Age of Empires Online is a free-to-play online game, but every free-to-play game needs to make money somehow. Kotaku spoke to members of the game's development team about the newly-unveiled Egyptian civilization and how gamers can pay to play.
Age of Empires, released in 1997 for the PC, was one of the first real-time strategy games with a basis in real-world history. Players took control of one of several different ancient civilizations, gathering resource and advancing through the ages from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. Along the way players do battle with other civilizations, participating in random battles or premade scenarios.
It's a formula that's been tweaked over the course of multiple sequels and spin-offs, leading up to Age of Empires Online, which brings perhaps the biggest change of all to the series: A persistent online world. Your civilization progresses while you're away from the game. Friends can visit, purchasing items from your shops or admiring the scenery. Your city lives on while you sleep.
Developed by Robot Entertainment, a studio made up of former members of original Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios, Age of Empires Online combines the real-time strategy gameplay that is the core of the franchise with the persistent social elements of games like FarmVille, allowing players to maintain and decorate their own growing city, hiding complex mechanics through cartoon-ish visuals.
Walk Like An Egyptian
Just look at these first screenshots for the newly-revealed Egyptian civilization, joining the previously announced Greeks as one of two available when the game launches.
"They play a lot differently than the Greeks," says design lead Ian Vogel on the Egyptians. "I think they made a great fit for Age as one of the two launch Civs."
The Egyptians are much more than just the Greeks with a fresh coat of paint, Vogel explains. "This isn't just cut-and-paste gameplay. These guys age up differently than the Greeks and have early game mechanics that are very, very different from the Greeks."
For instance, the Egyptians can age-up (the game's equivalent of leveling-up) by creating religious beliefs. Utilizing these beliefs Egyptian players will be able to create new villagers, enhancing their economy while the Greeks are limited to whatever villagers they have at any given time.
The strong focus on religion also grants Egyptians access to combat units that cause chaos on the battlefield or convert other player's troops.
At an early stage the Egyptian civilization gains access to the priestess unit. She can speed up building time, grant bonuses to resources gathered, and speed up the time it takes to train new units, all via the power of religion.
"There really starts to be this really cool new aspect to the Egyptians that the Greeks just don't have," says Vogel.
With their own unique set of storylines, quests, and that unmistakable Egyptian aesthetic, the ancient civilization should provide a lovely counterpoint to the militaristic Greeks as one of the two launch civs for Age of Empires Online.
Free-To-Play, To An Extent
Once we finished talking Egypt with Ian Vogel we were joined by executive producer Danan Davis to talk about how this free-to-play online PC game planned on making money. While the exact prices are still being ironed out, the team delivers details on what players will be paying for once the game comes out.
"We're not doing microtransactions," Davis tells us right off the bat. "We're not going to try to nickel-and-dime players. We're not going to allow a player to come in and buy the 'Epic Sword of Foo' to win the entire game."
There's also no monthly subscription. Anyone can create an account and play through a generous amount of content, with no restrictions on the missions they want to participate in or the gear they collect. A free-to-play player can play any civilization, completing all of the quests. They can even play cooperatively with a friend.
But there are restrictions. Free players can only use gear labeled uncommon. They'll still collect more powerful rare and epic items, but they won't be able to use them. They'll be limited to the free-version of player-versus-player combat. They'll be limited in the amount of resources they can collect and the goods they can craft. They won't be able to use Advisors, which are essentially powerful abilities personified.
How do they overcome these limitations? By purchasing Premium Civilization Upgrades. Civilization Upgrades unlock premium features for a player based on the civilization they are playing. Purchase the Egyptian upgrade, and the limitations are lifted as long as you are playing that civilization. Unlocking features on the Greek side would require a separate purchase.
The premium upgrade also gives players the ability to gain kickbacks from stores placed in their cities. Rare stores are discovered as one plays through the game, carrying items that other players can purchase should you place those items in your city. With the premium upgrade in place, those stores will pay you a portion of their sales in in-game currency. You get paid (in-game, at least) to play.
Won't this cause balance issues between free players and premium players? Ian Vogel fields that question.
"If you compare the equal abilities of a free player and the same person with the same skills that has the premium stuff, the premium stuff is going to be better," Vogel admits. "But it's not wildly disproportionate. You have to play the game. You can't just get all the cool stuff and go out and start kicking ass."
Players will also be able to purchase booster packs containing standalone adventures (Davis gives Alexander the Great's invasion of India as an example), as well as vanity packs, which are stores that you can place in your city that sell decorative items you can use to decorate your city. Davis says that players in beta are already using these decorative items to create elaborate pictures on their land, or to highlight stores on their lands that sell the best items, making it easier for visitors to find them.
"We are honestly trying to provide players with good value for their dollar, giving them ways to let them buy what they want," says Davis. "Here we're allowing players to buy the content they like."