Age of Empires Online interview: Becoming "really" free to play instead of "free to try"

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We sat down with some of the guys at Gas Powered Games to discuss some big changes coming to in Age of Empires Online's summer update. In the first part of the interview, they discussed moving from a "Free to Play with paid DLC" model, to a more "true Free to Play" model where anything you could unlock faster with real money will be earnable by playing the game.

PC Gamer: In the summer update, you're allowing players to earn previously paid-only content, like civs, with Empire points. What motivated this change?

Steve Bauman, Design Lead: To be clear, Gas Powered Games isn't in charge of the business side of the game, though as a partner of Microsoft, we are involved in the decision making process. They visit our offices a lot to talk about these kinds of things, and to drink our Mexi-Cokes. They will deny this, but they know it's true.

As designers, we prefer to spend as little time thinking about business and monetization and all of those other exciting buzzwords to focus on new features and civs.

Eric Williamson, Systems Design Lead: But once the decision was made, we wanted to make sure we rewarded our most active players, because keeping them around is best for the game. A large player base is positive for the game in a number of ways: it results in more people to trade with, play PvP against, and strategize with. We’d rather have someone play and not spend any money than not play at all, and the old system didn’t really support that.

Brian Fricks, Design Lead: For me, the new model is just easier to understand. Earn or buy Empire Points. Spend Empire Points on what you want. Simple is good.

Soon you'll be able to earn cool stuff like the Premium Celt civilization without blowing all that cash you were going to spend on your real-life authentic druid garb.

PCG: Was the old system too restrictive?

EW: Yea, in the sense that the game really wasn’t free to play; it was more of a free to try. We probably turned off a lot of players who would’ve kept playing had they been given the option to earn a Premium Civilization. At some point you realize, “I’m going to have to pay if I want to get the maximum benefit of my civilization.” Now, the choice is up to you: play and earn it over time or pay and upgrade immediately. Our hope is that some of those people who left will come back and give the game a second try.

SB: I'm not sure it was overly restrictive. It was just… different, and as Eric said, it didn't meet the expectation established by most other free-to-play games. Players expect to be able to earn for-pay items through play over time, with real-money being an option for those who want to speed up the process. Age Online was previously a DLC model with a free base game. The fact we had to explain it to players and the press was an immediate red flag.

PCG: What’s the development target for how many hours/missions a player should have to spend earning EP in game in order to buy a civilization?

EW: Right now it’s possible to earn a premium civilization in as short as two to three weeks of daily play, although this can vary depending on how many quests you do.

PCG: Will every mission in the game (including PvP, Skirmishes, Defense of Crete, repeatables) give EP, or only a few?

EW: Only a few. You’ll earn EP from playing specific campaign quests on your way from level 1-40. If you’re level 40, you can play PvP, Skirmish and Defense of Crete as a part of the Alliance Wars end-game. You won’t directly get EP from completing those quests, but you'll receive EP rewards for participating in the Alliance Contests.

BF: And because you earn EP for leveling up, every quest does help you earn when you are starting a new civ or playing for the first time. Over time, this adds up.