Removing spending cap saved Age of Empires Online

Removing a cap on the amount of money that players could spend on free-to-play MMORPG Ages of Empires Online essentially saved the game, Microsoft's Kevin Perry said today at GDC Europe.
Removing a cap on the amount of money that players could spend on free-to-play MMORPG Ages of Empires Online essentially saved the game, Microsoft executive producer Kevin Perry said today. In a talk at GDC Europe titled "F2P The Wrong Way," Perry explained that the online game originally had a $75 spending cap when it launched in August 2011. However, the company found that player numbers dropped off quickly thanks in part to a lack of content, to the point where there were only 15,000 daily active users by December 2011, down from 100,000 at launch. Since players could only potentially spend $75, the game wasn't making much money at all. As part of a massive overhaul to the games economic system in June 2012, lots of new content was added, and the spending cap was removed. An unlimited number of consumables could be purchased by players in the game, and as a result, revenues jumped sharply as the new players rolled in to check out the new content. It also helped that, as part of this update, Microsoft introduced a virtual currency called "Empire Points," which caused players to spend more as well.

The problem with branding

The spending cap wasn't Age of Empires Online's only problem, however -- in fact, it was the popularity of the name itself that caused many of its problems. Since the Age of Empires name is already well-known and well respected by plenty of gamers, it meant that when the game launched with limited content, large number of players were comparing the game to the rest of the series, and coming away disappointed. Many free-to-play games launch with limited content, reasoned Perry, but "you don't get a soft launch for a branded game." "We built the core of a game, but didn't finish it before launch," he added -- and coupled with the fact that so many people had high hopes for a new Age of Empires game, this left the company is a bad situation.

When new content doesn't help anymore

The Age of Empires Online team came across another problem around the same time -- "New content didn't move the needle anymore." While the original issue had been a lack of content, the team suddenly found itself in a position where it was churning out expensive content, and it was making little impact on player numbers and sales. For example, if the game had eight civilizations to play through, and two new civilizations were added, there really wasn't that much difference to the average player's eyes between eight and ten. Adding new content was costing so much, but it wasn't bringing in new players, and the existing players mainly wanted deeper, more expansive features, rather than just new civilizations and the like. Yet this sort of feature-based content only satisfied a small number of players. As such, the company decided to look at its production costs, and focus on smaller updates that would balance the cost versus revenue outcome. "Dense, single-use expensive content was what was actually broken in Age of Empires Online," Perry said.

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