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Q&A: Nexon's Daniel Kim On Indie Dev Initiatives, Evolving Online Platforms

Gamasutra sits down with Nexon America CEO Daniel Kim to discuss a number of growing mobile platforms, and why the company aims to develop a "family-like relationship" with a number of indie developers.
Korean developer and publisher Nexon stands among the first flag-bearers for the free-to-play model in online games, and has since expanded its presence to the Western market with titles such as Maple Story, Dungeon Fighter Online, and Vindictus. In March 2010, Nexon began its "Nexon iNitiative" program, which solicited game designs from indie studios and split $1 million between the top entrants. The Canadian Antic Studios and the Polish studio one2tribe won the competition earlier this year and have since signed deals with the company. Nexon recently announced the second round of the initiative, hoping to further enhance its relationships with indie developers. The company currently remains focused on bringing free-to-play MMO titles to the PC, with its upcoming Dragon Nest due to launch in the U.S. later this year. Gamasutra sat down with Nexon America CEO Daniel Kim to discuss the Nexon iNitiative, the company's perspective on growing mobile platforms, and the importance of connectivity and accessibility. Could you please talk a bit about the company's Nexon iNitiative? Sure. The Nexon iNitiative, as you may know, started last year, and we have two developers that we've identified and that we've started working with. One of them is Antic Studios up in Canada; the other one is one2tribe in Poland. We had a phenomenal response last year. We had over 120 different applications from all over the world. So we'll be making formal announcements for the next round. It's only one part of our effort to extend our network of developers that we work with. Primarily, our pipeline has always been based out of Korea, where most of our development studios are, but we have an internal effort in our L.A. office to start up a development studio. Our office in China is setting up their development studio as well. Aside from our internal efforts, we are always looking for development partners to work with all over the place. We've made some announcements about the investment into a studio in Barcelona that's doing pretty interesting virtual world stuff, as well as Fantasia in New Jersey. We're just starting to get going on the investment, acquisition, and partnerships with external studios outside of Korea as well. Do you foresee this as a way to prime studios for potential acquisitions? Yeah, any relationship we go into, we go into with a long-term perspective. It's not a one-shot deal where we do one project and say, “See you later!” We are careful in choosing who we work with because our games are a service; we can't just end our relationship after the initial development is done. It's got to be an ongoing thing. We don't necessarily go into it from the get-go with a strategy to eventually acquire these people; there has to be a need to be met on both sides. All the acquisitions that we have done in the past have been preexisting relationships, whether it's a publishing relationship or whatever, that have evolved into fuller, more complete, family-like relationships that develop over time. So we'll see how it goes. I ask because you guys have previously talked about wanting to invest in and acquire more Western studios. It's not just Western studios; it's any studio that has the capability, the passion, the energy, and the know-how to succeed in what we're primarily trying to do, which is putting microtransaction, free-to-play games on various different platforms. The areas of expansion that we're really getting into are the new connected platforms that didn't exist before, like mobile and social, as well as the existing base of PC games and browser games. What is your plan of attack for the mobile and social space? We haven't made any formal announcements yet, but certainly the Nexon iNitiative projects are all focused on browser or multiplatform approaches. I can say that much. The projects that we're working on with both Antic and one2tribe are not typical downloadable titles but browser-based games that target a different audience and target a different platform. Certainly, we have teams internally that are working on projects targeting these new mobile platforms as well as social platforms. What do you think about re-targeting existing properties to the newer platforms? Certainly it's kind of a no-brainer to leverage the existing IPs like Maple Story or KartRider. We have enough IPs that are globally successful like Dungeon Fighter that really translate well to other platforms, but we don't want to make just a port of an experience to whatever the platform is. The idiosyncrasies and the special opportunities that each of those platforms offer -- whether it's on the mobile or on the social -- really give us the opportunity to innovate for those particular platforms. In the end, we strive to repeat the quadruple/double track record we've been having, with quadruple-double meaning double-digit millions of players, double-digit months of engagement, double-digit ARPUs, and double-digit percentage paying rates. We haven't seen a lot of games on new platforms reach those numbers, and that's our target; we are hoping to achieve what we have done on the PC side, take all that knowledge, and apply it to these new platforms and, again, hit a quadruple-double or, hopefully, quadruple-triple in some cases. (laughs) We're very excited about that prospect. It's been interesting to look at the mobile space and see that the things that have gotten people socially engaged have not really been games so far. It's things like foursquare that have gotten that going a little more. Obviously, you can't speak to specifics, but how would Nexon attack that differently? Yeah. We've primarily focused on the PC as a platform, because it's the most widely distributed and the most open for us to operate our business the way we want. Microsoft isn't dictating how we run our business or how we distribute our product or how we charge for payment or whatever. Some of these other platforms traditionally have had a lot of restrictions, a number of them have been walled gardens controlled by carriers who really didn't understand our business, so we didn't really have an opportunity to