat file structure behind.

To be continued...

That's it for now. We will continue next time when we transform data from the older AoE-like structure to the openage API.

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