Age of Empires Online interview: Tech trees and civ customization

PC Gamer

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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.

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.

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.

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