The MMO Gamer recently did a lengthy in-depth interview with Nexon America’s VP of Marketing, Min Kim, and PR, Mike Crouch.
Steve sits down with Min Kim and Mike Crouch from Nexon America to discuss the company’s free-to-play titles, as well as the differences in gamer cultures between the East and the West.
The MMO Gamer: First of all, for those among are readers who maybe unfamiliar, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about what it is you do at Nexon.
Min Kim: My name is Min Kim. I’m the VP of Marketing at Nexon.
What I do right now is mostly handle Biz-Dev, marketing strategy, and PR. But I also contribute to a lot the operations side, because that’s where I really started at Nexon, especially at Nexon America.
Having started back in around 2005, I did the local versions for North America. I operated that for North America. And through that we actually ended up opening up the office here. So, the beginnings of my career at Nexon America were actually in operations.
The MMO Gamer: To start us off, you give just a little bit of company background, for those who perhaps haven’t been following you before.
Min Kim: The company was founded in Korea back in 1994. The company in the states, this is actually our second time out, and I know people know that so there is no point to hide it.
We actually closed our doors here in North America, I think in about 2004. But then we opened again.
So we came out with Kingdom of the Winds and a few other games back in the early 2000s. Then we reopened the doors again as Nexon America with MapleStory back in 2005.
The success was so big that there was no way we could have done that or scaled it out of Korea, so we set up shop here in Los Angeles in 2006.
The MMO Gamer: Of course MapleStory has gone on to be, I guess the scientific term would be a ginormous success.
Min Kim: Yeah. [laughs]
The MMO Gamer: I’ve seen some crazy figures thrown around, in the neighborhood of 90 million registered users.
Min Kim: I think MapleStory’s logged over 92 million registration, yes.
The MMO Gamer: How many of those are in the U.S?
Min Kim: The U.S., the last number we put out was slightly over six million registered players in North America.
The MMO Gamer: Those are some very respectable numbers.
Min Kim: I think a big part of it was that we actually answered a market need, back in around 2005 where I think at that point a lot of people were saying that MMOGs or MMORPGS were meant for people that were older, maybe grew up with D&D, who were in their 20s into their 30s playing these games.
We felt the reason why was because the only way to access those games was through a payment mechanism that teens don’t have access to, which is credit cards.
When we launched MapleStory here there was a market need for it but it wasn’t being fed because there were no games that were out that teens could enjoy in an MMO sense because they didn’t have access to credit cards.
The only way they could do that was ask their parents to allow them to subscribe. And for most parents that didn’t grow up with this stuff, it’s like magic beans. It’s like a complete waste of money. So, that’s I think how we started out.
But again, if you look at Asia, MapleStory is extremely successful. It’s probably best in class. And there’s a lot of MMOGs there, and I think they just got it right.
It’s the simplicity mixed with a lot of the art style. I don’t know what came together well, but it just hit it out of the park.
The MMO Gamer: But for all of that, there are a lot of players out there, and even some in the media who don’t seem to consider what you do at Nexon to be making “real MMOs.”
Min Kim: I think, is that up to the last few years, they didn’t consider our type of games as real games. It’s like, “Oh, we don’t cover that” kind of thing. And I think some of that has to do with the fact that our games are online and the content is constantly changing so it’s very difficult to review a game like ours.
Up to the last few years it was just difficult meeting with the press, and to show them our games, because they already had the stereotype of Eastern games being low-quality.
They look at the graphics and think that we’re not able to produce high-end games. We’re totally able to do it. But we make our games like this on purpose because we want 80% of the installed PC base to be able to play.
I honestly think that the PC market has been shooting itself in the foot by constantly pushing the envelope, so that only five people can play it.
I think the controversy now, and what’s making people think is you’ve got companies offering games on Facebook and MySpace that are making a killing. Probably making more money than the next-gen MMOs.
I think what we’ve got to think about is what do the players want? What do the consumers want? And it’s not all the same thing.
