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Interview: EA Korea Studio Head Talks Transitions, Challenges

Interview: EA Korea Studio Head Talks Transitions, Challenges Exclusive

January 7, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

Electronic Arts is currently invested in expanding its presence in Asia and exploring free-to-play business models in the region, including Korea, where it recently acquired online developer J2M.

EA partnered with Neowiz in Korea to launch FIFA Online in 2006, which has since seen tremendous success in the regions with over 4 million subscribers. A year later, EA invested $105 million in Neowiz, planning to co-develop four online titles together.

Finally, EA opened its own $20 million Korean studio early in 2008 to focus on developing online games, starting with versions of the NBA Street and Battlefield franchises for the Korean market.

Gamasutra recently caught up with EA Korea studio head Danny Isaac to learn more about the challenges inherent for a Western company tackling the Korean market, an audience well-acclimated already to free-to-play PC gaming and high levels of mobile functionality.

Isaac discusses why Battlefield Heroes might be a less-than-ideal fit right off the bat for the Korean audience, cultural differences in doing business, and his own adjustment process as a game developer in a new territory.

Did you anticipate that sports would be this successful in the online space?

Danny Isaac: Yeah, I think so. I mean, sports is one of those worldwide things that just translates pretty well. Depending on which type of sport it is, it would depend on how well it does.

Obviously in Korea football -- or soccer -- is very big. When we originally launched FIFA, we got it just at the right time, with the World Cup coming out, for a new product. I guess one of the advantages that EA Sports has... I used to build sports games, and they're quite honestly one of the hardest things to build.

They look simple from the outside, but everyone has an opinion of them, because they go out and play with a football on a Sunday morning, or they watch it on TV, and they know that a half hour is a winning run or whatever.

So, to recreate that in a game is very tough compared to driving a Ferrari, or shooting a gun on the D‑Day landings. You only have a movie-esque view of what that is.

I'm not overly surprised. We knew we had good products, but I think Neowiz have done a good job of translating those games over for that market.

What do you think of the Korean market right now from a Western perspective? Firstly, the free-to-play market, which is obviously really crowded, and secondly, the console market, which is obviously really small.

Danny:  Yeah, I'm actually quite surprised about the console market. When I interview people, I always ask everyone no matter what job, whether it was HR or legal, or development, "Do you play games?"

I'm actually quite surprised that a lot more people here than I thought actually play console games. That's actually our hardcore group. Obviously, you can see why the console isn't catching on as much when you get so many free‑to‑play games through the PC. They're not like they're these cheap little web games that people get -- they're big, fundamentally strong products.

And here more than anywhere, it seems like playing games is more of a social event. In the West, we see it as a social event where you get a couple of guys around, you crack open some beers, and you sit down and go mad, that's what you're doing. Here, a lot of people go out and have a nice meal, drink some soju, and afterwards they get to the PC bag and go out and play games together in a room. Very much their culture here is to gather into one place and do things together.

As for the free-to-play model, it's becoming very difficult, because it is so saturated, to start making a noise in this market. Any time you give something away for free, and you give a lot of it, people then stop seeing the value of that, and they flitter out very quickly.

If it doesn't grab their attention, then they're going to move on to something else. If they've paid 60 bucks for it, then maybe they would have spent more time getting to the depths. It's a challenging model. It will be interesting to see how much it comes into the Western market as well.

It's kind of getting there now.

Danny:  Yeah. I don't know yet how successful it's going to be, because [the Western] console market is so ingrained and strong. It's going to be difficult for us to develop similar‑quality products to make console players pay for one and then everyone else gets it for free.

Here, as this is the only real tangible market, if they're free-to-play or subscription model, then everyone puts their efforts into putting the best thing they can for that particular market.

With Battlefield Heroes, Neowiz is also working on it with EA, is that correct?

Danny:  No. Battlefield Heroes is independent of Neowiz. We actually have another product. We're actually taking Battlefield, the original product. We're discussing whether Heroes is right for the market here.

One of the interesting things I've said to one of my guys about Heroes is that the cartoony graphical style was very much like some of the earlier Korean games, so it is perceived as being somewhat older. I still think it's a great-looking game.

It's fantastic, for free, very high quality. But Koreans would see that kind of cartoony style and think it's a little bit older.

