Brian Knox knows what it's like to put out a Korean MMO in the West and get little notice for it. He worked on NCsoft's Lineage II -- a game that's huge in Seoul but doesn't draw more than a small, passionate audience outside of Asia.
The story is completely different, however, for the recently-launched PC online game Aion. Released last year in South Korea, it hit North America and Europe 10 months and three major updates later -- in what appears to have been a successful program to beef up game content, build buzz, and ensure localization quality.
With news immediately prior to the launch that the game had reached 400,000 preorders in the West, the game obviously has outpaced the majority of MMO imports. What lead to this success? Gamasutra discussed process and philosophy with Brian Knox, who works out of NCsoft's Seattle studio as a producer on the game.
Aion was obviously a huge launch for NCsoft in Korea prior to the Western launch. How big of a part of NCsoft America's lineup is this game? How important is it?
Brian Knox: Very, very important. We set out from the beginning to make sure that this game was a global success. This game was not created for the Eastern market, and then we said, "Oh, I guess we can release it in the West." From the very beginning, this was part of our goal.
Was that the first time that NCsoft has really worked on a global product launch in that way? I get the impression that Lineage II was primarily created for the Korean market. Is this a departure?
BK: I think that Guild Wars was very much created for a worldwide market, but as far as [originating] from the East, actually, yes. This was our first foray with an Eastern developer, making sure that the product has the research and knowledge from all parts of the world.
So, how early were you guys able to get involved in the process? Was that something from way early in the concepting stage? When did they bring you in?
BK: Aion has actually been in development for, I believe, around five years now. We had a change in philosophy in about 2005, towards the end of it. We actually debuted the game then at E3, which was part of our statement in saying, "This is game is for the West as well." I have been involved ever since 2005, when this game was really starting to come together into its present form.
Thematically, it's a more than slight departure from a lot of the games in the market. It's very different than the World of Warcraft or Warhammer fantasy realm. It's got a different kind of aesthetic. What kind of input did you have into the visual aesthetic?
BK: The visual aesthetic was definitely left in the hands of the art director and the art team. We give things here and there -- pieces -- but we trusted the art director for the style and the overall theme of Aion.
Part of creating a global game is not necessarily making a meld of everything, but taking bits and pieces of everything, which I think is a little bit different.
Because if you try and make one piece of art that is completely globally fitting everywhere, you're probably just going to fail. So, you need to go with a particular vision on the art style, ensure that the quality is very high, and then from there assume good art is appreciated in all regions at that point.
It's shown to be the case in console titles, which have more of a background of Asian influence.
BK: Right. One of the things we were thinking of was what titles are out there and what can we offer that's something new and different. We've got a lot of Western gameplay features and story-driven quests and all that kind of stuff, but as far as that paired with the game that has kind of this little bit more Eastern art style, that was a new combination for us.
When it comes to what you would characterize as "Western" gameplay, that's an interesting question to me. What are the kind of things that you suggested or even that the team themselves researched and incorporated that you think are particularly Western or changed the scope from prior Asian-derived games?
BK: I think customization and choice are a lot of it. One of their concerns with the Korean market is that they're very much about trends, so if one person's doing something, everybody tends to do it. Whereas Western players kind of have a little bit more in terms of individuality as far wanting to go and do their own thing and be their own person. So, the customization is actually very much one of the heart of the Western features.
I think the other major one would be just the story. From the very beginning, we sat with them and hammered out the different story details, how things were written here that were incorporated into the game, ideas that were changed and kind of polished and tweaked along the way. But keeping that central focus on the story I think was a little bit more of a Western idea comparatively to previous MMOs released in Asia.
When you're talking about working with the team in terms of the story, what was the process for that? Did you guys just brainstorm in North America, come up with some sort of documentation, and ship it over? Were there video conferences? How did that process work?
BK: It was a little bit of sharing. They would write something, and then we would write something, and then Europe would write something. The European office, which is a lot of our writers, actually had a lot of input into the story. We had some really talented writers -- still do, actually. It's one of those "share the assets around, see what everybody thinks, see where we can go with this" type of thing.
When you say you would write something, did you start with a core concept that was the basis? How simple was it?
BK: I think it was more developing the histories of the world. We had this core concept of how we wanted to have these three factions. All that was fairly set just based on our design of the game and the story.
In terms of like their personalities, how did they get to where they are? Here's the whole of the story, what actually happened here. Maybe somebody in Korea would read it and everything sounds fun to them, but maybe someone in Europe would notice a hole here, or in North America notices a hole here, and so they would say, "What if this caused this?" And they said, "Would that fit with everything else?" "Yes." So that idea would be integrated in.
I'm assuming the European office was producing text in English as well. But obviously the developers in South Korea were reading your translated text, and their text was being translated for you.
