Over the recent few years there has been an in flood of Korean/Chinese MMORPGs into the Western market, and a slow but steady flow the other way. Yet there is a clear cultural clash at play. In this thread i hope to answer some qualms about why Asian MMORPGs are made the way they are.
Personally i think grind is the sole killer to many if not most of all the potentially great MMORPGs. The grindfests restricts players from the exciting gameplay features with a time-based lock. In other words, a player must spend XXX amount of boring grind before the game becomes somewhat enjoyable and the XXX amount of time required does not weigh up to the eventual 'fun'. The finger can be solely at a production line of Korean MMORPGs for making grindfest the norm. The formula of a grind-wall where upon reaching a certain level, the amount of experience gained from kills exponentially drops in conjuntion with an exponential growth in the experience required to level up and in my view this feature has designed for the sole purpose of a turnoff for players. Yet, if grind is such a turnoff why do Asian game makers still persist with this forumla. The answer may be lie in the difference in approach on grinding between Western and Asian players.
For starters, the sheer number of gamers of MMORPGs in Asia is is without comparison in the West. Literally hundreds of thousands of people are logged onto one server at a time. Amongts these people there are surely those who do not mind and have the time to grind, and in turn they are rewarded with better weaponary and fancy armour. They are aslo idolized by the gaming community. The rest of the players, striving and competeting to reach that level of idolization reluctantly or willingly put with the grindfest for the eventual outcome.
Secondly, most Asian MMORPG grindfests are designed to be grounded in groups, with exp bonuses, so players evel up faster when leveling in groups. With the sheer number of players in servers, group play is a constant thing players of all levels. When viewed under this context, the grind becomes quite bearable. If you play the game and level up with a consitent group of online friends, then the grind at least is less tedious as solo play. Asian MMORPGs seems to view the grind as kind of substitute for MSN.
Thirdly, the grind has an outcome, apart from wearponary, armour and skills, many games have group dungeon systems and group PvP systems, so the all the grinding will enable access to these features.
For some reason i find there's a much more feeling of community in Asian servers than Western servers. On some Western games in Western servers, there's practically no talk, each player is doing his/her own thing like a solo game, and most of the talk are laced with high-level game vocab and is not really newbie friendly.
This point is interconnected to the grindfest. Better community base makes grindfest less boring and more valid. One of the key differences is once agian down to a numbers issue. In Asia, more people play, so there are more servers and localised. In turn players play with other people from the same region that share the same culture, and similar lifestyles, and could literally be living right next to each other. In contrast the 'West' is almsot an imaginary space, since it's not space that can be localised. Clearly U.S. dominates this landscape, but there's also Canada, U.K. Australia, Carribean, South America, in someway these regions have no choice but to participate in the the conglomerate that is the 'West'.
Already there is a distinct cultural and geographic difference within the 'West', time zone diffences, language barriers and different lifestyle makes community building harder. Most of the time the conversation between a player from Poland is restricted to the game content and thus the feeling of community is disconnected.
There are clear gameplay differences and approach to gameplay between Asian MMORPGs and Western ones. The gaming industry in Korea and China are relatively new in comparison to the rich history of gaming in the West and Japan. In most cases, Korean and Chinese gaming company have simply imitated gameplay features from successful Western games without much ingenuity. Diablo clones and WoW clones are the most obvious case studies. It's quite evident that gameplay of Asian MMORPGs lack behind their western counterpart. Runnning around killing the same looking mobs and gearing up with the same lookin gears is not really gameplay to me.
I think the core difference is the approach to gameplay. While Wetern game developers intend the gameplay to be deeply imbedded in the game content, mainly through storyline, i won't go further into details here but a simple example is the stotybased mssion system of Starcraft, where gameplay features (units) can only be accessed through following through with the story. In Asia however this aspect of the game seem to be overlooked for a mass-based, instant and immediately player gratification. In otherwords, the gameplay between lower levels and higher levels are not really much different. Kill low level mobs with low level weapons Vs killing high level mobs with high level weapons.
Another point of differences is that Asian MMORPGs have a tendency to think of gameplay as some skin-deep extra game features. For example when reading through gemeplay features of most Asian MMORPGS, they list features such as pet system, craft system, extensitve array of skills, fancy weapon and armour as key features. They game features do add an extra dimension to the gameplay, but as great as they sound, they only work on the surface of the gameplay and do not penetrate to the core. In otherwords they are nothing more than mere 'decorations' for the avatar. Sustaining a game on these features alone simply would not work, as the end result is everyone running around with the same armour, using the same skills with the same pets.
However these little quirky features do add an extra dimension to the gaming experience absent in the West, and is certainly an appealing feature for many gamers (mostly female) and should be congratulate upon. Other quirky features such as marriage, blacklist, most wanted, open stall etc that become a norm in Asian MMORPGs certainly departs from the orthodox Western approach to gaming. There are even games developed now purely on quirkiness (Ghost OL, Flyff) and these companies should be praised for making the game more metrosexual and more tailored towards female audiences.
They seem to reflect a cultural difference. While the West is still very much male dominated, the East especially amongst the young people is increaingly moving towards a rather sexually equal society. This social shift is clealy evident in Asian MMORPGs with their female-intended quirky features. In Asian female MMORPG palyers out number if not equal to the amount of male MMORPG players. But then again quirkiness alone does not make a great game.
For so long Chinese games have been relegated due to technological issues with a 2D/2D isometric graphic interface. And as great as their gameplay maybe, the 2D interface is simply an turnoff for players so accustomed to 3D games. Games such as Conquerer OL and Eudomonia simply would not last.
Also much more Asian games are created in an anime-esque cute graphic style (Yulang, Rose, Maple Story, Seal), and as discussed above this is related to the social shift towards a less male-centric society. Personally i find this graphic approach can be juvenile, but that does not mean the game is not enjoyable or fun. In my view this approach has somewhat rivogorated MMORPGs and made the genre much more accessible to much more people, especially female players but this approach rather creates an opposite effect to an immersive, simularcrum direction most games are heading towards.
To conclude i think Western games will be huge success in Asia, with their emphasis on core storyline based gameplay which would be something totally new to Chinese MMORPGs. I think the GW series will be huge in China, and with the enormous market, more Western games will be heading East. While on otherhand Asian MMORPGs does provide a momentary escape from Western games with their fantasy landscape and quirky gameplay, but in the long term i don't think they will succeed if core gameplay is not significantly improved.