The other thing is that all the Korean men, at least, do national service here. So they know what an M16 looks like, they know what an M1 tank looks like. They're very hardcore into the military side of things. A World War II shooter is maybe not as appealing as a hardcore, modern combat type of product.

So, with Neowiz we're working actually on the Battlefield franchise. We're taking a Battlefield II engine and we're converting it to a free-to-play model.

So you do see Battlefield Heroes as a Western-focused product? I assumed that, given that it was free-to-play, it was intended to go more global, to China and other Asian territories where that model is popular.

Danny:  Yeah, I think it will. It will go to China and those places. I think we've got two strategies: We've obviously got the studio here. We've got some of the guys in Singapore. We've got a studio in China. So, we've got a lot of development here in Asia already.

We also want to make sure we get on the ground floor of the free-to-play model in the West as well, so I think DICE is doing great things exploring that and putting some products out. But with some early focus groups we've seen in other territories such as China and Thailand, places like that, Heroes will work there.

But at the moment I think the team, quite rightly, wanted the territories closer to home, because they understand them much better. I think once they get the market running and get these issues out of the way, tweak it, balance it to the level it wants, then it will transfer to Asia much more easily.

EA purchased a mobile company, and so now there's an EA Korea mobile. What do you think about the mobile market? It seems much better here at the very least than in the US for instance.

Danny:  Yeah. It's actually amazing. You've been here probably on the underground, the subway system. People sit down and watch TV on their mobile phones. They always have their mobiles around. It's a big part of the culture. So, it is much more viable.

There are other issues, like the business model. The telecom providers take a significant piece of the pie as well. You have to look at each one and whether it makes sense for certain things, But yeah, it's much more viable here than, I think, in the West.

I've been here for seven or so months now. I see over the Internet that the iPhone is picking up, and Westerners are starting to get used to this application which is a phone plus other things, but here, this has been in place for a long time. As I said, people watch their TV on their phone and it's commonplace.

How are you feeling about working here in Korea yourself?

Danny:  Good days, bad days. I say to people it's good, but the language can be challenging. Running a studio, people tend to look at you as the boss. So, whatever the boss says, we should do. Whether it's a good idea or a dumb idea, we should do it.

When I was in EAC in Vancouver, my DB would go, "Damn, that's a stupid idea because of these reasons." I'd say, "thanks for pointing out we can't do this." So, it's just getting around that culture thing. Putting the studio together was pretty tough.

A lot of what you accrue here is by networking. So, when you don't have many people in your studio, it's obviously difficult to network. But once we got one or two key people, they were able to bring other people in. And then development practices are very different.

What kind of differences do you see?

Danny:  Process. Obviously I was doing sports on a VA. We were very dedicated, and had been driven over a number of years to deliver a product to a certain date. It would be significant if we missed by a week. We had it very process-oriented, lots of checks and balances, very schedule‑oriented, so we could manage, guide, and direct ourselves to get there.

That may be too much in some ways. It stifles creativity a little bit, because you say, "this is the plan and you're going to do it."

Over here, it's like "what are we going to do today?", what direction do we want to go into. As a good thing, it's great to allow you creativity and flexibility to be able to change the direction of your product.

On the other hand, sometimes it's very difficult to report back to the company when things aren't going well. When things slip, you don't get very much warning, because some of the project management isn't as strong. But I think it's a balance.

Here in Korea, teams and companies will have to start getting a little bit better at delivering on time. They have really two distinct selling periods, winter vacation and summer vacation, when kids go on holiday.

What's happening now is that a lot of products in an already saturated market are coming out at that time. So, if you have a new product, you hit winter vacation, because the kid's on holiday, you get your PCU out, get a good buzz, etc.

OK, then you go, "how do I stand out from the noise?" Well, you spend money on marketing. Of course, now if you start having one or two million dollars of marketing spend, you'd better damn well make sure that your game is going to turn up on time. We already committed to that.

So, it's very much like what we had in the West with our console products a few years ago. We got into that regimen of delivering on time when you say you're going to deliver, to get the maximum buzz. I see Korea having to deal with those same challenges as well.

Yeah, I've heard that it's definitely much looser in terms of scheduling and even just pipelines in the process. It's not as process-oriented.

