Posted by: Chris | January 26, 2011

Age of Empires Online

I am not sure what percentage of the Lure-oh-sphere is aware of Robot Entertainment’s (i.e. the chunk of Ensemble who decided they wanted to stay partnered with MS and keep making RTS’s) upcoming release, as even I had only been peripherally following it until now.  After coming across an intriuging sounding preview, I dug a little deeper and come bearing the fruits of my investigations.

Basically, AoEO (quite the acronym, that) is a slurry of all previous AoE games, with ample bits of MMO and social-network games mixed in.  It reminds me a lot of some of the early concept pitches for Age of Empires 3, where players were going to have wide latitude to customize their own civilizations and interact in a persistent gameworld where everyone’s colonies were struggling for survival, a vision that the final product only partially realized (in my mind for the better, but I am far from the average consumer).  Robot seems to have taken many of those ideas and mixed in AoM’s setting and simplicity and AoK’s mechanics along with a business model borrowed from free-to-play MMOs.  The art-style leans heavily on that of the DS AoE games with bits from the underrated Swords and Soldiers seemingly stirred in, all unmistakenly rendered in the AoE3 engine.

From what I can tell, you start off with a Capital City, whose elements are persistent and level like an RPG, which in turn will birth various satellite encampments, through which the traditional RTS is played and experience garnered for the motherland, much like AoE3’s Home City.  Unlike in AoE3, though, the Capital City does not seem to interact directly with its kin during the RTS section (as the Home City did with regular shipments).  Instead, it seems players are tasked with building their preferred civilization piecemeal, with the decisions made in designing one’s capital city influencing what units, buildings, upgrades, and bonuses are available to the player during the actual RTS portions.   Additionally, the Capital City seems much less static than the Home City, with the player capable of plotting its layout as well as erecting all manner of superficial accoutrements, which seem far more varied and robust than AoE3’s streetlamps and streetpeople.

Further,the multiplayer elements have expanded significantly.  In addition to the traditional PvP games, Robot has developed a number of scenarios analogous to MMORPG raids crossed with the traditional RTS single player campaign where a single individual or group attempt to reach a specific objective to garner experience or loot to adorn your troops with.  In addition, it seems the developers have greatly expanded the realm of player interactions outside of the RTS game.  Instead of simply queuing for battle or typing “14” repeatedly into chatboxes until the host boots you, one can chat and trade loot/upgrades with other players or, as in Animal Crossing and its ilk, visit one another’s Capitals and gawk at their gilded baubles or some such.  It is these elements that most interest me, having given up on the online RTS scene years ago (not that my presense made much of an impact), where one can still enjoy an RTS with friends without feeling the need to queue hours per day in random ranked matches or, even worse, train one’s skills/build orders.

This all, it should be added, is all free to play, which the miser in me finds even more attractive.  Of course, the game is monetized by players engaging in a whole swathe of microtransactions, ranging from Premium Civilization packs, which contain new upgrades, items, and quests for your civilization of choice and will presumably be necessary for anyone hoping to compete PvP, to purely cosmetic additions to one’s Capital.  I wonder how pricey these various upgrades will end up being, but they will likely be an even stronger disincentive to experimenting with different civilizations, in addtion to the extant persisent elements.  Once you’ve put money into one civ, it seems foolhardy to go shopping around with the others.

All told, I am much more interested in the project than I was when it was first announced and look forward to seeing more as the release date (2011, unspecified) approaches.

Finally, because I know there are those who care: it seems priests have their AoE/AoK abilities (convert and heal), farms seem to work like AoM (individual but everlasting), the end game is like AoE3 (ubertechs for those who can afford them), army sizes from AoK/AoE3 (none of AoM’s 10 unit brawls), aging like AoM/AoE3 (can pick a specialization with each age), and villagers need to drop off resources (compared to AoE3’s instant accumulation).  In my mind, probably the best assortment of the variable elements imaginable.

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Responses

  1. I’m unlikely to get this. My concerns are threefold.
    (1) I have found micro-transaction based games generally to be infuriating investments. They tend to become a painful exercise in keeping up with the Joneses, with each new feature slightly stronger than the previous to punish those who don’t keep up-to-date.
    (2) I’m not a player who will enjoy playing the same game for months or years at a time – I tend to play a lot in a short span of time, then take a multi-month hiatus. This can be a problem with RTS games, as your skills atrophy and it’s hard to pick things up again a year later when you start playing. The one area it’s more of a problem is with MMOs, where not only have your skills atrophied but everyone else has gone and gotten better in-game stuff in the meantime.
    (3) I saw the dreaded phrase “experience points.” A little bit of grinding as a way of spacing between plot developments in RPGs can be tolerable (although not exactly fun). A lot of undesigned grinding, which is what you generally get when you add experience points to RTS games, is a terrible thing.

    That said, I did like the idea of a significant set of professionally-designed co-op maps. I think there’s a lot of potential in that idea for some really fun challenges. And if I got a friendly report from someone else who had already played it a fair amount and thought my concerns were unfounded, AND it offered a demo or trial before I had to toss down the cash, I might end up getting it.

  2. Having never tried microtransaction games, I will take your word on point 1. It seems that they are trying to go for a system similar to most Xbox games, where the DLC is more just additional (optional) content to allow you to plug more time into a game you like. The only aspect that gives me pause are the “premium civilization” upgrades, which thankfully seem only to be one-offs but I can envision having unfortunate side effects on balance and player decisions. I will reserve my judgment until I have a better idea of how Robot plans to implement things. Also, still chugging along with AoE3 and AoK after all these years (not to mention Brawl), I think fit their preferred customer model much more closely.

    Point 3 is utterly unjustified though. AoE3 already has a experience point system that works reasonably well. Though it occasionally influences some in-game decision-making (I never let my AI opponents resign until I’ve at least ripped through all of their points-rich plantations), it has never induced me towards grinding or churning through tedium just to get more points (in fact, ES punished overt grinders and system-gamers on ESO). The system simply rewards you for doing what you would have normally done in your average RTS, so, if you want more points, you just play more games. And since winners and losers both get experience, there is no need to go trolling for newbs to get free points (in fact, playing against an equally skilled player tended to be more efficient at gathering experience). Since all indications are the persistent elements will work similarly in AoEO, I would not be too worried.

    I suspect an open beta is coming in the summer times, so we can sign up then and see how it goes.

  3. There are no microtransactions (as microtransactions have been historically defined). If all you want to do is upgrade your Egyptian civ so you can play with the premium civ toys, you can do that. No other purchases are required.

    • ChuckieJ,

      Though the premium civ upgrades are not like a traditional microtransaction, there definitely will still be more traditional offerings too, like cosmetic/vanity additions to Capital Cities.


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