BK: Yeah, it wasn't without hardship. It's not an easy thing when you speak different languages and sometimes three different languages -- French or German. There were some difficulties. There were times where we'd go back and forth and then finally realize we were talking about the same thing, and it was just coming out a little differently.
I think part of being a global company is going over those hurdles and move forward. If we all love Aion, we want the best for it. I think there is a difference, and we always try to figure out, "Is this a communication issue? Or is this an actual difference of opinion?" I think that's one thing you always got to look at right away when you're dealing with someone who speaks a different language than yourself.
Yeah, absolutely. I think the mentality has got to be key. I think what you're talking about, about the fact that you had a common goal and that everybody was sort of aware of what that common goal was, was probably what made it possible.
BK: We had a lot of very, very passionate people in the office at Seattle, and all of our locations. That made it all worthwhile in the end.
You talked about the difference between the communication breakdowns versus a difference in opinion. Were there a lot of differences in opinion, or was it more of an open collaboration?
BK: I would say it was a collaboration with openness. Aion has a certain feel of it -- you alluded to some of the art, but also in the story. I think everyone involved had that same sense of feeling, so we all knew when something fit or when something didn't. It was more filling in the holes of certain storylines, certain areas, or just clarifying certain points to maybe some audiences.
One thing was removing the reference, talking about Aion the god and Aion the tower being the same. In the lore, they are, they're one in the same, but to our audience, it didn't resonate as well as the Eastern audiences. That doesn't make it false in our market. It's just something that maybe we don't highlight or touch on. I think that's a lot of what Aion's about.
Everybody keeps asking us, "What are you changing for the Western market?" And a lot of it is not about changing but giving people the choice, and the way we present that. So, in the story, we won't present certain areas that are foreign-feeling to our audience. And then Korea will commit things to the audience, and then Japan will commit things to their audience.
I think that's very obvious just in our marketing versus the web site, all those type of things. You know, it's a different audience, so you highlight different areas. The key was making sure that Aion had enough for everybody to go around.
You emphasize what is appealing about the game, but you don't actually modify the game. You just call it to the fore.
BK: Yeah. And I think that goes into some of the design and changes. We're talking a lot about our latest version that we're going to have at launch, the 1.5 version. This version is kind of a culmination of a lot of our feedback, but it's also the culmination of what we think finally has everything that's needed to be offered in the Western market.
When the game was launched in Korea in November, that was a decision because we felt the game, what it had, and what it was offering was ready for that market. We had the opportunity to launch this game maybe sooner, but we didn't feel wit necessarily had everything it needed in our market. So, we wanted to make sure through and through that this game was ready for the Western market.
Unfortunately, we're battling against a really bad stereotype of a lot of games that were brought over really poorly from the East that most people are kind of attaching us to. We're trying to really say, "You know, this is different. We're not one of these millions of clones that are just trying to translate and push out."
You talked about how you've expanded your localization efforts and your writing efforts. Did you guys have to staff up for Aion?
BK: Yeah. It's been a long process with our writing. We've re-written the game a few times, actually, to make sure we got the highest quality. We started with a few people in Austin, and then we added three or four people in Europe, and finally we all kind of -- I don't know if we met in the middle -- picked the location of Seattle and came here.
Now, I think we're up to 15 writers. Our lead writer, Marti McKenna, she had a lot of experience from Guild Wars. She was able to bring in a lot of quality writers from both Guild Wars, as well as from some published fantasy authors.
We really took the approach of treating this game -- when it comes to writing -- as reading the translation as the guideline for the main points of the stories. But that doesn't mean we just correct it for grammar and re-arrange the sentences. It's like we've read it, we got the idea, okay, rewrite it. With that approach, I think our quality has crazily increased.
So, the primary text generation is taking place in South Korea once the plot has been agreed on, and then you guys take the raw English translation and work with that?
BK: Yeah. I've talked to some of the people at other companies. A lot of times, what happens for the writing groups is there will be a mission designer, they'll design a mission, they'll write some quick garbage text, and they'll throw it at the writers and say, "Here."
Really, that's not that much different than just giving some translated text for our writers. It's actually almost the exact same process. It's new for us to take that approach of treating this as kind of like early design and actually redoing it all with the writing team. Because before, you'd sit there and say, "Well, I have all this English. I better just keep it exactly the same and polish it." But that's not the same as actually rewriting the content.
Do you worry that inconsistencies could potentially crop up down the road? Do you have a strict bible?
BK: We definitely have a bible. We definitely have tons of documentation. We have a few people here where if they passed away, we'd be in trouble, especially right now. It's a lot of just knowing a lot about the game.
At the same time, we run everything back by Korea and say, "Hey, we're going to be talking about this here. This is the bit that you guys are going with. [We need to make sure] we're not spoiling anything that you had planned." There are some secrets within the story and lore that were intended to be that way and for the player to experience, and we want to make sure that those types of things are revealed at the same pace with our audience as it is for other audiences.