participate and apply our business model to those particular platforms. Now that we have platforms like iPhone and Android that are much more open and closer to the PC platform, there are a lot of opportunities for innovation in applying and thinking about new game mechanics that those particular platforms offer in terms of being mobile and in terms of being in a different context. There are certain types of gaming you might do sitting in front of a computer versus while in a train or walking around. There are new types of gameplay systems that we could leverage to make the engagement much more enriching and longer lasting and almost ubiquitous. I think those are opportunities that we're really looking into. How do we leverage these new mechanisms to make the engagement longer and make it more exciting? In the end, we're trying to provide content that connects people. It has to be a connected experience. It has to be an experience that really drives a sense of community and that is much more fun when you're playing with other people; then that fun factor really provides a sense of competition, whether it's a friendly competition or a fierce competition—trying to take revenge on someone who took a shot at me, or trying to look better than you by having the latest gear or the best-looking haircut. Now that the two next handheld consoles are going to have more robust connectivity, have you guys looked at that space? We have a relationship with Nintendo. When they launched the DS in Korea, they wanted a triple-A title that they could launch the product with. MapleStory. MapleStory for DS is one of the best-selling titles in Korea—a market that's very difficult to actually sell products in. But it depends on what sort of setup those companies will have. Are they going to allow us to operate the business like we want to operate it, as a microtransaction model? It's an infrastructure question on their part to set it up properly. The DS has a Wi-Fi connection built-in, but there's not really a marketplace there yet. Same with PSP; I think other than the Android and iOS side of things, those platforms haven't opened up in the way that these other platforms are that are much more healthy and vibrant with thousands and thousands of apps and developers clamoring to be on those platforms. So, really, we'll wait to see how that plays out. Moving into social and more browser stuff: How do you feel about 3D web tools like Unity? Do you see it as worthwhile, and, if so, which horse are you backing? There are a lot of different options out there. Like I mentioned before, when we first set out the first Nexon iNitiative—and it will be the same this year with a little modification—we were looking for a browser-based experience that is as rich and as deep as our client experience. But we know that you don't necessarily have to have the latest, highest-end graphics. It's about how you make the engagement, the experience, really fun and exciting. MapleStory is a great example; it's a classic, 2D arcade-style game that's been a global blockbuster for us. It's super accessible but has the depth and richness of any MMO out there. Regardless of what technology it is—whether it's Unity 3D or Java or Flash—I think you could make an engaging experience that is really about the design and the creativity that goes into providing an immersive, rich experience. We're investigating and looking into all of the technologies that are out there to make it easier. Part of the reason for us to really invest heavily into the browser side is we've gotten rid of the barrier of entry in terms of finance but there is still the technical barrier of having to wait for the download and all of that stuff. We're hoping that the focus on browser-based games will expand our audience to people who are not necessarily using the Windows platform, as well as people who are a little bit more impatient to wait for the download. That's what we're hoping for, and that's really the focus back on not so much whether 3D is going to be the one or 2D is going to be the one; it really depends on what is the most appropriate way to deliver that experience. How has Vindictus done for you so far? Vindictus has been a phenomenal launch, and it's been really exciting. With our previous games, we've always had to make an argument trying to convince people: “It may look like a classic. It may look kind of old-school arcade, but just try it.” It's like trying to introduce a girlfriend who has a great personality. (Laughs) But this is one where the first impression really knocks everybody off their feet. We're really proud to introduce this game that has a triple-A graphics quality game experience, triple-A quality physics, and everything that rivals any fifty or sixty dollar game that's being sold out there. It's kind of our calling card to the big boys who are playing the console game who haven't really looked at the PC game for a long time and trying to tell them, “Hey, not all free games are what you think they are.” I think there are a lot of preconceived notions about the quality of free-to-play games, and we're here to change that. I think Vindictus is kind of our first shot at doing that. And Dragon Nest, which we're releasing this year, is really going to redefine people's preconceived notions about what free-to-play means. That's a big statement. We call it the action-MMO trio. We first introduced the idea of having an MMO that is heavily focused on arcade-like action with Dungeon Fighter Online. That was the first one, and then Vindictus came along with its brutal action and physics and very sophisticated graphics; again, it has arcade-like action laid on top of a nice MMO kind of environment. Then Dragon Nest is the one that's really opening the doors to a broader audience. I think the graphics, the setting, and the gameplay itself are all going to appeal to a wide group of people who grew up playing a lot of console action games. It's one of the games that they've been waiting for that they didn't know about, and we're really excited to see how it does. It's been doing great in Asia, and that's another little vote of confidence for us—that it's shown amazing results and there's no shortage of content. It's been proven, and all the bugs have been worked out. China and Japan are some big markets, so we know it's ready and poised for a big opening here. We're really excited about that.

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