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

PC Gamer at

Soon these falls will run red with the blood of... attack cows?

PCG: This seems to be part of a bigger shift in the content you’re making for the game. The blog posts mentions “new consumables and vanity items.” Is your goal to move towards a more traditional MMO cash shop with smaller purchases, rather than just these quarterly civ packs?

EW: Definitely. We want players to feel like there are a variety of gameplay enhancing features they can choose from, although the key is that none are required.

For example, we’re introducing what we call "nuclear" Empire Consumables that are far more powerful than what’s in the game now. They’ll do a variety of things to help you out, like create a bunch of powerful soldiers or a pack of rampaging wolves. None of these will flat-out win you a mission, but if you use them strategically, it’ll greatly increase your chances.

Another feature players have asked for is larger Warehouses for their Capital, so we've added a 24-Slot Grand Warehouse that can only be acquired with EP. Again, you’re not forced to pay for it. Earning these items through normal gameplay is totally intended.

SB: Anyone who's ever used the "Heroic Aid" consumable that's currently given as an optional reward for purchasing a civ will have some idea of what to expect from Empire Consumables. Only these are even more powerful.

BF: Eric has had way too much fun designing the “nuclear” Empire Consumables. I have to regularly suffer through his cackling glee as he designs some new way to deliver doom to the campaign designers’ carefully planned quests. It’s possible they are too much fun.

SB: I'm still hoping for an "Attack Cows" consumable.

You can even deck out your army to match Diablo III's art style!

PCG: One of my favorite parts of the game is customizing my little warriors’ appearance with new gear. Is that the sort of vanity stuff you’re thinking of adding to the store?

EW: Yea, and it’s all going to be available at the same time as the Empire Point switch.

We’re really, really excited about the new vanity gear. Basically the way it works is you have your regular equipment and your vanity gear is on an alternative tab. If you want to customize a certain look—say, your Hoplite’s shield—you just equip a vanity shield and it’ll override the visuals for that unit. The best part is you still keep all the stats from the regular shield, so you’re not at any disadvantage for using vanity.

This is also the first time we’ve felt it was acceptable to stretch realism boundaries a little bit. Most of the vanity is grounded in reality, but there are a few items that are a little goofy. Age of Empires Online is a lighthearted game to begin with, so we feel this was just a natural progression.

SB: We have fish swords, and I'm pretty sure you can attack people with the severed head of a unicorn, which is actually kind of dark. But cute.

We also have "Heroic" armor sets that are more realistic and serious, and it will also be possible to have holiday-themed sets. We'll be looking closely at what players want, so feel free to pass along suggestions on our forums.

And for the purists out there, vanity gear can be disabled. While I'll see my fine tiger helms on my own units, you'll see their actual helms if you hate fun.

The Empire Points merchant LOVES fun! ...Maybe a little too much.

PCG: What other sorts of things would you consider adding to the store? Is there anything that you will never add to the store?

SB: We need to keep adding more content—more quests, more regions, and more features—which we've been too slow with. Some of it will be free, some of it will cost EP. The per-item or per-feature choice of "free vs. pay" hasn't really changed. This new system gives us more flexibility to allow lower price items, because there were minimum limits in the old DLC model. We couldn't charge much less than $5 for anything.

EW: There are a few areas that are off-limits: Champion PvP is a great example. Champion PvP is our "pure" RTS experience for hardcore, competitive players—we start all players on an even level and remove any variables: equipment, consumables, advisors, etc—and we don’t intend to alter this philosophy, although it’s worth clarifying that we do allow vanity gear in Champion mode.

BF: Flexibility is critical. Like Steve is saying, with this new model, we can focus on adding new content without being too concerned if it is a “big enough” idea to warrant a DLC purchase. I'm actually eager to hear what the community comes up with. There are going to be things we didn’t think of that they will want. Having flexibility over the scope and scale of what we offer for free or sell will make it a lot easier to design and implement.

PCG: Will everything in the shop by purchasable with EP, or will some things be cash only?

EW: At this point we only sell things for EP. We have no intention of going back to selling content for cash only. You can earn it or you can pay for it, but the choice is up to you.

Check back next week for part two of our interview, concerning changes to the game's tech trees and civ customization!