I like MMOGs.

Well, all things considered, I probably should like MMOGs, what with them being my job and all. You could even narrow that down further to “I like Western MMOGs,” because for all I’ve oohed-and-aahed over new content in Lord of the Rings Online, spent hours dissecting my friend’s original Guild Wars class concepts or stayed up until the wee hours of the morning raiding with my World of Warcraft guild for fame, fortune and phat lewtz, I’ve largely ignored the offerings of the East where MMOGs are concerned. To be fair, with the possible exception of a handful of titles, Eastern MMOGs have a reputation for poor quality that may not be entirely undeserved.

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The plan was a simple one: Take a hardcore player of Western MMOGs (myself), turn him loose in an Eastern game for a week … and see what happens. Given my unfamiliarity with Massive games from Asia – practically a separate genre entirely – I found myself wondering what exactly I was getting myself into as I first loaded up Nexon’s Mabinogi. Developed out of Seoul by devCAT (one of the Korea-based publisher’s internal studios) and released in Korea in mid-2004, Mabinogi hit North America just this past March. Despite being inspired by pre-Christian Celtic mythology, one look at the colorful, manga-esque characters splashed around the official website betrays its Eastern roots. There was no mistake; Mabinogi – proudly termed “Fantasy Life” – was as Korean an MMOG as they come.

The stage was set, and for the next seven days, Mabinogi‘s Fantasy Life would be my own.

Like many of its East Asian cousins, Mabinogi revolves around microtransactions rather than recurring subscription fees; players have the option of purchasing official “NX Cash” from Nexon, which can then be redeemed for items and services. Otherwise, it’s entirely free to play. In Mabinogi, much of what is available through Nexon’s store is primarily cosmetic in nature: A “Premium Character Card” gives players more options for faces and hairstyles when creating a new character, and one can buy a number of in-game pets as well. That said, many of the options do confer in-game advantages – the pets can aid you in battle, a “Support Service” gives you increased storage space and softens the blow of being defeated in combat, and in order to play through the most prominent story lines (called “Generations”), a player must have an active Premium Service on their account, which at its cheapest is just under $10 for 30 days.

At the time, though, I didn’t know any of this. I did know, however, that Nexon America had provided me with a testing account with some complimentary free NX Cash. While most of what I saw while poking around the Mabinogi store was Greek to me, I eventually picked up a few goodies that sounded helpful and finally made my way to the character select screen.

Though my account already had a character made for me, my first instinct was to create a new one – and here, I hit my very first stumbling block. Why would there be a “race” tab if the only option was Human? (As it turns out, there are Elves and Giants too – but the storyline on the North American servers hasn’t advanced that far yet.) There were no different classes to choose from; instead I was given the option to set my character’s age from 10 years old to 17, the broad spectrum of manga characters’ youth, naturally. Where were the grizzled veterans and graying wizards? What made a 10-year-old better at picking up a sword than a 17-year-old, or vice versa? This wasn’t Dungeons and Dragons – it was Pokémon. Even such a simple task as entering my character’s name felt daunting, if only because I had no idea what was expected of me, or what the players considered “proper.”

In the end, I gave up. After all, they’d generously given me an account with a character ready to go already on it – it’d be rude not to accept. So, as LALAa the 17-year-old human female entered the world of Mabinogi, I braced myself for whatever the game had in store for me.

Three hours later, I logged off feeling slightly like Gilligan and the Skipper – completely and irrevocably lost. I’d picked up the game’s point-and-click interface fairly quickly (so I thought), but my confusion ran deeper than that. It wasn’t even what I was being asked to do – the standard “go kill 10 (enemies)” or “bring me five (items)” are old hat to any MMOG player – as much as how I was being asked to do it.

While running aimlessly around the starting area, an owl suddenly flew by and dropped off a quest to bring five berries to a local NPC. I was baffled; what had I done to earn this quest? As far as I could tell, nothing, but a quest is a quest. The best way to gather berries in the world of Mabinogi, it turns out, is to attack bushes and trees over and over until they drop them – of course, they can also drop branches instead, I mercilessly clicked the local foliage in search of berries, unsure if I was doing this properly. What made me get a branch instead of a berry – was it random? Should I be focusing on bushes instead of trees? Upon gathering the berries and locating the NPC, I was informed that I’d taken too long to complete the quest, and it had expired. Naturally, I hadn’t realized that the task was time-sensitive.

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It felt like I was still in the tutorial phase, only they weren’t explaining anything to me. Another quest asked me to harvest wheat to make flour. Upon locating the wheat fields, the game informed me that I couldn’t cut wheat without a sickle, so I had to trek back to the blacksmith, buy the necessary implement and then return to the wheat. Apparently my character wasn’t cut out for the work: It seemed for every four attempts at harvesting only one would succeed. Explanations for my failed attempts ranged from “my hands slipped” to “I couldn’t harvest any wheat.” Were these important? Was I failing for different reasons, or was it just the game trying to spice things up? Upon gathering the wheat needed, I returned to the mill to turn it into flour … and failed, necessitating a return to the fields to start the whole process over again.

