“Grinding” has become something of a negative connotation in the MMORPG market, a stigma that Asian releases are almost habitually assigned with by European and American gamers.
Getting into this discussion is a minefield of misinterpretation and stereotypes (to ask why Koreans enjoy grinding, one might as well ask why white people play wow-clones, racist and completely ridiculous) yet the question presents itself, why do Asian MMORPGs so often fail to make an impact in the western market, and what is Aion doing in 4.0 to challenge the preconception?
Principaly, we must examine the culture in which the games are not only played, but developed.
In the Asian market, time is everything. In a culture where many gamers are on limited timecards and often playing in internet cafés, players will approach the games in a very direct manner, one which will give maximum return for time invested.
Asian players are also far more used to the idea of investing in cash-shop items and boosters, a trend that is only just starting to make headway in the west, to maximise efficiency.
However, this doesn't mean that Asian gamers prefer the play style, many don't enjoy it any more than the western MMORPG audience, they are simply victims of the culture in which their games are developed.
The Asian MMORPG scene is slowly changing, compare the likes of FFXI and Ragnarok Online to more recent Asian MMOs like Aion and ArcheAge (or even between RO and RO: II), these games still undergo a level of “westernisation” before release in the US and Europe but the differences are becoming fewer with every new release. Over the past few years there has been a noticeable trend toward more “western” tropes with increased rewards from questing, story driven elements and more solo-play options in response to the changing attitudes of player-base and international demands.
All but gone though, is the mid-game level grind. Blizzard's success with World of Warcraft can largely be attributed to how they have exploited a faily smple fact: Player retention at max level is far higher than the mid-range, getting players there is the key to keeping them paying their subscribtion fee.
Even in vanilla, where the levelling was much less forgiving than by today's standards, it was much faster to get to max level than other western MMORPGs of the time and years ahead of the Asian market.
This is, of course, a very jaded (not to mention cynical) view of MMO design that could easily be romanticised as the evolution of the genre.
Yet, the “grind” is still apparent in Asian MMOs, but is it any different in the western scene?
Certainly it appears to be different, a western MMO developer would never make you kill 5000 mobs to gain an armour piece at max level ..would they?
It can be argued that the grind approach is no less devilish than the slot-machine of boss loot , it's definitely more transparent and it is unfair to suggest that it is an objectively worse method for being so.
The biggest problem that grinding has to overcome is that of the health concerns if the ability to farm for a prolonged period of time is not only unrestricted, but rewarding. In Korea, this is usually handled by the use of a Fatigue system that will eventually limit the loot and exp players gain after a certain amount.
ArenaNet attempted to implement a similar system in Guild Wars 2 to limit the ability players had to farm loot (either as a market restriction or a counter-botting measure) and it was poorly received, largely due to how quickly and harshly the restriction was triggered, leaving players unable to farm anything for more than a few minutes.
Typically, such fatigue systems have been removed entirely in the western release of Asian MMOs and this, coupled with monthy subscriptions instead of timecards, leaves players unlimited in their ability to grind for hours on end. This creates a unique problem, in a genre where worth is usually measurable by gear and time invested players willl do whatever it takes to get there and feel obliged to take the unhealthy route; grind obsessively.
Western MMOs have tended to take a different approach to Fatigue by limiting players absolutely with gating on the rewards they can earn per day and per week in the form of daily quests and weekly point caps, however this again creats a problem for players feeling forced to hit these caps every day and every week to remain competetive: missing a days worth of daily quests is impossible to recover, not hitting your weekly valor/conquest cap in WoW is unthinkable to most players.
So, then, all MMORPGs are grinds and both systems have their advantages so why can't we see more MMOs that give players the choice? Aion has done a decent job of this recently, allowing people to get gear with daily quests for Kahrun's gear or Crucible PVP gear or grind out the current Daevanion or Abyss sets in addition to the regular instance boss drops and crafted gear.
Aion's upcoming 4.0 expansion: Dark Betrayal is set to take this even further, with no less than ten (its actually far more if you consider the varied qualities attainable) end-game sets available from a variety of sources, player choice has never been better.
For the grinders, There is PVP armour in the form of Battlefield Armour available by completing daily quests and killing mobs in the new PVP area and similarly (in the absence of a Daevanion set) PVE 'Ancient' armour is aquired in much the same way.
The usual Abyss grade armour is present, complete with new rank-exclusive sets for Star Officers, Commanders and Govenors and a new way to pay more AP with less medals and vice versa.
Normal and PVP itemized Balic gear is avaialable from crafters, although to get the best possible stats from this gear you need to crit no less and three crafts, along with the usual obscene material costs, good luck!
With new instances, of course, comes new gear sets including Mythic quality armour for the first time!
There is also "Hero Quest/Katalam" PVE Eternal quality gear available from group/alliance one-time quests which sounds too good to be true (which it almost certainly is) and "Lord Beritra" gear from world bosses
Aion has come a long way since release, with a vast wealth of content available to players of all types it is sometimes puzzling that the game hasn't enjoyed much greater success well into its 3rd year of release.
It seems that Aion, like many earstern MMORPGs is still struggling to shake of the Stigma of the past.
That was a world class pun and you all know it.