Danny:  Yeah. And again, it's got to be expected. I always joke that 10 years ago at EA we thought we knew what we were doing. By the end, someone like that would come to us and look at our processes and say, "Oh my God, what are you guys doing? This is crazy."

And we said, "shut up, we know what we're doing. We're making loads of money, so leave us alone." Even if we looked at ourselves back then, we thought this was archaic. Now obviously with hindsight and experience and what we've gone through, we have very sophisticated processes.

But really, you've got to learn it. You can't just go in like EA with a big book and go, here's how to deliver a game. The tools that we have are good, but it's really the people that execute that's really the key.

Are you trying to get EA Korea to adjust to a different sort of process than they're used to?

Danny:  Yeah. So, the studio we've got here, a lot of the people that joined us -- because EA is a big games company -- want to learn how to build games in a different way. They've been intrigued by the way we develop our products, the game development framework, and the tools that we used.

And so we're trying to build that as well. The challenge is that we also have a very different culture at Neowiz, and we've got to interface with that. We can't just say, no, we can't do that feature, because in my schedule here it says it shouldn't be done until next week. If Neowiz needs it, and we need it for the market, then we have to be flexible for that.

So, it's a little bit of a hybrid at the moment, but ultimately we'd like to mimic our other studios and deliver the same sort of quality, on schedule, on time, and on budget, and be proud of that.

Korean development seems unique because it's been going for awhile, yet there are not that many kind of "standout" names of designers like we have pretty much everywhere else. Does that affect the way things are done?

Danny:  Working with [notable Neowiz developer] Mr. Chung, everyone knows [he has worked] on some very significant games. Actually, I would say [that culture exists here] more so than in the West. In the West, you see the big guys who the PR people get hold of and say, "Hey, he's the creator of this game." Knowing that there is a hundred and one who worked on it, but this is the one who performed here.

I was quite surprised that a lot of their underground developers [are aware] of what the other developers are doing. And I think a lot of that is that the industry isn't really all that big. There are a few good clients, and people tend to move around from different companies to different companies.

A lot of them, their school networking is very important to them, because a lot of them went to the same school so they know people who have gone to different places. And they share an amazing amount of information.

It's definitely seems to be much more insular here.

Danny:  And that's the phenomenal thing, which as I said we struggle with, is that network. You can't break into the network. It's very, very difficult to get into. It's not what you know -- it's who you know.

One of our guys, one of our PPD's, he spends just a lot of time having dinner with people, lunch with people. I'm going, "Why are you having all these expenses? Why are you having all these lunches?" He says, "Well, it's just the way things get done." You take them to lunch. They might do you a favor.

Kind of sounds like a fun job, actually.

Danny:  [laughs] Yeah, it's actually quite interesting. I managed to have lunch with one of the guys who worked on MapleStory. Obviously he's a guy I would like to have work for us, but I was more interested in how they built games and he was interested in how we build games. And it's actually quite nice, quite refreshing.

Did you have to learn Korean to come here?

Danny:  No, my Korean is very poor. I get by. I've got some guys out here who help me. One of the things we looked at with the Korean team, I've seen the guys that have a good level of English, obviously so I can communicate to them and make sure we're in alignment, but also, w're in the age of worldwide organization. If they would want to grow and do well in their careers, speaking English would help tremendously.

Plus, we're here to learn and to take our learning back to other studios and to other parts of the company.

So I just talked to my guys the other day about one of their objectives -- to do reports on their projects. And that we can go back and hopefully sit down and present at one of their meetings on what it's like developing a game out here. Obviously very difficult to do if you don't speak English.

Yeah, one thing that I noticed is that everybody stares at you on the train.

Danny:  Yeah, it's funny. Actually I live in an expat area called Etowah, and gradually as you get closer to the station you get more Westerners -- but otherwise not very many people.

When I moved here I tried to avoid that tourist trap kind of "Western thing", but to be honest, it's quite hard. I've never lived in a country that didn't speak English as its main language. Development's tough at the best of times, but to have to go home and worry about being able to buy a pint of milk or whatever it is, is probably not something I want to deal with -- but it happens. I am quite comfortable with it, actually. It's worked out well.

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