Well next in my series on why MMOs fail is why Aion failed. Aion is a sad story. Aion was a major success in Korea. In Korea gaming popularity went: Starcraft, Aion, then World of Warcraft. Because of Aion’s popularity over World of Warcraft in Korea it was felt it could be a potential WoW killer if expanded beyond Korea’s borders. It was first launched in China and then a month later in North America. I should note that Aion had 400,000 pre-orders and an additional 300,000 sales after the first week. This made it a massive commercial success. However after the first month their subscribers dropped below 200,000 and steadily lower than that over time.
So what went wrong?
1. Leveling Model Was Korean, not American
Any MMO that is released in North America is always going to be compared with World of Warcraft. It’s sort of odd that all games regardless of their type (even first person shooters, trading games, and RTS MMOs) will get compared to WoW.
In Korea leveling is done via hard grinding. A person is expected to do their dungeon content over and over, or PvP, or in the extreme cases… run around killing mobs.
Compare that to say, World of Warcraft model, where the game is expected to give a smooth leveling path entirely from quests from start to finish.
When you compare World of Warcraft to Aion with that WoW framework Aion is going to lose 100% of the time. It’s not a fair comparison. A better comparison might be Ragnorak Online to Aion.
Aion’s grind was particularly brutal. I remember hitting Level 20 and saying “fuck this game” (mind my French). At around level 20 you 100% run out of quests and are running around kiting mobs around in hopes that they don’t kill you. You are taking drinks every single mob and pushing your way up. If you are on a server that is balanced you have PvP as an option. However if you play a weaker more imbalanced class you’ll just end up getting camped.
Basically the grind came down to numbers… and you not having them. If the last level of World of Warcraft is 2M XP and you are getting 10,000 XP per mob kill… imagine Aion being 20M and gaining 2,000 XP per mob kill. It’s such an insanely brutal amount that once you reach the XP plateau point (Level 20) you just feel like it’s going to be too much.
I do have friends that have level capped at what they told me was because so few other people level capped and since they took months to level cap all they could do (content wise) was run around low level areas ganking people. The challenge of that dies out so what you end up with is a lot of idling.
2. Dinah and the Need For Botting
In a Korean market grinding out a currency makes sense. If you are in a game where you will be constantly grinding all the time then an economic incentive (or enforcement I should say) for doing so needs to be implemented. Aion was very heavy on the need for currency and the ability to generate it. Everything in the game costs dinah… and lots of it. Despite having the ability to fly you need to be shipped off to other places via a teleport.
What this ended up doing was making Aion bots insanely popular, available and effective. People used bots for leveling, grinding gold, ganking people, PvPing, and gathering professions. It was very easy to get an Aion bot and because of that almost half the gaming population that remained ended up getting one to the end of leveling or gaining dinah.
The problem is once the bot is done getting your level cap or getting your tones of gold…. what’s really left to do that a bot can’t do?
World of Warcraft doesn’t have so many bots because quests gave a giant incentive to not just grind out mobs and dungeons offered enough complexity that a bot simply could not do it. In fact the only part of WoW that has bots are battlegrounds specifically because of low responsibility. But are there bots in arenas? Nope.
Aion simply did not have content that was hard enough that a robot programmed to spam 4-5 buttons could not handle. Even the PvPvE was so simple that a bot could be programmed to immediately change target to non-player mobs.
3. Wings Are Not Enough
The game was so well designed (graphically) and players were offered the ability to fly instead of having flying mounts. The wings ended up just being this massive worthless gimmick that didn’t do anything at all. The wings had restrictions in so many zones that they might as well just shouldn’t have had the wings. Even when you have the wings it feels insanely lackluster as you end up only getting to fly for a few seconds and then landing again. So if my only attraction to Aion is the fact that I get wings… then what’s my reason to stay post level 10?
Aion was banking on a concept called PvPvE. This video from Korea is what they were expecting you to do:
So what’s happening here is you have tanks tanking the boss while the two sides are doing what any other game would call griefing. The goal here is to try and control or kill the enemy forces while maintaining ownership (tagging) of the boss so you can get credit for killing it. When you look at this it’s actually, kinda cool.
But that’s not what happened when the game came to North America. No in fact North American players saw this kind of attitude as griefing so as soon as any boss emerged or landed both sides would stop fighting and kill it together. Of course this is nothing new. When Rift was released both sides would always come together to kill off zone wide bosses. The benefits of killing it outweighed the benefits of killing each other.
