Nexon is working very hard on its new mobile MMORPG. The game, Alliance vs Empire (or AxE), is a huge hit in Japan and Korea and skyrocketed to the top iOS and Android charts when it released in 2017. Now the gaming giant is eager to bring that same success to Western audiences with a localized version.
The team at Nexon Red has an excited gleam in their eye when they talk about AxE. At a preview event held in its San Francisco Bay Area branch, Nexon Red spoke about their ambitious project with passion, dedication, and delight. Key Nexon employees demonstrated how their vision went from a desire to a smooth, playable on-the-go experience.
Inspired by games like Infinity Blade, Nexon Red wanted to do something different, something big. The advancement in mobile tech allowed the team to use new beefier hardware to bring their vision to life.
A staggering amount of effort has been put into AxE. It sports unprecedentedly huge 150-player PVP battles in a grand sweeping war across a distant fantasy world. There's mythical monsters, magic, hack-and-slash action, and a distinct feeling of camaraderie with other players. The worlds are absolutely huge, there are 7 different maps and are peppered with objectives, loot, monsters, and enemy factions to tackle.
What makes AxE so unique is how it looks and feels. Honestly, I'm extremely impressed with the visuals and AxE looks like a console-quality game with flashy visuals and on-screen chaos. Animations are buttery-smooth, and there's always tons of enemies to battle or objectives to complete. It's a true never-ending MMO.
Bringing a strong Asian mobile game to West offers tons of unique challenges. The two regions have radically different gaming tastes, with Asia favoring more grindy microtransaction-style games and the West enjoying more action and flashy visuals. The hardships go double for MMORPGs, and compound even further for a mobile-based MMO. There's so many spinning plates Nexon Red has to juggle all at once, and they're always finding more to add.
Alliance x Empire has all the trimmings of a meticulously-planned game: there's an absolute sea of layered mechanics to keep players busy for months on end, all of which are carefully pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. There's so many moving parts that I wondered just how much time had been put into the game.
According to Nexon Red, Alliance vs Empire has been in development for about a year. Throughout that time the game has matured and shifted slightly away from its Korean predecessor to fit Western gamers. There's still no word on a concrete release date, though Nexon says it'll be out soon. One employee said he couldn't tell me a launch window because he didn't actually know himself, and another just shook their head and laughed as if to say "it'll be done when it's done."
Even when AxE is done, the team's work is just beginning.
Any live service game must be continually updated over time, especially if it's a strong free-to-play mobile title. Mobile gamers lose interest fast and if you don't grab their attention with new stuff or rewards, they'll move on. It's the nature of the billion-dollar beast, and consumers are hungry for more content just like the beast is hungry for cash.
Like any game's development, mobile dev cycles can weigh on the people who make them. One employee joked about working 20 hour days to craft the never-ending mobile MMO, and while they said it with a smile and a laugh, I wondered just how much of it was a joke.
Other Nexon Red devs talked to me about the localization process. Bringing games from the East to the West (and vice-versa) requires tweaks to game mechanics, visuals, language, sound, and other major foundations to any project. AxE's global version sees character classes slightly re-skinned and quests, dialog, and text all localized in English.
Alliance vs Empire is a kind of duality that sees two games being worked on simultaneously: the immensely popular Asian version, and the in-development Western flavor.
Sylvia Gladstone, senior manager at Nexon of America, told me it feels like the company is working on two games at once a lot of the time. In many ways this is true.
The previously released source game is constantly getting updated with new content for players to avidly consume, and a lot of what's in the Asian version will carry over to the Western flavor albeit with different tweaks and balances. The Western game will have tons of seasonal events and other live service content to keep users busy, but it'll be stuff that's tailored for that region--festive events for holidays and the like.
Other tweaks include more customizations for the game's spiritstones (sort of like gems from Diablo II) as well as more dynamic item selection.
What's more interesting is how Nexon Red refers to this process as "culturization" rather than just localization; the devs are keen on connecting with Western audiences rather than just releasing a port
Culturization, Westernization, and Game Details
This culturization sees AxE morph into a more accessible and recognizable game for the West. Character models have been adjusted from the Korean-Japanese version, the UI has shifted to a more player friendly version, in-game menus are more interactive, and dialog/character interactions have been tuned to fit a different audience.
There's a fully original storyline made specifically for the global launch, complete with lore and dialog.
Another big shift is how the two game's factions are introduced and showcased. Faction motivations seem to be deeper and more pronounced so players can actually get a feel for both the Galanos Alliance, a group of freedom fighters resisting the reign of order, and the Holy Darkhaan Empire, a stoic clandestine force intent on using control to bring peace to the world. How these two factions actually clash culturally and belief-wise is important to Nexon Red, and it's something we actually see in the character classes.
"We focus on human differences. It's human vs human, not race vs race," said Nexon Red CEO Daehwon Kim. Kim went on to show how the Galanos Alliance was inspired by vikings and fantasy elves, whereas the Holy Darkhaan Empire has ties to Medieval Europe.