As I became more and more familiar with the way the game worked, I seemed to find my own rhythm. I was even beginning to have fun. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing the point. For every quest I was given to find a lost villager in a dungeon or kill wolves menacing a shepherd boy’s flock, I was given a quest to go to school or to help shear wool from the aforementioned sheep. Sure, many of those quests were optional, to help players learn and gain experience in the myriad of non-combat “Life” skills like Weaving or Cooking – but hey, this wasn’t WoW, where I was limited to just two professions. If I could learn every single skill in the game, why shouldn’t I damn well try?

So, I ran around doing part-time jobs every in-game day (about 38 minutes in real time). I gathered wool from the sheep so that the town healer could make bandages. I delivered food from the grocery. I collected eggs for the town’s church. I went to Magic School. I didn’t even think about exploring beyond the first starting area for days.

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For all the criticism WoW gets for holding the player’s hand, it’s remarkably intuitive and easy to pick up. Quests lead the player from zone to zone when appropriate, and a simple color-coding system indicates whether you’re capable of taking on a quest, or if you should gain a few more levels beforehand. Mabinogi, too, gave me quests leading to new and unexplored areas, but the entire time I felt vaguely uncertain about whether I should have been progressing so quickly. With no way to see the level of anything or anybody that wasn’t me, how was I supposed to know whether or not that Grizzly Bear would be an appropriately challenging encounter, or whether it would maul my face off? (It did.) In the absence of a hand subtly nudging me towards adventure, I had ended up … well, shearing sheep.

I had found my rhythm – but was this how I wanted to play, or how the game wanted me to play? I’d gone in wanting more “fantasy,” but the game seemed to keep nudging me towards more and more “life.” Sure, it was surprisingly fun to compose the theme from Super Mario World in game and stand around performing in a town square, but where were my epic adventures? Hadn’t I wanted to be a hero and conqueror, not an errand boy?

If this wasn’t my Fantasy Life, then whose was it?

For a MMOG with four years of updates under its belt, a single week of play (even “hardcore” play) barely scratches the surface. Coming away from my week of Mabinogi, I was left feeling … confused. In total, I’d logged over 30 hours of playtime, yet couldn’t help but feel like I hadn’t yet “gotten” the game. To help fill in the (sizable) gaps in my own experience, I spoke with three Mabinogi devotees, all of whom were active in the game’s community: Kitae “KitaeK27” Kang, and two players who preferred to go with their in-game names, Angevon and Khenta. All three had been involved with Mabinogi on the Korean servers before the game launched in North America – Khenta and Kang had even participated in the original beta tests.

None of the three were strangers to MMOGs before Mabinogi, so the question foremost on my mind when we spoke was simple – why Mabinogi? With dozens of other MMOGs from both East and West alike at their fingertips, why choose this one? What kept them logging in day after day; what was the “point” of the game as they saw it?

Their playstyles differed, to be sure. Khenta preferred to work on crafting and other professions, Angevon ran dungeons (often as her playable wolf pet), and Kang primarily engaged in PvP or socialized with people in-game; if he adventured, it was almost always accompanying the friends he’d made. Even with these different foci, however, all three shared certain opinions about the game’s draw as a whole. “It’s all customization,” said Kang, and he seemed to have a point. From what I saw, most equipment offered only marginal performance improvements and, lacking class or level restrictions, could be worn by anybody. Without any significant tangible benefit from equipment, players could wear whatever they liked. Khenta agreed, adding “The only limitation you have to making your character is your imagination … it’s very hard to find two people with the exact same avatar/character setup.”

This freedom of choice that they unanimously loved about the game … was it, in fact, the cause of much of my disorientation? Perhaps I’d been conditioned by a diet of Western MMOGs to accomplish as much as possible as soon as I could – and, when faced with a surplus of options right off the bat, I spread myself entirely too thin trying to do everything I could when I was barely even out of the starting gate.

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But beyond the customization and the fighting there was another thing that kept them returning day after day: the community and the friends they’d made. Blindingly obvious in hindsight, but it was only then that I realized exactly what I’d been doing wrong the entire time: This was a Massive game, and I’d been trying to go it alone.

I entered the world of Mabinogi with entirely the wrong mindset, but it had nothing to do with East versus West or Adventurer versus Shepherd – I’d gone in with the expectation that I would play this game for a week and never touch it again. Consequently, I’d barely even talked to anyone, let alone tried to meet a travelling companion or someone more experienced who could show me the ropes. Amidst the three veterans’ tales of friends they’d known who had gotten them hooked or friends they’d made early on in the game, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d been ignoring what made a MMOG – any MMOG – worth that second “M”: everybody else in the game who wasn’t me. By my calculations, a fairly large percentage of Mabinogi‘s player base.

My discomfort had nothing to do with my being a Western MMOG player thrust into a game that’s as Korean as they come. There’s a time and a place for solo adventures, but when that’s all a player does – all they ever intend to do – the game becomes something it was never meant to be. After all, it’s nice just to have someone to chat with in game.

Even while shearing sheep.

John Funk is the Senior Editor of WarCry and spends entirely too much time inside virtual worlds. He was reportedly chased out of a laundromat for attempting to grind his folding skill with other people’s clothing.

Stolen Pixels #15: Azeroth Travelogue, Part 2

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