Aion has announced plans to allow players to rent gear in an upcoming patch. Given the central role that gear plays in modern MMORPG incentive structures, how does this model affect the game?
The Dual Roles of Gear
In most item-based MMORPG's, gear plays two roles. Gear determines what the player character looks like. It also determines the character's power level, and therefore what in-game goals the character can accomplish (generally "what can you kill?").
On the surface, the cosmetic question sounds less affected by gear rentals. All they have to do is ensure that the gear looks less desirable and the incentive to get the non-rental gear is preserved. The problem is how to reach that goal. If you make the gear look actively unattractive, some players will want it precisely because it is so garish. Meanwhile, Aion is a PVP game. If you make the rental gear look drab compared to the good stuff, some veterans might actively PREFER to disguise themselves as an undergeared newbie, rather than wearing a distinctive suit of armor that identifies them clearly as the biggest threat on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, the power level question is no easier. The fact is that many players prefer the persistent world MMORPG precisely because it is possible to reduce the difficulty of a challenge (be it a mob or a player) by obtaining superior gear. That appeal is eliminated if anyone who logs in can immediately rent top end gear. On the flip side, there is the risk of providing gear that is "good enough" to accomplish the player's goals. Once the player reaches that threshold, the value of further advancement is diminished.
The Goal And the Danger
In the end, leveling the playing field is precisely the point of this move. Aion is a bit of a young game to level the playing field by the more traditional route of gear inflation via a gear reset, and the rental plan is intended to help new characters (newbie and veteran alike) get their foot in the door.
That said, the problem with rental is that it removes the sense of ownership from player accomplishments. If I have to run a dungeon 10 times to get the gear to hit the next dungeon, I feel a sense of ownership of that gear. If I can jump into the next dungeon right away with rental gear, the only incentive to go back to the old dungeon is to stop paying rent on my rental gear. That might be a strong incentive if the activity I have to do to pay the rent is not-so-enjoyable (e.g. repetitive daily quests), but is the newbie who wants to run dungeons really better off when you tell them to do daily quests first to pay their rental fees?