The MMO Gamer: On that subject, there’s a lot of talk in the industry these days about a trend towards more casual gaming as opposed to the more AAA titles you were just talking about. There is a notion out there that players want to have their gaming time defined.
They want to know that if they play game X it’s going to take exactly 30 minutes, and then they can get on with their day.
Min Kim: Sessions.
The MMO Gamer: Session play, exactly. That’s the latest buzzword.
As Nexon has seemed, from my outsider’s perspective, to be more of a casual game focused company from the start, what are your thoughts on that subject?
Min Kim: Well, I hate the word “casual” because that’s actually put us in a box, where we’ll meet up with the press and they’ll say, “Oh, they’re a casual game developer.”
But there are a lot of definitions about what casual means. Like one example I give is Texas Hold’Em. If I’m playing with you guys and we’re playing Texas Hold’Em at my house and I’ve got a $20 buy-in, that’s a very casual experience.
You go to the casinos, where you’re playing at the World Series of Poker and you put $10,000 down, it’s not casual anymore. It’s extremely hardcore even though it’s the same game. [laughs]
I think the word “casual” just makes it more difficult, but I do think that players are looking for different experiences and I think it’s our job in the industry to basically just cater to them all and not limit it.
I feel like we’ve been limiting the market greatly. Games like Dungeon Fighter, you look at it, it looks very casual but I don’t like to use the word “casual.” I like to use the word “approachable.”
So if you’re looking over my shoulder and I’m playing Dungeon Fighter online, that game, I think, is the type of game where your friend who had never seen it before might say, “Hey, move over, I want to try,” because it looks like an arcade game, versus something that is very complex.
The MMO Gamer: Shifting gears a bit. One of the major subject that I wanted to get into with you today, is the differences between Eastern MMO players and Western MMO players.
Everyone has their own theories on it, and I’d like to see if we can build some sort of a consensus.
So, in your personal opinion, why is there seem to be this great gulf of game popularity in the different countries? Lineage, for example, is a multi-billion dollar industry in Korea, while hardly anyone plays it in North America.
And aside from WoW (), the same could be said of just about any Western MMO trying to get into the East.
Min Kim: I don’t really have a good answer for that. I’m not positive that there is a difference. What would you think are the clear differences between a Western player and an Eastern Player? Or what do you think people think are the differences?
The MMO Gamer: Well, I am only going on hearsay because I’ve never actually been to Korea and seen this myself. But I’ve heard that at its core it’s an entirely different player culture there, a different play style.
People play primarily in LAN cafes. They are all in the same room together, it’s a very social experience. While people in the West tend to play at home, by themselves…
Min Kim: I would definitely say that it is a very social experience over there, where you are playing in LAN cafes and stuff.
But if that were available in the states, I think people would do that too. Especially if I think about when I was in college or the dorms if I go back to my college just to visit some of my fraternity brothers, they’re playing in the same way that people play in Asian LAN cafes but that’s not available over here.
That’s actually one of the toughest things about doing business here, is that LAN cafes don’t exist. Because they are hotbeds for marketing your game, as well as for people to kind of act as a hands-on tutorial, where they show people how to play games.
I honestly think that the reason why certain games are successful over there and not successful over here and vice versa, has to do with the service element of the games.
If you look at Lineage over there, Ncsoft is a huge company in Korea and they service the games to an extremely high quality over there, but they probably don’t do that on this side of the ocean.
In the same way, when people take games in the West, and bring them over to Asia, they are going through a publishing relationship, they are not necessarily servicing the games in the best way, and that’s probably where you get a big disconnect is that, a game like World of Warcraft, well, not World of Warcraft, a game like Lineage in Korea, probably doesn’t feel like Lineage in the states.
It might not necessarily be all about how players play, but how you service the game.
The MMO Gamer: Interesting point. And going back to your question about the differences, one of the other arguments I’ve have heard is the tolerance for, I guess you could call it the grinding style of gameplay…
Min Kim: The grind, yeah.
The MMO Gamer: …is much higher in Asia than it is in the West. People here won’t stand for it.
