I’ve been playing Age of Empires Online and I am distressed.
Let me add context: I love video games. Video games provide an outlet of expression for developers and gamers alike, a new art bringing untold potential to humanity’s table. Personally video games have helped me get through tough times by relieving stress, catalyzing the learning of life lessons, and, in the case of the Age of Empires series, teaching me history in an interactive experience.
As a gamer and as a fan of the Age of Empires series I had high hopes. I should have known that these hopes would be obliterated like a castle bombarded by an army of trebuchets (for anyone unaware: a reference to Age of Empires 2).
To be fair the core game is amazing. The real-time strategy (RTS) portion of the game (as opposed to the quests and crafting) is rock-solid, in my opinion. The game is paced just right and the resource gathering, combat, and other aspects are – in my opinion – spot on. There are not many civilizations available for selection but there doesn’t have to be. Each civilization has a unique feel.
Beyond that the AI is competent which is a very pleasant surprise. And collaborating with other gamers or finding a sparring partner for PvP is dead-simple.
The icing on the cake is the stylized graphics and cheeky humor. Age of Empires Online has personality. How many game can claim that? (In case you don’t know my answer, here it is: not many can truly claim that)
I could expand on the good qualities but alas for all the good Age of Empires Online has it has been weighed down with cement shoes by some mafia boss of a manager or producer. Some moron decided to take Age of Empires Online and slap onto it a free-to-play system. On top of that the idiot-in-charge ignored any successful model for a free-to-play game and set up something frustrating and inadequate (I mean come on, League of Legends was right there!). To be fair I don’t know who made the decisions behind the scenes but I can see where some good people tried to make the best of a bad situation but…
There’s a good reason the developers had to announce no further developments for the game: the people in charge screwed up. Read this portion:
Why no more content?
Because creating top-tier content, as we have been for the last year and a half, is very expensive—too expensive to maintain for long, as it turns out. We can no longer afford to keep creating it. AOEO already has a very large amount of high-quality, hand-crafted entertainment, and adding more is no longer cost-effective.
In other words the game makers failed to pull in the revenue needed to continue with the game. Or they never planned on going beyond what they’ve done anyway – which is, in other words, create a standard retail game and disguise it as a free-to-play game.
Whichever the case may be the developers made critical errors in judgment:
The priorities are backwards. The core of the game has always been a great skirmish/sparring mode with an interesting campaign added on but here the developers somehow created an extensive campaign (sometimes interesting, sometimes not) and walled off the interesting things (read: PvC and balanced PvP) with a financial barrier to entry. The carrot on a stick here is that it’s theoretically possible to earn entry without spending money but at what cost? More time than it is worth. I’ve put in more than 60 hours and have not gotten close to unlocking anything without paying.
The game is unfair without purchasing premium. Many powerful items that you can equip or use (an idea I am fine with) are locked away from free players who have not upgraded a civilization to premium. At lower levels and towards the beginning of the game this doesn’t prove to be an issue but when computers start using items that give them an unfair edge over the player it becomes a frustration rather than an incentive. It’s not that the computers are using items that is an issue – it’s that when compared to items available to non-premium players the premium items are overpowered leading to an imbalance that can only be corrected by paying.
There is little value for any money you do put into the game. At 900 Empire Points, or EP, to unlock a civilization the price can quickly become steep for unlocking 3 or 4 civilizations. Add to that having to unlock the skirmish mode (PvC), Champion PvP (PvP without items and everything accessible) and other modes you get a full-priced game disguised as free-to-play. If this is how they were going to price it they should have just made it a more traditional release than with all these other extraneous trappings. There is a great cognitive dissonance (is that how this expression works?) between what the game claims to be and what the game is.
Apparently the idea of making a good, satisfying free-to-play game is difficult even after successful examples have proven themselves.