Recently, we had the chance to sit down with NCsoft West’s Associate Producer, Sean Neil, and chat about all things Aion. As you may or may not be aware, the game has recently launched a free expansion for all its players, and as of today is updating to version 2.1 which the team sees as a culmination of all their “westernizing” efforts. In short, Aion of today is pretty much a brand new game when compared to the Aion of launch. We talked to Sean about just how far the game’s come, how they collect and approach player feedback, and where they’re headed from here.
First Sean figured it was a good idea to go back in time and give a recap on just where Aion was when it launched in the west last year to give us an idea on just how much progress has been made to make the game ideal for its western audience. When the game launched in the US it was already in iteration 1.5 from NCsoft East. The benefits were that the game was stable and ready for launch in the US because it had already been launched months prior in Korea. The down side was that it wasn’t completely appropriate for the US audience in terms of how the systems worked. It felt, in Sean’s own words, “too grindy” for the Western mentality.
Often we see games that come out, get some hard to swallow feedback, and never really address the issues at hand. However with Aion, and given that NCsoft has been at the MMO business for a good long while now and doing so across the globe, they realized early on that their goal should simply be to collect feedback from the Western players and make changes as necessary in tandem with the NCsoft East team. It’s a fine example of both development houses in two different countries working extremely well together to meet the needs of their own individual markets. What they’ve found in the process is that sometimes the ideas brought to the table by one side are perfect for the other and vice versa. It’s an extremely mobile development setup, and it’s allowed Aion to make some significant strides in its first year live in the US.
Update 1.9 was the first real “switch” to the Americanized version of the game. The experience rates were hugely altered to ease the steep leveling curve which initially drove some folks away. Then in September came 2.0, otherwise known as Assault on Balaurea: the game’s first full (and free!) expansion. Not only was the level cap raised to 55, but hundreds more quests were added, daily quests made their debut, solo dungeons were introduced to help fill out some of the content gaps, and experience rates were increased again to match the level they normally had during double-XP events. Combat and non-combat pets alike were added too. Players can buy (either in game or with real cash) pets which serve a multitude of purposes such as extra storage space, or even crafting items from your useless junk.
Not content to rest on their laurels, NCsoft is launching patch 2.1 today. The highlight of which is easily the drastically increased drop-rates for all items across the board. Past and present players will be the first to tell you that getting a good item drop in Aion is like winning the lottery. But luckily, for those who aspire to gain the best gear, as of today it will no longer be such a crapshoot. They didn’t exactly just prop up the drop rates by a specific percentage across the board, but instead actually went from monster to monster to make sure that they would give enough currency, appropriate items, and do so on a more regular basis so that when you run an instance you won’t leave empty handed. Patch 2.1, Sean Neil says, “is like the big pretty bow on top of Balaurea.” It wraps up all the major changes that the team felt were necessary to make Aion “west ready”. Contrasted to where they were at launch the game is much more fleshed out across all levels and the team feels that they’ve really done their best to make sure that there’s something for everyone in Aion.
We asked Sean how the existing community, both current players and those who made a return with 2.0, have received the game in its new form. He stated that there was a swell of people who returned with 2.0 and that the feedback thus far on all the additions has been generally positive. But that they immediately started sending out surveys and collecting feedback again. They never want to get to the point where they’re just sitting back and letting the game run on its own. The way the staff approaches the development is as though it can always get better, and it shows.
When we asked about the solo instances specifically (which span the high teens, the late twenties, and the fifty-plus ranges), Sean was very ecstatic to find out that pretty much everyone loved the new solo content. He admits to being worried about how their group-oriented players would accept these, but what they’ve found is that players are running them over and over even though the leveling gaps they were intended to cover have been largely eradicated by new questing content. His theory is that this is because the instances are story-driven affairs that offer really good loot for the solo player, and with 2.1 the chance to get something useful is even greater. In short, solo instances are one of the highlights of the game now, right alongside the group dungeons.
Eventually the conversation steered towards how the team might still be adjusting the game to meet western expectations. Sure it’s come a long way already, but when a title is being produced across oceans simultaneously, there’s always bound to be something else to work on. Immediately Sean piped up about the recent changes to Rifting. Basically one of the changes the Eastern team made to the act of entering another faction’s zone for PvP purposes is that players would receive debuffs upon “rifting” into the zone. It seems to sit well with the Korean audience, but the US gamers are a little more vocal about their dislike for the system. Thus, changes are already coming down the pipeline to find a way to make the system more appropriate for the US.
Finally we broke it to Sean that we couldn’t go an entire interview without badgering him about the now infamous “Visions Trailer” from 2009’s G-Star expo. We asked whether or not the changes in the trailer were still being worked on and if so when we might see some of them come to life. Without going into specific dates, Mr. Neil was happy to tell me that most (if not all) of the “visions” were still being actively pursued and that some are closer to fruition while others are further out. He added that the trailer was more of a “this is what we want the game to be one day” than a “this is coming tomorrow” type thing. Regardless, the developers are still plugging away and the changes will be coming. As for a timeline? How about “Soontm”?
I guess we can give Sean and his staff a break for now. It’s not like they haven’t been busy molding Aion into one of the premier fantasy MMOs on the market. If you’ve been away for some time, or if you’ve yet to try the title out, now’s probably the best time to take a crack at it.