Min Kim: I think people still do grind here, and I think people in Asia don’t prefer the grind, in general. Nobody likes grinding.
It’s just a kind of an accepted way to play in some cases, but a lot of developers are trying to get away from that.
Much of it has to do with development times, and not being able to generate contents fast enough for people to enjoy. Like you said, if you are a hardcore gamer if you are playing 40 hours a week, or even 40 hours a month, you are going to exhaust the content.
So the grind is the cheap way to basically get players to constantly be playing. I honestly hear people from Asia complaining about it all the time. But, they’ll do that, because certain items only drop through grinding, and you’re basically going to have to kill 10,000 of this one thing to get a chance of having this item. I think that’s why they grind, that ultimate end goal of trying to get something.
But I don’t like grinding, and I don’t think anyone does.
The MMO Gamer: So Eastern and Western gamers are closer than most people think, it’s simply a difference in design philosophy and support structure, in your opinion?
Min Kim: Yeah, I think so. Maybe there might be a difference in competitive gaming, meaning people in Asia might like PvP more. But I think that is not necessarily indicative of the player, but just the evolution of how people are playing.
Here in the West, maybe they’re starting to play more co-op, etc, and they might get into more PvP as that develops, or people develop their gaming styles and habits.
Mike Crouch [Nexon PR]: There was that moratorium on consoles coming from Japan into Korea that was lifted a few years back. Do you think that really shaped the Korean gaming market?
Min Kim: That’s a good point. There’s a couple things that I have theories about regarding the Korean gaming market. The Asian gaming market started with arcades, and that’s the same in the States. It started with arcades, extremely social, and then what ended up happening was consoles started taking over, where you’re playing with your house, or you’re going over to your friend’s house, etc.
In Korea there was a moratorium on consoles or Japanese products coming in, so you weren’t able to get these consoles unless you were buying them gray market. On top of that, in Korea you don’t really invite friends over to your house. Your parents don’t like that, it’s actually a faux pas to invite yourself over, or have lots of friends over to your house.
So what people ended up doing, first they went to the arcades, and then they went to these net cafes where they were having these LAN parties.
Also, there was a big focus on education, and people just didn’t like, parents didn’t like kids playing games. So you just wouldn’t do that at home. I think that actually forced the market to speed up into a very social gaming environment.
On top of that, PC games just weren’t able to survive because people were just copying the shit out of them, and that basically killed that market.
Mike Crouch: As for the grinding, because of the way Min talked about, that it’s a cheap easy way for developers to not build content, so that they can just keep expanding the grind, it’s kind of created its own culture within gaming.
Which is to say that it’s been there, it’s been part of gaming for so long in Asia, that it’s become an accepted part, and like a badge of honor to go through those 20 levels of grind in Lineage. Even though nobody likes it, but still…
Min Kim: There’s other ways to play the game. You can play the game and do all sorts of different kinds of things, but your quickest path to leveling up some times is grinding, and doing something very boring.
People just want the shortest path to level up and get the stuff that they want.
The MMO Gamer: At the moment all of Nexon’s current titles were developed in Korea, then brought over to the States, correct?
Min Kim: Yes, all of them right now. Except certain games like Combat Arms, where we work very closely with the development team, so you could say that we’re actually co-producing the game. Where a lot of the development actually is influenced by what the gamers want over here.
Combat Arms is a much bigger game here than in Korea.
The MMO Gamer: Whenever I come across a company like yours I like to pose this question, and most of them just flat out say: “No.”
Min Kim: [laughs] What’s the question?
The MMO Gamer: Will there ever come a point where we get I guess, you could call it a “hybrid MMO,” which is developed jointly and equally by both the North American and Korean offices of an MMO company, which targets both demographics simultaneously.
Rather than taking a game developed in the East and trying to Westernize it, or vice versa.
Min Kim: I would say yes. But for the development to happen, it would probably originally happen for a Western market. If we were to have ties to both, or bring both teams together, it would probably because we wanted to target North America and/or Europe.
