March 14, 2008 4:00 PM | Simon Carless
[This Brandon Sheffield-conducted interview ran over on Gamasutra the other day. We thought it worth reprinting here because it's part of our continuing attempt to cover the South Korean biz more than anyone ever, and it's got some really interesting and honest insights into the market and console gaming there.]
With the rise of microtransactions and the rise of titles such as MapleStory in the casual MMO business, South Korean gaming has been growing in respect and relevance in the West. There's a lot to learn from this rich, constantly evolving market, which grew up along lines so different from the U.S., Japan and Europe that it's difficult to compare -- and compete with.
To that end, Gamasutra has already spoken in-depth with a variety of members of top companies in the market, conducted principally at the recent annual Gstar trade show, to offer their perspective on the industry in 2008 and going forward.
In this previously unpublished interview, Gamasutra spoke to Henry Lee of Blueside, best known for the Kingdom Under Fire franchise (including the recently released Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, published for Xbox 360 by Microsoft Game Studios.
One of the few purely console developers in Korea, Gamasutra talked to Lee about developing console games in Korea and the looming development threat of China:
What is the workflow like on console games here? Is there a lot of heavy pre-production on console titles like these, or do you have a lot of iteration after you've made a prototype?
Henry Lee: Actually, there is almost no console developer in Korea. We are supposed to have a pre-production for six months or a year, but for Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, we needed to rush, so we had only two months for pre-production. It was very tough time.
In Japan I know there is huge pre-production, and they just make that game the game that they designed at the beginning. In the U.S., they make a loose design, and they make a playable demo, and they make new iterations… How much do you that kind of stuff?
HL: We are in the middle. I mean, we have a detailed design document at the beginning of the project, but it doesn't cover the full development, it has a basic idea, and basic continuity script for the players, and that kind of thing. And the feeling, or the design, that kind of thing, it depends on the designers.
So we have some basic concept art for the player and background, but the actual detail, or the actual feeling will be added by the character designer. And the animation, for some parts we use motion capture, but for some sensitive parts it's directly related with the playability, the usability of the game. So that part will be done by animator by hand.
In the west we have a lot of communication between development studios; they share technology ideas and that sort of stuff. In Japan, it's the complete opposite. Nobody talks to anybody. Even different teams in the same company can't talk to each other. Obviously there aren't that many high-end console developers in Korea, but is the Korean industry trying to work together, is everyone tackling problems separately?
HL: Other companies are trying to work together, but not us. We are just so different from the others. We are sort of… isolated. I mean, we get some support from Microsoft, but we don't have any connection -- actually no connection, zero connection with developers from the US, and Japanese developers really don't want to give anything to us. We want to contact other developers, but nobody know about us, or...
It seems like if they have better network support, and you have a better engine, you would be able to take something from each other. Because, obviously, in the US people write about, or talk about the things that they've done, and how other people can learn from it. Is that the kind of thing that would be welcome in Korea, or is it not necessary? Do you want to be more focused on the west than each other?
HL: I don't know that much about other companies. But as far as I know, there are not many game companies that successfully finish their projects here. The first priority is progress of the game development. The biggest problem is that there are not many real directors here.
It would be very helpful if technology could be used from the U.S., but I'm not sure the developers here would want to use the technology. I mean, Korean developers have a lot of know-how about network play, but, when I see World of Warcraft, even in that US developers are much better than here.
How did you fix that at Blueside?
HL: It sounds arrogant, but we set the goal of the game clearly. Usually at other companies, the game director, or game designer, plays Diablo and said "Oh hey! Let's make Diablo!" The next day he might play World of Warcraft, and then, "Hey! Let's change this to Warcraft!" It's very funny, and very stupid.
First of all we set up the design and design document very clearly, and we just -- well, actually, it's very common in Japan or the US -- we calculate the resources, make a schedule, and try to make everything predictable. And so, not for this project, but Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, and future projects, we try to make a prototype.
How do Korean developers compare?
HL: When it comes to graphics, I think we are just as good as the U.S. or Japan. Actually, just graphic artists here, for me, are the best in the world. We, I mean, the company cannot have enough support for the graphic designers. They are really very good.
Our programmer talent is more troublesome. Actually, in Korea, these days, almost nobody wants to code, because it's very hard, it's very tiresome. It's very hard to hire. So we are trying to hire people from Russia, or Spain, or Eastern Europe. I heard that Japan has the same problem.
