You know I’m always excited when character creators come out that let you tweak the smallest detail on your characters. Whilst not everyone is going to notice that your character has blue eyes or their unique facial structure there’s always a small sense of pride that what you’ve created is unique in some way. Such in depth customization of your avatar have only become commonplace recently, as the time and effort put in to making such a system is often overlooked by a gamer who’s only intent is to get into the game and play it. There’s also the possibility, a la Oblivion, that no matter what you do your character still comes out looking like they’ve got something horribly wrong with them.
Primarily in depth character customization has stayed well away from the realms of MMORPGs, and with good reason. Players of this genre are masters of the min-max ideals and will take any advantage in order to get ahead of anyone else. With games like World of Warcraft this was usually around tradeskills and if you were going to roll a new character, the race as well. However in Aion there are no benefits for being a particular race or having a certain trade, but there is an advantage in height. In essence a smaller character is much harder to click on, and when your primary game focus is player vs player combat (well PvPvE, but that’s another post in itself) it gives you quite the advantage if your enemy has trouble trying to target you. This was an often lamented issue back in the beginnings of WoW with the Gnome race.
So this of course lead to around 50% of the player base creating characters that were exceptionally small in order to gain a small advantage over their larger sized adversaries. I’m sure the developers gave people this much freedom as it allowed them to only have 2 races whilst letting people differentiate themselves out as they see fit (some of the options are distinctly dwarven/gnomish, like braided beards). However the majority of characters aren’t of this persuasion, they’re just scaled down versions of what the player wanted them to be.
I had no issue with the differing sizes in World of Warcraft mostly because when you opted to choose a gnome you were stuck with the look. It proved to work out well with the majority of the WoW population choosing either Human or Night Elf, as they wanted a good looking character and PvP benefits be damned. In Aion however the unlimited creation possibilities allow users to just have shrunk versions of their perfected selves which takes away the significance of the sacrifice that had to be made when other games gave you a hit box advantage like this. Additionally a world that is populated with characters that are either normal height or tiny versions of themselves breaks any feel of immersion that the game tries to generate, especially when the animations for running have to sped up significantly in order to make them move appropriately according to their speed. At least WoW had some transitional races (Human -> Dwarf -> Gnome) which are (not-so) surprisingly missing in the world of Aion.
It is, in short, a joke.
There’s one simple solution to this problem, and that’s to make the hit box the same size regardless of your character. I know this isn’t currently the case in Aion (trying to click those pesky little people has proved frustrating so far) but it would be an easy change and would eliminate the need for users to needlessly butcher their otherwise beautiful characters. I can understand some people wanting to play an avatar of small stature and fully support them in doing so, but the ridiculous abuse of the system just pokes fun at a system designed to create unique avatars and nothing more.
Am I just having a whinge about a small aspect of an otherwise good game? Probably, and I guess my anger is more directed at the players doing this than anyone else since they’re now choosing their appearance based on advantages rather than they want to look. Or maybe I have a thing against playing in a field of short people, who knows. 😛
I consider myself a veteran gamer, having seen the gaming world evolve from its first tedious steps into the real world back in the late 80’s to the multi-billion industry that it has become today. I’ve also seen the industry evolve itself to take advantage of all the innovations that its fellow industry, namely IT, has brought to the table. The most interesting innovation was the idea of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) which brazenly put for the notion that all interactions would take place online something which back in 1997, when Internet proliferation wasn’t all that high, was definitely out of the box thinking.
I must admit up until 2004 I didn’t really have a suitable connection that could support these kinds of games. I do remember playing quite a lot of Team Fortress Classic and Counter Strike with my 56k modem, although I had to use those special “High Ping Bastards” servers in order to have a chance. My first foray into the genre of MMORPGs came in the same form that the majority of current MMORPG players would have, World of Warcraft. I had heard tales of people playing games like Everquest and Final Fantasy Online to the detriment of other things (namely, their lives) but I had yet to see a game wreck such havok on any of my friends. As it turns out, it was I whom the game would ensnare with its chillingly addictive grip.
