Age of Empires Online's freemium model was unsustainable due to the game's lack of content, which drove the game's revenue into the ground, according to Microsoft Studios executive producer Kevin Perry.
Speaking during a presentation at GDC Europe 2013, Perry said the real-time strategy massively multiplayer online game launched two years ago as "an okay game but with a bad free-to-play business model." Perry said the game started at launch in 2011 with 100,000 active users before it "fell right off a cliff," with only 15,000 users active by December and almost no revenue.
According to Perry, the game didn't launch "with enough stuff" and with several features missing. Age of Empires Online had only two playable civilizations and one booster at launch, which Perry said players perceived as "much less than previous Age titles." The game also had no Skirmish mode at launch — a popular, low-commitment feature among Age of Empires players — which contributed to player dissatisfaction. The game's level and gear-based player-versus-player modes were also unappealing to players used to traditional skill-based PvP.
But it was the poor business model that lead to Age of Empires Online's ultimate failure, Perry said. The game's small, poorly monetized player base meant the game wasn't making any revenue, and it didn't help that the title was "too small" at launch.
"You don't get a soft launch for a branded title," Perry said. "Players come there for your brand. You only get word-of-mouth once. Whenever we got new players, they always came in with the overhead, 'but I heard this game sucks.'
"That hill was extremely difficult to climb," he added.
"That hill was extremely difficult to climb."
Age of Empires Online's $20 price point was too high and the game's spending cap stalled revenue. Perry said that whales — players who spend large amounts of money on freemium games — were impossible to foster within the game, as players could only spend around $75 max at any given time due to the game's limited amount of purchasable content.
Fixes applied to the game in December 2011 included the addition of several missing modes and a price point reduction to $10, which Perry said was probably a mistake.
"When you discount things permanently in this way, you demonstrate to your player base that [the game] wasn't worth it to begin with," he said. "You send the message that the content isn't worth very much."
Perry said the developers needed to add more playable civilizations to the game, but couldn't make them fast enough to sustain the business model. The company also couldn't raise prices on add-on content because that would alienate current players familiar with the pricing model. The addition of new paid consumables packs and groups of cosmetic items to decorate cities, as well as tweaks to the free-to-play model, were popular among players but not enough to sustain long-term revenue.
After fixing the business model and tweaking the game's design, the number of daily active users continued to dwindle. Revenue spiked briefly after the release of a new civilization, but then those players would leave.
"The production model was the big problem."
"Existing players had finished everything we had to offer, at least everything they wanted to play that we had to offer, and wanted a deeper experience," Perry said. "They wanted more polish, more content.
"I came, unfortunately, to the real realization that I was treating the wrong wound," Perry added. "The business model, that needed to be fixed, wasn't the big problem; the production model was the big problem."
Perry noted that the only thing that brought players back and made money was launching new civilizations, which took too much time and money to build.
"The content itself was too expensive to create," he said.
According to Perry, releasing new content for a game only seeks to keep current players; rarely does it help attract new ones. The balancing act is leveling the effort you put into making new content and the number of active players. Launching new content, which according to Perry was essentially only good for a single use, didn't permanently affect Age of Empires Online's player population or their in-game spending habits.
"We did do a lot of things right, but they weren't enough to actually save the game," Perry said.