A New Age of PC Gaming

REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 17, 2010 – Microsoft plans to usher in a new age of PC gaming by re-inventing a classic.

At Gamescom 2010, the world’s largest gaming conference underway in Cologne, Germany, Microsoft announced the return of Age of Empires, one of the biggest PC franchises in the world, having sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and essentially defined real-time strategy (RTS) games for the PC, says Dave Luehmann, general manager of Microsoft Games Studios. “This next version will really change the rulebook of how those games are played.”

Age of Empires Online, now in a closed beta release, will be familiar to franchise fans, who can go here and sign up for a chance to join the beta. However, at the game’s core is a new, socially connected experience. The game now invites players to create a living, growing online world that’s shared with friends around the world through Games for Windows LIVE, an online gaming network related to Xbox LIVE. Anyone with a LIVE account can see their friends online and send and receive voice messages, text messages, and game invites. In Age of Empires Online, players can use the service to invite friends for a cooperative quest or a friendly challenge in the local arena, trade goods and weapons, and visit each other’s capital cities.

With LIVE at its core, Age of Empires Online reflects a broader trend underway in gaming, says John Dongelmans, director of Games Marketing.

“We’re reinventing Age of Empires for today’s gamer,” Dongelmans says. “The socially connected experience is really important to gaming now. With Games for Windows LIVE, we’re making sure that these games are truly unique, socially connected experiences.”

The updated title is now a blend of real-time strategy (RTS) and massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming, Luehmann says. A key element of MMO games is “persistence.” In the case of the Age of Empires Online, that means a player’s capital city never sleeps. Even when offline, the quarries are producing stone, the sawmill is producing lumber and the smelter is firing metal. The MMO elements also mean that gameplay has a different focus. “Instead of getting through a skirmish with a friend, the game is now a long civilization of mission after mission, many of which are focused on cooperative play,” Luehmann says.

It’s still an RTS game, though, he adds. Players go on the attack with archers and cavalry. “Only now, you can invite a friend for some ‘comp-stomp,’” he says. That’s taking on the computer-controlled players, for the non-gamer.

Games for Windows LIVE also reflects how the business of PC games has shifted, Luehmann says. Traditionally, it was a box-product business; players went to a retail store and picked up a copy of a PC game. That business model peaked in about 2002, though, Luehmann explains. Now, most gamers skip the line at the retail stores and download their games online. Games for Windows LIVE is how Microsoft has responded to the move toward digital distribution.

Age of Empires Online represents one of the first times that Microsoft has taken one of its big franchises into that business model, Luehmann says.

Age of Empires isn’t the only classic series to mark its return at Gamescom. Microsoft is also announcing the development of Microsoft Flight, a new entry inspired by the best-selling Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise. A teaser of the future of Flight is available here.

After several years when Microsoft shifted its gaze from PC gaming to the Xbox, the Gamescom announcements signal that Microsoft is once again taking Windows gaming very seriously. “We are bringing back the biggest franchises in PC gaming history and putting a “fresh” stake in the ground with them,” Dongelmans says. “This is our promise that we’re committed to Windows gaming for the long haul.”

Luehmann echoes the sentiment, adding that Microsoft needs to keep its investment in Windows gaming to make sure its platform stays relevant. “The company faces plenty of competition from companies like Apple,” he says. “It’s important for us to make sure Windows is still seen as a leader and a place to get great games, and having Microsoft invest its internal game development resources is a great message. It allows us to push the platform for new ideas and features and allows the platform to push us to put the best work we possibly can in the box.”