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

PC Gamer

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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