Neowiz is now one of the larger Korean online game publishers, but it began as an internet services company having nothing to do with games.
Once Neowiz decided to enter the business, it did so with a bang, releasing Special Force, one of the first and most successful free-to-play titles, still in operation today.
After its initial success, the company acquired two previously indie development studios, Perfect KO developer Thingsoft, and DJ Max developer Pentavision.
Gamasutra spoke with Neowiz executive vice president (and former president of now-subsidiary Thingsoft, as well as former CEO of Nexon) Sang-Won Chung regarding the challenges of the oversaturated free to play market as it stands now in Korea.
In a particularly amusing anecdote, Chung also recalls his experiences in bringing the popular FIFA Online to Korea with Electronic Arts -- and how it turned from an EA side project into a title with real focus.
I've talked to a lot of people who left Nexon. Why did so many people leave at the same time?
SC: It's kind of in the history of Nexon. As you know, I used to be the CEO of Nexon, up until 2004. They suddenly wanted to change the direction of the company. That's when I left and founded my own company Thingsoft.
At that point there were other people that had similar sentiments, who didn't agree with the direction that the company was taking at the time, so they saw that as, "Hey, the CEO is able to make the statement," and took the opportunity to do the same thing.
You'll see with a lot of people that left, that was during that time period -- 2004 and 2005. That's when you see a lot of the smaller companies that started up, a lot of those people are the first generation of Nexon people.
I've been talking to lots of companies in Korea about how everyone feels about MMOs and the free to play market right now. It seems it's very difficult to launch new titles because people are still playing the old ones. What's your take?
SC: We've seen a bit of stagnation in the current market. It's coming to a growing pain I guess, because of precisely the reason you stated.
There's basically an oversaturation of these new games that are free to play, but people are still just playing the old games that they used to play, which they already made an investment in. Right now that is one of the major issues for game developers in Korea. The question is how to actually overcome this obstacle.
If you see a lot of the hits that are big now, they're in the spaces that people weren't thinking about before. Like the dance genre -- when Audition came out, who knew that a dancing rhythm game would have been the next hit? Or even when Kart Rider came out. Or now with FIFA.
Before that, you know, how are you supposed to make a sports game into an MMORPG? So, we're constantly looking for different niche markets now and maybe this could be the big hit.
I would submit that a lot of the games coming from Korea are actually not completely original type titles. Kart Rider is very much like Mario Kart, Audition is kind of like DDR, and FIFA, well, is FIFA. It's a sport, you can't really call it a niche necessarily. Even Dungeon & Fighter is just like the Capcom D&D game. Do you feel people are just looking for new niche markets within existing games? Or are people actually thinking of new ideas?
SC: The reason you see a lot of these games that are copies of previous games is that it's so much easier. You already have a basic idea that worked, that's proven, and companies try to convert it to the online market.
But my personal opinion is that the pool of what's worked in the past has already been picked bare now. The goal and hope is that we're going to move toward more original titles. Things that are very unique, like The Sims, or open-ended, like Fable. From a technical standpoint it's much more difficult.
The other issue is that since the model is free-to-play, the games have to be designed a certain way. There is a lot of business pressure. You have to be able to sustain it by making income from the game. Because of that, a lot of actual game design decisions are made based on that assumption, that we have to make money from this game.
If you are in the theater you must sit there two hours because you paid the money. But with TV for instance, you just watch for five minutes, then change the chanel. It's harder to get something that's truly original because we have that kind of restriction, that boundary.
You need to hook them in, you have to keep them here. So there's a formula you have to follow there. That doesn't mean that we're not trying right now. That's always the goal of designers, you wanna make something that's truly unique, that really does stand out.
Some of these games are very light on design. One of the reasons to maybe make a game in an existing model is that you don't have to do as much design work. It feels like while Japan is lacking technology, Korea is lacking designers.
