Fall of Empires: Why Did Age Of Empires Online Die?

ClbullClbull 2014-07-06 15:43:54

Microsoft’s free to play RTS flop Age of Empires Online is officially dead. According to an official post on Facebook last year, the game was due to shut down 1st July 2014 with the Age of Empires team announcing that Age of Empires III and Age of Empires II HD would be the continuation of the franchise.

The news of AOEO’s shutdown was met with universal dismay, both from players who invested time and money into the game, some of whom were demanding refunds and those who didn’t enjoy the game due to many reasons such its monetization model, a lack of features present in much older RTS titles, the game’s grindy nature and the overall state of Games For Windows LIVE.

AOEO was not necessarily bad in terms of the game’s mechanics. If anything, the title had solid gameplay mechanics and unit counters not only worked but were relatively easy to explain. Having played the title, I only had three moderate gripes with the actual game itself. Firstly, units felt like a mild devolution rather than an evolution over what earlier AOE titles offered you. Secondly, building upgrades couldn’t be triggered via hotkeys (a flaw present in other games of that franchise.) and thirdly, I never really got an opportunity to play multiplayer for reasons explained further in the article.

I am not going to lie, AOEO was one of the more refined Age of Empires games and given more features, more radical unit design that favoured micromanagement and a better business model, it could have even surpassed the critically acclaimed AOE2. However, that was not supposed to happen and the game’s failure mainly lay in the hands of decisions made by Microsoft, Robot Entertainment and Gas Powered Games.

Support Phase:

The first issue was a lack of support for the game from both Microsoft Studios and Gas Powered Games. On 3rd January 2013, Trajan announced that AOEO had, quote, “finished its development phase, and now moves on into its support phase.” In short, there would be no new content for the game, effectively hammering the first nail into its coffin. On why there would be no new content, Trajan simply stated:

Because creating top-tier content, as it has 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.

This is a bittersweet announcement for me to make. While I wish we had been able to add everything that we had wanted (especially a Roman civilization), I am very proud of the work that has been done to get to this point. Over the past year specifically we have made a significant amount of changes to the service, including highly complex changes like altering the business model entirely, while still adding a steady stream of high-quality content to the game itself. We have come a long way since August 2011. But now we have finished building the world of AOEO. We hope that you will join us in playing there for a long time to come.

It turns out ‘a long time to come’ was just nineteen months until Microsoft pulled the plug on the servers for good. The game’s shut down was announced just seven months after Trajan’s insistence that this was not the end of AOEO.

It’s unfortunate that GPG ran out of money to produce new content and having to announce this to the players would have undoubtedly damaged their faith in the game’s future. It is likely that investment into the game dropped considerably once people realized that it would no longer be supported through new updates. There was reasonable suspicion from the playerbase that the game's death was imminent and the news that the development team had run out of money to continue developing new content must have undoubtedly reduced faith in the game and hence reduced the number of sales on premium content.

Games For Windows Died:

The second issue was requiring Games For Windows LIVE to launch the game, even when the title was eventually released on Steam which would require you to go through three client launchers including Steam, GFWL and the actual game's launcher.

As a digital distribution platform, GFWL failed to gain any sort of popularity compared to the likes of Battle.net, Steam and Origin. Not even exclusive titles and DLC tied to GFWL could attract users to the service resulting in its shutdown in November 2013, which quickly led to the subsequent announcement of AOEO's shut down and prevented users from buying new DLC.

On top of this, users reported numerous flaws with the system such as incompatibility with certain routers, dropping players mid game for no reason, significant amounts of lag, the inability to even boot up at times, the system at one point using Microsoft Points instead of local currencies, games ported using Microsoft’s system only supporting the Xbox 360™ gamepad fully, the fact that the system logged you in and out between launching games, apparently poor customer service and the act of nickel & diming just for small things like changing your display name. Games For Windows LIVE also frustrated PC Gamers when required for certain PC ports such as Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas and Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition.

