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NCsoft's Jaesung Lee On Aion's Westward Expansion

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With World of Warcraft dominating the high-end online market, many developers have begun to avoid the arena of high-end MMOs. But NCsoft is continuing to tackle the sector, and its next great hope is long-in-development fantasy MMO Aion.

When we spoke with NCsoft corporate relations director Jaesung Lee in Seoul after the Korean launch of Aion, the company was boasting concurrent users peaking at 150,000 just one day after opening, and by the end of 2008 was cornering 15 percent of the market in its native country.

In fact, as revealed in NCSoft's May 2009 results, the game managed quarterly revenues of $35 million from Asian operations, nearly as much as previous mainstays Lineage 1 and Lineage 2 made combined.

In Korea, the business model is time cards, something other subscription-based MMOs have done in Asian countries (a la WoW in China), but in the U.S. the game -- which was developed internally at NCSoft Korea -- will be a standard $14.99 monthly subscription.

NCsoft is generating buzz in North America with the game, which uses a modified version of Crytek's first iteration of CryEngine, primarily through small open beta tests that began in June of this year. According to recent reports, the title will officially debut this fall in the West.

In this interview, we talked to Lee about the decision to tackle the high-end MMO market, the difficulty of launching new titles, and how to meet the ever-changing expectations of new users.

NCsoft launched Aion in Korea in 2008. This is a major large-scale project, and not many companies in Korea are releasing games like this right now. Why do you think other companies are not, and why did you decide to take the plunge?

Jaesung Lee: First of all, as we all know World of Warcraft has been quite a big game in most countries playing online games. It's also the same thing here in Korea, and the expectations of the users have raised a lot; they expect a really high-quality game. So since the launch of World of Warcraft the drive to create and launch a really high quality game in South Korea has been growing.

Korean companies have started to plan the global launching of online games. That is why the time spent on development of games has been expanded. And as you already know Aion has had a very strong launch, the worries of other Korean companies have subsided since then. After the good response from the public, the Korean online game companies are starting to gain confidence again.

At launch in Korea, Aion was doing 150,000 concurrent users. I don’t know the later numbers for the game, but lately a lot of Korean games have been launching high, and then they go down real fast. Why do you think that's happening, and what can you do to prevent it?

JL: First of all the pool of online game users here in Korea is really huge. There's a great span of people playing online games. And the internet infrastructure that we have in Korea is really great. There are a lot more online game users here than in other countries. Therefore the expectancy of the Korean users rises really fast and the games that have been dropping really fast weren't able to meet the expectancy that is rising really fast.

One of the greatest issues we had to solve was when to launch the open beta of Aion. That is why we were really chewing on launching the open beta test of it last winter, but then we postponed it almost a year, and we think that was a very good decision to make. Currently we're managing the servers that we have for Aion. We're not just making more and more servers so that anyone can come in.

We're having it very tight so that we can barely fit everyone in there. For example, yesterday 8 p.m. (two days after launch) you had to wait at least one hour to log on. I guess the background of managing the game in this way is because we're very confident about our game. [The company revealed in its May results that it started its open Aion beta last year with 25 servers, and had already reached 41 at that point.]

It does seem like keeping the servers tight will help make it always feel populated but at the same time I wonder if having to wait will discourage people. Because there are so many games out there that people, if they're discouraged at all, may just go back to playing what they played before.

Jaesung Lee: That's a good remark. [laughs] There are a lot of professionals that we have in our company that are really looking into that matter constantly. Currently we have plans to open more servers for the weekend because there are more players, so you shouldn't really be worried about the players getting in.

I've been hearing a lot about a stagnation for new games from last year to this year, in that users simply stick with the old games they were playing before -- and even those numbers are dropping. There are so many new games launching for free that it looks like users simply check them out and then return to what they were doing before. Have you noticed a trend like this, and if so, is that part of why you launched something big?

JL: First of all, there were no great hit MMORPGs within the last three years here in Korea. However, in the first-perspective shooting area and the casual games, dancing/beat games, those games have been rising.

So, we know there are a lot of users here in Korea who want to play online games. The reason that we haven’t had hits in Korea recently is not because the quality is low, but because the game companies have not been able to keep up with the users, since expectations have risen sharply. It's pretty funny; we're actually openly saying that we want our rival companies to succeed in their online games.

There are a lot of users playing MMOs and things like that, but it seems like they're not too willing to experiment with new titles. It seems user expectations for new games are the same as a game that's been running for many years and has already built up a huge feature set. How do you tackle that problem?

JL: That is why our company is currently undergoing a period of choice and concentration. For example, we have chosen the market of MMORPGs - we thought that the MMORPG market was the part that we should really concentrate on, and we thought that the US market was one of the most important markets.

According to an internal discussion, we decided that we had quite some competency in the United States game styles. That is why Aion and all the titles to come are mostly MMORPGs, and all of them are being prepared to be launched not only in Korea but also in the United States.

As you already heard, we have broken quite some records here in Korea with Aion’s open beta and we're going to the United States market with this record in mind. So, our expectations are really high. At least in the triple-A MMORPG genre NCsoft expects to compete in the North American market.

Where you think the Korean market is going from here?

JL: Well, we don't doubt that our game market will grow. But the problem will be how much of a percentage will the Korean game companies be participating in these markets. There is a lot of competition from abroad for our local market.

I want to point out that the history of the Korean online games is only ten years. And I think that we have reached quite a good point in ten years, so, we expect to grow much more in the future. For example, the environment in which we developed Lineage was quite different from what we have right now, when we've developed Aion.