A community moderator was announced a few weeks ago on the AoE2HD steam forums. I thought what’s the point of that, unless Microsoft Studios is planning to do something beyond just releasing semi-professional expansions every year until the fanbase stops caring, and more importantly, stops paying. With how conservative they’ve been spending money on the project, why start paying some mod just to talk to the fanbase? I thought something was up.
Next thing, AoE1 gets a re-release and just this morning I had to fill out a survey. Clearly Microsoft is thinking of doing something, and this time it’s not ambiguous what franchise they might be thinking of. More on that later.
Microsoft and AoE
I’ve been a harsh critic of Microsoft when it comes to how they’ve treated the AoE franchise ever since they bought Ensemble. Microsoft is not alone here. EA is equally to blame, if I’m allowed to say this, for the near death state of RTS. I don’t believe the market disappeared, I think the genre was killed (almost) by poor management. Ensemble was bought because a talented team was working there, not necessarily because decision makers at Microsoft respected their flagship franchise. We understand that this is a business. When decisions are made on that level, there are different considerations than those that are shared by gaming fans, obviously. But we respect a publisher that cares about integrity and takes pride in serving their fanbase, beside just making money. I would support Blizzard, whom I respect, if only I liked fantasy-style games. I don’t, I like realistic games like AoE and C&C. No decision maker at Microsoft cared all that much about Age of Empires, simply because it wasn’t their baby. Microsoft’s baby was Halo, it’s their own flagship title, they despised PC at the time because it was all about Xbox, and thus it made sense to put the talented team on their baby to see if they could lend their RTS expertise to expand the Halo empire. It wasn’t a huge success, certainly compared to the hall of fame level of success that AoE achieved. Even if it were, it wasn’t particularly respectful to AoE fans to just hijack a studio and let it die.
When news came out january 2015 that Microsoft Studios was looking for some lead designer to work on a “beloved RTS franchise”, I remember thinking christ, they better be talking about Age of Empires or these people are seriously deluded. You have to be high on Halo-hubris to use the term “beloved” in an RTS context, when everyone knows you hold the rights to Age of Empires. Not sure what happened there, because we haven’t heard of “Decisive Games” since, but it looks like Microsoft’s interest in AoE is for real this time.
If it turns out the last few years over at steam have simply been Microsoft testing the waters for a full scale RTS release, that would be good news. That would make the cautious support that we’ve been given until now okay. We understand the need to be cautious, because you run the risk of wasting money, trying to invest in an almost dead genre. Until now, I didn’t entertain the possibility of caution, I assumed greed and lack of vision. For a while there, most of us at steam were seriously under the impression that Microsoft had given up on the franchise, and were basically conning the loyal fanbase for as long as it could be milked with buggy expansions one after another. Some were okay with this, saying it’s better than nothing. Some are more principled. I have no problem saying it now because it looks like Microsoft is trying to fix things, but their apparent disdain for PC gaming in the past, and their treatment of AoE in particular caused me not to consider supporting their console either.
That said, if Microsoft is really thinking of going big with AoE again, I think testing the waters for an almost dead genre is reasonable, and I’d like to thank them for their trust and their renewed interest. The water is good, apparently.
There are a few obvious things I would like to say before they pull a C&C Generals 2 on us and decide the franchise may not be worth the trouble after all.
Age of Empires 4
If Microsoft is planning a big new AoE, you can be guaranteed they’re thinking of ways to put it on Xbox. I don’t own an Xbox and I certainly don’t intend to play an RTS on a console personally. But if they’re planning to make something cross platform, I think I speak for the community when I say that we have no gripes with that, and some of us might even be interested to play the game on the couch, as long as it doesn’t mean the mechanics for the PC version have to be “dumbed down” to make it possible. We do not want the classic controller bottlenecking RTS mechanics. It could be done with FPS, it cannot be done with RTS. Not without dumbing down the PC version. Whatever solution Microsoft comes up with for the console, please do not make concessions on the PC front. It would be a mistake.
Is AoE2 the most popular title because of its time-period, or because it had the best game mechanics? Both are valid points, but it would certainly be a mistake to try and pull off a WW1-era AoE. To remain on the safe side, it’s looking obvious that if a comeback is being planned, it’ll have to be either the ancient or medieval time period. If that pays off, then sure, look into a modern era AoE. But for now, medieval history is a safe bet. It has the biggest fanbase and therefore the lowest chance of commercial failure. Don’t do a Civilization style progression where we advance through multiple millennia either. Keep things within a recognizable period. Historical campaigns wouldn’t make sense otherwise, either. If other members disagree, let Microsoft know in the comments.
Mechanics & Graphics
Too many old school franchises have been ruined by developers trying to reinvent the wheel. 3D is “better” than 2D, VR is better than 3D, more options, more complexity is better than less, all that. But I’ll choose Rollercoaster Tycoon 1, Worms Armageddon, the Sims 1/2, over later versions any time. There’s a reason for this besides nostalgia. There’s only so much innovation you can do before you start to seriously mess with core mechanics. Metroid Prime is an example of a risky experiment gone right, but that doesn’t work too often. Don’t do that unless you’re absolutely sure of what you’re doing. For a good example, the latest Donkey Kong Country games do have a modern feel, but the core mechanics remain true to the originals. The same will be true of the recently announced 3DS Metroid. Please learn from EA’s failure with C&C Generals 2, and the success of Starcraft 2.
Actually, AoE3 can be accused of this to a certain extent. Start with AoE2’s mechanics, and see which features can be modernized without fixing what isn’t broken.
Super Smash Bros. Melee is still going strong despite no support (actually, outright hostility by Nintendo). AoE2 is still going strong despite weak support, and there’s a reason Starcraft is still around and C&C isn’t, beside EA killing it. C&C was popular, but never had a competetive scene. RTS is a relatively niche-like market, but that niche market tends to be more enthousiast than that of other genres, especially the segment that enjoys multiplayer. Trust this: you make a solid RTS that stays true to the original formula and lends itself to competition, tournaments alone will generate revenue for decades. You sell less copy’s than you would a big budget FPS, but you make more from the competetive scene.
Here’s one thing I am not sure of. These things are hard to measure because the data isn’t there. I know Microsoft is measuring this with their survey, and I’m definitely biased because I don’t play RTS for multiplayer, but a solid campaign mode seems to be more important to an RTS than it is for a typical FPS, in order to sell. COD campaigns are nonsense. C&C Generals 2 was originally intended as a multiplayer title only, which seems to be a mistake. A substantial part of the RTS community is intimidated by the idea of playing competitively, and enjoys simply playing through the campaigns on their own pace.
These opinions I take it are close to the average view of the fanbase. If not, responses in this thread and elsewhere will speak for themselves. I did mention a few other publishers, I trust this is within the code of conduct.
I hope I’m not completely off the mark assuming that Microsoft is open to a medium to big-budget Age of Empires, rather than just pumping out HD versions and Microsoft-sponsored fanmade expansions. If Microsoft determines that there’s no market at this point for a big budget RTS (which may well be the case, I’m not aware of the data), I guess something along the lines of a remake or re-imagining on a modern engine is something we’ll have to be satisfied with. Anything better than milking the old games on their original engines until the franchise dies. For now, those will keep us busy. Whatever it is, I’m positive it will sell well, as long as the above criteria are met. Discuss.