Aion: Lost in Translation? A Guide to Asian Based MMO's

The wildfire of MMO popularity that swept through the North American market in 2004 had been burning brightly for years in the Asian markets. The launch of World of Warcraft that brought massive multiplayer to the masses here also did the same throughout Asia. It wasn't the first western game to gain market penetration in those areas, but it definelty was the biggest. Now a game looms on the horizon that looks to do the same but only in reverse. Aion, NC Soft's latest foray into the North American and European markets, has been going strong in its native Korea since November of 2008.

As Aion continues to build momentum here in the US and Europe with more and more players flocking into the beta each successive weekend that it is available, one begins to wonder about the differences  in eastern based and western based games and the people who play them.Will there be a culture shock for the players new to Asian based games?
To better answer these questions we first need to understand the two markets and the players who inhabit them.

This isn't the first Asian based MMO to hit our shores but the buzz around it may certainly make it the most popular. NC Soft's Lineage series which features the original Lineage, a side scroll 2D game, and it's 3D counterpart "prequel" Lineage 2 have been kings of the Asian markets since 1998. This subscription graph from shows the incredible popularity of Linage since its inception.
Many players assumed Sony's Everquest was the king of the block prior to WoW, but clearly that wasn't the case.

Asian based games have a history as compelling as their western counterparts and fan base that is second to none. In Korea, the stories of gaming obsession and the immense popularity of multiplayer games are everywhere. From the Time/CNN article on "Where Does Fantasy End" comes this excerpt that attempts to understand the underpinnings of South Korean gaming culture:

In South Korea, a deeply conformist society where children must speak to elders with a special deferential grammar, this bloodthirsty game has caught on with a vengeance. In Lineage, gamers playing princes, wizards and elves fight one another to the death in mini-armies or clans, headed by guild masters, to gain control of the castles that dot the virtual world. The victors can then levy feudal taxes upon virtual villages under their control and dun gamers a percentage of each online weapons sale. All this can be fairly lucrative, especially since there's a thriving black market that exchanges the virtual items for cold, hard cash. But what makes the game so addictive is its complex feudal environment, which hooks players after they invest days or weeks building up the strength of their online characters.

Erik Bethke, the former CEO Taldren studios that worked on the Korean Shadowbane: The Lost Kingdom, further expanded on the culture in a roundtable discussion from IGN's RPG Vault section:

Historically, Korea has much to be proud of, like the invention of movable type pre-dating the West, and the Hangul writing system. It has also been invaded repeatedly for centuries, capped off with the Japanese Imperialist occupation and being a bloody battleground in the Cold War. This terrible history of humiliation, torment and tragedy has produced a fiercely competitive people. Koreans compete incessantly, from pre-school to getting into a famous university. In business, they are renowned as shrewd competitors. They compete in sports... tennis, golf, soccer, go, go-stop... now Starcraft has been elevated to sport-like status.

Gamers from Asian markets have often intermingled on North American game servers with mixed results. One of the most impressive gaming guilds currently playing is Stars. Stars are a Taiwanese guild that first made its name on the Tunare server of EverQuest. Many players on the server weren't very fond of Stars as they practiced what western players considered mean spirited or underhanded tactics in acquiring boss kills. I played on this server and I was initially swayed by public opinion of the guild, but I soon came to realize that public perception can often times be very misleading when dealing with matters of culture. The one time raid leader of the guild Gale of Destruction explained it to me in these terms:

Stars does not do these things in a mean spirit, it is just a cultural difference. Their playstyle is different and to them it is the norm.

Ten Ton Hammer's own Ben de la Durantaye also played on Tunare and had the following to say about Stars:

Some people loved them, some hated them. I always found them respectful and courteous though. A tad intimidating perhaps, but they were an uber guild in the days when there were maybe three guilds worldwide that had made a name for themselves.

Indeed, Stars continues to be an elite group and they recently were the world first at killing Yogg-Saron hard mode in Ulduar.

In many ways, the west is catching up to the east in terms of gaming. Per capita gaming is much higher and broadband proliferation is markedly higher in Asian markets.

Gaming is much more social in the east as well, many players gather together in internet cafes to spend their game time with each other. Another surprising difference in most Asian based games is that most functions of game control are mouse based. Aion has a nice balance of mouse and keyboard but it does feel oddly forced compared to games native to the North American market. MTV recently interviewed Jon Belliss of the game Perfect World International who contended that Asian based MMOs are mouse friendly to accommodate the large smoking population :

A large portion of the MMO audience in Asia spend their time in crowded net cafes, where they chain smoke in one hand and grind to the next level, mouse-in hand, with the other.

These observations help us gain some understanding into the dynamics of Asian based MMO games and gamers but what does it mean to the western gamer trying Aion for the first time? Thus far in beta the PvPvE has not been fleshed out but game developers contend that players who do not wish to be involved in PvP won't have to be - from the upcoming patch 1.2 notes for Aion -

11. Penalties of PvP in Low Level Areas
If you go on a killing rampage in enemy territory (does not apply to the Abyss), you will receive penalties for doing so. This is called the Slayer System. The effects are as follows:

1. Depending on the amount of killings you will receive points. If your penalty points go over a certain limit, you will receive the penalty effects. If you kill lower leveled players than you, you will receive more points.

2. The penalty effects are categorized into two. One is a ?Curse? and you cannot use rifts. The second is a ?Judgment? and under this effect you cannot be resurrected in any Kiosk placed in the enemy territory, as well as use rifts.

3. The name of the Curse/Judgment depends on the race. If you are Elyos, you will receive Curse/Judgment of Asphel. Asmodians will get Curse/Judgment of Ariel.

4. Once you come under Curse or Judgment, your location will be revealed throughout the local map for the entire opposing faction members. Also, even if you are under a hiding skill, your title will be seen, making it even easier to be spotted.

5. You must go back to your own lands or the Abyss and wait for a certain amount of time for the Curse or Judgment to disappear.

6. If you or someone else kills a slayer, 12 nearby players of the dead body will receive buffs.

7. The killer of the slayer will be announced throughout the area chat under the format of [Race]s Hero [Killer of the Slayer] has defeated [Slayer] while he was under [Judgment or Curse] of [Ariel or Asphel].

The grindy feel of the game has started to show itself past level 10 as the leveling curve becomes increasingly steeper, the quest experience rewards and the sheer number of quests available are helping to counteract this so far. The game definelty has an Asian vibe and graphical feel to it while the beta community has so far been mostly expats from other North American MMO's.

The Aion experience should be a great one for players who have always wanted to experience Asian based MMOGs, bringing a nice blend of the hardcore feel with the more casual friendly aspects westerners have come to expect. These accommodations will make the culture shock much easier to digest and help transition western players into the exciting world of Asian MMOGs.

Aion is poised to do what no other eastern MMOG has been able to do - capture a large share of the North American gaming market and hold onto them. This comes in large part from NCSoft's ability to recognize the differences in the cultures, and to blend them well into a cohesive package that appeals to both sides.

What do you think? I am anxious to hear your thoughts and experiences on Asian MMO games. Whether you are a long time aficionado or new to the fold, I welcome your thoughts, comments and insights into this fascinating genre.

About the Author

Last Updated:

Around the Web