2010 marked Nexon's first appearance ever at an E3, and that says quite a bit about both the company and the free-to-play business model it's adapted for MMO action titles. The South Korean company was showing off three different games at the show: the recently released 2D action MMO Dungeon Fighter Online, an upcoming 3D fantasy MMORPG with a casual bent called Dragon Nest, and this one, Vindictus, an action RPG using a heavily modified version of the Source engine to provide a little physics-based hacking and slashing fun.
While the look of these games is very different, they all have the same origin (free-to-play titles with lots of microtransactions, originating in South Korea and translated over to North America for Western audiences), and the same problems. They all have excellent premises and even some good design ideas, but they just don't have the polish, especially when compared to popular Western games, to make the experience shine.
Like most of Nexon's titles, Vindictus sounds great on paper. The engine makes the graphics look like Dragon Age, but the actual gameplay is much more action oriented, with the two characters playable at E3 hacking, slashing, and casting spells against the bad guys throughout an instanced dungeon. Up to four players can play through at a time, and not only are there some fun graphical flairs (like the camera following a throw spear to its target, or a fun slow-motion replay after a boss is beaten), but the engine allows for some nice physics -- you can pick up and throw almost anything in the environment, and even hit a switch to drop barrels down a hill into the bad guys. I'd love to play the game that Vindictus hints at -- a rip-roaring fantasy MMO with a rowdy action spin.
Unfortunately, the game itself subverts that premise. Things are buggy -- sometimes objects picked up will appear far overhead, and I'd often hit my fellow teammates instead of enemies. The difficulty curve is tough and likely long -- I was playing with level 30 characters in the demo, but it would likely take quite a while to reach that point, and I still only had a few abilities to play with. The sound was repetitive and the voices grating, and while the animations looked good, there weren't many to go around. Picking up items was a chore, too, as you use the same button to attack as you do to pick up, and there was no system for fair loot distribution -- something that causes problems in most MMOs. The UI looked slick, but wasn't very helpful -- I was told that health potions only gave half health if you drank them while moving, but there was no indication of that in the UI, which will cause a lot of casual players to get frustrated fast.
And while I wasn't able to see the microtransaction store in Vindictus, Nexon will usually charge real money to players for items that allow you to do standard MMO things, like talking to other characters or reviving fallen players. That's not necessarily a problem, but it's often not an ideal experience, especially for Western players who are used to getting those things with the game they pay for.
That's not to say that the free-to-play model is doomed. Rather, just the opposite is true -- eventually, even Western companies (or Nexon themselves) will take the ideas in games like Vindictus, and polish them into an experience that Western players will want to play. Already, EA is testing the waters with free games based on Ultima and Tiger Woods, and there are also some very successful niche, free-to-play titles like League of Legends and Dungeons and Dragons Online. I have no doubt that, eventually, an experienced developer will take a concept like Vindictus and turn it into a quality experience even veteran players can't get enough of.
But Nexon doesn't seem to be that developer just yet, as the version of Vindictus I played was only half-baked, and appears unlikely the developer will get it right before the game gets out of beta this fall. The free-to-play model will eventually have some awesome, must-play games in it, but Nexon's first E3 appearance shows that we're not quite there yet.