What Age of Empires Online says about Steam's impact on freetoplay games

Microsoft's attempt to reinvigorate its aging Age of Empires game franchise most recently resulted in a free-to-play game distributed on the company's (now shuttered) Games for Windows Live service. The game, Age of Empires Online, launched as a free title with two civilizations available to play as; any additional civilizations (initially) cost $20 apiece, a hefty price despite the amount of content therein (30ish hours per civilization). Longtime AOE fans, understandably, reacted negatively to the game's business model, which took the content previously offered in full from older AOE games and broke it up into an a la carte, F2P title.

As Microsoft AOEO executive producer Kevin Perry told a crowd of GDC Europe attendees this morning in a panel titled "F2P the Wrong Way: Age of Empires Online," the game outright "wasn't ready for launch" when it arrived in Summer 2011. Though Perry ran through a variety of ways that his team helped to fix AOEO's course, he brought up one particularly interesting factor: Valve's Steam game service. When the game hit Steam in March 2012, the game's DAU (daily active users) spiked by more than three times -- a larger bump than any other change by far, including new content (as seen in the above image).

That bump, however, was only temporary. Though the DAU number spiked for the month, there were bigger issues plaguing AOEO: each new civilization cost Microsoft a tremendous amount of time and money ("hundreds of thousands of dollars") to create, which led to huge gaps in time between content updates. Meanwhile, during those time gaps, players were shedding from the game. New content appeased the existing player base, but failed to bring in new players. Even though Steam managed to bring in some new users, in the long run it wasn't enough to save AOEO, Kerry said.

Age of Empires Online is no longer receiving updates, though Kerry was reticent to call his talk a "post-mortem" given that around 10,000 people are still playing. In the end, he said, changing the entire production model of the game was what it really needed. Sadly, he and his team realized that truth a bit too late.

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What Age of Empires Online says about Steam's impact on free-to-play games