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.

  • WolfKrad

    2011, September 28th 9:38 AM

    "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."

    Obvious reply: "Why? Broke players don't give us any money!"

    I'd go a bit further: make sure that some items can only be obtained by paying money and other items only through an investment of time. And, of course, make everything tradeable between players.

    Let's say there are two things you need in order to be successful in a game: boats and fish. A boat costs real money, but fish can only be caught.

    The rich players will just buy their boats, but will still need fish.
    The broke players will spend their time catching fish, but will still need a boat.

    Result: rich players buy extra boats to trade for fish. Everybody wins.

  • Zorba

    2011, September 28th 7:16 PM

    But my point is that broke players can consume the money the devoted players are willing to plow into it. You can't give people an unlimited amount of premium content without the user feeling like they're being nickel and dimed to death, but you *can* make nearly unlimited things for people to buy in an economy setting. If you do that, then the players with time on their hands will actually pay indirectly, via the players with money on their hands.

    I'd go a bit further: make sure that some items can only be obtained by paying money and other items only through an investment of time

    This is certainly one way to do it, and it's what Eve Online does. Puzzle Pirates has a different approach, in that most items require ingame money and out-of-game money, but at varying ratios depending on the item.

  • Mark

    2011, October 3rd 3:33 AM

    I used to play EVE a lot. The default subscription is obviously pretty high, but I felt, at the time, it was worth it compared to other MMOs for the unique political/social/espionage activities you can get up to in EVE, which really don't carry over to other MMOs. Likewise, the feeling of building something up (say, a very expensive ship) and then running the risk of losing it felt natural to me (as an ex professional poker player), and that didn't phase me like it seemed to others.

    However, I quit roughly when the shop for Monocles, and breeches, and hats, and whatever came out – not because of that, but I still didn't think anyone would seriously buy them. They are, as you say, nothing more than *cosmetic* changes, and yet people will buy them! It's bizarre. Even if you buy them with in-game money, it's still in-game money that could have been spent on something else. To be honest, I think buying any kind of cosmetic thing in EVE would be bizarre – player images are seen in their high-res version too rarely to buy monocles, and ships are seen in their non-destroyed form too rarely to be worth decals or anything like that. Yet CCP did, indeed, make $3000, even if nobody paid directly with money, as EVE has such a close corollary between real/in-game money. Bizarre.

  • Zorba

    2011, October 3rd 3:51 AM

    I think it really depends on the cost, the scope, and what other money drains exist. I paid ingame money for fancy clothes in Puzzle Pirates because I didn't have anything else I desperately wanted and I thought it looked awesome. If I was still playing EVE, I'd probably be playing in a corp that pays for most of my war losses, I'd be trying to make money anyway because I think it's fun, and I'd be sitting on billions of isk.

    (I mean, I already am sitting on billions of isk, it's just all on an account I don't play.)

    I could easily see myself paying a hundred million isk or two to get a really awesome-looking avatar. It's not really a question of what's "profitable", it's a question of what makes me happiest. Bam, that's CCP getting $10 or $20 in digital clothing right there.

    Maybe the trick is to have two groups of people, one who thinks of ingame money as being not terribly worthwhile, and one who thinks of ingame money as being incredibly valuable. The latter group puts hard cash into the system, the former group turns their boring ingame money into shiny hats and things because why the hell not.

  • Fed

    2011, October 23rd 8:25 AM

    The works of all its that AoE Online was cool, but if you realy like the game, you cant buy only 1 pack, you need to buy all of them and thats a lot of money, and they are going to keep adding packs, so…

    BTW they copied Company of Heroes Online

  • Fed

    2011, October 23rd 8:26 AM

    The worst of all*

  • Nick

    2011, November 1st 1:15 PM

    @Fed: The funniest part about Company of Heroes Online is that it was a massive failure. Copying that formula is not a good idea.

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