Monday, July 6, 2009

First Impressions: MMO Style

Aion had another beta run over the weekend, and while I was mostly on hiatus due to the aforementioned wedding participation and Fuu-day (which some may recognize as Independence Day, which is important too, but if you ask Fuu... at least some of the fireworks are for her), we did get a couple hours of trial time in on Sunday night, late. Normally I'm not a big beta tester type of guy (you will never find me on WoW PTR crap), but we've played the game a bit (through nefarious means, as mentioned previously) and I really wanted to see how it ran on the American servers.

I have to say, the lag was so much better and the game just a tid bit more polished than the hack and slash version that I'd be trialing. All in all, I was quite pleased and it reaffirmed our decision to go ahead and pre-order the collector's edition. Good move by NC Soft to include both a beta key with the CE, as well as some unique in-game items. I'm usually not enticed by figurines, guides, and the like, but will certainly take cool access and in-game items. Blizz started this sort of trend (I think) with giving pets away and it's nice to see that NC Soft has apparently learned the lessons of the MMO community well. They seem to have taken a lot of "what works" in WoW and translated it into a solid game as opposed to forcing themselves to try and change everything to distinguish themselves (which I believe is the root cause of some of the failings of newer MMOs, but that's another topic).

In any case, to tie this in with WoW, I got to thinking about one very important aspect of MMOs in general that both WoW and Aion do quite well: starting areas.

If you ask me, Blizz sort of wrote the book on this. The very first time you log into WoW, you're amazed by the virtual world into which you've been plunged, yet you're not blown away by the complexity of the choices available to you. There are some nice, simple introductory quests that let you whet your appetite for more, and the UI is explored in non-mind-numbing detail. There is a delicate balance to be achieved in these starting areas. As they say: "You only get to make a first impression once" and in the MMO world (as with many other areas in real life), first impressions can often be the key to success.

Very simply, WoW nailed it for their game. When WoW started, people were continuously pulled in via the starting areas. Even now, years down the road, the starting areas continue grab the imagination and attention of new players. That alone speaks volumes about the quality of the game.

Similarly, this is a place where I believe Aion nails it as well. The starting areas pull you in without completely trying to "redefine" what you think you know about MMOs. They mix the familiar with the unfamiliar in ways that can please seasoned veterans and brand new gamers alike. Plus, they have the whole updated game engine thing going for them, so the scenery is ridiculously pretty straight away. Top it all off with smooth, localized questing, and an epic-feeling early story-line, and you have a real attention grabber.

I suppose it's late in the article to point it out, but I sort of define the starter area as where you go from level 1 to probably around level 10. In WoW, this is when you venture into your first city, maybe wandering into Stormwind (as a human) for the first time and marvelling at the awesomeness in front of you. You start to accumulate a few more spells and look forward to getting "cool" gear. In Aion, not only are you taken to a capital city which is stunning, given a healthy chunk of spells, and treated to a small taste of gearing, you also "ascend" or get your wings. They basically took the general concept of a starter area that WoW (and I'm sure other MMOs that I'm less familiar with) developed and used, and then sprinkled some epic on top of it. Bippity Boppity Bacon. (Jim Gaffigan ladies and gentlemen... *applause*)

I guess I feel like sometimes we get too caught up expecting developers to do too much to "break the mold" and give us something completely different, when, really, just adding a bit of epic can really shake things up. Spend some time on the story-telling and the scenery, and you'll grab players. You don't need to drastically alter game play, you just need to give us something that can grab our imaginations and pull us in to your world with the desire to make it ours. WoW excels at this (still) and Aion looks to be pretty good as well.

Clearly, starting areas are one of the keys to success in the MMO-RPG genre. Without a solid starting zone, you're just not going to grab the players you might have. They certainly aren't the whole story, but you're never going to get to the ending if you can't get past the first page.


  1. The thing the Aion starting quests do well is make me feel like collecting rabbit pelts is somehow actually accomplishing something in the greater story.

    The campaigns and even many of the other quests make it seem like your contributing to your race, instead of just running errands all the time.

    There are some useless errands, though! Some things will never go away.

  2. A good starter area gets my attention, that's for sure. I can't say I was very impressed with WAR's starting areas. WoW's starting areas (especially the 3 "newest") impressed me enough that I don't mind replaying them...

    it's the drag in the 20s and 30s I dread redoing...

    With all that being said, my favorite line of this whole post was about sprinkling epic on top.

    I really want to order a sundae now, and request some epic on top. *nodnod*

  3. Aion does look pretty sweet but I think I'll be skipping out on it. I don't think I could manage 2 MMO's lol.

    I STILL love the Undead and Blood Elf starting zones and could do them over and over again. They both look pretty amazing and really get your imagination in to the game.

    On the Alliance side, I really liked the Nelf starting zones look and feel but HATED the quest. Run WAYYYY over here to kill 100 of these things.. then jog 100 miles WAYYYY back over there to turn it in. Blegh!

    The early zones and end zones are always my favorite.. never the zones in the middle.

    Screw STV, Desolace, Stonetalon, Feralas, Un'goro, etc. Boring, tedious and mind numbing IMO.