Age of Empires Online has lifted the NDA meaning that I can now do an analysis on it. I’ve been in the beta for the last 2 months and have been chomping at the bit to write this up. There are several mechanics here that I find fascinating for the RTS genre, however with that said I think some of the design does clash with the AOE formula.

After Ensemble Studios was closed following the release of Halo Wars, former employees got together and formed Robot Entertainment and got a chance to rework the AOE formula into a free to play game. As it stands the framework and base systems are finished, and now the game has been handed to Gas Powered Games of Supreme Commander fame to continue with support and adding new content.

In AOEO there are two main systems here: the RTS side and the Capital city. I’m going to start with the RTS side as that is the most familiar to fans. Even though the art style is more cartoon like compared to previous games, this is not “baby’s first AOE”. The challenge of micro managing villagers with multiple types of resources is still here. With that said however, people looking for AOE 4 may be disappointed as there are no new innovations to the formula.

In terms of game-play take the different sides of Age of Mythology and throw in the concept of guardians and treasures of AOE 3 and that is a rough description of the overall RTS game play in AOEO. Two details that have been removed are hero units and the myth units from AOM.

The UI is so-so and could use some improvements such as being able to rally to control groups, an easier way to garrison units and a few more. Unit stances are surprisingly absent from the game which makes it a pain in the ass to keep units from running off. With the game still in beta there is a chance that the UI will be updated again before launch.

Moving on let’s talk about the capital city as this is the biggest change from previous AOE titles. First some back story, the capital city is an extension from the home city system in AOE 3. In AOE 3 when you start playing online you choose which nationality you want to play as, and that unlocks all the basic units and techs for that side. As you win matches online you’ll gain experience points and once you earn enough your home city will level up.

This in turn gives you points that you can allocate to different shipments that can be sent during your match. The shipments range from additional units and resources to unique tech and units that can only be acquired through shipments. What I loved about this mechanic was that it gave a sense of personalization to the RTS genre, similar to a Collectible Card Game where each person’s strategy is dictated by what cards they have.

In a sense the capital city takes two steps forward and one step back in its design. In AOEO the capital city is an analogue to a character in a MMO. You’ll receive quests from people in your city, that take the form of a RTS mission. Completing the quest gives you experience and once you earn enough your city will level up. At each level up you’ll get three tech points that can be distributed at your main building.

You have three tech trees available: economy, military and utility. Each item on the trees has a point cost and an age requirement; you can’t start putting points into age 3 researches until you unlock that age. Whatever you unlock here will be available during the RTS matches, either available on age up or have to be research during play.

The capital city offers a lot more customization and personalization compared to the home city. You can build decorative buildings to dress up your city along with buildings that produce materials used for various things. One of the biggest changes to AOE’s formula comes in the form of items. Items can be bought, produced or rewarded for completing quests and have a huge affect on the game.

Everything that you can produce on the RTS side can be equipped with items from the capital city, such as better construction materials for your buildings or new arrow heads for your archers. Like in a RPG, items are graded in terms of rarity, green being the least rare and purple being uber rare. The lower quality items don’t offer too much but very rare items can give substantial bonuses to your units.

Looking at some of the high level items on sale I saw items that boosted unit stats by more than 15% along with those that increase resource gathering rates. Items are level restricted so you can’t give a new city the best stuff, but keep this in the back of your mind as I will be coming back to this in a few paragraphs.

Advisors act as age up upgrades, and are grouped by what age they can be assigned for. When you age up whatever advisor you have assigned to that age will take effect. Some advisors give bonuses and others unlock unique units. Just like items they are tiered in terms of rarity and level requirement.

The final point of customization comes from defining specializations in your city. You can define two fields for your city to focus on, such as archery or construction. This allows you to use materials to craft items relating to it, with recipes found from quest rewards. I really like the idea of being able to customize your side and it gives the game a lot of flavor. However there are two glaring problems with AOEO that could be deal breakers.

First is that to be frank, the game is boring as hell starting out. Because all the units and researches are tied to the leveling system, it means that the player is going to spend a lot of time not doing much on the RTS side. Expect to find your only strategy is building nothing but spear-men for several levels. You can’t even use siege equipment until level 10 meaning that early on your only option for taking out defensive structures is to just send wave after wave of infantry until it goes down.

Whenever we talk about strategy games we have to paraphrase Sid Meier’s view that they are a set of interesting decisions. In AOEO the majority of said decisions are locked behind several hours’ worth of leveling up. This is not like a MMO where your character earns more skills as they level up but they don’t completely change their utility. Imagine if a Mage once they hit level 50 unlocks the ability to wear battle armor and can now fight like a warrior.

