How does a long-running real-time strategy franchise stay relevant on the PC platform in 2011? If you’re a renowned property like Age of Empires, one viable route would be to find a place in the ever-growing social media space. Age of Empires Online seeks to blend aspects of MMORPGs and social gaming, while attempting to keep to its RTS roots.
No, the series is not going the Zynga model of microtransactions. In fact, the spokespeople from developer Robot Entertainment and Microsoft Game Studios see it as a point of pride that they’re steering well away from nickel and diming their fans. AoE Online will be free to play; where they’ll make money is in selling robust booster packs and new feature sets chocked full of content. There are no monthly fees or monthly transactions to worry about. On top of this à la carte approach, accounts can be upgraded to a paid premium status for exclusive quests, gear, as well as the highest level of unlockable skills in the tech tree.
Microsoft has assured us that those who do want a 100% free experience will have a lot to keep them busy. The quests can be played multiple times with the option of a harder ‘Elite’ difficulty setting for players with higher levels. At its basic free level, there’ll be hundreds of quests to play and those players will be able to hold their own against users who do spend money. This is made possible by standard similar-level matchmaking and offering free users their share of useful resources and equipment to upgrade units.
There is an additional layer of depth in the battles when consumables come into play. By definition, they are one-time use items and adding them to your battle inventory will cost gold. While many consumables are for offensive use, you can also expect a variety of consumables tailored to strategy as well. The Spy Glass for instance, is one of the ‘Fog of War’ items and can give you a full view of the map for 30 seconds.
For friends who are not in an adversarial mood, there’s much to buy, sell and trade. This kind of commerce not only benefits your merchants—as a ruler, you also get a kickback. Trades can also be processed through a messaging system, working with a very intuitive interface of dragging and dropping item icons like email attachments. As another social incentive, 90% of the quests have a co-op option. Unfortunately, the guest won’t be able to fully benefit from the XP and item rewards that are given at the completion of the mission, but the guests will get to keep the XP for any units they destroy and as well as any found treasure.
The random treasure feature is one of the more addicting parts of Age of Empires Online. A given chest can yield anything from recipes to resources to equipment. One of the more sought-after items will be the blueprints, which allow to you add new building types to your cities. If you don’t have the patience of the possibility of finding blueprints on a mission, certain merchants, like the amusingly named Moe's Mystic Mystorium also sells treasure chests. The contents of the chests are random and are offered at different price tiers, giving you a hint on the usefulness of the item in the chest.
Our recent preview opportunity also gave Microsoft an excuse to unveil the Egyptian Empire. Having already seen the Greeks at Gamescom, now it’s a question of the gameplay differences between each country and how balanced these matches will be. For instance, Greece is designed to grow by using the town center. This is not the case with Egypt, which develops through building temples and harvesting new materials. In battle, Greeks are meant to be more powerful out of the gate while Egyptians will more likely be more powerful later in the game. These are only base traits of course as the real outcome hinges more on a player’s ability to customize and make the most of their units and resources.
Like Greece, there’ll be many incentives to visit the various Egyptian regions surrounding your capital, namely the different sets of stores each place will have. So explore, because there’ll be goods in Libya that you won’t be able to find in Nubia.
While your city will grow and continue to produce goods while you're away from your computer, you won't have to worry about compulsively coming back like a Farmville or Animal Crossing addict. There's no risk of stagnation; the workshop mechanism is designed to produce a unit every half hour, capping out at 100 units per workshop. So there's no possibility of overflow, just a lost opportunity to make room for more resources.
With this new direction comes a new art style. AoE has never looked more cartoony, a calculated design choice to bring in the casual player. The visuals are also not detail-intensive which makes it easier for users with low-end PCs. It’s not a very risky design choice although it will still be interesting to see how Age of Empires faithful take to this look.