With yesterday’s news that Age of Empires Online was halting all development due to a lack of funding, and proceeding into a “Support mode”, I began to think about the state of the MMORTS and MMOTBS. A year ago, I argued that the RTS was almost ideal for the free to play economic model for several reasons. One of those reasons? Strategy gamers are used to waiting, so the use of action points or turns to grow or research something fit our playstyle. Waiting is often part of strategy gameplay, but now after Age of Empires Online is cutting its losses, 8Realms closing this year, End of Nations delayed, and other free to play strategy titles that are not eSports or MOBAs have suffered or seen criticism – is our patience a liability for these games? What other factors might be responsible for the community at large failing to embrace AOEO in a financially viable way?
Games can rise and fall, as we see, with the help of the right economic model. Age of Empires Online launched with one free civ and sold the rest initially for about $20 each. Some players felt that selling things piecemeal was something that didn’t quite fit. Complaints were also lodged over the initial gear dependency rampant in the game. A Season Pass that was initially going to be good for a year under which members would pay one price for all released content for the game during that time. Perhaps the first sign of real trouble, in February, the pricing was given an overhaul. Civilizations and boosters (add-ons) were priced at $9.99 and $4.99, with vanity item packs also at $4.99. PvP was introduced, but you needed a booster to participate, though the team did give it away initially for free. Champion Mode, a PvP mode, had among its rules no gear allowed. But problems persisted, even though there were changes to gear and relaxed permissions. The Season Pass was extended through sometime this year.
In April, it was announced that another overhaul was in the works and that an “Empire Points” based system would make it fully free to play. One could earn these points by playing or pay for civs and boosters outright. Along with this was GPG’s promise to be more transparent about upcoming development decisions, or at least as much as possible.
Thinking back to the economic model, maybe our tendency and comfort with waiting is a better match for twitch gamers and those with little time. We’re used to potentially lengthy games, and feeling nickel and dimed by releasing most of the content of a game a la carte isn’t the right fit for RTS and TBS titles. While I still stand behind some of what I said before, I am questioning things a little now. For strategy games, in general, they’re usually a niche, people tend to have their favorite games (often full-priced or obtained through sales like recent Steam deals for both the Age of Empires series and Civilization that knocked up to 75% off. It’s not always easy to get people to try something new, even if you throw a beloved name at them. Moreso if it feels a little forced.
There are also multiple free and low cost alternatives out there. Age of Empires II still maintains a considerable popularity among the community, with services handling matchmaking and even tournaments still going on between players with The Conquerors expansion. Just recently, Forgotten Empires, an unofficial expansion created by the community was released. There’s also Civilization, with both Civ IV and Civ V on sale recently. The free to play and open source 0A.D. also comes to mind. And so on. And if you’re an RTS stalwart, you probably have your StarCraft or Total War or other franchise that occupies much of your time. Add the fact that many players reminisce about the ‘good old days’ and you see some of the uphill climb a game like Age of Empires Online faced. First, pricing civs at $20 each was a real overshot. Charging for PvP was another. Having a huge chasm with gear dependency turned lots of people off.
When it comes to games that have successfully gone free to play, lots of people will point to two specific freemium models as success stories: League of Legends’ model from Riot Games and Lord of the Rings Online, the MMORPG from Turbine. And it’s this last model that AoEO seemed to try to mimic in the end to some degree, blended with some degree of vanity item released that would serve as the other source of income. The Empire Points system was meant to let players play the game and form part of the community while earning points to buy civs and boosters. Vanity items, like Riot’s skins and wards, remained at a cost. But the problem was that the game still could feel like it was in pieces, especially for a new player.
A Factions points system to reward high-level PvP also came and failed. In hindsight, there were signs that things just weren’t totally connecting. The game had trouble finding a sweet spot when it came to content for all levels, with some complaints that leveling was dull and a chore, with real content starting later.
While the announcement is that Age of Empires Online won’t be shutting down, it also won’t be getting any development either, with a few details (like a planned Roman civ) included in the final announcement. This effectively makes the game kind of dead in the water, even though it will continue to have a community team. There won’t even be any real bug fixes unless they are severely game breaking. The picture isn’t all that bright. So why keep it alive? Well, the game must be making enough money to keep the community active, but that’s about all. It’s naturally a sad day for the dev team, not only because they’ve lost jobs, but because the vision is essentially dead. The game may have hit some bumps on the road to development, but there were positives too. But it seems Age of Empires Online had had one course correction too many.