GDC 08: Nexon’s Next MMO Maginobi and the Free-to-Play Model

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Nexon America is ensconced as a leader in the localization of Korean games for the North American market. In 2005, they released MapleStory, which is one of the most popular and critically well-received translated MMOs available. At GDC 2008, CEO John Chi and Customer Relations Manager Joseph Wreggelsworth presented Mabinogi, a slightly more traditional MMO in the late stages of testing, and took a look back at the success that launched them.

Unlike MapleStory, Mabinogi is fully 3-D, albeit still from an isometric (top-down) perspective. Make no mistake, these visuals are not top of the line, but they are built to run on a realistic set of machines, and Nexon hopes to make up for the lack of crazy effects with detailed customization and a rich feature set.

In a landscape of World of Warcraft clones, Nexon’s latest entry harkens back to the era of Ultima Online. This is what I call a “virtual world game” (not to be confused with a virtual world like, say, Second Life). It harnesses real-world elements and sandbox-style gameplay, but retains a sense of advancement and purpose. For example, simple concepts like character age and the very day/night cycle of the world have a real effect on gameplay.

In most games, the day/night cycle is simply there to break up the mood. Occasionally, it might impact the spawns, but that was always the core difference between the virtual world game and the modern theme park-style MMO, which are clearly quite fun, but also simplified in many respects. In Mabinogi, there is a full in-game calendar, and depending on the time of year there are bonuses associated with it. This acts as a global mechanism that nudges – if not fully directs – players around the world, and should create more variety in where people play and hunt.

The very time of day also has a measured impact. At night there are different creatures to hunt and bonuses than in the day. This extends right down to weather. For example, in a rainstorm, players who rely on fire attacks will find themselves a bit less effective. At the same time, though, that rainstorm may be the key to some neat loot.

They concept of basic world assumptions as gameplay enhancement is not just a global trend, but also a personal one. Both age and diet are important considerations for players as they advance their characters.

“A lot of this is about individuality,” said Wreggelsworth.

With age, players can choose to begin as anywhere between the ages of 10 to 17 (the full range in the game is 10 to 25). As players age in the game, their stats and looks change and grow. This actually creates a built-in difficulty feature for players to consider upon character creation. It is in fact easier to start an older character and carve out a niche in the world, but while it may be more of a struggle, there are greater benefits on the back-end of a younger character who has a full age span to advance through. Don’t worry, though; there is no old-age or permanent death. The game comes with mechanisms whereby players can reincarnate and start the cycle over again or slow down/speed up aging as desired.

Mabinogi appears to have run the fine line that allows Nexon to incorporate basic life lessons and logic as gameplay. For example, diet is a core part of each character. If a character eats too much food or the wrong things, they’ll put on some weight. As a gameplay element, this is a balancing act. Players need to eat to regain and maintain their stamina (and no, you cannot starve to death), but they also likely want to maintain a handsome figure. The game provides all sorts of options in terms of food for players to seek out and ingest. Too much cake means a couple pounds, but simple activity allows players to work off any unwanted weight. The ideal character will combine sane amounts of healthy foods in the game with active gameplay (running around, fighting, etc.) to maintain a regular weight level, which is exactly the kind of message that parents of younger players should be pleased with.

Advancement in Mabinogi is a combination of traditional experience and usage-based skills. Players gain skills in three categories: life, combat and magic. Each is advanced through their direct use or indirect actions in the game. For example, players can learn sword skills both by actually fighting with the sword and by reading books or talking to NPCs who can teach them a trick or two. The experience part of the equation occurs as players reach new levels in these skills and use their ability points to advance to the next stage, unlocking new abilities. This combination simplifies their skill-based system so that players retain the control they are likely used to in character advancement, without sacrificing the complexity and customization options of a skill-based system.

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In each line of skills there are dozens of options that can range from the broad combat skills to specific things like fishing. Many of the skills in the Life category, such as fishing, rely on mini-games within the context of the game world. These mini-games get easier based on the character’s skill in them.

While this game definitely falls into the virtual world category, no one should confuse this with a directionless experience. Nexon assured us that the game is jammed full of quests and works hard to make sure players have somewhere to go and something to do. Chi specifically lamented that many of the other MMOs – especially Korean imports – leave players with absolutely no direction or idea what to do next after they login. This is something they’ve worked to address.

“When we create a game we don’t create movies, we create episodic TV,” Chi pointed out. As in MapleStory before, they plan to leverage their unique relationship with Nexon and the developers of the original Korean version of Mabinogi and combine that with aggressive live events that fit the audience to ensure there is always fresh content.

Many imported MMOs rest at the mercy of their original master copy and simply translate and adopt new content as it is made available to them. With MapleStory and now Mabinogi, Chi outlines a more symbiotic relationship where they and all their global partners have the ability to create content specifically for their region. Sometimes, that content can even filter back to the Korean original, which is not the norm in this space.

Chi sees this all as part of Nexon America’s responsibility to not only translate, but adapt their games to North American culture. There are two iterations to their localization process. First it is translated from Korean to English, and then native English speakers check it again. Finally, it is given another pass by people who work on more than just basic translation, but also the pure context of what is being said. Pure translation can create some odd outcomes, which would make no sense to North Americans, even if the words are technically correct, and they – like every localization company we saw at GDC – explained that the elimination of these kinds of mistakes is a core focus.

Their live events bring the game further towards the local audience. Chi cited the example of annual Thanskgiving events in MapleStory, which wouldn’t make much sense in Korea, but have become quite popular in North America.

With the success of MapleStory, Nexon America has found themselves a leader in the newly emerging business-model wars. Traditional MMO studios have lined up behind the subscription model, while the influx of Asian imports have brought in various micropayment techniques with mixed success. Increasingly, though, the pendulum seems to have shifted towards the invading model thanks to a core philosophy that removes virtually all financial barrier to entry.

“Every individual who participates adds to the worldscape,” Chi pointed out. As such, to him, even players who play a game for years and never spend a dime are valuable parts of the community. Too often, we hear about “good games” that buckle partly out of a sheer lack of people to meet. The free-to-play craze lets communities build on themselves over time, which can transform the traditional initial bump, followed by a slow and steady decline of a subscription MMO into something that feeds on itself and grows over the years in a free-to-play entry.

“The spread of [MapleStory] was purely viral,” Chi said. Aside from a very limited field of advertisements, they credit the social aspects of the community with much of its success. People often go in, hang out and talk to friends. Sometimes they wonder whether the game itself hasn’t become a secondary focus to some players. Nonetheless, the more people who participate and the longer they spend in a game, the more likely they are to drop down a few dollars here and there for items.

Nexon has adopted a very light approach to microtransactions. They insist that their games contain no artificial barriers, which was a common complaint in the first generation of “free-to-play” games, which would often have more in common with a level-capped free trial than a true free experience. The vast majority of their items in MapleStory, and likely similarly in Mabinogi, are purely cosmetic in nature. They find players want to spend money to differentiate their character, and so most items in the store are things like new clothes and hats that slot cosmetically over whatever armor the character wears to promote individuality. “There is no wall,” Chi insisted.

As the interview progressed, it became clear that Chi had seen a steady stream of journalists who shared my skeptical questions about the F2P, imported genre, which has a not altogether unjustified reputation for lack of quality. This is a perception Nexon battles to change, but they’re also quite aware of the work they must do.

“We want to show the mainstream audience that free-to-play doesn’t suck,” Chi added bluntly as our interview drew to a close. With MapleStory, they took a large step in that direction. In the next few weeks, we’ll see whether Mabinogi has the chops to further erode those player and media preconceptions.

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