I can definitely see that happening, I think we’re still trying to navigate these waters, and also have the market grow to a critical mass, where that kind of funding, for a project like that, would make more sense. We think we’re still pretty much on ground level right now, in terms of market potential.
One way to look at it, and what I’m waiting for, is you’ve had so much success with Club Penguin and things like that, that’s just basically warming kids up to using a mouse and keyboard.
Once they grow out of that, and they’re already used to asking their parents to subscribe to something like Club Penguin, and then you’ve got these kids whose parents won’t let them subscribe, and they have this pent up urge to play something online… those kids are going to turn into teens.
They’re going to be 15 at some point, and this is going to be a very natural type of environment for them, versus a lot of the players we got initially, they didn’t grow up with that.
Mike Crouch: In my experience, I came over here from NCsoft, they tried it a few years ago with the Ultima team, and the Lineage 2 team. They put them together, and the result was they had a big failure on their hands.
The MMO Gamer: They tried to get Richard Garriott to work on a hybrid Korean-American title?
Mike Crouch: Yes, they had the heads of the Lineage and Lineage 2 teams put their heads together with Garriott, and it just didn’t… they had to stop it at three years in. Scrap it, and roll out the Tabula Rasa () game that ended up flopping anyway.
So, the hybrid question…
Min Kim: The hybrid question, actually, has a lot…I mean the difficulties with the hybrid is that there are a lot of cultural differences, even in the way that people work.
Not just how smart they are and how amazing they can be in game development. It’s just people that work in Korea and people that work in the States are very different in terms of how they work.
What you can say at a meeting or how meetings are used or how email is used is completely different. That’s actually one of the biggest culture shocks probably for people that start working on both sides.
Mike Crouch: Yeah, that is, I think, everyone’s dream but I think a worry for Min would be trying to please everybody, and then pleasing no one along the way.
Min Kim: Here in North America, this isn’t indicative of all Korean work processes or teams or how they work, but here in the States if I’m in a room and I feel comfortable, if I don’t like an idea or I think that it should go another way I can just say, “Hey, I think we should do this.”
Then we can have a brainstorm session. Whereas over there, I feel like if you want to say that, then you should meet with this guy separately and then talk about it first before you put them on blast in front of everybody because it’s kind of disrespectful.
The MMO Gamer: So, having said all that, for the foreseeable future is Nexon going to continue just exclusively localizing games coming out of the East?
Min Kim: No, actually in the near future I can see us potentially working on a Western title, depending on what your definition of “near” is. [laughs]
But I definitely see that there’s going to be tough times in terms of putting Eastern developers and Western developers together because that cultural gap is pretty big. And beyond that, the language gap is huge.
The MMO Gamer: It is huge. I can remember when the Eastern titles first began to make an appearance in the West, and most of them did not go over very well at all for that very reason.
A few games were so bad it was like they ran them through the Korean to English translator on Babelfish and pushed them out the door.
And I think that’s kind of sullied the entire genre of Eastern games in the eyes of people who have been playing as long as I have.
Min Kim: Well I think, at least in our localization process, we try not to do that. It’s to just put it through the conveyor belt and it comes out, you just take it for what it is.
A lot of the Eastern operators, they have Koreans that aren’t native in English translating their games and I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes.
On the surface, presentation wise, when you have bad translation it’s like “All your base are belong to us” kind of thing. Like it just doesn’t make sense.
And it makes it seems very hardcore and we try to avoid that. All the localization actually happens here. That’s one of our key strengths here in the Los Angeles office, is that translation happens here. All the localization, UI, all that stuff is handled here and we work with our developers on that, versus just letting the developers be free with it which is a big problem. Culturally they just wouldn’t understand stuff.
The MMO Gamer: Alright, I think we’re just about out of time. Thank you both very much for joining us, we appreciate it, and we hope to do it again some time.
Min Kim: Awesome, thanks.
Nexon’s latest game, Dungeon Fighter Online, is currently in open beta, and along with all of the other games in their line-up is free-to-play and can be downloaded at their official website.