It's easy enough to point at these newer titles and simply call them clones, but what Blizzard brought to the MMORPG was a drastic change in design that was sorely needed. Prior to WoW, the most gameplay that people could hope for in an MMOG was perhaps a decent crafting system to distract them from the endless repetition of monster slaying, better known as grinding. And no nation was better known for their grinds as Korea. From the original Lineage back in 1998 to the dime-a-dozen Korean MMOGs that are cobbled together today, one thing that has never changed is the lack of anything better to do other than grind away at hordes of baddies. World of Warcraft opted for goal-based progression that wraps the experience from levels 1 to 70 in a cohesive and occasionally engrossing narrative. The result is a much more controlled and accessible game that encourages players of all levels to come back time and time again. In NCsoft's case, taking their top Korean talent, best known for their work in the pre-WoW era, and tasking them with recreating this style of gameplay is something of a grand experiment.
Juwon Lee speaks of this shift in philosophy quite simply. "Korean games are infamous for their grinding, but that was 10 years ago, so it's been awhile. Here, we have this new game, Aion, where we'd like to take the best elements of our games like Lineage and Lineage II and combine them with the best elements of WoW and the new crop of Western games. In that sense, we're aiming to please everyone."
Thus far in its development (Aion isn't due to hit Western shores until 2009, though its South Korean release is scheduled for end of 2008), the experiment has been a success. Starting with avatar creation, Aion's incredibly rich customization system allows players on this side of the ocean to overcome one of the major obstacles in adopting a foreign roleplaying game: androgynous anime pretty boys. It's as easy to create a gruff, stone-jawed muscular type as it is a dainty, blue-haired warrior. While the level of customization is staggering (I counted about 15 different sliders for the face alone), it's always the gameplay that counts.
Like other modern MMOGs, NCsoft has adopted a very Warcraft-like structure, where players choose between one of two different factions (Elyos or Asmodian in this case), a classic roleplaying archetype (warrior, mage, etc.) and then battle their way from quest to quest in search of fame and loot. While not necessarily the most inventive of tasks ("Kill 20 pirates! Pick 10 of these flowers! Get me a Big Mac!"), the quests help speed up an already fast-paced title, something that most players would have never of attributed to a Korean-made MMOG. From the combat to downtime between battles, Aion is very much up to pace with the likes of World of Warcraft and The Lord of the Rings Online, appearing more like an action title than a time-sucking MMORPG at first glance.