Balancing the Linear and the Sandbox
The other day, I was reading through some of the forums and I noticed an interesting thread about Aion being too linear in its game play. I thought this was an interesting topic as some people were saying that it should be more of an open / sandbox style game. While on the other side, people were expressing that they were fine with having some structure and guidance in the game. This got me thinking about what I feel an MMO world should be like.
Looking at traditional pen and paper role playing games and how a story unfolds, there might help in understanding about the right way to have an MMO story play out. Standard RPGs usually have between three and six players and one game master. The players create their characters and control their actions by telling the game master what they want to do or where they want to go and how to interact with non player characters (NPCs). This is pretty much the same with MMORPGs. Players create their characters and use the keyboard and mouse to tell the character what to do. The game master's job, in a nutshell, is to create a story or goal for the characters to accomplish. They can use a pre-made adventure as the setting for the characters. These games lead the players from one encounter to the next to tell a story in a fairly linear fashion. Game masters that create their own world may have a game that is more of a sandbox style. Players are able to explore the world and learn about it as they go along. Both could be fun to play in their own way. With a linear style game players experience the entire story, but may not see the whole world. In a sandbox style game players may be able to see everything but not feel that they are doing anything other than killing monsters.
In my opinion, Aion is somewhere in between a linear and a sandbox game. From the opening cut scene, I got the impression that there was an interesting history that leads up to the current time in the game. As your character completes quests, you discover more pieces of the story and learn that you played a bigger role in the struggle between the Elyos, Asmodians and Balaur.
The campaign quests that you pick up through the game must be completed in order and reveal more of the story. I would agree that these quests are linear and are designed to get a character from point A to point B in the story.
For example, when your character first wakes up in the initial zone of the game and you complete the first few quests, you see that they lead you to your first campaign quest. The campaign quests, in turn, lead you to your ascension quests. Much like the pre-made adventure in a pen and paper RPG, the game is leading you through the story. If this didn't happen you would just be running around killing Kerub and Zaifs or collecting Angelica. Yet you are not limited to just going along the path from one quest giver to the next. I like to wander around an area and see where I'm able to get to on the landscape and what areas are just backgrounds. I discovered that there were some areas of the map that I couldn't get to, but for the most part you can explore the areas that are opened on it. Not a complete sandbox, yet roaming around was interesting.
While wandering around the different zones, you'll find a fair number of side quests to pick up from quest givers and some random NPCs that also give out quests. For me this adds to both the sandbox part of the game and expands on the history and flavor of the story. Let's say that I just completed one of the campaign quests and on my way back to the NPC, I kill something that drops an item that starts a side quest. I can go do that side quest, which may lead me to an area that I have not been in. I am not forced by the game to complete it. If I don't do that quest, does it impact what happens to my character? Not really, other than maybe not getting some extra experience points or some other reward.
But these quests give the NPCs lives of their own outside of being just a quest giver and add flavor to the story. One might have you stealing a robe from a nymph that is swimming in a pond in the middle of the night while another has you collecting flowers for a fisherman's secret love. I feel these are more of a sandbox part of the game since you do not need to complete them. Another feature that I think would fall into the sandbox side are the Flight Transporters. You do not have to walk to a new location that has a Flight Transporter in order to use it. A more linear approach to them would require that your character walk to that new location before you can use the new Flight Transporter. In Poeta there are only two Flight Transporters, one in Akarios Village and the other at Melponeh's Campsite. When you get to Akarios Village if you want to fly to Melponeh's Campsite you can.
I feel that the development team has done a good job of making sure that there are enough areas to explore and discover hidden things while making sure that you always come back on track so that the story of Aion progresses. For me, this creates a fun experience that will keep me playing and be watching for updates to the game that may add new content and hopefully open up areas that were unexplorable. Could it be more open, it's possible. Is it to linear, my opinion is no.