[Our own Tom Curtis spoke with Neowiz's John Nam and Mark Chang to discuss the company's expansion to the U.S., and how the developers "didn't actually have to make big changes" to tailor an MMO to appeal to Western tastes.]

Korean MMO developer and publisher Neowiz will begin its expansion into North America with War of Angels, its first game developed specifically for Western audiences.

Neowiz began as an Internet service provider in 1997, and has since expanded into a game publisher that operates a number of free-to-play online games in Korea and other Asian territories, including microtransaction based versions of popular EA franchises such as FIFA and Battlefield.

Hoping to expand beyond Asian markets and into the West, Neowiz developed War of Angels to suit North American audiences.

War of Angels is a free-to-play, microtransaction based fantasy MMO that features land, air, and underwater combat, and a good-versus evil system that helps players determine their faction, which will affect the game's endgame Player-Versus-Player modes.

Neowiz told us that War of Angels is the first of several games the publisher will release in North America, and four other titles are unready in development for a 2011 release.

We spoke with Neowiz Games America chief operating officer John Nam and Neowiz Games in Korea business developer Mark Chang to discuss the company's history and its expansion to the U.S., how the War of Angels was developed to suit Western tastes, and the important elements of operating a free-to-play game.

Could you talk a little bit about Neowiz's history?

John Nam: We started in 1997 with a ISP provider called OneClick, and later turned into something called SayClub, which was the most popular social networking site, back then called a chatting site. That's when we first got into microtransactions. Advertising revenue was good, but we wanted to try something else, and we wondered, "Would people really pay two dollars for a hat or sunglasses?" It turned out it worked, and we ended up crashing our servers, so we found that it worked really well.

We've seen healthy expansion over the last couple years, and we recently had an acquisition in Japan with GameOn, the second largest portal in Japan. While we were preparing all these, three years ago we started a U.S. branch, and I came here to set things up, partnerships, publishing partners, acquisitions, licensing deals and all that kind of stuff.

So we are expanding globally, and now we feel like we have enough experience and data to come out to the U.S. ourselves and operate our own games. You may have heard about our deal with EA?

Yeah, you guys worked together to make an online FIFA game, right?

JN: Yeah, so the details for that deal, or at least the version I know, is that EA went around with FIFA to all the major publishers, and we looked at it and said, "No, we can't sell this, are you kidding?" EA said, "But soccer's crazy in Korea, it'll do well!" We told them we weren't interested, so they went around to the other companies. It turns out the EA guys came back to us and said," Alright, we're convinced. How do you make a game in Korea with FIFA?" We told them, "You make an online game."

We are real good at monetizing games and building the microtransaction economy and we know how this thing works. When you sell things in games, you can't sell whatever and throw off the balance of the game; there's a fine line, and we've made mistakes over the last 13 years to know enough to not make the most obvious ones. So we turned FIFA into an online game. We took the engine and the whole server structure behind it.

We made a five title deal with EA, with most of their titles, with the exception of The Sims and Spore, which we couldn't touch. So we did FIFA 1, FIFA 2, Battlefield Online, NBA Street Online, and we still have one more slot, and we are thinking about which one to do. FIFA 2, with the World Cup this year, has hit over 220,000 concurrent users, so at any given time 220,000 people were playing the game; it's been very successful.

To tell you more about why EA would join us, we were around for the invention of microtransactions, back with SayClub. We also were the first to successfully monetize a first person shooter, and you know, with games like that there is a very delicate balance, and you can't just give out things that throw things out of balance.

Right, you don't want people to buy their way to victory.

JN: Exactly, but no one will buy something if it's useless. For a long time, there were a handful of first person shooters in Korea, and they all just kind of tanked when they started introducing items. With Special Forces, which is kind of old now, we figured out how to add microtransactions without harming the balance. To this day it's still very popular in Korea.

What did you guys do differently versus the games that tried microtransactions and failed?

JN: That's kind of giving away the secret sauce, but it's all about keeping a fine balance. (laughs)

Fair enough. (laughs) In terms of bringing a game like War of Angels to North America, what was the driving motivation for you guys to switch your focus to another part of the world?

JN: We've actually been studying to get out in the U.S. for a while now, we were just figuring out the best way to do that. It's always been about expansion, like it Vietnam and China through Tencent we've seen great success. In China, one of our first person shooters called CrossFire has 2.2 million concurrent users. We've been trying to figure out our best strategy to come in. It's that something made us come in right now, we've been studying it for a while.

What sort of things were you looking when you examined the market?

JN: We did lots of market research, partnerships, indirect partnerships, some of which are public and some aren't. Some companies came in during the early 2000s and now they've come back out again, so we didn't want to make the same mistakes.

And where is War of Angels being developed? Is it being developed in Korea?

JN: Yes, it is.

What do you do to tailor the game to an American audience versus a Korean one? What are the differences between the two?

JN: So War of Angels is being developed by a partner called NJI, and what we are doing in the U.S. is we are running an extensive focus group right now with hardcore MMO players, and through these focus groups and online surveys, we are figuring out what they like, what they don't.

We also figure out what to do in terms of server management, localizations, what sort of items they may like. For example, the Gachapon system works well in Korea, but would it work here? We're looking into that kind of stuff pretty extensively. We are also using a pretty top-tier localization service. It's going through it's third iteration right now.

What's the relationship like between you guys and developer? How much influence do you guys have over the way the game takes shape?

JN: I used to work with a lot of the guys in Korea, so we talk a lot, perhaps too much. (laughs) It's an active discussion to see what's going on over there, what going on over here. I hesitate to say they have full control, but they have a good positive influence on the development process. For example, there's no Halloween in Korea, but in the game, we have items like a pumpkin head mask for the holiday.

