Brian Knox knows what it's like to put out a Korean MMO in the West and get little notice for it. He worked on NCsoft's Lineage II -- a game that's huge in Seoul but doesn't draw more than a small, passionate audience outside of Asia.
The story is completely different, however, for the recently-launched PC online game Aion. Released last year in South Korea, it hit North America and Europe 10 months and three major updates later -- in what appears to have been a successful program to beef up game content, build buzz, and ensure localization quality.
With news immediately prior to the launch that the game had reached 400,000 preorders in the West, the game obviously has outpaced the majority of MMO imports. What lead to this success? Gamasutra discussed process and philosophy with Brian Knox, who works out of NCsoft's Seattle studio as a producer on the game.
Aion was obviously a huge launch for NCsoft in Korea prior to the Western launch. How big of a part of NCsoft America's lineup is this game? How important is it?
Brian Knox: Very, very important. We set out from the beginning to make sure that this game was a global success. This game was not created for the Eastern market, and then we said, "Oh, I guess we can release it in the West." From the very beginning, this was part of our goal.
Was that the first time that NCsoft has really worked on a global product launch in that way? I get the impression that Lineage II was primarily created for the Korean market. Is this a departure?
BK: I think that Guild Wars was very much created for a worldwide market, but as far as [originating] from the East, actually, yes. This was our first foray with an Eastern developer, making sure that the product has the research and knowledge from all parts of the world.
So, how early were you guys able to get involved in the process? Was that something from way early in the concepting stage? When did they bring you in?
BK: Aion has actually been in development for, I believe, around five years now. We had a change in philosophy in about 2005, towards the end of it. We actually debuted the game then at E3, which was part of our statement in saying, "This is game is for the West as well." I have been involved ever since 2005, when this game was really starting to come together into its present form.
Thematically, it's a more than slight departure from a lot of the games in the market. It's very different than the World of Warcraft or Warhammer fantasy realm. It's got a different kind of aesthetic. What kind of input did you have into the visual aesthetic?
BK: The visual aesthetic was definitely left in the hands of the art director and the art team. We give things here and there -- pieces -- but we trusted the art director for the style and the overall theme of Aion.
Part of creating a global game is not necessarily making a meld of everything, but taking bits and pieces of everything, which I think is a little bit different.
Because if you try and make one piece of art that is completely globally fitting everywhere, you're probably just going to fail. So, you need to go with a particular vision on the art style, ensure that the quality is very high, and then from there assume good art is appreciated in all regions at that point.
It's shown to be the case in console titles, which have more of a background of Asian influence.
BK: Right. One of the things we were thinking of was what titles are out there and what can we offer that's something new and different. We've got a lot of Western gameplay features and story-driven quests and all that kind of stuff, but as far as that paired with the game that has kind of this little bit more Eastern art style, that was a new combination for us.
When it comes to what you would characterize as "Western" gameplay, that's an interesting question to me. What are the kind of things that you suggested or even that the team themselves researched and incorporated that you think are particularly Western or changed the scope from prior Asian-derived games?
BK: I think customization and choice are a lot of it. One of their concerns with the Korean market is that they're very much about trends, so if one person's doing something, everybody tends to do it. Whereas Western players kind of have a little bit more in terms of individuality as far wanting to go and do their own thing and be their own person. So, the customization is actually very much one of the heart of the Western features.
I think the other major one would be just the story. From the very beginning, we sat with them and hammered out the different story details, how things were written here that were incorporated into the game, ideas that were changed and kind of polished and tweaked along the way. But keeping that central focus on the story I think was a little bit more of a Western idea comparatively to previous MMOs released in Asia.