The celebration of Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition‘s second anniversary at the tail end of 2021, coinciding with the arrival of its much-hyped sequel Age of Empires IV, prompts a question: what’s the future of the real-time strategy classic?
Age of Empires II was an immediate success in 1999 and quickly followed up with the “Conquerors” expansion in 2000. After that, it became quiet around AoE2 while the franchise expanded with Age of Mythology and AoE3. Since 2013, fans have received frequent updates, culminating in the much-acclaimed “Definitive Edition”, released in November 2019.
In 2021 alone, AoE2 received two expansions. The latest release in the franchise came in October 2021 with Age of Empires IV.
Ideally, we would have precise sales numbers for each of the AoE games. Unfortunately, Microsoft does not share these numbers. The last reported figure of 20 million copies is from February 2009. In February 2020, Brian Sullivan, Monsarrat Inc.’s CCO, revealed that AoE2 (HD and DE) sold another 5 million copies, bringing the total to 25 million.
Surely they have sold a few more since then. The AoE franchise is estimated to have generated revenues of one billion US Dollars, with AoE2 being the main contributor to this number.
The long-term player base evolution shows a clear positive trend for AoE2 on Steam two years before and after the Definitive Edition’s release in November 2019. The player numbers remained steadily between 5,000 and 10,000 per month until November 2019.
While this does not sound like much compared to games like Dota or Starcraft 2, we need to consider the game’s age to appreciate these numbers fully. The release of multiple patches and expansions certainly helped to keep the interest high.
Releasing the Definitive Edition had the most significant impact by far. It drove the average number of players per month beyond 20,000 and has not dropped below 15,000 since then.
Recently, the average number of players declined somewhat, especially in November 2021. This is most certainly due to the release of AoE4 on 28/10/21. We have very few data points for AoE4, so we will have to watch the next few months closely. By the end of November, Steam showed an average of 29,977 AoE4 players for the last 30 days – a decline of 16.2% compared to the previous month.
The Twitch viewership numbers paint a similar picture. Long-term, AoE2 has been doing reasonably well for its age but barely passed the monthly average of 1,000 concurrent viewers. The Definitive Edition release multiplied the number of average concurrent viewers by a factor of four in November 2019.
Since then, they remained steady at this level, with peaks around significant events, such as “Hidden Cup 4” and the various “RedBull Wololo” tournaments until September 2021. After that, they dropped significantly below 2,000. Such a steep drop in such a short period seems concerning but does not necessarily have to worry us because two main factors drove it.
- The release of AoE4
- T90Offical (the most significant caster) and TheViper (the most-watched player) moved from Twitch to Facebook Gaming.
With all the hype around its release and a 16,000 USD tournament in November, AoE4’s impact was to be expected. Since then, the declining AoE4 numbers are tempting to think that this was just a blip. But this might be premature. At the time of this snapshot, the “King of the Desert IV ” AoE2 tournament is happening. This is a 75,000 USD event, and all the professionals and casters are focused on it. We can expect these numbers to swing back when the “SteelSeries Prime Cup ” – a 20,000 USD AoE4 event – starts in mid-December.
AoE2 always had a good number of events and decent prize pools – even more so after the release of AoE2DE. From January 2019 to November 2021, there were 282 tournaments with an average prize pool of 3,455 USD and a maximum of 100,000 USD (“RedBull Wololo V” in Q3/2021).
Apart from “War is Coming” (2014/15) and the “Age of Empires II International Tournament” (2001), four of the six biggest AoE2 tournaments happened after the release of AoE2DE. This does not include the currently ongoing “King of the Desert IV” with a prize pool of 75,000 USD. As one would expect, these events have a measurable impact on viewer numbers.
Some AoE2 veterans may fear AoE4 to be the death blow for the game they love. But AoE2 has been around for over 22 years. Since its initial release in 1999, many other titles have been release, including additions to the Age of Empires series. AoE2 has not just survived, but thrived since the release of the Definitive Edition.
Currently, AoE4 seems to be the strongest contender for a small but faithful community of players, casters, and viewers. I expect that many people will enjoy watching and playing both. In its current state, AoE4 is a good and fun game to play. It is not (yet) as attractive for a competitive scene as AoE2 is.
I expect player and viewer numbers will shift back and forth between AoE2 and AoE4 for the foreseeable future, driven by various tournaments. Meanwhile I’m convinced that both games will find or retain sufficient players and viewers to coexist. The differences between AoE2 and AoE4, in addition to the former’s well-established community, make me think that AoE2 will be around for a long time to come. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see further improvements and new DLCs.)
On the other hand, I’m less optimistic about the overall community growth for AoE2. The player and viewer numbers for most games went up during the COVID-19 pandemic perhaps simply because more people spent more time at home – an effect which may eventually evaporate.
They probably won’t drop back to pre-pandemic levels, but will normalize that level and what they are today. This is fine. But what happens after this?
As we have seen, significant and exciting tournaments attract viewers, players, and sponsors. For sustainable community growth, AoE2 needs a coherent series of events. Escape Champions League had an idea on these lines in 2018/19, before AoE2DE was released. A series that follows that model, motivates players to compete, viewers to watch and sponsors to support, would ensure AoE2 provides entertainment for years to come.
Don Dinardoni is an enthusiast of Age of Empires II and data visualization. Visit him here, where he will be keeping an eye on the numbers.