SC: Probably I'd agree with you. I think we realized that we're stuck in terms of a lack of originality coming on. Again, going back, the main reason seems to be the boundary set by the type of market it is.
Do you think the Korean market will ever move away from that model, or once it's there is that it?
SC: There are already movements away from this. The saturation of these quick, easy to play, free to play -- It's like having too many channels on your digital cable, and now you have like 300 channels and you don't know what to watch anymore.
People often say that free-to-play games need to be developed as free-to-play from the very beginning. But with some of the successful ones, like Special Force, the free-to-play was added on top. How do you feel about that, the constraint on game design?
SC: There's some truth to that statement saying that free-to-play games should be designed from the beginning to be free-to-play. The reason that holds true is that, in the situation of Special Force for instance, that road from where it wasn't free-to-play and becoming successful as a free-to-play game was very long and arduous, because we didn't know what the path should have been. So there were a lot of major design changes going on at that point.
If we had started it as a free to play game, we could have solved a lot of those design challenges right from the beginning. With Special Force a lot of those things that became free-to-play are added on after.
It doesn't have the same kind of consistency due to the design of the game. It can work -- the game doesn't always need to start out free-to-play but just everything works a lot better when you have this idea right from the get-go.
How did you start working with EA? They invested first?
SC: It's kind of a humorous story. Back then a lot of Western companies were saying, "We're gonna launch in Korea." And they'll come with their packaged goods, like EverQuest. Sony comes and says, "Here's EverQuest, which one of you guy wants to publish this?" EA was the same thing. They had FIFA 2005 in packaged game form, and went around asking who wants the rights to publish it in Korea.
They went to all the different companies, who said, "We'll pay this much, we'll pay this much." And they come to Neowiz, and we said, "We don't want to publish it. We think it's gonna fail." And they say, "What?! No, no, no, all these other people offered money! Why is it gonna fail? Can you tell us why?"
That's what started the deal. They decided to work with us on it, and then we could fix all the flaws we saw. I don't really mean flaws, just things that they didn't understand about our market at that time.
When we developed FIFA Online, I don't think anyone really knew how well it was going to do on the EA side. We opened the game and they had this thing called the de-mangler. It basically lets peer-to-peer connections in EA online games connect to each other through a firewall.
They have this one main de-mangler server in the U.S. and the EA folks said, "Oh, we're gonna need to have this service in Korea too. Because people are playing from internet cafés, they have to be able to connect to each other." We made a big deal out of it and they're like, "No, no, don't worry about it, our server can handle it." We said, "Are you sure? We're gonna have a lot of people playing this." "Don't worry about it."
The week our game opened they were just like, "Oh my god, what's going on?" They thought there was a problem with the de-mangler server because that week this one program is accounting for 90% of all connections that are made -- this one game was having more connections than all the other EA games combined. They were thinking, "Oh, this must be a bug or something, what is this?"
That was in 2006. We hit 160,000 maximum concurrent users at that time. I can't speak for them, but the feeling we got from them at the beginning was that this is just a side project. Now, all of a sudden, they see a potential here.
After that, EA actually invested in Neowiz.
And then they moved EA Korea upstairs.
SC: Yeah, we were asking for that for a while. We worked with EA Korea which was purely a publishing house at that point. When we started working on more projects together -- at that point we were working with EA Canada, with a huge time difference and turnaround for email -- it was pretty stressful.
When you have a hundred thousand people and one bug is causing even just 10% of them to not be able to log in, that's still ten thousand people. You need people to fix that right away. So we said, "If you want to take this relationship further we really need to be able to work in the same time zone."
So at that point they actually set up a studio in Singapore, which we still use for FIFA right now. For the next project that we're working together on, we're actually working with EA Korea. That helped tremendously in terms of turnaround time.
Before when there was a bug, you had to send an email and they'd reply, "We don't understand exactly what's going on; can you get back to us?" It would take a while. Now we just walk upstairs.