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Interview:  Dungeon Fighter Online  Creator On Korean Hit MMO's Western Transition

Interview: Dungeon Fighter Online Creator On Korean Hit MMO's Western Transition Exclusive

July 8, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

Neople is the developer of Dungeon Fighter Online, a 2D action-based MMO which is soon to enter closed beta in North America through Nexon. The game has been in service in Korea for some time (as Dungeon & Fighter [video]), where it has been incredibly popular, and in Japan as Arad Senki since 2006. Currently, the major market for DFO is China, where it's reaching a over 1.5 million peak concurrent users.

The game borrows heavily from side-scrolling classics like Capcom's Dungeon & Dragons, and represents a different style of game than one traditionally finds in the MMO space.

In DF director Yunjong Kim's own words: "Dungeon Fighter Online is basically an action game, it's about hacking and slashing, beating the opponents and beating the enemy. It's based on a part of human nature, which is the need for violence. We think that this could appeal to anybody all over the world."

"Of course the result will be a little bit different because of the environment and network. But once you play it then we're sure you're going to have a good time."

Since launch, the game has rather consistently been among Korea's top 10 MMOs, and the company looks to repeat that success in the West, after a rather lackluster reception in Japan. To that end, Neople has been acquired by Nexon, the reasons for which are revealed within, and both companies began service of the game within the last few months.

In this interview, conducted in Neople's Korean offices, we discuss the game, the acquisition, the flagging state of the Korean online market, and the viability of 2D as a game delivery medium.

Dungeon Fighter

I really like 2D games myself - but for you, why did you decide to make Dungeon Fighter 2D? Because certainly in the Western market, developers have turned away from it but sometimes consumers may think, now that 3D games are now the norm, that maybe 2D is kind of unique. I'm wondering what you think about 2D games as a viable medium.

Yunjong Kim: Well, there are three main reasons why we chose 2D. The first is, since it's a side-scrolling action game, whether we make it in 2D or 3D wouldn't really affect the gameplay much.

The second reasons is that when I began the project, I was looking at Dungeon Fighter as a character oriented game, but at the time I couldn't find any 3D games that could capture the look and feel of the original illustrations of the characters. The last reason is that, at the tim within Neople, our strength was in 2D, not 3D. So I thought that if we made a bigger 2D game that it would be more successful.

Is it easy to find 2D artists in Korea still? I was talking to a company called Vanillaware in Japan; they make a game called Muramasa: The Demon Blade, which is a 2D high-res action game for Wii; and they were saying it's really hard to find good 2D artists anymore because everyone's moved on to 3D now. Here, are people still able to do it?

YK: It's pretty much the same story also in Korea too, but we have a lot of 2D artists in Korea, in the labor market, and if their companies decide to move on to 3D game projects, then those people would usually go to Neople to find a job.

There are very few companies that are willing to do high-res 2D stuff - do you think that's something Neople will ever attempt?

YK: You'd probably have to ask the art directors, but pretty much my main focus for developing games is efficiency; and efficiency-wise high-res 2D games will not be evaluated very high. So, making the resolution higher for 2D games would not be a likely option for us to take.

Makes sense. Too bad for me though! When I first saw the game â€" actually I saw it as Arad Senki (the Japanese version of the game), at a Tokyo Game Show two years ago or something like that. I guess it was launched in 2006, so maybe around then. I later thought it seemed like a really good game for Xbox Live Arcade, in the West. Have you ever considered putting it onto a console platform?

YK: There's been thinking going on for the conversion of the game, but most of it was just at the idea level. And also we almost came up with a DS version, and I think that's still going on. But I'm not really sure if the result will really be meaningful to the market. And right now we are doing many other projects. The Korean market is not the only focus that we're taking care of anymore, because we have all these overseas markets. So, if we do all that, if we can be successful in overseas markets with what we have, and still have some more time, then we could think about it.

What's your expectation for Dungeon Fighter in America?

YK: My expectation for the Western market for the PC version of Dungeon Fighter is not as much success as what we're having here, but I think it should be moderately successful.

State of the Market

One thing that I've been hearing from a lot of people lately is that the free-to-play market and the online market in general is getting really crowded. When companies release new games, people still just want keep playing the old games that they've invested all this time into. So when you release a big hit game like this, how do you know where to go from there? What is the next step? How long can you support one game versus, "okay now it's time to move on to another?"

YK: Well, starting from the pre-production stage, we actually come up with a sense of how long the life-cycle of the game will be. But it never really works. It's always wrong, and it always goes longer or shorter. What we do is launch the game and then just keep looking at it for, let's say, a three month period of time, then we decide how much of our resources we should put in.

For example with Dungeon Fighter, we only decided to put in about five months of time for the whole development, so it started as a small game. As we've been servicing the game, the response from the market was bigger than what we expected, so we had to make it bigger, resource wise.

