I probably wouldn’t have been that interested in MMOs from the Eastern market five years ago, but I’ve really been itching for a good MMO experience and the Western developers just haven’t really scratched the right itch. I think there could be some nostalgia mixed in with my relatively recent interest in games from Asian developers, too. I lived in Korea for a while and I’ve occasionally found myself really missing the art and culture of the region. I suspect that’s why the art style of games like Astellia Online can be so appealing to me.
That’s probably also why I jumped at the chance to check out Astellia Online during their recent closed beta. I had the opportunity to play it at PAX South, but it was a very guided experience focusing on the smash-em-up aspect of the game. That’s not normally the part of a game that I go for, so I didn’t really feel I walked away with a good sense of the game.
The closed beta is a different story, though. Unlike a lot of the beta and early access opportunities we get with more typical Western games, Astellia Online is a launched title in Asia. That means the game is complete, and a lot of the bugs and problems of their initial launch have been discovered already. Beta in this case truly is a test of systems for the most part, and I think that’s what we saw in this case.
I’m going to walk through a few of the things I think the closed beta tells us about Astellia Online today. We’ll touch on some of the work that has to be done to convert the game from its original format to one more suited for a Western audience. I’ll also go through some of my early impressions about the game, and what I mean by early impressions of an already finished game.
Moving a game from Asia to a more Westernized audience isn’t just a matter of translating the text and hiring English-speaking voice actors. Depending on how deep you go into it, we’re talking a fairly complicated process. That’s just from what little I know about it.
The linguistical barrier is a key one and it has to be passed to launch the game in the new audience. Modern MMOs contain a sizable catalogue of voice-acted dialogue. You don’t have to worry about the yells and grunts associated with player and NPC attacks and jumps typically, but there are conversations and cut scenes with voice-overs that do have to be recorded with new actors. Astellia Online seems to be a little more voice-intensive than average, so that’s not a trivial process.
It seemed to be like every single NPC I spoke to had a handful of phrases they’d fire off when you accessed them. NPCs with quests usually started off with a short phrase, as well. The main lift would be the constant babble from Rota, your first stella. All the stellas seem to have a list of phrases and conversation they engage in, so there’s a solid amount of voice work there, as well. …None as much as Rota, though. Man, that muppet can talk.
Everything I’ve seen so far suggests that they’ve made really good progress on the voice acting. Notionally, they could just have the early part of the game really well voice-acted and then still be working on the rest a la Age of Conan, but I don’t think so. It seems like voice acting is typically layered in a character at a time as you’d have a single voice actor run through all their lines before giving the booth up to the next. Astellia Online seems to be pretty robustly voice acted in the earlier part of the game and I’m not seeing anything missing that feels like it should be there. I think that suggests that they’re close to being done with that portion of the porting the game over.
The other major change between markets is monetization. No matter what you do, you can’t get away from the fact that the game was built to appeal to a slightly different audience, and that’s going to reflect going forward. Looking at the pre-order, you get a sense of how the team plans to monetize the game on this side of the Pacific, and there’s good and bad to be found there.
I’m not seeing any pay-to-win, so that’s a pretty big positive. From what I’ve heard, there are items in the Korean version of the game that you have to purchase to use, and those sorts of items can be fairly dominant in PvP. That’s very typical of games in that region, and very non-typical for Western audiences. It doesn’t look like the idea followed the game over, which would be one of the key points of concern that I’d normally be looking for.
One of the things I like about the game are icons on the bottom right that pop up to tell you that you’ve picked up a new skill or something. It’s out of the way enough to not be distracting, but also doesn’t get lost in chat spam.
That said, running the dungeons to unlock new stellas and get experience for the ones you have is a key component of the game and it does look like there’ll be some sort of firewall built around that. I didn’t get far enough into the game to experience it myself, so I’m not completely sure how this’ll work, but it looks like your opportunity to run these dungeons will be limited and can be bumped up with cash. I’m not panicked about it since there’s so much I don’t know yet, but it is one aspect of the game that I find worthy of keeping an eye on.
Western gamers don’t like having portions of the game carved off behind a cash shop. Even if that’s not what the plan is, there’s a risk of it being perceived that way. The team in charge of porting the game over and the marketing team will need to be very careful about how they manage that perception if that’s not the direction they plan to go.
Based on what I saw, the game shouldn’t be far from release. It’s been live in Korea for over six months, so the development is relatively complete. There was a nine-month gap between the last closed beta and launch for the game in Korea, but that shouldn’t apply to the North American launch.
The delta between Korean and North American launches should largely be nailing down the business model, the marketing push in the new market, and then the voiceover work. If the voiceover work is completed, then the only development remaining should be whatever systems are required to support the new business model. That should be relatively low-lift as elite-gear available for purchase in Korea gets allocated to appropriate mobs in the Westernized version of the game, and then bonuses for sale in the cash shop are implemented and the experience gain is rebalanced to account for the new system.
That’s probably the long pole in the tent and what I’d expect the team to be collecting metrics on in beta events. They need to calculate the time for in-game progression so that it both makes the cash shop valuable and doesn’t make the game unplayable or frustrating otherwise. There will obviously be a bit of hardware testing, as well. Most of that should have been captured during Korean beta events and probably doesn’t drive much internal demand for beta events, though.
In the end, I’m a little on the fence about Astellia Online. I’m not a huge fan of the storyline I’ve been through so far. It’s not complex enough to be interesting to me and kind of comes off as a little childish, which I think is probably more due to cultural differences and art-style. I suspect a little of the flavor behind the story is lost in translation.
I also don’t really care for the grindy nature of the gameplay. Though, this too I suspect is a culture gap. The PC bangs in Korea were always full of folks grinding away on Lineage and other contemporary games when I lived there. I suspect the PvP will be more interesting though and am withholding any strong opinions until I’ve given that a go.
That’s not to say there aren’t aspects of the game that I do like so far. As I’ve said before, I really enjoy the Asian sense of aesthetics when it comes to in-game assets. The general style appeals to me, and I’ve found over the years that a lot of Eastern games feature really cool color palettes that are particularly well suited for landscapes. Like many others in the same vein, Astellia Online is a really pretty game.
The other thing I really like about the game is the stellas themselves. I’m not certain whether it’s enough to push the game towards mainstream, but they’re super cute and I could easily see folks who are into that sort of thing liking this game a lot. Plus, I found the stellas that I unlocked in the beta were hilarious. Their interactions and sound bites had me laughing out loud several times while playing the game.
I suspect that there’s a fair size market that’ll enjoy this sort of game and I think they’ll find themselves profitable in the new region. The only question in my mind is whether they can capture outside the audience that normally gravitates to this sort of game, and that’s where they’ll find their challenge and potential success.
As far as whether I’ll buy the game or not, that’s a little up in the air. While the game is effectively feature complete, I haven’t really seen enough on it to give me an impression of what the end-game content is like. I also haven’t experienced any crafting yet, and my readers will know that’s a key element for me.
What’s there is entertaining enough that I’m considering picking the game up, despite the fact that I’m not normally a member of the target audience for these sorts of games. I think some of my nieces may enjoy the game, too. I’m considering giving them the chance to try it out with me. As I learn more about the game and form a firmer impression, I’ll definitely revisit to let you all know what the more informed me thinks. Until then, Rota apparently has more to tell me, so I better find out what has her so animated.
NOTE: The beta access key was provided to Red for the purpose of this article.