Q&A: NCsoft founder Tack Jin Kim

NCsoft president TJ Kim tells us how his Korea-based company sees the US market--and what it took to be number one in his.

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Tack Jin Kim cuts an impressive figure--but not by the typical standards. His build is slight, but he can fill a room with more ideas and dreams than most. And he can draw a crowd. His Game Developers Conference presentation last year was packed. His company's games also draw a crowd. Building on NCsoft's smash hit MMORPG property Lineage, the company has a firm and near-unchallenged hold on the game charts in Korea. In the fiercely competitive MMORPG space in Korea, Lineage owns a 38 percent market share. Given that Lineage often has more than 130,000 concurrent users (Lineage II can top 110,000 concurrent users), this share number is hardly a surprise. This year marks the return of NCsoft to E3, where the company made an impressive first-year showing last year with a booth comparable in size to EA's. We wondered what was in Mr. Kim's sights this year.

GameSpot: What are the biggest challenges you face as you expand into the US market?

Tack Jin Kim: The biggest challenge is to understand and read the trends in each market. Gamers tend to have different game experiences in each country, and so they might want to have something different from games. Therefore, it is most important to undersatnd the change in styles for gamers in different markets.

As far as the US is concerned, the infrastructure for playing online games still has a lot of growth ahead. So the environment there is different from that of Asian markets, where the game infrastructure has hit a much more mature level. Therefore, it is one of our tasks to make an appropriate business model to fit such different environments.

GS: As NCsoft expands internationally through acquisitions, how do you manage the different business cultures and local staff?

TJK: I think it's important to share the same vision among the differing cultures within our organization. The goal of NCsoft is to continuously attempt something new and provide customers with a level of fun that they have never experienced before. NCsoft encourages its developers, marketers, and other staff to strive for these sorts of goals in their day-to-day operations.

GS What is the central message that NCsoft wants to convey at E3?

TJK: NCsoft has made a number of unprecedented moves in the games space, but it has gone one step further than just trying to create a simple mix between Western and Asian elements. NCsoft is working to blend cultures in which both Western and Asian game developers cooperate with each other to create groundbreaking products. One result of those efforts is Tabula Rasa. So the message that NCsoft wants to convey is: another advance in online games.

GS: Who are you targeting that message toward--retailers or the press?

TJK: Our message targets both retailers and the press. NCsoft is taking up the challenge of creating new genres of online games. Please look at Auto Assault and Guild Wars at E3 this year. These newly introduced NCsoft online games have totally different backgrounds and styles from existing ones. And we expect that gamers might have very different experiences compared to ones they have in existing games. NCsoft has made aggressive attempts to make another advance in online games.

GS: Is Korea’s saturated marketplace of MMOL games a barrier to NCsoft’s continued growth?

TJK: I do not think the Korean online game market is saturated. Today, gamers consist mainly of men in their 20s and 30s. The market has lots of growth potential if game developers target other demographics.

GS: How is NCsoft accommodating its business model to account for gamers who seek a less complex online gaming experiences?

TJK: NCsoft has a different development process from others. It has a unique philosophy of “self-organization” in order to promptly reflect ever-changing needs of gamers. Through self-organization, the company does not separate developers from users but endeavors to harmonize developers’ intentions with gamers’ needs in the game-planning stage. Gamers might want to play online games with simpler game sessions, or they may want something more complex. Either way, our model is to study such tendencies in gamers and make appropriate business models accordingly.

GS: Will NCsoft ever compete in the mobile marketplace?

TJK: NCsoft considers the mobile market as having great potential, and [it] is currently assessing this opportunity for the future. However, our interest in mobile-game development is more than just creating services based on cellular phones. We’re interested in the mobile environment itself, and we’ve conducted related research.

GS: With a track record of success in the MMOL space, does NCsoft have any interest to move into other entertainment sectors?

TJK: NCsoft’s goal is to become the best game developer that provides well-harmonized Western and Asian elements--and it has no interest in other areas.

GS: What advice do you have for game companies planning to enter the Korean marketplace, like an Electronic Arts, for example, which recently made it known that expansion into Asia is now a priority?

TJK: My advice to game companies would be to regard the Asian market, including Korea, as a market where products can be a part of worldwide launches. They don’t need to be lagging behind the initial launches, as is the case many times these days. The Asian market plays an important role as a test bed in terms of online game development and service. Accordingly, there should be appropriate game development and investment.

GS: Have you seen any US-developed games that you think will do well in Korea?

TJK: When it comes to online games, cultural and emotional factors have so much influence on their success, compared to other cultural content. In this aspect, I think Tabula Rasa and Guild Wars will have great success in the Asian market. From the beginning of its development, Tabula Rasa’s development team has spent a lot of time researching various cultures in order to create unique game experiences with movies and music. And Korean developers also joined the US team in TR’s game design.

Guild Wars is a game that will appeal to people with busy lives who may have limited time to play games. Moreover, when it comes to graphics, we’ve tried to reflect the beauty of Asia in Guild Wars. During the test process, these visual aspects were well regarded by gamers.

GS: What skill sets do Richard Garriott and his team in Austin have that you find most valuable as you increase your presence in the US marketplace?

TJK: Richard Garriott has his own unique philosophy in game development and has more than 20 years of experience in this area. His philosophy and experience have so much influence on other game developers, and he’s been a great help in establishing a game-development process within our company. I think that such intangible values will enable NCsoft to approach American gamers not just as a newly emerging company in the US market but as a game provider that is developing a rich history of creating successful online games in the US.

GS: Thanks TJ.

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