Aion Arrives On-Scene
Game developer and publisher NCSoft released their fantasy MMO "Aion: Tower of Eternity," to rave reviews in South Korea in late 2008. On the heels of previous success stories "Lineage," "City of Heroes" and "Guild Wars," Aion did well in the Asian market, prompting an Australian, North American and European release within 10 months.
However, the Western market release was plagued from the first few months with a host of problems such as kinah sellers, lack of questing outside the starter zones, and population and balance issues. NCSoft's initial reaction to some of these issues was over-the-top; new players were basically handcuffed in the chat department, with no means of communication with other players until after reaching their tenth level. Considering that the ascension quest, in which characters chose their (irreversible) class specialization and gained daeva status, arrives at level nine, many beginners were frustrated by their lack of involvement in the game at this crucial stage.
Other issues received no attention whatsoever, and players were forced to deal with repeated ganking in the Abyss, grinding of experience after level 20 and the class balance issues that trouble many MMOs in their earliest stages. This dragged on well into 2010 and beginning with a free major expansion, NCSoft introduced some major changes to their flagging title.
Fixing What Is Broken
The "Assault on Balaurea" expansion was released in September 2010 to all existing account holders with no additional cost. Additionally, the retail box package of Aion was revised to include this extra content with no increase in price. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to bring bailing players back to Atreia, even if it did slightly slow the exodus of gamers heading towards the exit doors.
The "Empyrean Calling" content update of mid-2011 contributed far more to repairing Aion's problems. For example, a huge number of quests have been added to the game, reducing the amount of time that players must spend grinding for experience after level 20. Additionally, the servers have been condensed and then beefed up to be able to handle the large-scale PvP battles that were played for the Abyss section of the game. Finally, NCSoft finally got around to addressing the population and class mechanic imbalances. Those willing to roll a character on the Asmodian faction will receive bonus XP; that alone is typically enough of a draw to get people on the dark side. Plus, Asmodians get much cooler black wings upon reaching Daeva status.
A number of graphical improvements have also been implemented into Aion Online. Even though the game was built on the CryEngine, it was still beginning to look a little rough around the edges. The improved graphics have made the strange and lush environments even more beautiful. Character models look better as well, and the only grievance left unaddressed here is the developer's insistance on "Americanizing" the NPC and character voices. They still clash with the art design, but that's a minor issue at this stage of the game.
Can It Challenge Rift and WoW?
That's the real question that NCSoft needs to be asking itself right now. Rival developer Trion Worlds released their multi-soul-system MMO "Rift" in March 2011. Not only does Rift employ some of the same mechanics as Aion–it's called "Rift," for instance–but it also features a similar art design and a seemingly more popular "Religion vs Science" theme. Instead of facing the light off against the dark, as Aion does, Rift puts two opposing belief systems at war. There is no real good or evil in Rift, which may be the explanation for its much more balance factions. Whereas Warhammer's Destruction faction was definitely malicious, and WoW's Horde faction is simply misunderstood, Rift's concept simply features two different ways of dealing with a shared problem. Neither side is necessarily wrong.
World of Warcraft, on the other hand, has seen little in the way of innovation over the years. After attaining a peak of 12 million players, WoW saw it's first decline in active subscriptions following the release of the Cataclysm expansion in December 2010. The starting zones and leveling experience has gotten progressively easier and more streamlined, and while the quests and story lines have become more interesting and varied, there is still plenty of rat-killing, pelt-collecting and lost-NPC-escorting. Aion's quests may not be better designed, but having a newer story goes a ways toward bringing in role-players and fantasy enthusiasts.
There are a number of different ways that Aion could go now. It could look at the "freemium" model employed by by Lord of the Rings: Online and Age of Conan, or it could gain more market share based on these recent changes. NCSoft really needs Aion to grow if its going to generate the revenue needed to finish and publish Guild Wars 2, and it's sad that this may be Aion's only real purpose.