Returning to Age of Empires Online, I had a chance to experience it as a free customer. However, looking at how the game has been monetized presents a problem with the perception of micro transactions in game design.
Earlier this month I got into the Age of Empires Online pre-release program, meaning that I'm playing the Free To Play version of the game before release. The first thing I noticed was that I no longer had access to the premium content from the beta and could now see exactly what spending money in AOEO is for, and how it feels to play the free version of the game.
To buy just one premium civilization (which I talked about in my beta analysis, here) costs $20. To me, that is way too much money and presents a problem with the F2P or micro transaction attitude. Developers are still clinging to the notion that these mechanics exists in a vacuum compared to retail titles. However, as more companies are seeking a piece of the pie, they have to realize that they are not competing with just other F2P titles, but with retail games.
Instead of spending $20 buying a part of a game, I could use that money to buy a full retail game on sale. Hell, I could buy several games off of Steam during its sale. For $10 more, instead of buying both civs, I could buy Starcraft 2, with all the single and multiplayer content that comes with it. Monetizing content may seem like the wave of the future for developers, but they have to understand that they are still in the present.
The clearest advantage to micro transaction vs. retail is that it allows people to buy only the parts of the game they want. However, for the fans who want to experience all the content, this isn't helping them, they're still spending "new release" price on a game, but instead of $40 at once, it's through several transactions. Because the content is tied to the game itself, and not a retail setting, it also means that the chance of a sale is slim to none, unless it comes from the developer.
Personally I feel that some designers are using the wrong mentality when thinking up purchasable content. The difference can be seen if you compare something like League of Legends or Team Fortress 2, to a game like World of Tanks or Age of Empires Online. In the former, the player can experience everything the game has to offer without spending one cent, but the option to spend money is there for those that want it. In the latter, there is content locked behind a price barrier and there is more that is being offered to those that spend money then to the free customers.
The secret to micro transaction success in my opinion is not forcing the player to spend money, but have it either as an additional option or keep it cheap to the point of impulse buy. I'm comfortable spending a few bucks here and there for champion skins in League of Legends, because I know that they will not affect the game-play in any way and that I only have to spend what I want and that's it. In Age of Empires Online, I know that there isn't going to be a set limit on content being offered, so if I want to experience it, that means spending more money.
World of Tanks goes as far as having a subscription model on top of micro transactions, with the advantages from both becoming more and more needed the further the player gets in the game. One thing that should be avoided at all cost, is locking game modes or features behind transactions, as that just gives the feeling that the player is paying a ransom for playing your game. Everywhere I look in AOEO I see content with a lock on it telling me to spend money.
I've said it before about micro transaction content, and I'm going to say it again here: upgrades should not be purchasable, as it leads to an arms race between players where only the players with the most money will win. From my first post about AOEO, the improvements earned by spending money are huge, but they were smart enough to keep ranked PvP away from the free to play crowd as that would be too unfair. The amount of upgrades and advantages that can be bought in World of Tanks was so great, that it was one of the reasons why I stopped playing.
I mean no disrespect to Gas Powered Games or to Robot Entertainment, but I can't help but feel like I'm watching a train wreck in slow motion with AOEO. I want the game to succeed, as I want more RTS games out on the market. Personally, I would have set the civs at $10 a pop, and give both Civs and maybe even a free content pack with the retail key (costs $20.) That way buying the game will give a player the basics they need so they don't feel forced to spend money, which will make it easier for them to buy the smaller packs.
Developers need to understand that there is a difference between a F2P title and a retail game broken down into a F2P game. With the former, the gameplay is designed to hook the player first, with money second, while the latter hits the player with as many micro transactions as possible by keeping the game locked away. More developers these days are looking to the micro transaction model to keep their profits up, and existing developers will have to realize that they are not the only game in town anymore and will have to price their titles accordingly.