Back in 1996 Microsoft acquired a web site called “The Zone Village“, which later was renamed to the MSN Gaming Zone. More than 20 years ago, back in 1999 I joined this wonderful community and even decided to become a (voluntary) System Operator who was providing technical support to the community. While many of the volunteers were focused on Card / Board games, the younger generation, including myself, were playing the CD-ROM games on our beloved Zone, e. g. Age of Empires II.
In 2002 something terrible happened from our (the community) point of view. Microsoft has released a game called “Age of Mythology”, which was the first game that was not integrated with Zone and was using something Microsoft called an “in-game match making system”. This multiplayer platform was rejected by most of the Zone community. In 2004, there were already rumors that Microsoft plans to retire the Zone client. In 2005 Microsoft released the game “Age of Empires III”, again it was released with this terrible in-game match making multiplayer platform. Even after a full three years, Microsoft decided to ignore all the countless complaints about their in-game match making system and repeated the same mistake again.
In early 2006, Microsoft announced the retiring of support for all lobby-based games and even ignored 8k players who were signing a petition to keep our Zone client alive. Our beloved Zone Village was shutdown on June 19, 2006. With this step, Microsoft closed the first social gaming network on the internet – long before social gaming networks became popular as they are today. Cruel irony.
Some of us former volunteers were working hard on developing a new client and building up a new Zone-like community. The first Card / Board game client project (World Gaming Center) was established in 2005 and shutdown in 2012. The problem was mostly related to ongoing costs for servers and human resources to keep up such a place, including active development.
Another existing project called Game Park tried to provide a new home for players of Age of Empires II, but unfortunately the Game Park client was extremely outdated and had a lot of security problems. Their willingness to fix those problems and provide the basic features of the original Zone client were equal zero, so this project also failed, and the lobbies were shut down after a few years.
There were two more projects, but I don’t remember the names. Since I was not part of those two projects, I am not sure if or why they failed with their client, but they disappeared at some point. Many players also started playing on other game clients such as GameRanger or Garena.
The launch of the IGZ project was the first sign of a new hope for players of the Age of Empires II Zone community. It was the first stable client with a stable player base and working Anti-Cheat engine. This project went through an owner change in 2008 and was later renamed to Voobly. None of us expected that the Voobly project would survive 10 years, and we went through many ups and downs. It was clear from beginning, that Voobly will and must become a Zone-like client.
In 2012 AoE 2 HD was released on Steam, and again, we were supposed to use their in-game match making system again. Really disappointing and literally a slap in the face for all former Zoners. Even worse was the fact, that Age 2 HD was unable to fix its own problems, and eventually the community was able to fix AOC with their own unofficial patch (special thanks to the UP team and the WK developers). There was also the release of “Age of Mythology Extended Edition” and “Age of Empires I DE” with the same problems. Frustrating.
Now seeing that you plan doing the same with “Age of Empires II DE” I really must ask: What the heck are you doing? This is going to divide the community once again. This will probably end up with most players continue playing the original AOC with an unofficial community patch, which will sooner or later contain all the features and changes of Age of Empires II DE.
Please Microsoft, please finally listen to the old Zone community. While there may be advantages to your in-game match making system, the players who are affected by it do not see them. Therefore, Microsoft has utterly failed in its attempt to make their multiplayer platform an enjoyable place for everyone. We ask you to bring back classic versions of games like AOK, AOC etc. If that is not possible, then consider changing the new versions to have the same type of features that the old versions did. Let us play the variations that we love; having a (Zone) lobby/community like we had; having a better way to call game rooms and choose who you play with and most important, gives us all the features so the community can interact with each another. We want our Zone Village / social gaming network back!