NCsoft - or, we should say, NCsoft West - is in a rather odd position with Aion. Its first major MMO launch since the ill-fated Tabula Rasa has already debuted in Korea, and is proving to be a major draw. The company isn't talking total player numbers, but not long after launch it saw a peak concurrency (number of people online simultaneously) of 200,000, a huge headcount by anyone's standards.
But the American and European release is still at least six months away, as NCsoft West's Seattle office puts it through an exhaustive "culturalisation" process. Few know better than NCsoft the difficulties involved in bringing mainstream Korean games west, after its blockbuster Lineage games failed to make a dent in the US or European online gaming scene, so it's taking its time. Success may have been quick, but NCsoft's true objective - to create a genuinely global MMO, a trick only Blizzard has pulled off - still hangs in the balance.
On a lesser level, it has to find ways to build excitement around a game that's already public property, with a feature set that's already set in stone (as much as any MMO feature set is). Demoing the game at GDC this week, NCsoft wasn't able to offer a great deal more detail than it did in last summer's exhaustive previews.
If you're lacking background on what will probably be 2009's biggest MMO launch, start there. The executive summary: Aion is a highly polished and largely conventional MMO, blending the ornate artwork and large-scale player-versus-player endgame of Korean tradition with the more vibrant world, storyline, and rich questing of World of Warcraft. Eight classic character classes belonging to four archetypes; two factions warring with each other; a third, AI-controlled race in the central Abyss; a Stigma system that allows you to equip skills from other classes, and combo-chain combat; the power of flight and a pretty pair of wings for everyone at level 10.
Nevertheless, we saw and heard a few more interesting things about Aion this week, and got to try it for ourselves. A striking demo of the character-creation system proved that it combines the drop-dead, pop-star looks of Lineage or Guild Wars with the insane, slider-tweaking detail of an EverQuest II to great effect, and with a little imagination, isn't just limited to creating feather-cut fops and slinky temptresses. In fact, the Elyos race could convincingly be adjusted to look like either the dwarf or elf archetypes of fantasy tradition.
NCsoft spent plenty of time banging the questing drum, still keen to counter the lingering impression from Lineage that their Korean development studios are purveyors of pure grind. It's reassuring, of course, especially the highlighted Campaign quests that come loaded with scripted incident and story cut-scenes.
But times have moved on, and in this day and age - after the deft pacing and storytelling expertise shown by Lord of the Rings Online and Wrath of the Lich King - simply having quests in the first place isn't enough. And while NCsoft's claimed total of 1500 quests may sound like a lot, we learned from former WOW lead Jeff Kaplan today that World of Warcraft had some 2600 at launch, and now has over 7600. With a strict division in questing between the two playable races, it will have to be a fairly compact world and short levelling curve for these to fill it out.
For the loot-fixated, NCsoft showed some truly arresting high-level armour sets. These not only had the flaming, iridescent visual effects virtual fashionistas have come to expect, but even some morphing animations - and all in Aion's elaborate, curlicued style. They're not subtle, but neither is a Lamborghini, and at the end of the day raw beauty and bragging rights are all that counts. Aion's characters and kit have these in spades, and in a style that will appeal to those who still baulk at Blizzard's chunky cartooning. Also, the gear's stats can be modified with jewels called mana stones.