It had been Jake Song's dream, at least since his university years, to program a piece of commercial software that would be sold in America. Any software, just so long as it made it to a shelf at an American retail store. It didn't even have to be a game.
It didn't come true right away, though not for lack of trying. Song is now CEO of XLGames, a company he founded in 2003 after departing NCSoft, the South Korean business software developer. The game Song programmed and designed for NCSoft, Lineage: The Bloodpledge, became the first game of its genre to have more than 2 million subscribers, putting the company among the largest game publishers in the world, changing gaming in South Korea forever and almost overnight, putting the country as a center of influence in an industry long dominated by the United States and Japan.
“Insane,” Song said after being reminded of the number of Lineage subscribers over brisket and Shiner Bock at a restaurant in Austin. His employees, some from Seoul and some from the small XLGames studio in Austin (only 6 total in Austin, and 28 in Seoul) came along for dinner and to hear him tell stories to this reporter.
Jake Song (whose given name is Song Jae-kyung, but answers to the phonetically similar “Jake”) is aware of his fame through association with NCSoft and Lineage, but admits he doesn't do much to keep track of it – at least not as much by comparison to say, Richard “Lord British” Garriott, whose company in Austin was purchased by NCSoft in 2001. Song's name was used often in association with Garriott's latest game, Tabula Rasa, including at GDC 2006, when Garriott attributed the game's delays to “too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Song said he still respects Garriott and his brother Robert Garriott, president of NCSoft's North American operations, and his departure from NCSoft in 2003 didn't have anything to do with them, rather a disagreement with NCSoft's founder and CEO in Seoul, Tak Jin Kim. What's more, he said, though he would often travel to Austin to sit in on meetings, his actual work on Tabula Rasa was limited to a few lines of code and “maybe one page in a design document.”
XLGames is a chance to start over, Song said, and though the company recently released XLRacer, a persistent racing game, the company has recently begun work on what will be a roleplay-based massively-multiplayer online game. “We're going back to basics,” he said.
Song's name first began circulating in the early 1990s when, as a doctoral student at Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology, he programmed and released hanterm, a terminal emulator using hangul, the Korean alphabet. Once graduated, he was one of the first employees of Nexon, where he worked on The Kingdom of the Winds (also known as Nexus), released in America in 1996, just over one year before Ultima Online became a much larger hit in the game genre soon to be known as the MMORPG.
It was Lineage, however, Song's second game, that became the phenomenon. Working at NCSoft, Song put his love of dungeon-crawling games (such as Nethack) and comic books into an online feudal kingdoms game with its story from the work of comics (or in Korean, “manhwa,”) creator Il-sook Shin. Song said his design was simple, and doesn't consider himself any sort of genius with systems design.
But a few things happened to help Lineage, and South Korean gaming in general, along. In the mid-1990s, Korea Electric Power Company, or KEPCO, began leasing bandwidth from its fiber-optic cable network to Internet providers and other such enterprises, making broadband Internet available. Personal computer ownership in South Korean homes was relatively low compared to Americans at the time. This, the fiber-optic broadband and government support leads to the popularization of “PC rooms,” or “bahngs,” where customers can rent the use of a computer for general Internet use.