From Ragnarok To The New World: An Interview With Hak Kyu KimBy Brandon Sheffield
Hak Kyu Kim may not be the most familiar name to Western audiences, but he created one of the most popular Asian MMOs in the early days of the Western online market: Ragnarok Online, which became one of the most pre-eminent online titles both in his native South Korea, in Japan, and elsewhere in Asia - even spawning an anime series and an upcoming Nintendo DS spinoff. Now he's launched his new MMO, Sword of the New World (called Granado Espada elsewhere in the world), with his new company IMC Games.
Gamasutra spoke with Kim at a press event for Sword of the New World, and discussed the roots of the game and its unique visual style, the difficulty of balancing massively multiplayer online games, the success of Ragnarok Online, and politics in MMOs.
When and why did you quit Gravity?
Hak Kyu Kim: I left Gravity in 2002 for personal reasons.
I won’t pry then. How do you think Ragnarok managed to build such a big community in the U.S. before the MMO genre was really popular?
HK: I believe the success was based on timing and graphic style. When the game was launched, the market didn’t have much competition; this was especially true with respect to Anime inspired MMOs.
So for Sword of the New World, how did you come up with such a distinctive style? It seems very different from any of your titles before?
HK: I personally really like Europe. And when I first visited London for the ECTS conference, I was deeply impressed by all the beautiful architecture and the environment and I thought to myself, “I want to bring that to life on the screen.” That’s how everything started for this game. And another thought that I had was this: “I want to own that city.”
And now you do! Are you concerned at all about the MMO market in the US since it’s hugely dominated and it still is not as big as Asia?
HK: I don’t see this as a negative thing. I actually think of it as an opportunity for many of us. Yes, these big titles have contributed to expanding the MMO market, but now there is a greater demand for a variety of games.
How are you marketing your game? Are you planning to go after an existing MMO market or create your own?
HK: The MMO market consists of various types of games, and each type contributes to expanding the overall MMO marketplace. SNW has unique offerings that will set us apart from other games, and by doing well within the category that we create we hope to contribute to further expanding the MMO market.
And how does it distinguish itself from other games?
HK: One key feature that distinguishes this game from all other MMOs is its MCC (Multi Character Control) system. MCC allows players to maximize their party play experience by controlling up to three characters at once. So not only are you able to party play with others, and thus with many more characters, but you can also do it alone.
Another key aspect of this game is its dynamic and fast paced battle system that makes our game more enjoyable for our players. Internally, we call this the “HKPS - High Kill Per Second” feature. We focused heavily on making HKPS unique for this game.
How important do you find story in MMOs? How is your story differentiated?
HK: The story background on SNW is definitely different from other games. While it’s still based on fantasy, rather than involving the typical elves and dwarves in our game, we were inspired by real societies and adventures that could have existed back in the 17th Century when the new world was first discovered.
What inspired you to develop a game that’s so different from your previous work (with Ragnarok), at least in terms of style?
HK: After developing Ragnarok and other similar games, I wanted to do something that was different enough to let me expand our boundaries. To do that I’ve spent a large amount of time reviewing other types of games, including some console titles, to come up with a list of ideas that I could extend into MMOs.
What are some of the titles that inspired you?
HK: Things like StarCraft. Basically, I wanted to integrate some of the best practices from RTS games to the RPG that I was creating.
How long did you work at Gravity?
HK: From about 1998 to 2002; so, for about 4 years.
Did you work on any non-MMO’s?
HK: Ragnarok was my last game at Gravity. Before that, I made a single-player RPG called Arcturus, and some action games called Antman 2 and Lars the Wanderer. I also managed outsourcing for some projects.
What was the biggest difference between developing MMOs and offline games?
HK: The biggest difference is that making an online game is about creating a playground for players. Rather than trying to fill everything up from the beginning, I have to leave a lot of spaces empty that can be filled as the game evolves with its players.
Do you think it’s easier or harder to develop a MMO?
HK: I feel that to make a good MMO you need to obtain various types of knowledge, from business economics, to statistics, to history, to marketing, and many others, as all those bodies of knowledge are critical to making the game as good as it can be. For example, business and economic knowledge is very important when you’re trying to create the economic system within a game. This can’t be done well unless you as a developer know how to make it work.
I guess there’s a lot of math involved in keeping the right balance.
HK: Yes - if you want to maintain the right balance, it is very important to hire the right type of experts in statistics.
How long was pre-production for this game?
HK: Because I had to plan the game and at the same time open my own company, the pre-production period took a little longer than I anticipated. Just to get started, it took me about one year.
How many people work at IMC Games?
HK: Right now there are about 100 employees, including GMs and the QA staff.
Are you working constantly to maintain this game or how do you spend your time?
HK: There are about 40 people dedicated to developing new content. And we also have a sizable group of team members dedicated to supporting each new license and market being developed/served.
Some users resist microtransactions – how do you feel about them?
HK: Microtransactions may not work very well for single-plater RPGs, but from an MMO stand point it should simply be viewed as another type of content option available to help maximize game play experience.
Actually I mean more from a model of paying for items, which may potentially allow users to buy their way into the top.
HK: The life cycle of an MMO is much longer than a typical packaged game. While a traditional games may only be played for a couple of months, an MMO takes several months just to reach its peak, and even at that point the game still evolves with new challenges and updated content to keep players going. This is where the item sales model makes sense.
When a typical game is played for such a long period of time, we are dealing with all sorts of people with different backgrounds and needs. What they want from their MMO is also very different. The item sales model is designed in such a way that it will allow us to be flexible and respond to all of those different needs.
In terms of keeping the game fair, that’s a game balance issue that requires another discussion. But to keep it short, any new item or service that we offer goes through a careful analysis to make sure it doesn’t affect the overall game balance.
Do you think there could be other ways to allow players to advance in MMOs without spending time and money?
HK: I it can be different depending on your goals. While some people like going out and collecting more money and leveling up, this game also involves a unique political system that requires you to move your way up through building relationships with other players and gaining their respect.
Another goal that people may aspire to achieve and master is their ability to control their keyboard during PvP battles. After spending a certain amount of time and money, everyone starts to reach a similar level with a similar set of skills; however, in order for you to be good in a battle situation, your ability to control your keyboard can make the difference in winning.
Yeah that’s where more of your RTS skills come in to play, I suppose. Now I’m curious about your political system. How does that work?
HK: The Political System patch has already been launched in Korea. We're very excited about it, and one thing for sure is that this system will add another exciting layer to make the game more enjoyable. For the Western market, we’re still working to finalize the details on how this system will be updated. But in Korea, you have various factions and guilds, and they can be voted into power and gain certain benefits.
Is it something that could potentially be used in the field of education to help students learn about politics?
HK: It’s too early to say if it'll be that useful.
How important do you think it is for MMOs to exist on consoles?
HK: I've always been very interested in bringing my games to consoles. Due to the differences with respect to the tools that are currently available in consoles, it’s been difficult to pursue. With an MMO, the keyboard is used to play the game and to chat and to do other stuff, but in a console that’s not possible and that makes a huge difference.
Also, MMOs are played on a PC and therefore you sit close to your screen and are able to read smaller fonts and browse through smaller objects. But with consoles, you use a TV and therefore you sit farther from the screen. Adjusting for those kinds of differences would require us to redesign the whole game. Issues like those are definitely not easy to overcome.
Would you ever be interested in making small games again?
HK: I’m still very passionate about making more MMOs.
Any last words?
HK: I’m very honored and excited to introduce my game to the U.S. market and I’m expecting great results!
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