So far 2009 has proven to be very poor in terms of MMO releases, but it's counting without the new AAA title coming from Ncsoft studios, Aion. The game itself has already been released for more than one year in Korea, and will be launching soon with alot of added content in NA/Europe, from patch 1.0 to 1.5. To me this is a very clever move from Ncsoft compared to what they did with their previous main fantasy title, Lineage 2.
Having played Lineage 2 for more than 1,5 years (2004-2005), my position toward Aion has been quite ambiguous. During a long time I said I wasn't expecting much from the game, and for several reasons. I didnt really check it that much on the boards and websites when it started to get hyped alot, but as we were getting closer to the release I started to get interested in it, and thought that it could revive in one way or another my 'MMO's enthusiasm' that has been quite tarnished those last months.
Let's talk abit about Lineage 2 first, the previous big fantasy MMO from Ncsoft studios. Lineage 2 was a pretty bad game, yes it was, and according to many characteristics that have become 'MMO standards' those last years : it was awful. The game mechanics were pretty awful, the PvE was very blank, the grind was horrible, the interface, controls and customization were catastrophic, the balance between different classes was non-existent. The game became mainstream for a generation of low quality free-to-play games people are used to naming 'korean grinders' or 'asian grinders'. And if you have played or tried one of those games you can easily figure out what I'm talking about.
But at the same time the game had two main exceptionnal features you couldnt pass on. First it was gorgeous, beautiful and immersive. The art design was the best I've ever seen in any game (note that it's subjective, and you have to like 'anime' and 'manga' style to agree with me on this point). Second, there was a true sandbox PvP system where politics and alliances played a huge part, something not that far from what EVE Online has become those two last years. It was thrilling, full of suprises and the way things went on our server, many legends were built and many stories became true history that hundreds and thousands of players will remember for a long time. Despite all its flaws, I've spent my best MMO years on L2, got there my best MMO memories so far as well as my main MMO friends I've been keeping playing with on different games since then. Many people may have that kind of stories for their first MMO though, I just need to mention them to show that for me, the game has been something truly unique and immersive.
Understanding Lineage 2 is a good starting point to understand Aion. As a matter of fact, the two games may not have been done by the exact same team, but it's the same studio. However Aion is not Lineage 3 (Lineage 3 has been on the drawing board for quite a long time now, and is probably not meant to be released in a close future due to several issues). And that being said, with Aion it's pretty obvious they chose a different direction. First, of course they were strongly influenced by the game that changed the MMO market, that is World of Warcraft. They took a lot of elements from WoW to improve their PvE, some of them for the best, and some others for the worse in my opinion, but it's obvious that globally Aion's PvE will be much more enjoyable and well done than Lineage 2's was (remember that in L2 there was no quest, or only useless ones, and an awfully long grind where you were supposed to bash the same monster 10 hours each day to only gain 10-15% experience in your level toward the end game).
What I do not like however is that they also took the same model for their PvP, and chose a RvR, or faction versus faction approach. For many people who have only played DaoC, WoW or WAR it's fine. They like RvR and they think (and are probably right from their perspective) that RvR can be really great when well done and designed. For the people who have played and enjoyed EVE online, L2, Shadowbane or any other sandbox PvP game they will understand what I mean when I say that they chose a 'weak' PvP model. In RvR you dont choose your enemies, they're just the guys from the other faction, the other realm, the other name's color on your screen that usually is red, and whenever they appear you know you're just supposed to fight them. Why should it be any different, some people may ask ? Well, PvP is really different in games like EVE or L2 where politics are really fascinating, where alliances are made and undone on a monthly basis, where you have to choose carefully your guild, friends and allies, and where there is a whole range of colors in between the deep red and the blue/green when you consider attacking another player. At the end you're really not playing the same game, not playing the same PvP. I could go on further on this subject, but it's not the point of this article.
So let's just know that Aion chose a more casual approach to their PvP in this game, that was more influenced by Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft than by Lineage or EVE, that they called PvPvE. PvPvE in my opinion is just a name supposed to sound like something totally new, while actually it's already been done many times, but not always very well. What does PvPvE mean ? That PvP may occur during your PvE experience, you're fighting mobs, you have just rallied a team to fight a boss... You may be attacked by the other faction and may have to managed both PvE and PvP at the same time. That's just another name for 'world PvP', right ? So one could argue that WoW had the concept and the idea first, even if it's obvious that WoW went a totally different way. Both their PvE and PvP became more and more instanced and more separated, patch after patch, expansion after expansion, and nowadays their world PvP mostly comes down to ganking, when people choose to play it, that is rarely.
