GDC 08: Nexon's Next MMO Maginobi and the Free-to-Play Model

Dana Massey | 3 Mar 2008 23:30
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Nexon America is ensconced as a leader in the localization of Korean games for the North American market. In 2005, they released MapleStory, which is one of the most popular and critically well-received translated MMOs available. At GDC 2008, CEO John Chi and Customer Relations Manager Joseph Wreggelsworth presented Mabinogi, a slightly more traditional MMO in the late stages of testing, and took a look back at the success that launched them.

Unlike MapleStory, Mabinogi is fully 3-D, albeit still from an isometric (top-down) perspective. Make no mistake, these visuals are not top of the line, but they are built to run on a realistic set of machines, and Nexon hopes to make up for the lack of crazy effects with detailed customization and a rich feature set.

In a landscape of World of Warcraft clones, Nexon's latest entry harkens back to the era of Ultima Online. This is what I call a "virtual world game" (not to be confused with a virtual world like, say, Second Life). It harnesses real-world elements and sandbox-style gameplay, but retains a sense of advancement and purpose. For example, simple concepts like character age and the very day/night cycle of the world have a real effect on gameplay.

In most games, the day/night cycle is simply there to break up the mood. Occasionally, it might impact the spawns, but that was always the core difference between the virtual world game and the modern theme park-style MMO, which are clearly quite fun, but also simplified in many respects. In Mabinogi, there is a full in-game calendar, and depending on the time of year there are bonuses associated with it. This acts as a global mechanism that nudges - if not fully directs - players around the world, and should create more variety in where people play and hunt.

The very time of day also has a measured impact. At night there are different creatures to hunt and bonuses than in the day. This extends right down to weather. For example, in a rainstorm, players who rely on fire attacks will find themselves a bit less effective. At the same time, though, that rainstorm may be the key to some neat loot.

They concept of basic world assumptions as gameplay enhancement is not just a global trend, but also a personal one. Both age and diet are important considerations for players as they advance their characters.

"A lot of this is about individuality," said Wreggelsworth.

With age, players can choose to begin as anywhere between the ages of 10 to 17 (the full range in the game is 10 to 25). As players age in the game, their stats and looks change and grow. This actually creates a built-in difficulty feature for players to consider upon character creation. It is in fact easier to start an older character and carve out a niche in the world, but while it may be more of a struggle, there are greater benefits on the back-end of a younger character who has a full age span to advance through. Don't worry, though; there is no old-age or permanent death. The game comes with mechanisms whereby players can reincarnate and start the cycle over again or slow down/speed up aging as desired.

Mabinogi appears to have run the fine line that allows Nexon to incorporate basic life lessons and logic as gameplay. For example, diet is a core part of each character. If a character eats too much food or the wrong things, they'll put on some weight. As a gameplay element, this is a balancing act. Players need to eat to regain and maintain their stamina (and no, you cannot starve to death), but they also likely want to maintain a handsome figure. The game provides all sorts of options in terms of food for players to seek out and ingest. Too much cake means a couple pounds, but simple activity allows players to work off any unwanted weight. The ideal character will combine sane amounts of healthy foods in the game with active gameplay (running around, fighting, etc.) to maintain a regular weight level, which is exactly the kind of message that parents of younger players should be pleased with.

Advancement in Mabinogi is a combination of traditional experience and usage-based skills. Players gain skills in three categories: life, combat and magic. Each is advanced through their direct use or indirect actions in the game. For example, players can learn sword skills both by actually fighting with the sword and by reading books or talking to NPCs who can teach them a trick or two. The experience part of the equation occurs as players reach new levels in these skills and use their ability points to advance to the next stage, unlocking new abilities. This combination simplifies their skill-based system so that players retain the control they are likely used to in character advancement, without sacrificing the complexity and customization options of a skill-based system.

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