Age of Empires Online came out recently. I played it for a bit.
It's fun. They did a good job with the beginning, at the very least. You have quests, like a normal MMO, but each "quest" is an real-time-strategy mission. It's pretty cleverly built, to be honest – if one mission is too tough, you can come back to it later after you've leveled up a bit. "Leveling up a bit" is what replaces the old tech unlocking process. Instead of saying "after mission 12 you can use ballistas", they say "after you gain 12 tech points you can use ballistas", and each mission gives you a tech point, and you can reset your tech points for a fee if you want to try a different build. So that's cool.
It also has an inventory system. You can collect equipment for your units. Equipping units gives your units bonuses. I didn't get far enough to see if this is a tradeoff deal, where you'll be sitting there saying "hmm, do I want faster cavalry or stronger cavalry", or whether it's just a strict linear upgrade sequence. But it exists. Along with inventory comes crafting, where you can take raw materials that you find and turn them into gear, and I'm assuming there's an auction house and trading and all the standard stuff that comes along with crafting.
It's an interesting approach, and I'm not sure if I think it's a good idea – a good RTS is balanced on a razor wire, and this feels like wildly shaking the razor wire. But this entry isn't about that.
Age of Empires Online is "free-to-play" with "micropayments". You'll notice the scare quotes. First off, the micropayments are pretty damn macro. The cheapest things you can buy are $5, and those are purely cosmetic items for your capital city, and there's four of them. For the price of all the cosmetic items, you could buy the X-Com Complete Pack on Steam – including five games, two of which are great and a third of which is totally playable as long as you don't get frustrated easily – and still have cash left for an overpriced coffee.
You can also buy the Premium Civilization Packs. These take the civilization you choose and give you . . . well, the rest of the civilization. See, it's free to play, but it's not really free to play everything. Large segments of the game, including a lot of the gear you get, including Advisors, including a good chunk of the game's economy, are only available if you buy the complete packs, which cost $20 each. Keep in mind there's one of these per civilization. If I've been playing Greek, and I decide I want to switch to Egypt, I get to fork over another $20 for it. That's the price of an entire game.
Then there's a game mode, Defense of Crete, that costs another $10.
And the thing is that I sorta want to play these modes. I enjoy the game. It's fun. It's a nice timekiller between doing other things. But the game spends an incredible amount of time telling me I'm a second-class citizen. "You should learn a crafting skill! You can learn two! Yay, you've learned one! What, you want to learn a second? Haha, I'm sorry, you need a premium civilization for that. Lol. Loser. Hey go do this mission, you get rare equipment from it! You can't use the equipment, but you can totally look at it. Man. Isn't that shiny? Premium civilization, dude. You could make and sell gear like this! Oh, wait, I'm sorry, you need a premium civilization for that. $20. Fork it over."
Which reminds me a lot of Puzzle Pirates. Puzzle Pirates has a similar system, where large parts of the game are locked away. If you want to do all the trade puzzles, you need a trade badge. If you want to captain a ship, you need a captain badge. If you want to go sea monster hunting, you need a sea monster badge.
The difference is that, in Puzzle Pirates, these badges don't cost money. They cost doubloons. And there's two ways to buy doubloons. First, you can pay money for them. Second, you can pay in-game money for them . . . by buying them from other people who paid real money for them.
Realize that Puzzle Pirates still gets just as much cash either way. It doesn't matter who bought the doubloons. Someone bought them, and then someone spent them, and there's no need for those people to be the same person. For someone like me, who treats the game as a fun timewaster, this is perfect. I can burn some time enjoying my puzzling, make ingame money, use that money to buy doubloons, and get access to further parts of the game.
And here's the brilliant part. If, later, I decide I need a ton of ingame money to buy a boat, I can fork over $10 on doubloons, turn those doubloons into ingame money through the exact same trading system, and buy a boat without having to grind.
No matter what game you're making, there will always be people who would like to trade time for ingame shinies and people who would like to trade real money for time. These people are your best friends because, together, they give you money that you would never have gotten otherwise. But if you don't allow those transactions – if you cater only to the group of people who want to trade real money for ingame shinies – then you're cutting out a significant portion of your userbase.
One last story before I wrap this up. Recently, Eve Online added a new cosmetic item: a monocle. The monocle could be purchased in their online store for Aurum, a currency similar to Puzzle Pirates' Doubloons. A little math quickly demonstrated that this monocle would cost $60 if you were to buy it with real money. The community hated it – what moron would pay $60 for a virtual monocle – but CCP stuck to their guns. In two days, they sold fifty of 'em.
I don't know for sure, but I'd wager that the majority of those weren't purchased with dollars. There are a lot of players in Eve Online who have horrifying amounts of ingame money. I'd wager that a lot of those monocles were the result of a player saying "hey, that space monocle is pretty, and I'm space-rich, so, I'll buy it with my space money!"
And yet, CCP still made $3000 in two days, possibly without anyone giving them a single dollar for a monocle.
Guys: Knock it off with the free-to-play games with twenty-dollar mandatory micropayments. Make a sensible economy, then rig things up so that your devoted players can give you extra money and your broke players can consume it. It benefits us all.