We get the feeling there's a bit of assuming going on when it comes to Age of Empires: Online - the art style makes it look like a Facebook game, but the fact that RTS legends Gas Powered Games are involved also suggests that something deeper might be going on as well. Strategy Informer decided to go talk to Danan Davis and Chris Taylor to get to the bottom of things:
Strategy Informer:Just to spend a little time on the circumstances surrounding Gas Powered's involvement in AOEO... I'm sure you can agree it's not common for such a switch to happen when it comes to developing a game - were there any procedural or logistical issues you had to overcome? I assume it wasn't as simple as just picking up where Robot left off?
Chris and Danan: It was definitely an unusual challenge but given how much content we are delivering this next year, we knew it made sense to have multiple teams involved in the development process. In order to ensure the quality remained high, we brought GPG on early enough to have them to work alongside Robot to transfer knowledge. Though this may sound surprising, the whole process went very smoothly.
Strategy Informer:Have GPG changed or tweaked anything that Robot had already done? Or maybe done something that kind of puts GPG's 'mark' on the game?
Chris and Danan: Absolutely. The game is always changing and improving. GPG is developing new modes of play, new civilizations, polishing quests, improving overall usability, to name but a few areas, generally working on all aspects of the game.
Strategy Informer:One of the main problems with the perception of Micro-transaction games is that, at the moment, gamers aren't used to it, and you often find them getting irate over being charged for something they're usually used to getting for free, or part of the initial package. How are you going to manage gamers strong sense of entitlement?
Chris and Danan: You're hitting on exactly why we went with a different model, one that uses "packs" to expand the game, rather than micro transactions . We think it packages up enough content for players to get tremendous value and also giving them choice on the features they want to play with, in addition to the huge amount of content that is free to play with the Civilizations.
Strategy Informer:Another danger with this model is that it might create... not an 'elite' class, but people who have more disposable income than others will be able to purchase more. How do you balance that?
Danan Davis: It's been a concern for us since the beginning. The macro-transaction model is the one we've settled on and one we really like. Maybe that will change in the future, but I don't see... what we like though is that your buying packs, you're not buying specific pieces of gear or anything. You bought the pack, and that gear is now available to you but you still have to go find it - through quests or drops. That in itself doesn't inherently make it so that "I can spend more money than you, so I can flat-out beat you". Now, it does mean that when we come out with something like Defence of Crete which does have new loot - how do we balance that?
Well we have so many different parameters to balance, that it actually gives us a lot of flexibility to put out new gear in holes that don't exist. If you're an Archer guy, you may not have the gear that you want from this particular pack or whatever... so trade for it. Or go and get the pack. So we have a lot of parameters that stop it from becoming like "you HAVE to have this pack, or there's no point in playing".
Strategy Informer:One of the key tenants of strategy is diversity, but also adhering to the rock-beats-paper-beats-scissors-beat-shotgun mentality of trying out-best your opponent. Given that users won't all have access to all the content, how are you going to make sure that diversity remains so that things like PvP will still remain interesting, even for players who haven't bought as much?
Chris and Danan: The way we have setup our Premium purchases it actually makes it easy to allow players to have comparable Civs. A Premium Civ Pack unlocks the ability to equip all Rare and Epic items and Advisors which are the 2 things that have the most diversity. However, because those items can be traded amongst players and earned through loot drops you always have the opportunity to remain competitive by acquiring those items. New packs that come out will have new gear available, but even if you don't buy the pack most of it will be available through the global economy in game.
Strategy Informer:Speaking of PvP - so far you've mentioned there will be 1v1 and 2v2 matches, along with ranked matches - will there be other game mode variations planned or included? even AoE2 had modes like Regicide.
Chris and Danan: We have a lot of exciting modes of play in development, and at launch we will have the Defence of Crete, which takes what we call the "Comp Stomp" to the next level. PvP is another area we will continually be expanding on, and down the road, we'll likely bring back a lot of the old favourites.
Strategy Informer:You guys were keen to differentiate AoEo from browser games like Farmville or CityVille, yet when the calling for Alpha testers was made back before the game was officially announced, it was looking for players with experience with these type of games. Given how widespread and viral Zynga-like games are becoming, do you think it's important to include some element of them at least?
Chris and Danan: Those games do a great job of tapping into the social behaviours that we absolutely look for in AOEO. We want players to engage more socially with AOEO than past Age games since we think it really improves the experience. Though playing games alone can be a lot of fun, playing games with your friends is usually better. I think our free to play model, our new Ambassador quests, even our crafting and trading systems all improve by paying close attention to what's happening in other online games, but with the added depth of play that makes sure it is still an Age of Empires game.
Strategy Informer:You've mentioned how Age of Empires: Online is a 'huge' game, but how do you quantify that? If you look at GPG's previous franchises like Supreme Commander - that was a conceptually huge game as well with all the strategy and micromanagement.
Chris Taylor: It was huge mechanically in terms of the rule-set and the emergent behaviour which I was a big fan off because of the physics model. But this is huge... if it were fruit you would have oranges, bananas, apples, tangos... so many flavours or modes to play. We've got Sparta and the PvP, and if you look at that, in a traditional RTS game, that is usually an afterthought... well, afterthought isn't really fair - but you have a limited number of resources, right? You have a limited amount of time.
You gotta say to the team - "look, I know you're trying to get the frame rate up, and I know you're trying to finish all that single-player, and you've got to make it compatible with all this... oh, and by the way, we need a PvP mode." Unless you have five years to make it - these experience have to be whittled down to... responsible amounts. When this game ships though, it 'starts', it's like today's the first day of the rest of your life. It gets bigger from here.
Danan Davis: I've been doing boxed products for 17 years, and this product was really cool to work on just because the fact that's online and that, we don't have to worry about what we're doing for the next expansion or whatever 6, 8 months down the line, what are we doing the WEEK after we launch. It's a whole different shift of mentality. It's been a lot of fund from a development standpoint to get into that model.
Strategy Informer:Seeing as in you guys have included a lot of MMO type elements - one things MMO's always have to be mindful off is 'End-Game' content. Assuming players don't want to start a new civ, or buy a pro civ or whatever, what do they do with their current Civ once they've reached level 40? What is the 'end-game' here?
Chris Taylor: Endgame... you know that keeps coming up. What we're realising... it's not the arrival, it's the journey. You get sandbox games, like Minecraft example, and people say "well how do you win!?" and you're like "er... I'm enjoying myself. I don't want to win?". That's our job - to continue to provide more content for people to play with. Whether it's PvP, or a new booster... and all the while they are playing the Civ, and hopefully are waiting for the next Civ to come out. It's not quite the same though... doesn't quite map... people like to map an experience they've had under another experience. Like they'll say "well in WoW for example I played till level 60, and then the expansion came out and played till level 70, and then I waited for the next expansion" - we're trying to avoid that scenario where they are waiting at the end, with new content always coming through so they have choice.
Danan Davis: It depends on what kind of player you are - if you're a PvP person, there is no end. For a PvE player... take the Defence of Crete pack, for example - that's a wonderful end-game scenario. You dial in the difficulty you want. You have leaderboards to compare score... I will say, there are other things I can't quite talk about yet, for the endgame as well. I'll say this though - Level 40 is not really the end of the game.
Not sure if you could tell from the transcript, but these guys seem incredibly passionate about this, and had ALOT to say. At the very least then, we can say that the AoE franchise seems to be in good hands, it's just a matter of how the game turns out once it's been launched. Stay tuned for some impressions from the beta.