Age of Empires Online interview: Tech trees and civ customization
In part one of our interview with Gas Powered Games, we heard all about the changes to Age of Empires Online's free-to-play model. In part two, the guys give us the lowdown on mechanical changes coming in the summer update, including a tech tree revamp. Read on!
PC Gamer: So the tech tree is getting a huge overhaul. The blog post mentioned that one major reason was that locking a lot of the tech at the start made early leveling boring. Was that the primary reason?
Eric Williamson, Systems Design Lead: In the first few levels we let you customize what you had access to in your technology tree. On paper, this seems really cool. In reality, it locked you out of strategies because you had to level up before you got those tools. This ended up making the early levels pretty tedious. Additionally, a major change like this gives us the opportunity to address other balance issues that we couldn’t look at otherwise.
Remember, GPG only started working on this project a few months before it was released. We pretty much used this as an excuse to review all of the gameplay and inject some of our style into it.
Steve Bauman, Design Lead: One of our own internal criticisms of the campaign in Supreme Commander 2 is that we locked you out of some of the cool toys for too long, and then gave you too little time to play with those toys.
When we started to look at Age Online, we immediately identified the same core problem with its initial tech tree and the level 1-40 campaign progression, but we had other, even more pressing issues to address before and immediately post launch.
Brian Fricks, Design Lead: And we can’t forget that this is the second stage of the tech tree overhaul. The first change was back in March with the Steam launch, what we called “Faster to Forty,” better known around the office as “2 Fast 2 Forty.” And before you ask, yes, we are dorks.
Since March players have been able to level faster, unlock new units immediately on reaching a new age, and unlock new ages at lower levels.
PCG: The tooltip for one of the Factory Techs on the site (Conditioning) appears to be a new upgrade option. Are you changing/adding/removing a lot of the tech as a part of this process on top of moving things around?
EW: At a minimum, almost every upgrade that had a generic name has been renamed to technology that existed in history. This kind of flavor is important to us as it ties the whole world together.
As for gameplay changes, we definitely removed and condensed some of the upgrades that were uninteresting. We’re focused on providing quality instead of quantity. Technology upgrades should be compelling and meaningful, and we think we’ve done a pretty good job of emphasizing that.
A perfect example of this: the new Champion upgrades. These are upgrades that greatly alter one specific unit, further emphasizing its role or making up for a weakness. If you or your opponent gets a Champion upgrade, you’re going to notice.
PCG: Are you worried about upsetting the balance by changing too much at once? If you’re only changing a few key areas, what are the things that you felt needed fixing/balancing?
EW: No, not at all. We have a talented playbalance team that helps make sure nothing gets too out of line. They’re our first line of defense. On top of that, we’ve actually been working on these changes for a while—since December, in fact—so we think we have a pretty good idea of where things stand. I’m sure the community will still find something we missed and we’ll have to react, they always do, but that’s just how balance goes.
Fortunately, we addressed a lot of the major issues we wanted (like reducing the effectiveness of snare), which means now we can make smaller adjustments over time to get things in line.
BF: Quest content has very different balancing requirements. There’s always the concern that quest difficulty may go up or down slightly when changes like this are made. After committing to the new tech tree back in December, we knew pretty quickly that players who were quick to master new units and tech upgrades would find more of our quest content too easy compared to before. We also knew that things like Siege being available earlier would change the core experience. And frankly, the AI needed to be updated across the board to take advantage of the new tech tree and to fix bugs.