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November 17, 2013

Microsoft closing Age Community

Age Community was the excellent online community started 8 years ago by Ensemble Studios back in 2005. The site was set up as the official community website for Age of Empires so that fans could enjoy all Age content in one single place. News, forums, statistics, ladders, account tools and patches were all available on one single website aptly named Age Community. So how did it all go wrong?

In the words of Ensemble studio head Tony Goodman:

This will give the fans a direct path to communicate game ideas to our designers, programmers and artists. You will also find Age III statistics, downloads, news, developer blogs and more. This is just the beginning of our new commitment to creating one of the world’s best online communities… and your input will be the key! I look forward to seeing you online.

This is how Age Community looked all those years ago when Age 3 launched.

Indeed for many years Ensemble worked hard to build a fantastic online community which was regularly updated. Over the years the forum has attracted 120,959 users and hundreds of thousands of threads and posts. The website was updated throughout each Age 3 expansion pack. When Ensemble Studios closed, it wasnt the end for Age Community. Robot Entertainment picked up the mantle and kept things moving all the way up until Age of Empires Online’s announcement. By this point the website was re-designed with Age of Empires Online in mind:

Age Community when Age of Empires Online Launched

The downward spiral

It was around this time post Age of Empires Online announcement that things started to go wrong for the Age of Empires Community.  Microsoft announced that it would be taking on support for the Age of Empires community directly and that it would no longer by managed by Robot Entertainment. One of the first things Microsoft decided to do really set in stone what would be numerous examples of how not to run an online community. Their first decision was to set up a whole new community website and forums completely seperate from what was the “Official Age of Empires Community”. Yes indeed, rather than use the existing community which had built up after years and years fans had to set up whole new accounts and start all over again at AgeOfEmpiresOnline.com.

The whole decision was a slap in the face of what Ensemble tried to do by creating the single hub for all Age of Empires content. Of course at this point everything became disjointed, not all fans were keen on Age of Empires Online so some stayed on the what was the official Age Community rather than discussing the game on the new AOE-O forums. Low and behold the community was split onto two websites. Infact it was so crazy that Age Community had an AOE-O discussion forum and then there was another one at AgeOfEmpiresOnline.com. Both of which were official websites, both of which discussing the same thing!

Where would you like to discuss AOE-O today? AgeCommunity.com perhaps? Or AgeofEmpiresOnline.com? Both are official websites - so choose wisely!

Why Microsoft decided to create whole new forums and not align the community on one single website will never be known. Both websites were even running the same software (Community Server).

Madness continues

Following on from Age of Empires Online, Microsoft announced Age of Empires 2 HD Edition. Of course they would need to set up a new website and forums for that. So where best to put them – AgeOfEmpiresOnline.com is purely dedicated to AOE-O so that wouldnt be a smart place. Ah, AgeCommunity.com, now there is a website that is serving all three existing Age games – it would surely make sense to put the new forums and information there. After all it is the Age of Empires Community (it even says so in the URL AgeCommunity.com).

Astonishingly the team decided to instead set up the new community presence for Age 2 HD on the AgeOfEmpiresOnline.com website! A very strange decision. A website that was solely designed for AOE-O is now the place for Age 2 HD discussions. Never mind the neutral website at AgeCommunity.com. Microsoft seemed to be doing all it can to ensure confusion and ambiguity.

Looking for the Age of Empires 2 HD community? Sorry the official AgeCommunity.com isnt the place for that, no you can find it at AgeOfEmpiresOnline.com.

This is how it should be done. Demonstrating how Ensemble Studios and Robot Entertainment used a single community website:

And then it gets even worse…

Microsoft managed to keep both communities going side by side for a further two years. Until of course they announced that Age of Empires Online would be closing. But uh-oh we have half the community at AgeOfEmpiresOnline.com and another half at AgeCommunity.com. Never mind all the Age 2 HD stuff wrongly placed on AOE-O’s website. They must of thought “Hmm. We cant’t keep AgeOfEmpiresOnline.com going because we’re closing that game”. An astute community team would have deduced that the most logical way forward would be to use the existing hub of fans and start to use AgeCommunity.com as the single official community again as had been the original Ensemble intention. Bringing all Age content for all four games under one roof on one single logical domain name. One that also had all the statistics and ladders for Age 3.

