I believe I’ve written something similar before, but now it’s a good time to bring up this topic again as the free mode would cause an influx of new players hesitating whether to stick around.
TLDR: The greatest strength of AOE3 is its great depth, but it’s not well presented. It needs ways to better motivate players to explore stuff.
It’s pretty obvious that AOE3 has unprecedented depth for an AOE or even a RTS. So it cannot directly copy the mode of other games. For most RTS, you skim through the tech tree and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what you have at hand. In AOE3 that’s only a small part.
That would have two possible impacts on new players:
(1) A new player only experiences a small part of the game, missing its major charm.
(2) A new player is intimidated by the amount of choices.
Because there aren’t many other effective ways to really learn the game. Just skirmish, which means everyone needs to start picking 25 cards from 100+ cards and learn how to make a good strategy out of it.
Great depth is both a blessing and a curse. It’s like a very powerful machine with big potential but also requires more careful maintenance. AOE3 is one of the few RTS where you can have a totally novel experience with a different deck, or map, or even matchup. But you’ll need to motivate people to try them out first. It could be a storyline (as in most RPGs), a tutorial, some reward system, or highlighted locations on the map or whatever. You cannot throw everything onto the player and leave it to them to figure out. It needs special attention and wit to make full use of.
The tutorial is no more than first few scenarios of AOE2’s William Wallace, and the Art of War for AOE3 is the following few scenarios of William Wallace. Where is the actual Art of War?
As the civs are vastly more unique, it is a good idea to copy the mastery mode from AOE4. Each civ should have a few short missions or challenges to highlight their strength and main playstyle.
After you play AOE2 campaigns, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how that civ plays (and the civs are much simpler). You almost experience 90% of the civ.
In AOE3 a lot civs have not made one appearance in any campaign. And when they do you have a very trimmed or modified version. There is almost no takeaway from it.
I think each civ should have at least 1~2 scenarios, with carefully built decks, and the playthrough should guide people into trying them out.
Some games (like SC2) have campaigns where you gradually unlock units and bonuses. AOE3 campaigns also allow you to gradually obtain cards. That’s a great mode to help the players familiarize themselves with the contents, and should be better utilized. In short, we need campaigns with good guidance and progression using actual in game civs.
Having a special playable civ for the campaigns is also both a good and bad thing. The positive side is it’s more flexible. The negative side is it does not naturally update when the civ gets updated (like in AOE1/2, or most non-playable factions in AOE3 which reuse skirmish civs).
It’s okay if they are a little different from skirmish civs stats-wise or balance-wise, but they should be updated to the more recent mechanics. The first experience players may have is usually the vanilla campaign, and it has been so outdated compared to skirmish now.
This is probably the easiest to implement. They need to be more useful than they are now. For example I still see 6 cows in some beginner decks…
Maybe each civ can have a short introduction about recommended cards and how to use them.
As I’ve mentioned the mode of AOE3 is different from most other RTS. Maybe we should borrow ideas from other genres.
I hardly see anyone complain about Total War having too many units and mechanisms because you have a long game and a big map that encourages you to explore the in-game contents.
The old progression system seems to me a good idea done wrong. It is a means for gradual learning, but the only way to progress is to grind a lot of skirmishes. That’s why most people including many AOE3 players did not like it.
But it could still be better utilized. It already works quite nicely in campaigns. If you have a story to complete, along which you unlock cards, it is more motivating than starting another random skirmish. Could we improve it further? Such as a world map? Or at least a sequence of well-crafted skirmishes? I believe no one would object the idea of unlocking more powerful stuff by completing some given objective or conquering a new turf.