And game designers? In Korea, usually game designers are like, "I want to make a game! But I don't know how to code or how to draw! What should I do?" Then be a game designer! It's so funny and stupid. That's the biggest problem. I tried to hire some game designers here, but nobody can do these kind of things.
We have three designers -- two main designers, and one sub-designer -- but they’ve been here for about 7 years, 8 years. They started this job as a QA team, and they became game designers.
Do you think that universities are going to start teaching people more of this stuff? So they will be useful?
HL: We have successfully hired about three or four programmers from university. Some are very good, and some are very bad. Some are useless. But the biggest problem is, well, I think for the programmers, they need to study not only DirectX but also English that they can read the whitepapers from the US or elsewhere, physics, 3D math, basic mathematics and languages. And software engineering, programming languages, that kind of standard curriculum. They need to study that but still many universities teach only DirectX and OpenGL.
A lot of other countries are doing outsourcing, but it sounds like you are receiving outsourcing from other countries.
HL: Well, the big part of the atmosphere of a game depends on the music, and so we asked an U.S. composer to make some music for our games. And sound effects.
Actually, sound effects -- music and sound effects in Korea or Japan are … the feeling is very different from U.S. And sometimes we try to ask other companies to make some small stuff like icons, because of things like scheduling problems.
So are those other companies you ask in Eastern European countries, or within Korea?
HL: Within Korea. Actually we need to talk to them a lot, so if the company is overseas, it's very hard to control. But it’s all very small stuff.
When do you think console games will be popular in Korea?
HL: Well, I think as soon as the players can earn money through playing. I mean, in Korea, only MMORPGs are popular, because they can earn money by selling items or different things.
I don't think there are many true game players here. They need to, they have to be able to get games for free. That is the first rule here. That is the funny thing. I mean, they have no idea how to buy games here. They can download games here.
That's why all the game developers in Korea give player the game for free, and then they can earn money by selling items. So, if console wants to be popular, it has to lend itself to that kind of weird market.
So as far as the Xbox 360, it's not doing well in Korea because of the mentality of the western games. It's just not being accepted by the Korean gamers. The gamers always want free games, and they want to get online, spend a little money on specific items, and just make a living on it. Not playing the game.
Would you ever consider doing smaller stuff like Xbox Live Arcade?
HL: We are on it. We are working on a new project for new platforms. Some small, portable platforms.
Nintendo has an office in Korea now. Do you think they will do well?
HL: From a marketing point of view, they are very good. But from the development point of view, they're very bad.
For developers, they offer nothing. They’re not even a channel to the Japan office.
They don't have developer relations -- really?
They always keep saying that they want to have relationships with developers, but they have nothing. They don't support anything.
It's like, if we need some information about hardware -- that sort of thing -- they give us nothing. They just ask for us to wait for orders from the mother company in Japan. They’re absolutely not helpful to developers.
But at selling their platform here, I think they are very good. They hired the right people, right actor, right actress for the advertisements, and so they are very popular here. And the launch games for the platforms -- definitely the DS -- they chose the right ones.
Do you think that western markets are starting to take the Korean games more seriously yet?
HL: No. Korean companies have some good online games, but it's very localized. Some games like MapleStory, I've heard are very popular in the U.S., but I don't think it's a major thing. I think the game companies in the U.S. are very interested in the Korean or Chinese market, but not in Chinese games or Korean games.
Are you worried about the future of the Korean industry?
HL: Slightly, yes. Because games from the US or China will take over the market here. A good example is World of Warcraft. It's the best. I actually don't like MMORPGs that much, not since Ultima Online, but World of Warcraft is the best. Nobody will -- I don't think anybody can make that kind of game again. I mean, the scale is so big.
I mean, many Korean games are just copies of games from other countries. Kart Rider, that kind of thing, it's just a copy of Nintendo's Mario Kart. That kind of game is not that hard to make, and so it's very easy to copy, and that market will be taken over by China, because China has the technology now, and China is very good at copying stuff.
The popular casual games here are copies of Japan's games. And Korean developers copied the games easily, so it means the Chinese can copy the Korean games easily, and they are cheaper.The Chinese will make tons of games and they will take over.