In short, perhaps tying Age of Empires Online to Games For Windows LIVE when other digital distribution platforms such as Steam were already widely available was a mistake, especially considering the frequently reported issues from users regarding the client.

Business Model:

The third issue is the overall business model used, which was inferior not only to full games released for a single fee but also to other free to play titles. The rework to the game's business model failed to really address this in any way other than to allow players to farm Empire Points at a drip rate as an alternative to paying close to $10 per Premium Civilization.

The reason why the game failed in that sense stems from many reasons. Free to play games such as League of Legends, World of Tanks, DOTA 2, SMITE and Heroes of Newerth at least let you play the actual game albeit with a limited amount of options.

For DOTA 2 these options were merely cosmetic as vanity upgrades, keys to unlock chests containing vanity upgrades, tournament tickets allowing you to watch professional leagues live or through replays within the game client itself as if you were actually in spectator mode, and boosts were the only things being sold for money. This, plus the reputation of Icefrog, plus the reputation of DotA Allstars as a mod originally created by Icefrog, plus Valve's reputation as a developer and publisher allowed DOTA 2 to grow into the second most popular eSports title. Out of all the games listed above, DOTA 2 is the only one that can truly be played for free from the get-go.

League of Legends, World of Tanks, SMITE and Heroes of Newerth draw players in by allowing them to actually play the game for free. With LoL, SMITE and HoN, you are limited to a free pool of playable champions that rotate every week and are expected to either pay or grind your way to unlocking more options. In World of Tanks, you are given every nation of Tier 1 tank, which you can sell and repurchase for virtually nothing. Tank upgrades and new tanks in the regular line are purchased through credits and experience, which are generally only really worth grinding. However, the only things they really charge you for is gold to buy premium tanks or to convert experience on an Elite status tank (all upgrades unlocked) for 'free experience' which can be used on any tank, not just the tank it is tied to.

Apart from the Type 59 which was not only nerfed considerably but also removed from the World of Tanks Store to "ensure a healthy gameplay balance at higher tiers, and also to encourage a wider variety of Tier VIII medium tank usage." Premium Tanks are relatively balanced in accordance to their tier and merely offer superior credits and experience when playing them, which make them useful for farming credits and free experience.

Age of Empires Online had none of this. Skirmish Mode favoured those who owned Premium Civilizations because it allowed them to equip blue quality items or above and use exclusive units requiring a Premium Civilization to unlock. Before Empire Points were introduced, this pretty much made Skirmish Mode entirely pay to win.

Then, there was Conquest Mode which was the only mode people really played because it felt more like classic Age of Empires and ensured a fair competitive playing field. Conquest Mode required a Premium Civilization but did not allow you to use in-game items which put everybody on equal footing.

This ties into the single biggest reason why AOEO failed. With nobody playing Skirmish Mode and queue times being very long to find a game, the only real option was to either pay up for a Premium Civilization or grind your way to the point where you were highly levelled enough to start doing daily quests for Empire Points through a repetitive, boring and sometimes tedious PvE campaign that did not represent the multiplayer experience of an AoE title at all, then grind Empire Points for days until you could afford a Premium Civilization. In short, the only real single player campaign in this game involved MMO-style quests that not only didn't represent the experience of a multiplayer Age of Empires game but was effectively required to access the game's multiplayer.

EA's depiction of a chicken crushed to death by corporate greed (Dungeon Keeper, iOS).

Business model wise, it was fair, certainly much better than EA’s mobile abomination Dungeon Keeper which disgustingly referred to 69.99 worth of gems as ‘Best Value’, and requires you to pay in said gems to accelerate single actions in the game which would take hours in real time otherwise. A better idea for value would have been to buy Dungeon Keeper and Dungeon Keeper II on GOG.com and saving over 60 on two far more functional games, which may not be portable but would not have been giving money towards half-baked efforts such as this.

Thankfully PC gaming hasn’t plunged into the deep end unlike mobile gaming which has raked in profits due to consistent nickel and diming to such levels that said games often cost much more than a standard AAA title would despite being on a similar quality to the kind of games you’d play for free on a site like Kongregate or Newgrounds.

