After listening to fan concerns about the game, Age of Empires Online creator Gas Powered Games and publisher Microsoft have, in their own words, “embraced [the] true free to play model” through a major summer update. And while that may sound a little cultish at first, I promise you, it involves less ritual suicide, and more free stuff.

The update, which you can download right now via either Steam or Games for Windows Live (where non-players can also get the game itself), replaces what many fans felt were unavoidable pay walls with an in game currency: the “earnable and purchasable Empire Point.” Earned through normal play, questing, completion of in-game activities, or – for those impatient – real moolah, the points are now the all access passport to the world of the game.

For those lucky enough to be at level 40? Empire points can also be earned through the new “Alliance Wars” mode, where teams of uber-strong competitors will compete in quests, and come out with part of an Empire Point prize pool. Think of it as the Pocket Planes flight crew feature…but with ancient sacrifices. With Empire Points, players can buy consumables, vanity gear, and for the first time Civilization Packs and Boosters – both of which were previously tucked behind mandatory pay walls.

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On one hand, you could argue that the game has changed from one that strangles your money to one that strangles your time. Inevitably, the pressure to speed things up and the cost associated with the best content will spur many to either buy into the Empire Point system or potentially quit playing. With that said, however, I’d call it a worthwhile tradeoff for the flexibility to earn your way to any piece of content with in-game currency. Free to play is here to stay, and I’ll take a versatile mixture that allows for constant play augmented by payment over developer blackmail any day.

On a larger scale, this is yet another example of a big publisher waking up to the realities and the importance of free to play; one who to this point has been extraordinarily slow to do so with their content. It will be really interesting to see if this is the first steps in a mass F2P makeover for eligible Microsoft-published properties on Windows Live. Personally, I hope they make the mental leap sooner than later, because it’s alway depressing to watch a monolithic company chase trends to catch up. It’s like seeing a dinosaur outrun the ice age. And I’d much rather see Microsoft making awesome Facebook games.