Speaking of classes, both the Alliance and the Empire have three different archetypes to choose from that culminate in your basic rogue, mage and tank style classes. They include:
Holy Darkhaan Empire
But make no mistake, each class is actually pretty dynamic and has unique roles to play depending on the skillset. There's a distinct level of customization in this regard, reminding me of the different skill rotations and designations found in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Finding the right combination of skills to use with your team at the right time is important and can often be the difference between life and death.
Insofar as main tenants, the game itself is built on three main foundations--action, conflict and competition, and the world itself.
AxE: Alliance vs Empire is an action game at heart, with MMO-level multiplayer and layered RPG mechanics thrown in. But at its core the game is all about hack-and-slash chaos, spamming abilities, leveling up and grabbing new loot. The combat keeps players engaged over time and feeds into the cyclic nature of monetized live gaming with a steady, instantaneous flow of flashy visuals and satisfying attacks.
"The action aspect is one of the big pillars of the game," Nexon Red CEO Daehwon Kim said at the event.
Each character has its own action-oriented magical attacks that are satisfying, if not strategic. But there's also an auto-play function that may throw off Western gamers who generally like to engage with their experiences. It's more of a convenience measure and a way to keep users in the ecosystem and logging in to grind EXP, missions, and loot.
Conflict and competition is another main feature of AxE. The game features a variety of PVP modes including a 4v4 Arena gametype that nets you unique rewards, as well as the grand-scale 75v75 havoc of clashing Invasions.
The worlds in AxE are absolutely massive and fold neatly into conflict and competition. Designed to be a mix of PVP and PVE, there are 7 different areas in the world that are all at least 1 square mile each.
"We're going to be including 7 different worlds into this game. The size of the maps are around 1-2 square miles each," Kim continued.
"Each map will have both the Alliance and Empire starting areas. The paths were designed so that each faction camp would naturally merge to this kind of conflict zone, so that we're able to organically bring that element of PVP to the world itself."
"Since the maps are so large, we're planning to include lots of content within each area such as world bosses, side quests, and main quests. So we wanted to bring both co-op play with your fellow faction members and eventually push players more into the PVP content."
What's interesting is that PVE doesn't turn off even during huge 75v75 battles. It's kind of like Halo 5's Warzone mode where players battle other players as well as enemy AI, all set in a big battleground. In this way there's always this kind of threat when traversing certain areas, bringing a thrill and a sense of fun when scouting around with your party.
As we mentioned before, the game's storyline is entirely original and is actually quite beefy. The main and side quests take around 90 hours to complete and Nexon will add more objectives and content over time, along with new classes, enemies and seasonal events.
AxE: Alliance vs Empire is an interesting mobile game. It's the type of experience that's fun and flashy at first, but its massively layered dynamics point to a heavily-monetized experience; in many ways, AxE feels like an engagement simulator that's confusing as much as it is fun.
I actually enjoyed my time with AxE and was surprised a mobile game could feel and look that good. I played as a Valkyrie from the Holy Darkhaan Empire, and was absolutely blown away by the versatility. She's a smooth mayhem-inducing lightbringer who can dish out tons of damage while also healing her allies in battle.
Combat is fluidly designed, skills are a blast, and there's an absolutely huge amount of customization to be made. It has all the major trimmings of an MMO: an intensely strategic and tactical skill system built around adequate rotations and synergies with other classes, an incredible array of loot all waiting to be grinded out, lots of quests and explorable locations filled with enemies, bosses, and random creatures, and a variety of activities from high-level raids to smaller dungeons.
The graphics are superlative and I'm still impressed Nexon was able to jam such a colorful and exotic world into a smartphone. Connectivity was great (although we were playing in a controlled environment) and I didn't notice any lag. Animations are very fluid and engaging, the combat feels explosive, and you feel like you're playing an MMO that's slightly compromised for mobile devices.
The touchscreen controls are a bit funny at first (using a smartphone screen as an analog stick takes some getting used to) but movement is crisp and tight, and combat is satisfying. There's an auto-attack mode that pretty much has the game playing itself, at least when it comes to smashing mobs and killing smaller foes.
Taking on hulking bosses like the great dragon Beliou takes lots of planning and strategic use of your skills, so the auto-attack mode won't really come in handy here. You want to be in full control of when and how you use your abilities in every second of the battle, especially if you're the Titan who buffs allies or the Valkyrie that can heal your team.
The drawback of mobile is the UI is immensely clustered and there's a lot on the screen at any given time. Skill cooldown indicators, mini-map, quest objectives, EXP bars, and other stuff smushes into the HUD. It's very busy and confusing at first, but seasoned MMO vets can acclimate with ease. The trade-off is that you can take AxE anywhere your phone is and play on-the-go.
Speaking of busy, the game's skill and inventory screens are all layered and nestled into one another. Things aren't explained all that well and I found myself having to navigate through different screens to do simple things like check my map, swap out items, or pick a new skill after leveling up. But all the while I was able to keep earning EXP thanks to the auto-battle system.
During my time with AxE, I tried out basic exploration and questing, a massively challenging raid, and some PVP. I also uncovered a lot about the game's massively monetized economy, but more on that later.
