What exactly is the incentive for a studio to bring another free-to-play MMO to the West?
Even among fans of these here grind-machines, the approval-rating of MMOs rises and falls with a steadiness usually reserved for politicians. But somehow NCsoft have managed to keep a stable of these games in their portfolio for years. The publishers have announced today that they're localizing Blade And Soul [official site], its three-year-old free-to-play MMO, for North America and Europe this year, making this the fifth title from the company to launch in Asia before it releases in the West. We decided to take a closer look.
Blade and Soul already has a huge following in the East, senior community manager Mark Hulmes tells me. It’s free – no gated content and no strings attached. In other words, NCsoft are essentially reheating an old hit. But in a genre as unruly as this one, perhaps this is a glimpse into MMO development for the 21st century: a ready-made heavyweight, imported in from a continent afar.
NCsoft West's senior vice president of publishing John Burns is calling this one of the most successful games in Asia, an eSports marvel that you’ve probably never even heard of – but trust me, the game’s got more countrymen than the whole of Zhanjiang. In China it got 1.5 million concurrent users at its peak. In South Korea it toppled Diablo 3 on the PC Bang charts at launch. It’s had three years to cultivate an eSports audience in the East, and even has a television show in Japan – an anime series by the animators of the brilliant Afro Samurai: Resurrection.
For its Western outing, the game launches fully-formed with three years’ worth of content. A convoluted Hero’s Journey narrative wraps around a structure of twitch-like, real-time battle systems, similar in style to its cousin Guild Wars 2. Watch a tournament play out between two duelling Blade and Soulers and tell me it isn’t a bloodied ballet. Combat is based around combo attacks, made from a combination of around 40 abilities - closer to what you'd find in fighting games than in a typical MMO arena glassing.
This too will be familiar to anyone who's tested the waters of Guild Wars 2's dynamic skill system, which changes the abilities you can access based on your character's weapon of choice, and brings a certain amount of skill to the art of maniacal keyboard thumping. PvP carries with it a similar rough-and-tumble tone. The game uses an optional flagging system revolving around the doboks, a uniform worn by practitioners of martial arts which when added to your costume means you’re ready to be accosted by your peers.
But according to Hulmes, the team are particularly proud of Blade and Soul's storytelling. This is a tale of martial arts fantasy, in which good and evil clash through battling factions and warring gods. And it’s a big story. The team has had to translate over three million words as part of their localisation effort, Hulmes tells me, and will launch this winter with the fully voice-acted results.
“It’s about a fledgling empire called the Wind Empire who is trying to overthrow the old Stratus Empire and unite the four continents in a new era of equality,” he says. There’s a subplot about the ancient and seemingly evil Darksiders, and Jin Seoyeon, a martial artist who’s become infected with impure Chi. It hinges on the often strange myths of ancient martial arts.
At launch this story will be made up of six acts, but the team already has five more years of plot points planned out, says Hulmes. The scale is bewildering. The team calls it the Game of Thrones of Eastern MMOs.
And it’s certainly dark enough for ol’ George R. R. The game’s introduction is like a trauma flashback to Red Wedding, as a nefarious crew wreaks havoc following a thousand-year peace treaty between the fledgling empire and the fading dynasty. Your master dies, dogs die, everybody dies. Despite all its high Eastern fantasy - frogmen and cat girls and Hopping Vampires - the green hills of the East are blood-soaked. The cutscene art style is beautiful, based on a visual style by the acclaimed artist Hyung-Tae Kim, known for his work on the Magna Carta series.
It’s classic wuxia – woo-sha – a kind of Chinese fiction that literally means "martial hero." You’ll recognize it from late nights watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Wuxia is an exaggeration of martial arts, playing on the traditions of qinggong by incorporated things like wall-scaling, tree-mounting and a general ignoring of gravity.
And it’s integral to the team's take on combat. Blade and Soul represents wuxia through super-human feats, perhaps the most significant of which is something called “windwalking.” You can float in the game, a wuxia movement ability that speeds you up but also doubles as flying transport. With that in mind, the world is designed vertically with enormous cliffsides and beaches that require you to dive way down, or reach awkwardly tree-high locals. A feature called "dragonstreams" is used to transport you to higher vantage points, launching you up the sides of mountains in a bewildering burst of energy with new and absurdly gymnastic animations unlocked each stream. Even the game’s weapon customization option is couched in wuxia lore - Swords can be upgraded by “feeding” them the weapons of your fallen enemies, meaning you can feasibly carry the same weapon with you from day one as long as you continue its cannibal diet.
The team want your weapon to mean something after all. The heroes in wuxia weren’t frivolous; they were a working class sort, a kind of roaming knight of ancient China who fought for righteousness at a time when Confucian tradition and its family dynasties restricted personal freedoms. It's fitting then that Blade and Soul is a game that's largely about player freedom: Letting players choose how to play, how to fight, and how to establish their individuality in a game of a thousand heroes.
Blade and Soul is coming to beta in the West this fall, then launches officially this winter. In the meantime, the first major Blade and Soul livestream will take place on Twitch on May 21st.