Postmortem: Behind The Scenes of Aion

Gamasutra presents postmortem notes from NCsoft's Seoul-developed fantasy MMO Aion, revealing how the game spanned the East-to-West culture gap in a very competitive genre.
The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a postmortem of NCsoft's Aion, written by the game's Seoul-based internal development team. Aion, a unique MMO heavily based around the mechanic of player flight, is the latest major MMO from the online-focused publisher. It was first released in South Korea in 2008, and was localized for the Western market for a release last September. These excerpts from the January 2010 issue of Game Developer reveal various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from throughout the creation of the game, revealing how the company used solid tools to overcome MMO comparisons and a difficult "pyramid" of user demographics. Comparisons Were Inevitable, But Early Comparisons Were Toxic World of Warcraft is a blessing and a curse to other MMOs: it's undoubtedly grown the market, and a rising tide lifts all boats, but it also saddles every other MMO maker with the curse of endless comparisons: "The pressure on the developers wasn’t just internal. Almost as soon as it was announced, gamer media gave Aion the 'WoW-killer' tag. That inheritance was unwanted but probably inevitable, because there hadn’t been a truly global MMORPG success since World of Warcraft. "Comparisons with both Western games (Hellgate: London, Warhammer Online) and Eastern games (Prius Online) soon followed. Even before launch -- even before we knew what we were going to launch -- we were in competition with a half-dozen great games. "We make games, so we know firsthand how competition can be healthy; it’s a virtue in and of itself. But those comparisons came so early that it was hard to ignore the other games and figure out what we wanted Aion to become. There may be a place for reactive game design, but it’s not at the beginning of the development process." Lush MMO Graphics: Working With A Third-Party Engine Crytek's game engines, used to breathtaking effect in the company's own Far Cry and Crysis, haven't had as much pickup as, say, Unreal Engine or Source. But the Aion team wanted an engine that would do the team's assets right, and with some significant adjustments, it worked out: "We used an engine optimized for first person shooters in an MMO because we really wanted Aion’s environment to “pop” off the screen. CryEngine handles landscape textures with ease, and it’s great at processing light effects, which is particularly important in a world where available light tells part of the game’s story (and Aion is based on the world of angels). "That said, CryEngine isn’t an MMO engine per se. We had to rearrange about 90 percent of the engine to make it work for Aion. The building blocks were there; they just needed to be reassembled. The team has since worked hard to improve the graphical quality without switching graphics engines. "Whereas before our artists might have simply designed something to be as gorgeous as possible, as we become even more familiar with the technology we are finding ways to improve quality without any major performance or polygon hits." It's Hard To Serve Two Masters Especially with an MMO, which thrives on a large, diverse user base, appealing to numerous demographics is key. Of course, as any designer knows, that can be a tall order: "One of our early design goals was to make a game that would support a “pyramid” of users: a wide base of more casual players, narrowing upward to a minority of hardcore users that would play Aion with real fervor. "That’s easier said than done, of course. What’s 'boring' to the hardcore player is 'impossibly frustrating' to the casual gamer. This problem was compounded by the high percentage of new or young developers on the team, who had less experience dealing with these sorts of design issues. "In the end, we made a conscious effort to stay away from the large-scale endgame raiding that’s traditional in MMOs, opting instead for faction-based warfare in the PvPvE structure of a single mega-zone called the Abyss to keep the hardcore happy and the casual players engaged. Zone-based combat allowed us to concentrate some of these experiences in certain areas, which also helped manage the userbase." Additional Info The full postmortem of Aion explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the January 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine. The issue also includes a roundup of governmental game development incentives, Front Line Award finalists, a piece on the art of creating believably flawed characters, and our regular monthly columns on design, art, music, programming, and humor. Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of this edition as a single issue.

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