[Over at virtual worlds site WorldsInMotion.biz, we've restarted the Worlds In Motion Online Atlas, penned by Mathew Kumar - looking at the rapidly advancing free-to-play online game biz. This time round - we check out Nexon's free social online MMO Mabinogi, an oddly Korean melange of MMO and borderline-cute socialization elements.]

Here's an overview of Mabinogi, Nexon's "Fantasy Life" MMORPG, which promising users the chance to not only hit monsters in the face until they die but also enjoy a social world including fishing, cooking, trading -- even just hanging out round a campfire chatting and playing instruments.

2008_05_19_mabinogi.jpgName: Mabinogi

Company: Nexon

Established: June 2004 (Korea); March 2008 (North America)

How it Works: Mabinogi requires download and installation of its own client, plus Direct X, and runs as an application. Navigation and gameplay are accomplished via mouse and keyboard input.

2008_05_19_mabinogi2.jpgOverview: Mabinogi is (for the most part) a classic MMORPG, with players exploring dungeons, defeating monsters and purchasing weapons and armor. However, the title is also advertised as a way to "live your fantasy life" and diverges from many other MMORPGs by not featuring a class system. Players can level up in any skills, which include "life skills" such as fishing, cooking and playing instruments, and also age. Players are encouraged to go to school/take jobs, and to socialize by hanging out with other players around campfires.

Payment Method: Mabinogi is free to play, and earns revenue through microtransactions (prepaid Nexon Game Cards are available at retailers such as Target) and licensing.

Key Features:
- "Fantasy life" allows players to play Mabinogi non-violently
- Classless leveling system; characters age
- Large play area with multiple areas; continually updated through patches (referred to as "Generations" and "Chapters")

Mabinogi: In-Depth Tour

2008_05_21_mabi3.jpg

Mabinogi is a hugely successful Korean MMO -- hugely. Despite being named after the Mabinogion (the collective name of several stories from medieval Wales) the first thing that's going to strike you about Mabinogi, particularly if you're more familiar with western MMOs, is just how "Asian" it feels – featuring everything from a Final Fantasy-esque score to anime styled character portraits and "super-deformed" avatars. It's about as far away from the likes of Second Life you can get (or even World of Warcraft) offering a very consistent, polished experience within its pseudo-medieval world.

There's good reason for the level of polish: Mabinogi has been on release in Korea since 2004. If you're interested in experiencing a world unlike most others about the only thing that is going to put you off is the huge 850 mb download that's required to begin playing. Surprisingly, though, the download was incredibly quick even on my often slow connection, and the title didn't require any extensive patching before I could begin. I did have to sign up for a Nexon passport, however, which includes some pretty bizarre questions (including asking my ethnicity, which is quite unusual. You can opt out of that one, though.)

2008_05_21_mabi4.jpg

Character creation is performed using "character cards". There are two kinds, basic and premium, and you get only one basic card unless you choose to purchase more – purchasing cards is one of the main revenue streams of Mabinogi, along with a monthly pass that offers a lot of extras. There aren't any item sales.

If you only have a basic card (like me) you're stuck with a limited selection of haircuts and facial features -- not that a premium card expands your selection massively – and once you've chosen yours, you're given a short introduction from Mabinogi's poster girl, Nao, and dropped into the "newbie town" Tir Chonaill (named after a medieval lordship in Ireland, where the county of Donegal stands now; which is not in Wales.)

2008_05_21_mabi1.jpg

The initial experience of playing Mabinogi is very similar to most MMORPGs. Players take part in a succession of tutorial missions intending to get them familiar with first the use of the interface and then the game itself. If you're used to MMORPGS Mabinogi still has its own quirks; in a way it plays similarly to Diablo (clicking with the mouse performs most actions in the world, including movement and combat) but it has its quirks with its interface, including the unusual way skills are organized.

Within a couple of hours in Mabinogi's first town I'd managed to explore quite a lot of different aspects of the title just by doing the quests which are (for some reason or another) dropped on your avatar by birds. I'd investigated a dungeon to rescue a villager from a giant spider (dungeons are instanced, like in many MMORPGS) taken a few part time jobs (which seemed thankless --chopping wood was difficult and low paying, and sheep shearing little better) and had a chance to do a little shopping (many players run shops which almost always out-pace the NPC shops for value.)

