There are no idle questions in game design. That's why off-handedly asking one of the developers of Age of Empires Online whether FarmVille has influenced the team at all is not a good idea. In fact, in answer to the query, the developer simply starts to look like he's suffering three separate strokes at once.
So, just to be clear, FarmVille has not influenced Age of Empires Online. The game hasn't been radically simplified and it doesn't worship the loading bar or the wall post. It won't be switching from a meaty RTS to a thin-client Facebook App in which you can buy your ex-girlfriend a cartoon pumpkin.
That said, the developers have clearly been keeping an eye on social gaming in general or rather, they've been keeping an eye on social gaming's expanded audience.
And that's why AEO is free to play (more on this in a minute), why it's decked out in bright cartoonish visuals and why newcomers are going to find that it explains itself in friendly little chunks.
The game teaches you the basics of resource gathering and city management quite thoroughly before throwing you into even the easiest of battles, and holds off on the hulking sprawl of its tech trees until you're inching upwards through the levelling system. It's friendly, then, but it still promises depth. It won't cost you anything if you don't want it to, but it's a full game rather than a sneaky clutter of busywork.
It's also a voguish blend of MMO and RTS - boy, if that won't rope in Johnny Casual, I just don't know what will - with each of your civilisations built around a capital city that you're encouraged to take ownership of.
You can fit it out as you see fit, levelling it up, filling it with useful buildings and customising it as if it was a WOW character albeit a WOW character with parkland and a brewery stuck in his midriff.
That's before you go setting off on instanced quests that play out in a far more familiar mixture of resource management, army amassing, and point and click warfare. Some of the tools you'll have at your disposal will be one-shot consumables for use on your units, while others will depend on how you've built things up back home.
Oh, yes, and those capital cities are persistent, too. This is important, as you can put up shops that will then sell unique items to other players while you're off sleeping or pretending to work on other things in life.
It's also worth noting that capitals are only positively persistent. Other players can buy things from you, but they can't attack your home; you won't come back from a hard day at the spark plug factory only to log on and see your civilisation in ruins. Topical, Gaddafi.
Both sides of the game upgrading your city and waging war around the surprisingly large world map are delivered with swaggering animation and art design. The latest Age of Empires is certainly cartoony, but it's not simplistic. Its 3D models are detailed and gently Cel-shaded, and they're both easy to read at a glance and perfect for scaling to different levels of hardware over the game's lifespan.
The world's as vibrant as it looks, too, with an AI animal ecology meaning that the wild card in your battle with another empire may come in the form of alligators rather than where you stuck your barracks (or it might involve both, of course, if you stuck your barracks near some alligators).
With plenty of missions, most of which support co-op play, and dozens of unique buildings and units, this is looking suspiciously fully-featured for a free-to-play game. So what's the catch?
If you're thinking it must be microtransactions, apparently you're wrong and Microsoft's even attempting to invent a new word to counter you with. No, the catch comes in the form of "macrotransactions". Rather than whittle your finances down in the death of a thousand cuts, Age of Empires wants you to plump for nice big chunks of content instead. It sounds a little more honest, at least.
We're talking different civilisations for the most part, each with their own tech trees, missions, units, and campaigns. And it's not as bad as it sounds, as the free game should be shipping with both the Greeks and Egyptians available gratis and that combination was good enough to keep Western civilisation ticking over for a couple of millennia at least.
You'll be able to play co-op for free and enjoy PvP for free too, once you've unlocked your city's arena, which appears to happen fairly early on in the levelling. Upgrading to a premium account, meanwhile it seems this is done by simply buying a single piece of premium content will allow you to customise your PvP options. It will also unlock the top level of the tech tree, enlarge your inventory and open up access to rare or epic gear, advisors, workshops or vanity packs for making your city look special.
You can understand holding off of the odd new unit or piece of gear, but putting a velvet rope around the ability to set the parameters for multiplayer matches or issue invites to friends is potentially a little more controversial. It's worth remembering, though, that these are the kind of issues that often get balanced out once a game is actually live, and its players are all screaming their heads off about the same handful of things.
Even with the macrotransactions taken into account, Age of Empires Online looks generous and thoughtful. An eleventh hour developer hand-off from Robot Entertainment to Supreme Commander creator Gas Powered Games may hint at trouble behind the scenes, but the strain, if there is any, doesn't appear to be showing in the content itself.
Microsoft ultimately hopes that this ambitious offering will sweeten the deal for Games for Windows Live users. Whatever you make of that, it's clear that the company hasn't forgotten PC games entirely even if it is having an intriguing creative crisis regarding what they should look like.