Age of Empires Online was the first of its kind. It was the very first RPG MMO hybrid. The goal was to create a game in which you would level up and do co-op missions with friends, while still having the great multiplayer that Age of Empires has had across the three former games.
It was a hopeless mess…. and killed the Age of Empires series.
The studio that first started the game was Ensemble Studios, these were the guys who made the previous games. They had created a new company called Robot Entertainment (Orcs Must Die) and for whatever reason… they were replaced. Gas Powered Games were the guys who made Age of Empires 3 Imperial expansion, while Ensemble was working on this title.
Gas Powered Games took over development and from there on out it was just chaos.
When Microsoft first sold the game they were going to sell it as a stand alone title just like their previous Age of Empires games. So they tried to sell it for $60… people just were not biting. It was also pretty poor timing that Age of Empires 3 Complete package would be released only a few months after Age of Empires Online. Eventually they would release it as a free to play title with premium civilization purchases that would give you access to multiplayer.
Age of Empires 3 Complete for all intensive purposes was a better game that was more figured out and far less bug free. Generally speaking when you’re trying to move a community from one game to the other, you make the new game amazing and make the old game mostly unplayable.
Instead Microsoft always left their games in pretty good condition and so the community for Age of Empires really split up along the way. By the time Age of Empires Online released… Age of Empires 2 had a far larger community. Age of Empires 3 community was more likely to move back to play Age of Empires 2, than move forward and play Age of Empires Online.
#2. The Game Design
Age of Empires Online was designed around a casual RTS player… not the hardcore player base that they actually had a huge share of.
In the first it had a really tedious leveling system. You had to do the story to unlock the units that you would need to use in multiplayer.
So if you were a Level 10 you would be able to build villagers and a couple of barracks units. Level 20 you could build barracks units, early stables, and early archers. Hit Level 30 and you can do everything but your super units… which you’d get at Level 40.
The matchmaking system was designed that you would try and face people close to your level… but that just wasn’t always the case. The hardcore players might have played a few multiplayer matches… but quickly they’d realize they have to level… and grind.
This is really something your typical arcade RTS player wants to do. Your typical arcade RTS player wants to jump into the action. They don’t want to feel like they have to earn equality with someone, they want that equality and if they’re good enough beat them.
But the game’s start was very imbalanced and slowed people down. The hardcores were turned away by how long it would take to be able to functionally play the game and the casuals were turned away by how imbalanced the actual RTS part of the game was.
A part of the grind was developing specialized weapons, armored, and costumes for your units. At the beginning of the game you would craft and slowly upgrade things. It just meant that the more you played the further you got ahead… and the newer you were… the less likely you were to catch up.
It meant that newer players would be pushed away from the game and only the early obtainers or people who would grind would stay with it.
#3: The Steam Launch
The game launched on Steam to disaster. Age of Empires 3 Complete was a pretty big hit and seen as a huge value. The game was constantly going through Steam sales and it was felt that this would be a nice transition into Age of Empires Online.
But with very few good reviews, people were simply not willing to make the leap from AOE3 to AOEO.
Gas Powered Games however kept at it and continued to add premium civilizations in hopes that people would buy them. But GPG had a huge problem, they quality of content they were creating was not profitable. Creating a full 30-40 hour campaign for an individual civilization took 4-5 months a piece… and they simply were not getting sales.
Basically with a free to play title you do a certain calculation.
You assume that 5-6% of your player base will make one purchase a year ($30). In the free to play market they refer to anyone who will spend up to $200 a year as a “whale.” Less than a hundredth of a percent of players are whales.
The development cost of the content your are creating has to be less than amount of money you are expecting to get from that.
Age of Empires Online’s player base was shrinking and every single civilization was becoming less and less profitable until the final three premium civilizations were all counted as losses.
With games like these there is a hope that adding new content will bring in more players. Generally in an RTS game as you introduced expansions and reduced the price of the original game you would get a larger player base.
That simply was not happening, and on top of that after they made the change to being able to earn currency, people weren’t buying this content… they were earning it.
This kind of model works really well when new players are showing up and those existing players earning their purchases are keeping the game popular… but that simply was not happening.
Gas Powered Games officially announced they were dropping support for the game, they would not develop new content for the game and would do no further work on the game, including balancing. There was a hope by not developing any new content they could recoup their costs by simply collecting on all the premium civilizations they had created.
A few months later Gas Powered Games announced that they were cancelling their next game and another one was put “On Hold.” it was clear Gas Powered Games could not afford the losses they took from developing age of Empires Online’s premium content.
#4. Games for Windows Closes
The game might have been fine in a vegetated state if not for one big decision from Microsoft corporate, they were closing down Games for Windows.
Xbox Live was a huge hit. It is to date Microsoft’s only cool brand. Investors, speculators, analysts and big whigs were all recommending the same thing, change Xbox Live into the single platform for all of Microsoft’s games. Make it so that their only cool brand would link up the Windows operating system to their very popular Xbox experience.
By melding these two together they could pave the way for a lot more cross-platform (PC and Xbox) games in which players could play with each other, and it also meant they would gain more centralized information from people through a single Xbox service.
In order to do this they would have to close down Games for Windows.
So we have a problem, there is no one to encode Age of Empires Online to remove Games for Windows which is a DRM protocol required to run the game. So the game had a timeline.
In December the community organizer announced that it would be in June that the game would be shut down. They would not sell any new nations and all existing players would gain one free nation.
Some developers came forward to try and fix the game but they simply were not taking help, they wanted the game to die.
All the while Age of Empires 2 re-released as a HD version and saw rampant commercial success. It was so successful that they developed an expansion for it, the first expansion is almost a decade. The game still remains as one of the top games on Steam and has a giant growing community with ridiculous numbers of cash tournaments.