Hopefully, AOEO should be a warning sign to publishers and developers on how not to design a free to play game. The business model wasn't that bad, but the game didn't incentivize players enough to play for free. If Gas Powered Games and Microsoft Games perhaps adopted the DOTA 2 business model and made everything in the game freely available except for cosmetic improvements such as a plethora of skins and voice packs sold for a small price tag, perhaps the game could have succeeded.

Or perhaps they could have taken ideas from League of Legends and World of Warcraft by asking the player to select one unit out of multiple choices similar to World of Warcraft's present talent system and kept other unit choices locked out until you either grind enough experience or pay money to unlock other choices.

Competitive Scene? Nope:

Another big reason why AOEO failed was a lack of eSports readiness.

Important features now taken for granted in the average RTS title were not included in AOEO such as replays,spectator support and even private matchmaking. When looking at the history of RTS games, games such as Age of Empires II, StarCraft: Brood War, Rise of Nations, Supreme Commander, StarCraft II, Age of Empires III, WarCraft III, Supreme Commander II and Company of Heroes had all of these features.

From release until the game's demise, AOEO only had private matchmaking later introduced in a content update. Replay support wasn't included afterwards.

The sad truth is that Microsoft and GPG expected AOEO to succeed because of the brand name alone. If anything, the huge wait for a new AOE title and this game damaged consumer faith in the brand, at least until Microsoft changed their strategy to re-release a critically acclaimed title in the series. Earlier in 2013, Microsoft announced Age of Empires II HD Edition for Steam to much excitement, anticipation and applause.

AOE2 commentator ZeroEmpires casts Game 1 of TyRanT vs CKF from The Medieval Wars

The game already boasted a strong and vibrant competitive scene despite being over a decade old. Thousands upon thousands of dollars have been put on the line in the name of competition over recent years and the competitive scene is thriving more than ever with no help or intervention from Microsoft at all.

In fact, the game shares a similar story to Super Smash Bros Melee which despite being over a decade old saw a huge resurgence in recent years without any form of support from the publishers to the point where even Major League Gaming have picked up the title. Unlike Microsoft who quietly embraced AOE2's competitive scene, Nintendo originally frowned upon theirs to the point of attempting to shut down the Melee event at EVO 2013.

The only big issue with Age of Empires II as a competitive title is that the community is highly fragmented across three different platforms, none really holding any sort of competitive edge over the other. Voobly is the ladder where serious competitive players hang out and where most of the huge tournaments are held and Gameranger has more of a casual community surrounding it. Both servers require an original (not Steam) copy of AOE2, ideally with The Conquerors to play.

The third option, which is the easiest but most expensive, is to buy Age of Empires II HD on Steam and gain access to a matchmaking ladder similar to Voobly's integrated into the game client itself. However, two barriers prevent AOE2's official re-release from becoming the de facto way to play the game.

Given the age of the original game released back in 1998, AOE2HD is ludicrously priced. The original game costs 14.99 on Steam and the Forgotten expansion costs 6.99. In a bundle, the game costs 22.99 on Steam which is actually 1.01 more than buying the two separately at 21.98. A copy of Age of Empires II: Gold Edition (including the original game and The Conquerors) can be obtained for a price as cheap as 4.49 in a physical format from Amazon.co.uk. The additional features including improved textures, greater resolution support, Twitch integration and attack-moving with The Forgotten expansion do not justify the increase in price tag.

Then there’s how the game handles in multiplayer; sadly present in all three options. Players end up frequently dropped, latency is sky high and the first few minutes of a multiplayer match result in lag spikes. This is likely due to either peer-to-peer matchmaking or the game's netcode.

Age of Empires II HD Edition and Age of Mythology: Extended Edition are certainly a step in the right direction from Microsoft, but are highly priced. It also raises the question of when and if there will be a new entry in the Age of Empires franchise and how the game will be improved from there.

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