Age of Empires Online interview: Tech trees and civ customization

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PCG: It sounds like Champion Techs are meant to be sidegrades that let you custom-tailor your units in each battle. Is the idea to give 2-3 different sidegrade options for each unit, or is still one upgrade path for each unit?

EW: Each unit has only one Champion tech. It’s meant to be meaningful, but you can still upgrade your units elsewhere. For example, techs at the Armory may improve your Spearman, but those upgrades affect multiple targets so they’ll never be as dramatic as getting the Spearman Champion.

PCG: Can you give a couple examples of upgrade options and what situations you’d want to use them in or not use them in?

EW: The Greek Armory is a great example of how the new tree allows players to react to enemy strategy. If your opponent is building a lot ranged, you can upgrade to Shield Rim. Basically an upgraded shield, it increases defenses against ranged for all military units. Alternatively, if they’re building a lot of infantry or cavalry, you can upgrade to Scale Mail and increase your defenses from both.

PCG: I’m actually pretty disappointed that max-level players will be able to purchase all of the Tech in the new trees. I really liked the idea that my Celt civilization wasn’t identical to my friends’ Celt civ. Why was it important to lose that sense of customization outside of the Champion PvP modes, where balance is obviously the most important factor?

SB: The choice of Alliance in our Alliance Wars end game comes with additional customization, as each has its own bonuses and gear. Down the road, we're going to add some even more customization options for players with multiple civs. So while it might be true that we've removed some customization from the tech tree, we're increasing it in other areas and adding entirely new ones elsewhere.

EW: We’ve come to realization that the tech tree is the wrong place for customization because it comes at the cost of strategy and choice. By choosing what you have available before the match starts, you’re artificially imposing a preset strategy on yourself, and that’s not what RTS games are about.

We think that there is still a ton of customization in the form of gear, advisors, and how you lay out your capital city. On top of that, we’re adding Vanity gear, which has a huge customization potential.

BF: To be clear, we completely agree that persistent and meaningful choices are awesome and the game needs more! We love the idea that you and a friend could play the same civilizations and have made entirely different choices that make each of your cities feel unique and special. We just also know that the Tech Tree is the wrong place. The Tech Tree is about experimentation while on the field, in the flurry of conflict, under the pressure of attack.

Star techs will now have to be unlocked and researched in each match.

PCG: With Star Techs being given research costs/time, are they going to be added to competitive PvP modes?

EW: Yeah. The term Star Tech now just means it’s a premium technology. If you’re a premium player on a quest, Star Techs aren’t going to look or behave any different than any other upgrades you have.

PCG: Is all the tech in the tech tree active skills that must be researched in the game, or will there be passive benefits as well?

EW: No. We actually really like passive bonuses, but they don’t really fit into our vision of the tech tree. The difference between normal technology and passive technology sent a mixed message and imposes a strategy before you even start playing. We’ll still have passive bonuses but they’ll just be in other areas, like Advisors.

PCG: On the big picture level, as you’re making tweaks to these units and techs that shape each civ, what are your goals for the playstyles of the four civs? Can you sum up your target for each briefly?

EW: Great question! Each civilization has a motif that we use to help define their playstyle, and we try to keep them simple. Greek is “Balance,” Egypt is “Strength in Numbers," Celt is “Glass Cannon,” and Persia is “Versatility.”

Thinking about civilizations in a succinct manner like this keeps us from straying too far away from their high-level design and ultimately delivers a better play experience.

If you missed it, part one of our interview covers the upcoming changes to AoE Online's free-to-play model, as well as attack cows, fish swords, and unicorn heads.