I feel like right now it's kind of exactly the same landscape as it was last year. There haven't been a lot of big hits in the last couple of years â€" new ones I mean, it's just all the same existing ones. And everyone's saying it's hard to launch new projects now. What do you think about the market and where it's going?

YK: The situation right now for the Korean online game market is that it really feels packed with games. Up until maybe the early 2000s, Korean online games was a big market with a lot of niches, a lot of holes where new games could still fit in. But right now since we have so many games already coming out it's like releasing into a red ocean.

So, I think that we can't expect as many games as before coming out, because it's harder and harder. There will be too many streams coming out to the Korean market. One chance would be such big projects like Aion, those games are considering the global competition from the beginning stages, with a lot of money invested. Or it will be some games with outstanding ideas, which would be even harder.

I feel like everyone's kind of waiting to see what's gonna happen next. It seems like companies are maybe consolidating a little more, because since there are fewer games that are able to get released and get new success, developers are having to go under publishers. Do you think that's going to be happening more going forward?

YK: Yes, I think there will be more consolidation in the Korean online game market. We still have some small companies that are developing little games, but that's because they're not really looking at the market situation right now. But when they get their mind back they'll probably stop doing that kind of stuff.

So, it will be a lot harder to have a game released in the market unless you are really in a big company. You can take the Japanese console game industry for example. Except for some very few global game developer companies, all those little companies in the past, they either vanished or turned into outsourcing companies for the bigger competitors. So, I think that that kind of situation is also coming to the Korean game market as well.

Will there be more outsourcing and work for hire developers here maybe?

YK: We've always had some outsourcing companies in Korea but I'm not sure if the number is increasing.

Another thing I want to talk about is how in the online space, game developers don't necessarily have what we think of as traditional milestones. Is that true at Neople and if so, how does it affect development?

YK: The process for developing games here is a lot different than the traditional process for console packages. Even for online games as well, before the closed beta stage it's pretty much similar to the traditional console packages. Let's say, within one year's time or one year and a half, we should make at least a prototype or whatever.

But once the game is launched and we start servicing the game it becomes a totally different story because we start communicating with the users and we get huge amount of feedback from them. So the process becomes a lot tighter because there will be so much work that we'll have, tasks that we will have to do to meet their needs.

So it's kind of like instead of having milestones, you just have constant iteration, because you keep having to respond to what users are doing.

YK: Yeah, you're right. And it's a totally crazy story; for example for when we were doing the closed beta of Dungeon Fighter, we even had a one day period iteration. We would update the contents and have the users play it, but throughout the day we collect the data and we make the updates on it during the night, then update the new content the next morning.

The Company

Can you explain the rather unusual origins of Neople?

YK: We didn't start as a game company. In the beginning, we were trying to make devices, not games. Our first product was meant to be an alarm clock. It had a few mechanical and technical problems, so it never went on sale. Then people got together and had to figure out what to do next and then they came up with a game portal; which is called Candybar.

It was an online game portal which included middle core online games such as KungKungTa or Mr. Hammer. Around 2005 we started coming up with some bigger games, such as Dungeon Fighter and Neo Baseball. The result is that Dungeon Fighter became so successful that right now we're mainly focusing on that single game.

Why did Neople choose to get acquired (by Nexon)â€" or was it a choice - instead of remaining independent?

YK: From Nexon's point of view, they probably needed an instant cash cow for the time being, to help fund their future projects. Because they're making some more future projects right now but that takes some time. So I guess that would be their need for taking our company. And from our point of view, we have our strength in developing a good game and taking it out to the market. But we don't have that much experience in taking the project globally and making it successful there, but Nexon has. They have more experience and all the infrastructure they need to make it happen.

So, we thought it would be a win-win situation. What we figured out was that it requires different kinds of people and human resources and other resources to create a game and make it successful globally; and we've been trying to make it successful globally ourselves but it didn't work out as we expected. So we decided to focus on just the creation of games.

With the Candybar service, I read that there are also dating/social networking/game service components. A lot of people talk about running free to play games, and MMOs in general, as a service; but not a lot of companies seem to also be making peer services like that kind of thing. Do you think that that's an area that business could expand more?

YK: The need for social networking games is always there. Other than the action or like the real hardcore game, social networking is always required by people because it is part of human nature. It's always been in Korea too. In the past Say Club, which was serviced by Neowiz, played an important role in the market, and Candybar also participated in a major role there.

Right now the game called Audition is taking care of that role right now. Neople also, we also have a project coming up which actually has that kind of a social networking element. That was actually one of our strengths in the past, but we haven't been taking care of it too much nowadays but we're working to rebuild that, so...

What do you want people in the West to know about your company?

YK: Regarding Neople, our motto is “We make wonders!” So we always try to make wonderful things that are different from others' content. We might not have the expertize or experience that the big global companies have, such as Blizzard, EA, or so, but we will always try to make things that are outstanding.

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