So you are tailoring in game events to American culture specifically?

JN: Exaclty. That's an example of something that we thought would be cool, and all of a sudden it's done, it's in there.

What do you do to tailor the game systems for an American audience? Do you look at other successful MMOs in North America to see what tends to work well over here?

JN: We all play triple A titles, and the team knows what is going on. Asian gamers tend to be less averse to grinding, while American gamers are more accustomed to instant gratification. Within our focus group we had this thing called "The Pit." There was this level where it was very difficult to level up compared to what players were used to until that point, and the American users would say, "Oh my god, it was just so horrible."

We keep that stuff, and we say, "Okay, well did you know that at level 20 there is this big reward?" And they say, "No!" That is one of the solutions we could suggest, we could also add a mini quest that tells players they can get a certain item or a given a certain character advancing choice if they reach a certain level, and that would incentivize people.

It sounds like there's a lot of carrot-on-a-stick incentives for players to keep them motivated.

JN: That's one thing for sure. Korean users will just brush past those levels, saying "Ha, this is kind of taking me a long time, but whatever." But American users could rage quit at that point, and we are very aware that there are a lot of other choices out here.

People often tend to have short attention spans too.

JN: (laughs) Yeah. We want to address that issue, and the team understands what American gamers are used to.

What sort of audience do you hope to attract in terms of size and demographics?

JN: In terms of demographics, this is a 3D fantasy based MMORPG, so we expect most people to have already played or tried some free-to-play stuff. Those would be out hardcore gamers, male players from 15 to 35 years old - it's kind of broad right now. Through our focus group and research we've discovered recently that this style of game appeals to both genders, and the age range tends toward older players or at least older than 18 years.

This is good news for us, because if more women play, great. It seems like the graphical style has been well received; they thought it was charming, women thought it was nice and pretty and guys that it was kind of cool looking.

In terms of size, the bigger the better, and there is certainly a group of people out here that like to play these games, and with broadband penetration increasing every day, and with things like Facebook games, even Moms understand things like microtransactions and enjoy it. I think the market is ready to grow, and we want to be part of growing that market, and show people that "free" doesn't mean "crap," it's a different business model. For microtransaction based games, nothing is more social than a MMORPG, and I think there are a lot of people playing these games.

You mentioned you are primarily targeting a hardcore crowd, and perhaps I'm leaping to conclusions a bit, but a lot of these players are already committed to other MMOs, and they tend to stick with just one game. How do guys combat players' tendencies to stick with what they already have and convince them to try something new?

JN: Well, one of the reasons we chose this game was because first of all, we really respect the developers, we think they have so much potential, and this game has some unique features that we feel are pretty cool. For example, you can fight on land, air, and underwater, and it has a good versus evil system, where every choice you have will push you toward good or evil, and third, once you reach a certain point in the game, you can buy real estate and start building cities. These cities are limited, so you have to defend your city from other guilds.

Going back a bit to designing the game for American audiences, other than the Western-themes holiday events, were there other elements of the game that were custom-built to suit American tastes?

Mark Chang: The thing is, we didn't actually have to make big changes, because many other MMORPGs in the states are being serviced in Korea first, and everything was made for Korean gamers, so when they come here, they have to make some changes. With this game, we aren't servicing it in Korea.

The fundamentals of the MMORPG remain the same, because they come from the D&D ruleset, and it will be the U.S. audience that will play this game first. You could say that this game doesn't have any Asian or Korean ingredients in it yet. So we didn't have to make any big changes, but from the beginning we were providing input. We try to send information to the developers, saying that the game should be this way or that way.

When it comes to free-to-play games, there are a ton of games entering the market all the time, so how do you guys plan to make players aware of your product amid this sea of other titles, especially since this is your first game to launch in North America?

JN: Well, there's always the marketing, and of course talking to the press, but I believe a community grows when people genuinely enjoy something, and word of mouth is the best kind of marketing you can get. We are a significantly sized company in Korea, and we do have the marketing dollars that we'd like to come out here and spend, but we want to focus on the fact that the game is fun.

MC: One of our focus testers actually got her brother and her boyfriend to start playing with her, so as long as the game is good, people will pass on the information.

Do you have plans to release War of Angels in Korean markets after its U.S launch?

JN: Right now, we have the worldwide rights, and it's being serviced throughout the world. In Europe, it's through our partner Gamigo, but we wanted to focus on the North American market first. But for right now, the game will not be released in Korea.

Why did you decide not to launch in Korea as well?

JN: In Korea, we have more than 25 games operating right now, and we want to take time to focus on different things. Trust me, the bulk of our people at HQ are dedicated to the day to day operation of Korean games.

MC: Also, once we service the game in Korea, we'd have to suit the game to the tastes of Korean gamers. Typically, if we brought a game to the U.S. after a year, we'd have to make a lot of changes. We thought it would be better to start with the U.S. from the beginning.

When it comes to free-to-play mictrotransaction based games, how many players out of the total audience have to spend money on items to make the game financially successful?

JN: We have a lot of really good numbers, statistics, and historical data, and I can't tell you the exact numbers, but I can say that form our experience, if you take a subscription based game and turn it into a free to play game, and do it right, your player base should triple or quadruple, and your revenue would double.

What sort of plans do you have after War of Angels releases in North America?

JN: We have three more games that we are preparing for 2011. War of Angels is the first one; it's not going to be a one trick pony, so we are preparing more stuff.

How important do you consider the North American market to be when compared to the rest of the world?

JN: We consider the North American market to be one of the most interesting markets out there. Granted, free-to-play PC games are not as large as console games right now, but it's something we want to dig into. Getting a triple A title out there is risky, and there will always be a market for that, but the social aspect of creating a community and growing into a game that players want to see is the future, we believe.