So started a long history of the past 5 years of experimentation with this new genre of games that I had never considered before. Since my first contact with World of Warcraft I’ve stumbled my way through many other titles and I have since landed on Aion: Tower of Eternity. Since playing through at least 3 other MMORPGs that have a similar bent to this one I knew what kinds of things to look out for to make my life a bit easier. After levelling 2 characters to 80 (and 2 more to 70 in the previous expansion) from scratch in the latest World of Warcraft expansion I had noticed a trend between the different character archetypes: the hybrids, namely ones that could heal, always had an easier time levelling.
My first ever character in a MMORPG (apart from my paladin in the closed beta) was a rogue in World of Warcraft. Whilst I had no trouble levelling this character there were definitely many occasions when I was incapable of completing a certain task without grouping up to do so. Fast forward a couple months to when I rolled my second character, a paladin, and tasks that were impossible previously were completed with ease. This then carried on to my next characters who were rolled years later, namely a hunter and shaman. With the hunter have the ability to heal their pet they were on the cusp of being able to do almost everything solo, although the shaman with the new talent trees seemed almost unstoppable when it came to the levelling content.
This theory has remained uncontested in the other MMORPGs I’ve been privvy to over the past few years. My foray into Age of Conan had me as a bear shaman and the healing abilities they had made most content (what was there at least) much easier than what other players were experiencing. My Disciple of Khaine in Warhammer Online was probably one of the best examples of this so far, although their intrinsic linking of damage and healing was probably more responsible for them being an exceptional levelling class than the ability to heal.
And so when it came time to choose a class in Aion Online I first decided that I’d step out of my usual hybrid love and try something new, the tank archetype. I’ve played pretty much every other role in MMORPGs so it seemed fitting that I give tanking a go. This was only to be met with the horror that was levelling with this class which was slow and utterly painful. My initial review of Aion saw me sticking through this for the sake of the experience and a good article, but I can’t say I was overly impressed with the amount of downtime the class had to endure. Unfortunately for this class its not like WoW either where you can specialize your character for levelling and then respecialize once you hit end game. It seems that if you choose the Templar in Aion you’re doomed to fighting your way through the levels slowly, something which isn’t great for what could be considered one of the most required archetypes in a MMORPG.
Queue my other experiments with the classes in Aion, namely a priest and scout archetype (that went to chanter and ranger respectively). The scout was indeed a much faster at levelling than the warrior, mostly due to the higher damage the class did. The downtime unfortunately was the same as the warrior, which led me to dislike the class. I finally gave up on the experiment and went for a class with healing, and the difference was like night and day. I don’t think I’ve had to struggle yet with any content with my chanter and whilst I hear tales that they’re slow to level my experience is anything but.
The trade is of course that characters like this who are jack of all trades are masters of none and this is a sticking point for many people. I’m not entirely sure what it is about the MMORPG community but when game developers tried to blur the lines between the traditional DPS/Healer/Tank train of thought they get all confused and try to fit any class into one of those archetypes. When they can’t the class is usually written off or relegated to a single role which they’re not particularly useful for, something which plagued many of the hybrids in World of Warcraft in the early years.
It’s always hard to make character classes work at all levels as you can’t give players everything right at the start of the game. I mean, why would people bother levelling any character if they had all the good bits at level 1? The problem then stems from the requirements that players put on these classes at the end game which, in a game like Aion, relegates some classes to trudge their way through the lower end content using characters that don’t function well in such areas. World of Warcraft alleviated this a lot by allowing people to specialize using talent points and was really an ingenious solution to a problem that has plagued most MMORPGs. The hybrids still came out in front in terms of levelling however.
The phenomena is nothing new and it will continue through all MMORPGs for many years to come solely by virtue of what customers have come to expect from game developers. The 3 archetype model is ingrained in everyone’s minds and few have attempted to break free from this model. It is possible that a future MMO will attempt a paradigm shift and introduce a whole new concept to this genre. For now it seems however that the hybrids will remain the kings of solo and levelling content.
After lamenting the behavoir of nProtect’s Gameguard that comes bundled with Aion I got wind that the final closed beta event was taking place this weekend, and my next shot to have a look at this game would come on the 22nd of September. Being an impatient person I decided to give it a go. My experience shows the devastating faults that plague Aion’s choice of anti-cheat mechanism but once you get past that, the game is in fact quite a fulfilling experience. So much so that I have in fact pre-ordered the collector’s edition, although I must admit I’m a sucker for these as the Age of Conan and Warhammer: Age of Reckoning collector’s edition boxes now line my bookshelf.