Once you hit the level cap which is set at 40 this problem goes away, however I don’t know if many RTS fans will be able to deal with all these limitations to get that far. Limiting the design can work if you have unique mission set up. Starcraft 2’s campaign is all about having unique missions with access to specific unit types and it worked out well. AOEO’s missions do branch out as the player goes up in levels however due to the slower nature of its design you will be doing the same base building in a lot of missions. Because of the repetition of the same build order required I can only do a few missions at a time before I get bored.

The AI during missions also seems tweaked a bit too far against the player. There are times that the AI is able to build a massive army out of nowhere or replenish their army several times faster than me. When I get to their base they usually have three or more copies of each unit producing structure. What I don’t understand is how they have enough resources to pump units from all their buildings. Another logic flaw with the AI is that attacking its villagers sets the AI to “destroy mode” as it starts sending every unit it produces straight to your base.

There are several challenge missions that require the player to gather X amount of resources or produce so many units in a set time. I liked these missions for the change of pace however some of them I don’t see a way to beat them without having benefits from advisors or items already in place.

Now the second problem involves how AOEO is set to make money. When you start up AOEO for the first time, all the developed Civs are available and free to play. Playing a Civ in free mode gives you access to the following:

Single player quests and PVP.
Can equip green tier items.
Can unlock the majority of the researches available.
Upgrade their city with various buildings.

Now at any point you can spend money to buy the Civ (or as it’s called in game a premium civ). This in turn gives you access to everything the free version has and the following extras:

Assign advisors to your civ.
Equip any tier items (Level restrictions still apply).
Can unlock all researches available including “star techs” which are techs that are always on during a RTS battle.
Build structures that can craft materials to be used in your city

There should be a red flag being raised after that. The bonuses combined from items, advisors and tech will give a paying customer a huge advantage compared to a free one. This could be a tough pill to swallow especially with other F2P games on the market.

Looking at League of Legends for a second, I can be competitively viable without spending one penny next to someone who spent fifty dollars or more in the game. Everything that actually affects the game can be unlocked through regular play. I have only spent five dollars in game and that was to buy a character skin on sale, plus since I have over fifty hours played I figured I should give some money to Riot.

Back to AOEO currently there are only two sides available to play: the Greeks and the Egyptians but there are more sides coming. The developers have announced that new sides will start at level twenty and won’t have to do the beginning missions. Along with that, players can also buy content packs that have new quests, or challenges to do.

Overall I find AOEO intriguing coming from enjoying the home city concept. However I don’t know if RTS fans (especially AOE fans) are going to enjoy the hoops they’re going to have to jump through to unlock basic content.

Last comment I need to make is to remind everyone that this analysis is based on the beta; there is no guarantee that my problems will be in the finished product.

Josh

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As I worked on my analysis of The Witcher 2, my inner designer was screaming out loud over all the UI issues I had with the game. Since you can’t call three pages of rants at game design a review, consider this my form of venting.

No matter how great your game is or how good looking, if it has a horrible UI, it could be enough to ruin your game. One difficulty of talking about UIs is that every genre has its own style and information to convey. For this entry, I’m going to talk about some general dos and don’ts and talk about two genres that I’m the most familiar with when it comes to UI design: RPGs and strategy/city builder.

The first thing as a designer that you have to think about when coming up with the UI is, what is the most important information to the player? The reason is that you want this information to be as easily found by the player as possible.

With RPGs and strategy games, they make use of having multiple screens of information. You want to avoid having your information strewn across multiple screens of information. There are 4X strategy games out there that have the player going through at least three screens to see how their economy is and if they are losing money. Burying your information like this makes your game harder to learn and can make your UI convoluted.

You want to try to keep relevant information together and it is fine to repeat information in several areas if it will be used there. For instance, in The Witcher 2, the player can only see how many ingredients they have for alchemy in the inventory, not when they are on the alchemy screen. As a designer, when you are testing your game, if you find that you have to switch between multiple screens to accomplish a single task that should raise a red flag. With older RPGs, the game may not show the attributes of new equipment from the equip screen, forcing the player to go back and forth between their inventory to make sure that their new gear will actually improve their characters.

Strategy titles are known for having numerous pieces of information for the player to understand. This is where the concepts of a good UI can clash. It is not possible in most strategy games to have all the information present on one screen without overloading the player with information. Instead you need to find a happy medium between keeping things clean, while presenting information to the player. Series like Total War and Civilization have been working on this.

Both games have the main screen, where the player will see the most important information such as: happiness, total gold, unit position and so on. By keeping their mouse pointer or single clicking on a city, they can get a little more information about what’s going on. Finally, they can double click on the city to get all the data there is. The main advantage to this style is that it allows them to keep the main screen from being cluttered by information.

One negative to this open design, is the use of small icons that are either commands or links to other screens. While it keeps the screen clean, it also makes it a pain to find what you’re looking for. The first time I tried Civilization 4: Colonization I was greeted by a bunch of little icons with no idea what they were for. If you are going to go this route, tool tips can help players understand what is going on.

