Seeing that Ragnarok Online claims to have 17 million subscribers, I thought it might be appropriate to draw out some interesting game mechanics in RO as a way to generate some discussion on cultural differences in MMO design. Even if RO's reported subscriber base were one order magnitude off, they would still have more subscribers than any current Western MMO.
Here are 3 things about RO that have intrigued me:
1) Transformation - Many of our cultural myths draw from the Transformation archtype (Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, Pinocchio, etc.), and I didn't realize that it was largely absent in Western MMOs until I played RO. In RO, your character goes through 2 profession advancements in their career that completely change your appearance, boosts your attributes by 30-50%, and opens up new skill trees (e.g. novice -> archer -> bard). In Western MMOs, advancement is slow, gradual and continuous. The transformations in RO are incredibly seductive, and it also foregrounds the insistence of Western MMOs on gradual progress.
2) Repeated Cycles - Instead of having a linear level treadmill, RO does something very clever. You have a base level and a job level which advance independently. When you change jobs (from Mage to Wizard for example), your job level goes back to 1 and suddenly you can make job levels very quickly again (allows acquiring new skill points). This works wonders from a behavioral conditioning perspective. Also, there is an underlying sense that change and progress is both cyclical and linear.
3) Appearances - There is only one "race" in RO which for all intensive purposes could be called the "anime" race. The interesting thing is that your profession is what entirely sets your appearance, and thus, "what you do" is what determines "who you are". In Western MMOs, there is a much stronger emphasis on "how you look" is what determines "who you are". By comparing character creation engines between Asian and Western MMOs, one really gets the sense that appearances matter a lot more to Western MMOs. For example, in FFXI, there are only 2 set faces and 2 set hair-styles per race/gender combination. In SWG, Eve, or CoH, the possibilities are pretty much endless.
Do these differences reflect cultural differences? Or are they merely different design choices? Are there any other interesting mechanic differences in other Asian MMOs?