I wish I could say that the install process was painless and was merely a minor speed bump in the Aion experience. It wasn’t and whilst I can understand that a beta operating system is the last thing you’d want to support it did leave a rather sour taste in my mouth when I spent a good 4 hours troubleshooting the cryptic errors GameGuard threw at me. In the end I grabbed a spare hard drive and installed Vista on it, which thankfully worked without incident. I’m sure once Windows 7 becomes official they’ll actually support it but the lack of official knowledge and almost disdainful look they take on people who dare try to run their game on a “beta” operating system is quite frustrating.
The first thing that sucks you in with Aion is the absolute beauty that is the CryENGINE. The visuals are stunning with the world filled with wonderful artwork and vibrant colour palette that is sure to anger many a Diablo II noir fans. The character customization screen is incredibly detailed which does make for some very comical results. This is the first game I’ve played where you’ve been able to drastically alter your character’s height and I chose to be of the taller persuasion. I didn’t really notice it until I saw someone who was little over half my height, something that you never really see in other MMOs where everyone is the same bar some facial features. You can also alter many of your other character’s aspects like arm, torso and leg size, hair style, facial construction and so on. Probably the most amusing thing you can do in this creator is independently modify you character’s appearance, say giving them incredibly bulky arms with a tiny chest and small legs. Here’s just a small example of the character creator gone horribly wrong.
Combat for the most part in Aion is your standard MMO affair. As Yahtzee Croshaw so succinctly put it you are really just whacking on each other until one of you falls down. The skill chains part is an attempt to spice up the combat and does a decent job of keeping you entertained through the button mashes. I must admit my favourite combat system so far was Age of Conan’s as it kept you focused on the game but Aion does bring something slightly different to the tired repetition of button mashing. I’m sure at higher levels there is a bit more variety however.
In order to alleviate some of the grind from questing Aion includes a “locate” feature for quest givers, items and mobs. Some quests lack this (usually the “fetch me my lost shovel” type) but the majority of them allow you to find where you need to go without too much hassle. Whilst it a little lacking when compared to something like WAR and AoC’s quest systems it is still better than say World of Warcrafts. The inventory system in Aion could use some improvement as the only way to expand your inventory is by talking to a “Cube Artisan”, who can add 9 slots for a certain cost. This wouldn’t be a problem except there’s no way to ask a guard where a cube artisan might be, so you have to forage them out yourself.
This brings me to one of my “on the fence” points that I have about Aion: there’s no real tutorial system. After creating your character there’s a short movie setting up your back story and then you’re plonked in a field with little direction of what you need to do. Seasoned MMORPGers won’t have any trouble however it’s not the big things like combat and questing that need explaining it’s the little nuances that set the game apart. Something like the rest skill which is akin to eating and drinking in WoW is never explained to you, and caused my first hour or so to be much more laborious than it should have been. A couple quick pointers in the right direction could make the first tiny steps through Aion that much more pleasurable.
Up until level 10 you’re still just a run of the mill human trying to make your way through the world. However upon reaching level 9 or so you get sent on a couple missions to ascend to a Daeva. This is when you get to specialise your class from you base type to one of two choices. My character was a Warrior and had the choice of a Gladiator (a melee DPS) or Templar (tank) from which I chose the Templar. This instantly grants you more skills and the ability to fly, something which Aion has made a great deal of noise about when marketing the game. Your graduation to Daeva is marked with a cut scene as are many of the quests scattered through Aion. It’s a great addition to the game as it helps to break up the grind especially after a couple hours of play. My only gripe about them is some feel like rushed additions and don’t add much if you read the quest text, but ones like the Daeva ceremony are quite spectacular.
Overall Aion provides a very pleasurable gaming experience that does not try to remake things that work well and innovates in those unexplored areas. Whilst my experience was limited to only the first 12 levels or so I still got a taste of what Aion has to offer and I’m keenly awaiting the full release so I can experience the PvPvE content that NCsoft has alluded to. The storyline grabs you in and is heavily centered around your character and whilst the Harry Potter-esque “everyone knows you’re special except you” is a little cliched, it does help to make you feel important in the world of Aion.