Also it is important to realize that there is such a thing as a “too open” UI. If the first thing the player sees is a main screen that shows nothing, with all information hidden behind mouse clicks and multiple windows, that can raise the learning curve dramatically. As evident by my time spent trying to play the Dominions series.

Another concept I saw recently in The Settlers 7 was the use of dynamic information windows. How this worked was at the top of the screen, there was a resource display window. When the player does not have anything selected, it shows the most important resources to your kingdom: population, tools, food and gold. Whenever the player clicks on a building or is about to build something, the panel displays relevant information to that building. For instance, a bakery requires water and flour to produce bread, when you select a bakery, you’ll see exactly how much of each resource you have available. If the player wants to view all their resources, they can click on the resource window at the bottom of the screen.

Creating a good UI is a very difficult task, what the designer may find easy to understand, could be completely esoteric to the player. This is by no means a complete look, as mentioned at the start; every genre can have its UI analyzed. That does it for part 1, in part 2 I’m going to pay tribute to the Nintendo DS and what dual screens did for UI handheld design , in part 3 I’m going to tackle why one of the best games of all time, has one of the worse UIs of all time.

Josh

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When it comes to the release of a new console, the launch line-up has always been a big deal. These are the games that are going to define the console. When it comes to Nintendo, some of their biggest games arrive at launch: Super Mario World and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for example. However, when the GameCube was released, fans were surprised that instead of getting a new game in one of Nintendo’s popular franchises, they got an original title starring the less utilized Mario brother: Luigi. While some gamers weren’t too happy with this prospect, Luigi’s Mansion turned out to be one of my favorite games from Nintendo.

The story was simple enough, Luigi finds out that he won a sweepstakes and the grand prize was a mansion. Unfortunately, it turns out the mansion was haunted by ghosts that kidnapped Mario. After meeting with a local ghost expert, Luigi gets a modified vacuum cleaner that he can used to capture the ghosts.

The main objective of the game is to capture all the ghosts in the mansion and rescue Mario. Each room of the mansion is haunted by multiple types of ghosts. The trick is to use Luigi’s flashlight to stun the ghost when they get close and then use your vacuum to suck them in. Boss and mini-boss ghosts require Luigi to do something extra to stun them before he can proceed to capture them.

The game is split between 4 areas, encompassing the four floors of the mansion. When Luigi enters a new room, the lights will be off and ghosts will appear to attack him. After a room has been cleared, the lights come on signaling that Luigi is safe. Most often the reward for cleaning out a room is a key that will unlock the next room Luigi has to go to.

There are several things I like about Luigi’s Mansion, first is that the progression of the game is easy to get into, but has that “one more turn” feel to it. The rooms only take a few minutes to clear out and offer a quick way to see how far the player is. This was also one of the few games to attempt a Ghost Buster style of game-play. While the story isn’t going to win any awards, there is one aspect of it that was done better than any other Nintendo game up to that point: character development.

Nintendo has always been good with designing game-play, but to be fair they’ve never gone far with developing their characters. For Mario and Link, besides knowing that they’re brave, good guys, what else is known about them? With Luigi’s Mansion, Nintendo gave Luigi some personality, and that is making him a giant chicken. Luigi for the majority of the game is terrified by the situation that he’s in and the designers go to great lengths to show it.

As he wanders around the mansion, he has a look of terror on his face while trying to hum the theme song of the game (which gets stuck in my head easily.) Whenever Luigi goes to enter a new room for the first time, a zoomed in view of the door shows Luigi’s hand trembling in fear as he reaches for the door. Now, granted this isn’t Pulitzer winning character development, but it does give Luigi more personality then other Nintendo characters. This would also be used in later Mario games such as the excellent Mario and Luigi RPG series.

I also found the graphics to be very good and hold up well today. Mainly due to how well Luigi’s model animates, from how he moves and reacts to the environment. While I was replaying this, I was also going through the first Gears of War on the 360, and I found Luigi’s Mansion looked better to me then Gears of War.

Even with me gushing over the game, there are a few problems here. The main issues are that not only is Luigi’s Mansion an original title, but it was also a launch title. Launch titles rarely use all the power and technology the console has to offer. Later games like Metroid Prime and Wind Waker got a chance to really show what the GameCube could do.

As the first game in the series there were several refinement issues. The length being a big one, the game is only a few hours long and other then playing through a harder version, not much replay-ability. Using the C-stick to move his flashlight around presented some navigation issues as it seemed to move differently then Luigi’s movement.

In this regard, Luigi’s Mansion reminds me of another original Nintendo game: Pikmin. The first game wasn’t that long. With the sequel, the developers added in new Pikmin along with randomized dungeons to go through. From E3, it looks like Luigi’s Mansion will get a second chance to shine with a sequel announced for the 3DS.

While many gamers were excited over the Ocarina of Time remake for the 3DS, Luigi’s Mansion 2 may be the system seller for me.

Josh.

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