In this world of World of Warcraft, to be labeled a Korean MMORPG is to be branded with a scarlet letter of inferiority. It calls to mind the old days, when talk of narrative and context was silenced by the endless slaughter of woodland creatures and nefarious demons, all in the name of experience. It conjures images of countless internet advertisements for free, online roleplaying titles, each with their own anime-inspired take on war. The current crop of Korean-developed MMORPG titles like Dream of Mirror Online, FlyFF and Rappelz are living relics of a time long forgotten. This is the climate facing Aion:The Tower of Eternity, the latest from the original Korean MMOG creators at NCsoft. Not only are they looking to wash away the sins of Korean MMOG hell with this new game, but their own distorted image as well.

In the past decade, NCsoft has published two Korean-developed MMOGs: Lineage and its sequel, Lineage II. Since the release of the former, they’ve expanded on a global level, opening up offices in Austin, Texas and Brighton, England. Their biggest hits have in turn become major players in the MMOG scene with Guild Wars and its expansions racking up millions of sales globally on its free-to-play promise and the City of Heroes franchise expanding to include Villains. Add the likes of Tabula Rasa and Dungeon Runners into the mix, and it becomes clear that the Western front of NCsoft’s operations have been quite busy over the past decade. Yet, to most people, NCsoft still remains a foreign force in gaming.

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“One of our challenges from this point on is branding,” explains Aion Producer Juwon Lee. “Whenever people see NCsoft they say, ‘Oh, that’s the Korean company. We’d rather they say, ‘NCsoft? That’s a great MMO company.'”

Aion: The Tower of Eternity represents their first step to become a truly global company and, ironically enough, the first Korean developed MMOG they’ll have released since Lineage II. The difference between now and then is the 500 pound gorilla in the room, World of Warcraft. Much like how Bungie changed the landscape of the first-person shooter with the release of Halo: Combat Evolved, Blizzard’s MMOG giant has not only completely changed the way these games are created, but it’s also become the most dominant of its kind, checking in at over 10 million users. Immediately upon its release, the genre was split between titles that existed before WoW and those that were released after, the influence readily apparent in games such as The Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan.

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.

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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.

Emulating the success of Western MMOGs may allow Aion a stronger foothold in the marketplace, but it will be up to its own unique set of features to make it stand out. The most obvious example is a set of wings bestowed upon players when they hit Level 10. Not only do they make for an easy method of travel, but they’re also a key component in combat, as controlling the skies becomes just as important as the ground game. Borrowing an idea from Square Enix’s MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI, Aion utilizes a system for chaining skills amongst party members in order to dish out larger amounts of damage. The key difference is its accessibility, as the next skill in the chain is immediately highlighted for all eligible players, making it easy for even the relatively inexperienced to figure out how to contribute. Also unique to the world of Aion is the concept of “Player versus Monsters versus Player,” which will allow groups to take on raid-level enemies while fending off attacks from the opposing faction. This, of course, will most likely appeal to the more hardcore MMOG fans, as the thought of simply battling giant monsters already strikes fear into the heart of most newcomers.

After spending some time playing the game, it’s clear that the developers of NCsoft have done their research in what separates a Korean MMORPG from a Western one. Everything from the quest system to your character’s handling seems much more in line with modern MMOGs and is a huge improvement upon their previous Korean title, Lineage II. Aside from slapping a bunch of generic descriptors on the title (May I suggest World of Aion Online?), they’ve done just about all they can to please as many players as possible. It looks like highly stylized fantasy anime, but the gameplay will be instantly familiar to gamers on this side of the Pacific. By the time Aion reaches the West, the already competitive MMORPG market will be even nastier than it is now, but regardless of how it performs, NCsoft can rest easy. They’ve brought their baby into the 21st century.

Jared Rea lost the summer of 1998 to Ultima Online and has never been the same since. He continues to enjoy MMOGs, believes they’re the most untapped in terms of potential and was, for a brief time, the star of one. Don’t ask.

My Korean Fantasy Life

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