Instead the community team decides to close both websites and set up a whole new website to up root both communities all over again! Having announced they now have launched a whole new website at www.ageofempires.com and they are wanting all users to migrate to this new website. Throwing away all the years of content and integration that was AgeCommunity.com. So if the team are going through all this effort the new website would surely be something compelling, right?

Well you’ll have to see for yourself. Creating what must be the a fairly ghastly website for a game the size of Age of Empires. Things are so bad and under invested that they don’t even have a theme for the forum. No, they just used the out-of-the-box default theme that came with the forum and simply stuck a header graphic on top. (One that is far too large in file-size one might add). There are bugs all over the place with many features not working at all.

And here it is, the most basic shambolic website for a game the size of Age of Empires

Not only is the new website visually deficient but no thought has gone into key forum features, it truly is the most basic website they could posibly have come up with, basically a throw back to the 90′s. The community not only has to uproot itself again (losing countless number of members in the process for those who cant be bothered to join), but they have to join this ghastly new website.

Micorosft really had a great opportunity to make use of the website that Ensemble had created that was already fully kitted out with deep integration with Age 3 and use it as a means to bring everything together. But no, they just continue to want to set up new websites and are persistent at creating a fresh community without so much thought of the members and content that would be lost the process. Reception of the website has mostly been negative as expected.

Some quotes from less than happy members:

“Bring back the old style with an active posts, add real AOE3 avatars and make a prettier interface. Although, I will admit I’m extremely grateful for the off-topic and I’m excited to troll *ahem* post here. Oh, and losing 5k posts ***s as well.”

“Dang I hate this forum. It looks so trashy compared to the old AoEO or any age forums. A 10 year old could script a better site. ”

“I have to agree, this “new” forum looks really ugly and unappealing. Agecommunity (being almost 10 years old) looks far more innovative, clean, and pleasant. This should have been an opportunity to design a much more advanced and modern forum with a cooler interface – not something taken straight out of 2003. No offense, but seriously, even a generic forum made by some 12 year old through zetaboards or miarroba looks nicer than this.
I refuse to post here unless there are some changes coming. Mad

“Old ageofempires.com was great web site. They could add a good forum (Like Age Comm. forum) and they could combine all AOE sites and forums. Why they made a new and not great web site and forum ? I don’t know, I don’t understand.”

What does Microsoft have to say about all this? Moderator “USN_Saint” had this to say:

Without going into a lot of detail it’s kind of hard to explain, but it sort of comes down to where the site is hosted and the process to make changes to it. While this website looks nice and might appear to work well on the outside, the behind the scenes mechanics of it are not so efficient and very difficult for us to do anything with it. For example, making a simple change to the layout requires us to submit a change request to a different part of the organization and there is a time delay associated with it all. By moving to the new website, forums, blogs etc. we can essentially change whatever we want internally. Yes, we acknowledge it needs work and we’re doing that, but the process to make those changes is much easier now, so we can make those changes quicker.

So basically the summary of that is that owing to internal issues the community has to suffer with a far worse community website because Microsoft can’t muster the resources to have a web developer on hand to manage the changes needed for AgeCommunity.com. Instead the new website appears to being run by the community team directly who do not seem to have expertise in this area. Microsoft also blames “bugs” with the AgeCommunity.com website. Since Ensemble’s departure the website had issues displaying in newer browsers like Chrome. But these “bugs” are merely a few lines of CSS tweaks. Of course, Microsoft despite all its size could not famouth such simple changes. Instead of course, they felt it was better to time travel back the 90′s and keep the new website as simple as possible to make it easier for them, never mind the fans.

Age Community on the left and the new website on the right - light years behind in design and functionality

Hand crafted theme for Age Community vs under invested "out of the box" on the new website

What makes this whole saga so frustrating is that we are dealing with a major franchise – Age of Empires. It is shocking that such a key franchise is being subjected to this level of all-time low investment and engagement. One can only hope that Microsoft Studios will twig on to these glaring deficiencies and provide the series which much needed investment. This is a sad day for Age of Empires. Many fans are hopeful of an Age of Empires 4, but it difficult to see how that can be happening if they are taking the community back to such basics. The investment in Age of Empires is just no longer there. I’m sure the community team working on Age of Empires have best intentions at heart but are unable to execute them properly owing to fundamental under-investment.

One hopes that investment will increase that if we are moving to a new website that it will be as compelling as possible.

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Related posts:

  1. Microsoft to take over Age Community
  2. Robot Entertainment not officially involved with Age of Empires Online community
  3. Age of Empires community fragmentation begins as new forums launch

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