Aion will be released on the 23rd of September 2009 in Australia with a special 48 hour head start for those who preorder the game. It’s also available on Steam for US$49.99 and comes with one months game time, which is decent value and I’d highly reccomend giving it a go. Of course as with any MMO it will suck all the life out of you, but where would the fun be if it didn’t? 😉
P.S. I’ve updated the comments system to now have formatting available and also, you can edit your own comments for 5 minutes after they’ve been published so you can catch spelling mistakes and what not. Also if you register you can edit your comments for much longer!
For over 20 years I have been a gamer. I can still remember fondly the days when my Dad first sat me down in front of our new computer and showed me how to fire up Captain Comic from the DOS prompt. I’ve then watched as the wonderful world of games grew from a hidden away world only for the socially inept of the world to the multi-billion dollar industry that it has become. So when the game companies who I’ve stuck with through thick and thin decide that the best way to combat piracy is by slapping DRM on something I feel a little hurt. It’s like an old friend telling you he can’t see you anymore because of his new girlfriend, you just can’t accept it.
I will admit that the majority of my gaming life was spent DRM free. Sure there were the license codes and some games requiring me to have the CD in the drive (which was easily defeated by spinning up something like Daemon Tools) but that was usually a one time thing, and it never really interfered with the normal operation of my machine or the gaming experience. In 2004 however I was greeted with my first ever in-your-face DRM, Steam. Back when it was first announced Steam was going to be a revolutionary way for developers to deliver games to consumers. At the time I was still outside an area that was capable of getting broadband Internet and this proved to be quite a problem for it. After spending about an hour installing Half Life 2 I was then greeted with having to create an account to play it. Fair enough I thought and plugged away at the sign up process. After this I was then greeted by Steam telling me that there was an update available. My attempts to stop it were futile and I could not shift the game into offline mode until it had updated. The result was me feeling cheated as I had paid good money for a hard copy so I could play it that day. Instead I was given a several hour delay on top of the install and sign up time. I didn’t trust steam for many years after that.
Another 4 years by before I would have my next run in with a DRM system. After years of hype I was excited to see Will Wright’s new creation Spore hit the shelves. I had been fooling around with the Creature Creator for a week or so before with my house mate and we were looking forward to creating and messing with our creations. Everything seemed to be fine until my housemates computer started having random issues, caused in part to SecuROM. I began to have issues as well after I began developing again, as SecuROM begins to throw a fit when debuggers are present. After spending $80 on a game and having it run rampant through my system I was a little miffed, and I haven’t installed the game since.
Just a few weeks ago I was intrigued to see a new game pop up on Steam, Aion. I’m a total sucker for eye candy in games and the initial once over I did of it looked promising. After searching around for a while I found out that it uses GameGuard as an anti-cheat system which in itself is not a bad idea (I come from the old days of Punkbuster, and I had no issue with them). However the behaviour of the program is squarely in root kit territory with it installing a device driver and remaining even after the game is uninstalled. The list of programs it messes with contains many programs that I use and are not intended in anyway to cheat, but if I choose to install this game they will either break or cause the game to crash.
It’s really sad for someone like me who has enough disposable income that a $50 game can come under a weekly “consumables” budget I have but I’ll stop dead in my tracks if they decide I need to be treated like a criminal in order to play their game. I’ve been eyeing it off Aion for a while and the promise that GameGuard breaks on Windows 7 (with a homegrown fix for it) has me leaning towards giving it a go. But had the Aion developers chosen not to include this software I would’ve already been a paying customer, and it’s sad that their sale to me is going to rely on using what amounts to beta software.
So game developers have a think about the market you’re delivering to. No longer are we the young gamers struggling to eek out a living (in fact the average age of gamers in Australia is 30), we’re mature adults who can afford to spend up on games. Treating us like criminals and cheats just costs you sales and does nothing to prevent either. It’s sad that the first thing I check when a new game is released is what DRM it uses not a game play video or similar.
And that folks is how you make a grown gamer cry.