Trying to make PvPvE work isn’t exactly a bad idea, Aion just didn’t have a design that leant itself to making people fight each other and raid bosses simultaneously. DC Universe came up with an idea that might have worked (had they not abandoned it so they could quickly launch the game). The idea DC Universe had was instanced 6-man PvP dungeons with trash mobs and raid bosses. You would independently fight through a dungeon each with an NPC ally (Lex Luther or Superman for example). You would each kill 1-2 bosses and get some loots from the dungeon. However the really great loot would always drop off of the last boss which required you to race the other side or defeat the other side. There would be a respawn timer so after killing off all of their people you were left with a few minutes to kill/finish off the boss.
Aion just didn’t have a good enough benefits/rewards model to actually do the content.
4. The Game was too Fricking Hard
There is a unique and small gaming market that enjoys playing insanely hard games. When I was in college I bought a game called Ninja Gaiden Black. It was of course an Xbox sequel of an old Nintendo game I had loved. I spent maybe 900 hours on that game before my inevitable decision to quit the game. The game was simply, too hard. One mistake and suddenly you are dead.
Aion in a similar way was probably too hard of a game for a community that is supposed to be “massive.” Elitists might say that for MMO veterans this game was easy, while for people newer to the genre it was not.
As an example in most games when you die you have to pay some sort of durability fee. This is a method of the game controlling inflation of currency. If they feel there is too much currency in the game and it’s valueless they can just increase the cost of durability for the next tier of content. In Aion you got your normal durability loss but as well you lost a percentage of your XP. XP loss showed up in grey after each loss and I can firmly say I didn’t even notice it until after my 8th griefing camping. When I looked it up I found out I was expected to pay ridiculous fees to ‘reclaim’ my lost XP. Of course I could not afford it and so half a level was lost.
On top of that when you rez you do so at the nearest graveyard instead of being able to run back to where you were. This means that when you die you literally are starting over.
If you’re in the ‘first wave’ of levelers in this game it’s not as significant because you can level through PvP and not experience the XP loss in the same way you did from flat out griefing.
But after the first wave is done you are left with a game that has some max rank players and a lot of lowbies who cannot move on.
WoW had a similar problem when it first launched. People who were PvP drawn would camp Tarren Mill because lowbies were there. As a response the other sides guild mates would show up to defend. Hence massive Tarren Mill PvP. However it left people having troubles leveling. A fix for this was to make it so that only people within 5 levels of you counted for honor, guards gave dishonor and the addition of Warsong Gulch so that people would not be in the world killing off lowbies.
Aion simply could not find a reliable fix for this. The game had already been out for a year in Korea. There was tones of time to iron out the these things for the North American market. Instead they just improved the graphics and released it as is.
5. Developers Ignore Gamers
In the first month of a game it’s kind of expected that the developers ignore most gamers. This is because there are going to be new people to the genre who really have no idea what’s going on. It’s much like people who complain about autoaiming hacks their first time playing an FPS because all they can do is take body shots. However when seasoned gamers are giving you criticism and advice, developers… listen.
Aion had probably one of the smallest open beta’s to date. People were specifically chosen from a hyper elitist community. They looked for people with the best computer specs or the highest level of raid experience. So obviously when you get results back from these sort of over-engrossing types you will get a positive result. If you create a game for elitists who enjoy grinds and spending massive amounts of time in a game, of course they’ll say good things. That is to say if you hand pick a niche crowd specifically for a game you designed for them, they should like it.
In truth it was stated very early on that the game was too grindy. NCSoft just chose not to listen. They saw their success in Korea as an example that the game was fine.
It wasn’t until Aion released an expansion that they got the game ‘right.” By this time it was too late. Like many games that chose to ignore their gaming community creating an expansion with another massive fee attached to it was merely a slap in the face to gamers. It just felt like they were trying to pass their failure off to gamers.
In the end the game shrunk from an audience of roughly 600,000 gamers to a mere 100,000 gamers who are mostly based in Korea. The North American servers reduced down to merging into 8 servers total all of which were low pop. Having 100,000 gamers is still quite a bit however it isn’t an MMO that is on the rise, nor can it grow. It’s massive failure on launch has left the game with no direction.