So Aion took the concept of what WoW world PvP could have been and never was, or was just for one year during the WoW vanilla era. Even if it's not the sandbox PvP some players could dream of, it's not such a bad move when you think about it, at least in the perspective of making the game really popular. It obviously caters more to the casual players than any hardcore PvP system, but at the same time it's not totally what some would call a 'carebear' system as fights may occur at any time, and you're not supposed to be totally safe when fighting mobs and grinding. A strong and well made RvR that can also impact the end-game PvE and raise some challenges can certainly make for a good mix at the end.
So the more we talk about Aion's features, the closer we get to the recent mainstream MMOs concepts and ideas. And that's a critic you've probably read a lot about Aion on different boards : 'It's a WoW clone !'. 'WoW clone' has become a new expression to point out games that mainly tried to copy World of Warcraft on every point they could, hoping to get a part of their big subscription numbers, while at the same time being often not as good as than the original on most of their features. Actually the expression is not correct if you look at it a bit closer. There is no WoW clone on the market, if there was one really, it should have met the same kind of success WoW did, and it's obviously not the case. WoW is unique, and so is every other mmorpg. But we can understand the point behind the expression, as 'trying to stay as close as possible to what worked very well so far on the MMO market', and I would call it being 'conservative', as opposed to being 'innovative'.
If you read this endless argument on Aion's relative boards, you've probably seen several times something like 'Aion is just another WoW clone !' being answered 'All the mmos are the same, if you don't like it that way, you should stop with the genre'. Obviously both points are not correct, or if they still hold some truth, it should more be seen as heavy exagerations to make a point. Aion is certainly not a 'WoW clone' and has a deep and very well apparent personnality, as we'll talk about this later in this article. On the other hand, no it's not true that every mmorpg is the same : not every mmorpg has a linear quest system to guide you through the levels, not every mmorpg has very strict and predefined classes, with strong roles as tank, healer, support and with little customization available, not every mmorpg has a faction vs faction only or RvR PvP system... etc, I could go on further.
So what about all this 'WoW clone argument' ? As I said before Aion made a choice, and it's about being more 'conservative' than being 'innovative'. It's not that hard for MMO developpers to spot what worked and works well in the genre, what players liked, what they subscribed for, and what they didnt want to experience more, or only as a small niche. So when they have to enter the arena, and offer a new MMO game to players, there is the safe way to do it, and the risky one.
The safe way consists in designing their game so that it will offer more of the experience that worked in other games and made them a success, than what was controversial and drove a part of the player base out of the game, or what is unknown to work or not, because nobody has done it yet. The upside is that, if you do things well and succeed in what you planned in the conservative way, you will end with a very solid game, that will be probably enjoyed by many different types of players, and I think that's what Aion may be. The downside is that, first of all people who already got too much of the current mmos wont find any kind of novelty in what you created, and your game may never be 'TEH' game for most of your playerbase, but just something they play while waiting for something newer and more innovative title to be released. Of course, there is another downside which is pretty obvious, if you give to the players too much of the old mmo experience, without doing things very well and without adding any touch of true originality, your game will utterly fail and we all saw in the 2008 releases at least one 'AAA' title, if not two of them, meeting this kind of fate.
Aion will certainly fulfill the first of those two downsides, if you're already bored with the very classic MMOs, the game might not be 'the' game you'll spent your next two or three years on. But from what I've seen and read, and how things went with this game already released one year ago in Asia, I'm pretty confident it won't meet WAR and AoC fate, at least not in the same extent. It would be long to explain exactly why, and that would require first of all to analyze both that two games and explained what went wrong in each of them (maybe an idea for a further article ?). But let's say that Aion will most likely be released pretty bug-free, with a gorgeous art-work behind, beautiful graphic design, solid mechanics (even though one could argue they're unoriginal and make a point here), one year of content already delivered since the Korean release. That's not a 100% recipe for a real success of course, and there are always chances that things might go wrong one way or another, but that's certainly a safe basis to think that the game won't utterly fail so that they will loose 90% of their subscribers after 6 months. They might not retain all of them, but they will certainly retain some.