When Aion was developed during the ever-expanding WOW bubble, there was still a feeling in the air that Blizzard had achieved something extraordinary, yet only exposed the merest tip of a subscriber iceberg. Surely - the dollar-eyed reasoning went - if a single game could attract a seven-digit subscriber base, then the overall potential must be unimaginably higher.
Less appealing to the money-men of course was the notion that perhaps 15 million fervent MMO players was all the world had to give, and the majority of those would be happy to remain firmly ensconced in Azeroth.
When NCsoft's Aion launched in 2009, it encountered issues that went beyond a mainstream Western aversion to the aesthetics of the Asian MMO - either you dig doe-eyed adventurers with a sentimental heart fighting alongside talking chipmunks with boobs, or you don't. Instead, pre-release concerns surrounding level grind proved to be well-founded, and the visually unprecedented engine struggled with the large-scale player-versus-player battles that are so critical to Aion's end-game.
Invited to a preview of the recent 2.5 patch, Eurogamer spoke to NCsoft about the game following its 2009 launch, developments since then, and where the game is heading as the industry evolves in the wake of WOW.
Tellingly, our first question about post-launch refinement reveals a disparity between East and West that transcends player preferences.
Adam Christensen, associate producer of Aion, explains: "One of the most important things identified was the relationship with HQ," he says.
"There were a number of things that the North American audience wanted to see to make it more suitable for the West. It was almost a sour spot, because the game right now is in many ways the game we wish we could have launched with."
Scott Hannas, writer of the Aion game guide agrees: "One of the changes we wanted to make early on was to improve the levelling process and make it faster."
When it comes to that divisive setting and art style, Aion always had a fuller world than its contemporaries. Take a break, and cotton-tailed bunnies play nearby while birds swoop through the trees. It carries a sense of eerie other-worldliness with it as well: the sinister seventies science-fiction soundtrack; the twinkles as you bandage yourself, delivered with a blooming, rippling wind-chime, a vibrato swirl of Mellotron cheese.
But that all added to the kitsch campness of the game. And at its heart, Aion is a seriously, insanely kitsch game. The sheer vibrancy of the colours alone is enough to make a blind man see again.
It's hard to maintain a frugal, cynical, reserved British outlook in the face of such brash extravagance, but maybe that's the point of Aion. There are more than enough marching dwarves in the fantasy MMO setting, scowling with axe-bearing fury while making clichéd derogatory banter with the gnomes. Deep down, we all know they share a deeper spiritual bromance in the face of a common enemy.
No, what gamers need in the barren desert of original fantasy is an eight-foot tall Bagpuss wearing hover-boots. It could only work in Aion - and it does work in Aion. We meet him outside of Esoterrace, an instance which begins with a natural hill-climb through the rainforest, fighting feral animals and biologically unlikely vegetation picked straight from The Little Shop of Horrors. The sky above is dominated by a titanic dragon - the end of our destination and the lair of the final boss.
The first boss, though, is Dalia Charlands, an enormous miserable bastard of a tree, with charred roots crawling into the sky. He serves as more than just an introductory battle in the zone, a challenging enemy with a party-wiping area-of-affect damage. His demise dynamically changes the future of the instance: following his death, a drawbridge pulls up, committing players to the hard mode. It neatly sidesteps the immersion-breaking, portrait interface system so common to other MMOs.
But it's the sheer size of the instance that represents its most notable feature. The wind-stream system introduced in an earlier patch sends players on a dizzying rush through the environment, carried on a tunnel of turbulence deep into the canyon, before twisting and turning into the blinding sunshine. The serene but deadly natural exterior ultimately gives way to a stone-clad chamber filled with arcane energy and giant marauding golems.
We move through the instance at a brisk pace and the developer is quick to remind us that we're wearing high-end gear on pre-made characters – there is far greater challenge to be had from these encounters on the live server. Mohamed 'Mo' Fadl, community manager at NCsoft, explains: "Hard mode is like raid toughness, you need six good people in great gear who know what the f**k they are doing."
In the Empyrean Crucible, players fight wave after wave of enemy combatants in an arena environment where the party's starting platform rushes from the underground up into the expansive colosseum. Battling through the waves of enemies, players slowly descend back into the depths of the instance. Survive a wave and you get to continue - fail and there's a long cooldown until the next attempt can be made.
Unusually for an MMO, solo instances were both introduced to Aion, and enthusiastically received by the players. "It was based on direct feedback from a lot of solo players," says Christensen.
"We have a new solo instance coming up in 2.6 which is the solo version of the Empyrean Crucible. Even though it's similar to the 2.5 group instance versions, it has new monsters, new items, new hidden secrets and easter eggs. With Aion, we're going to continue that."
NCsoft has also expanded on what even the most successful MMO publisher doesn't get right. Consider the inevitable endgame race which sees a story-based levelling process reduced to a mere obstacle for many. The mentoring system in Aion rewards veteran players who head to low-level zones to participate in daily quests with the newcomers, teaching them the ropes and forming friendships.
"The mentor system is a great opportunity for players," says Hannas. "We had a number of initial tests to see what kind of impact it would have. It's had a greater impact than we thought it would in terms of how fast players can level up and the benefits of having a mentor. We constantly see groups forming in chat channels for mentors/mentees. It's had a big impact and it's only been out for a week."
The pet system added variety to the game mechanics, from both a cosmetic and convenience perspective - there's the lonely mule, plodding around hoovering loot off your victims for you, or the critter whose ears prick up, chirruping excitably when an enemy faction player draws near.
The developer has also added some gentle brush-strokes to an already beautiful world. Prior to the release of 2.5, a character who ran out of flight-time would simply plummet to the ground, flailing all the while like a French mime attempting to navigate a particularly tricky pane of imaginary glass.
The game now allows for a more balletic tumble, wings tucked inward as you take a graceful dive head-first into the concrete. The wings themselves have been given a fresh coat of paint, and the peacock-tail colours now ripple in Atreia's sunlight.
Other flourishes have brought improvements to the water effects, and the cities now slowly self-illuminate as the evenings draw in. By day, the sky overhead is streaked with powder-puff cloudscapes. By night, Aion's northern lights shimmer overhead. The skies remain cold but colourful, in keeping with the game's art style.
Further refinements in the next major patch will come in the form of player mounts - long-awaited by the player-base, and a luxury long since taken as a given in the genre.
"Our players have wanted that for quite some time," explains Christensen. "Mounts are going to be a huge addition, and also player housing. We're excited to have that finally in the game and new locations to perform crafting and things like that. There's obviously going to be huge introductions of big content but those are the things we're most excited about."
And if you were one of the unlucky players to fall victim to the army of RMT agents who descended on the game immediately after launch - hacking accounts to feed the market - the developer has since introduced a new PIN system for logging into the game which has brought about a sizeable reduction in the number of successful account hijacks.
"There was a lot of negative feedback at first, but it reduced the number of hacked accounts by around 75 per cent ," explains Christensen.
"That's something we take very seriously and the fact we have a whole department dedicated to it, constantly monitoring the game to find those people who are violating the system, is something I think speaks very well to the players."
Aion launched at an usual time. After the feverish uptake experienced by World of Warcraft, and the equally ferocious consumption of that content, players were naturally hungry for something different. Visually, the game certainly delivered, but it lacked the polish players had become greedily accustomed to.
If you still have an eye for the outlandish - but had little patience for the more egregious nature of Aion's progression - it's now perhaps time to take a second look.