Exploration across the huge 1-2 square mile maps is made much more enjoyable thanks to fast-travel mechanic, alongside one of the most satisfying traversal systems I've seen in a game. Your character can auto-run to different locations, whether it be a quest marker, a PVP battle, or a group of allies taking on a world boss. But instead of just having to run the whole way, your avatar will float and zoom over like a mystical Iron Man, eliminating the need for mounts.
Combat is basically a series of button mashes that sees you rotating through your skills in any given order. Doing the rotation right means stronger synergy and success with a team, but smaller battles like mobs and dungeons don't require that kind of finesse. You can absolutely just spam your way through most things, but that deeper skill mastery is always there.
There's also an extremely helpful dodge-roll button that swiftly carries you out of harm's way. Sadly dodge-rolling doesn't interrupt your skill executions (and some of the can be rather long), so you'll have to brush off your Dark Souls skills and pay close attention to what you actually do.
I really enjoyed the game's raid system. Me and four other players teamed up to take down a massive dragon overlord. The battle itself was incredibly tough and required the utmost attention; everyone had to dodge AoE attacks from the beast, all while healing strategically and blasting out our abilities in timely manners.
The battle only lasts for 5 minutes, but we were unable to slay the winged wyrm even after four tries. I died a few times and was able to use a resurrection scroll to jump back in, but ultimately our skills weren't up to snuff.
PVP was my least favorite element of AxE, which is unfortunate given how intimately entwined it is with the game. I found PVP to be a confusing mess of frustration and gang-ups, not to mention weird lock-ons and awkward movement. Combat is fine when it comes to PVE enemies, but once you go against another player who zooms around, it's hard to actually attack them. There's lots of spawn killing going on, and overall it felt overwhelming and annoying.
But there's one saving grace: since I died so much in PVP, I was granted a protective bubble that negated all damage until I actually attacked someone. There's safeguards in place so people can't be continually griefed.
AxE: Alliance vs Empire has a wealth of items and gear to collect and equip. There's optional cosmetics that you can buy or earn in-game, alongside a variety of gear that's randomized Diablo-style. The gear is tiered in rarities like common, uncommon and legendary and each successive tier has more beneficial stats. You're encouraged to keep grinding events and quests to grab new stuff to wear and smack enemies with.
There's also an incredibly dynamic and complicated system of ways to boost your gear. Runes, spiritstones, and a codex all offer ways to enhance your inventory. Runes are basically a kind of astral skill tree that applies set bonuses when you match symbols and colors. Runes are earned in-game from higher-level events like raids, and offer a dizzying amount of customization and speccing for your character.
Spiritstones are basically like gems that can be socketed into items to give certain stat boosts. Mixing and matching these are essential for building an endgame-focused avatar.
The codex is probably one of the most interesting things about AxE's gear system. Players can enhance pretty much all of their gear at any time provided they have the materials, and gathering the mats is yet another pathway to AxE's massively grindy mechanics. The codex stores all of the set gear you've ever earned and allows you to equip certain stats without actually having to wear the gear itself
All of these features feed into one another to make a churning wheel of engagement, which Nexon Red is keen on monetizing with lots of shortcuts.
Like any free-to-play mobile game, AxE is monetized via optional in-game microtransactions. The game sports a premium currency called white diamonds that are both earned in-game by simply logging in, completing various objectives, or bought with in-game gold or real-world cash.
There are tons and tons of ways to spend white diamonds in AxE (and by extension, real money). You can buy resurrection scrolls that instantly revive you in battle, you can buy potions that heal, you can buy raid tickets that're needed to participate in big raid boss battles, and various material packages. There's also randomized loot boxes too that contain various rewards from like crafting materials and skins. You can even buy skills.
Honestly, the monetization felt like it affected gameplay a bit too heavily. The game itself feels like it was built entirely with microtransactions in mind (it likely was, like all F2P games) and this feeling often hampers the excellent mechanics the MMO has to offer--especially when you die or something goes wrong and the game prompts you with an opportunity to spend white diamonds.
Nexon Red's vision for a huge, 150-player fantasy war is an interesting one. The smartphone game looks and feels like a premium product, complete with top-of-the-line animations, a great combat system, and a dynamic interwoven series of mechanics that exemplify the MMO genre.
I found the game to be an excellent distraction for on-the-go gaming, particularly during long flights or in DMV waiting rooms. There's a true sense of a persistent, always-connected world waiting at your fingertips, and if you have a bunch of friends or a wider social circle, the game will take on an even bigger meaning.
But I also worry about the game's monetization and rather complicatedly layered structures being too hefty for Western audiences. These types of games typically do better overseas in Japan or China. It's interactive enough on the surface, what with the boss battles and co-op or PVP multiplayer, but it can absolutely play itself and has a lot of little hooks for microtransaction spending.
I personally think the game needs a bit more uncoupling and the hugely snarled webwork of UI menus, mechanics, and small grind mechanics needs smoothed out. Hopefully, the game does well because the developers have clearly put their all into this one, and the game shines with a strong dedication to a core vision.
AxE: Alliance vs Empire has so much to offer players and may prove to be a never-ending RPG that just keeps on serving up new content for years to come.
AxE is coming very soon to Android and iPhones in the West.