2008_05_21_mabi2.jpg

So far, so MMORPG, it might seem. And if we're being completely honest, to new players Mabinogi is disappointingly heavy on the traditional RPG aspects, with even part time jobs and other skills (such as cooking) all feeling like a grind to "level up" rather than an enjoyable part of a "fantasy life".

Mabinogi: Conclusion

2008_05_22_mabi3.jpg

Nexon's Mabinogi isn't the first MMORPG that's claimed to offer players the chance to live a "fantasy life" -- arguably this promise has existed almost as long as the MMO has, with one of the first mainstream MMORPGs, Ultima Online, promising a similar experience. However, that's a long time ago now, so how does Mabinogi stack up against its current competitors, not only RPGs but social worlds and other alternative experiences?

The initial promise of Mabinogi is high -- after all, it's got many instantly obvious benefits for new users. It's free with no monthy fee. There's a strong anime aesthetic, several years of continued development in Korea before it reached here, and a wide variety of possible ways to live in the world.

Yet when you enter the world, it's hard not to be very disappointed if you're looking for more than an average MMORPG experience. The first several hours set you on a list of errands and monster bashing quests that are absolutely bog standard, and along with a bewildering amount of information on different statistics and skills, it'll quite quickly become too much for anyone who isn't interested in playing it like a game. It's possible to ignore most of these tutorial missions, but in many cases you'll miss out on important skills that (as far as I know) could cripple your character completely.

2008_05_22_mabi1.jpg

So, sure, I definitely wasn't happy with the opening experience -- particularly a section which required me to murder baby foxes, the big softy that I am – but that does seem to be somewhat a requirement for an RPG. There are some nice touches, though, particularly the fact that there are no set classes (at least in the early stages, anyway). You can, if you wish, spend time learning to be the best monster basher there is, and then give that up for a life as a weaver, without any particular difficulty.

There are some other aspects, though, which are maybe less well thought out (or just dealt with in too foreign a way for my liking). In Mabinogi, characters can age naturally (about 1 year a week) but this is complicated by a "rebirth" system which allows you to rebirth your character at a younger age pretty much whenever you like. As characters are at their best in their late teens/early twenties, almost all other players you'll see in the world fill a narrow demographic, somewhat removing the chance for a really interesting player populace.

Players are generally a pleasant and sociable bunch, however. Although it might seem just advertising blurb from the game makers when they talk about players gathering around campfires to hang out and play instruments, it actually does seem to be something players in the world like to do -- they're warm to newcomers and chatting sociably can happen often if it's what you're interested in. Too, many players have taken on the task of learning Mabinogi's instruments and even composing music; though they have a slightly naff MIDI sound, it's still a cute aspect of the social world.

2008_05_22_mabi2.jpg

Players are also most likely who you'll do the most trading with, but it's here that one of the main problems makes itself clear -- it seems far, far easier to make enough money to buy things through adventuring and monster hunting than it does from part-time jobs, foraging, fishing, or any other non-violent pastime. This is particularly problematic when even the cheapest clothes cost thousands of coins; the rewards and general economy seem far out of whack. It's here that I actually found myself wishing that microtransactions could be used to purchase new items and clothes, as my character's peasant clothes were depressingly dull, and I was thousands of coins away from anything else worth wearing.

And one final issue: the interface is clumsy and dated. Mabinogi has been around since 2004, admittedly, but this is one part that could do with a serious overhaul; the otherwise simplistic graphics are actually quite pleasant and fitting.

To conclude my conclusion, Mabinogi is a mixed bag. I think that players have to be prepared to put up with perhaps too many traditional MMORPG conventions to enjoy an otherwise quite vibrant world with a healthy social aspect, but those that do want to enjoy a (slightly) lighter-than-average RPG could find a lot to enjoy here. I'll admit, however, I don't have much urge to continue in the world -- the level of grinding required to afford new items is just too much.

Useful Links:
Mabinogi World (fan site)
Mabinogi Player (fan site)