The one mantra that we've all kept through localization is very few people read. We want to keep things short and sweet in all our writing, and we really want to make sure the cutscenes really hammer home the story and the identity of the world and get the point across very fast.
I would say on average, most players are clickers, right? They just click click, "What am I going to get?" I think the cutscenes make people click click, and then a cutscene starts, and they're like, "Oh!" So, if they want to watch that, unless you're doing it for the second or third time, you're going to watch that cutscene.
That emphasis on story, is that something you had all decided teritorially? That does seem to stand out to me for MMOs. They're not that heavily story-focused usually.
BK: I think it was very important to us. We have a new IP, right? So that by itself means we need to put more emphasis on creating this world for the players. For instance, when our beta started and some of our alpha testing, you'd create a character, you'd be in the world, and some dude was telling you to do something, and you were like, "Why?" So, it was a big question of why.
We created the CG videos, really kind of laid the story and the groundwork, but we also have the prologue videos that introduce each race. We've actually spliced in some more 2D animation within the game that really gives some history and really drives home the purpose of why.
I think that when you have a new IP that is a little different -- it's not your orcs versus elves type of game where everybody kind of knows -- you have got to kind of identify your side, your people, your world, and what place you're taking.
I thought your statement that very few people read was an interesting one. Is that research on player behavior that you guys have collected over the years?
BK: Yeah. It's definitely player behavior from what we've collected and what we've seen. Especially with the core audience of MMO gamers, you can kind of start dividing up the types of players. There's a whole bunch of studies on "Are you a killer, or explorer, or adventurer?" and all that kind of stuff.
I would say that the majority of players, they want to kind of know the basics, but they certainly don't want to have to click through four pages of text. They want to see a few key names, kind of see what the point is, and be able to move on. For us, we've been going with kind of the one-page rule. If we can keep it all on a page and users don't have to scroll through, we think we have a lot better chance of telling a story and getting through to the users about the world than we do if there's just gobs and gobs of text.
I'm not super familiar with Korean developers, but I know that Japanese developers have an obsession with text. Is that something that you find with Korean developers? Is their natural instinct to really go text heavy?
BK: Well, it's always shorter because the language is shorter. The way the translation comes through... we end up, in our rewriting process, going down about 30 percent from what's translated. How much of that is actually based on the Korean text versus just the way it was translated, I couldn't really tell you, but chopping 30 percent of anything is quite a bit.
Something we're learning as a medium is trying to find a balance. I find that people right now are really trying to find a real balance of how much story is satisfying, and how much is too much, and how much is too little. I've seen a lot of swing and miss in both too much and too little lately.
BK: Right. If you don't give the user a purpose or a reason for being there, then you've missed. But if you just give them so much that they're overwhelmed or they just to ignore it, then you've missed as well. It is definitely a happy medium that you have to find.
As I've been talking to developers of MMOs, and I think that as you observe some of the trends that have gone in the past couple of years, shaky launches aren't really acceptable in the way they used to be.
BK: No. Or betas. From the very beginning, when we started planning our betas, I was like, "It's not going to be like other betas. We can't do that." Betas are pretty much launch. It's like putting out your demo on Xbox 360. Everybody is going to judge you on that.
You're not going to be going into beta and everybody going, "Oh, it's okay you've got bugs." or "It's not complete." You have got to put one of your best feet forward with betas. A lot of our planning around beta was to show some progression, but at the same show something that's a very solid product.
Is the Korean audience more forgiving to games that aren't as complete at launch?
BK: I don't think so. It's funny, their players complain just as much as our players. They complain about a little different things. Like I said, it's making sure that the pieces for that market are in place so that their stuff is in place. There was a lot more emphasis on PVP in the Korean market, so we made sure that our PVP system was through and through sound. Whereas our market tends to have a little more interest in PVE, with instances and quests, so we wanted to make sure that was sound before it launched here.
I had a friend who used to work at NCsoft, and he worked as a GM on Lineage II. And hearing him talk about the behavior of the Korean audience versus the behavior of the North America audience was interesting. Lineage II had something of a really hardcore audience in North America.
BK: Yes. They're very passionate.
Hearing about the behavioral differences and the idea of trying to get the Korean developers to understand the Western audience's behavior, which was not the same as the very wide, general audience that Lineage II had in Korea, was interesting. Did you learn from that whole Lineage II process, and flow that into Aion?
BK: Certainly. I was actually on Lineage II... I actually overlapped products for a little while. There was a lot of good learning from Lineage II. I think we had a very solid game that we didn't put enough focus on localization, in my opinion, which is something that we adapted, obviously, for Aion.
It's just making sure, like I said, that it's ready for your market. If we would have held off on Lineage II for maybe a couple updates, it might've been in a little different state, and things might have been different. We also ran the betas a lot different with Lineage II. We were very open. I believe we had -- I want to say unlimited signups for open beta for Lineage II. That caused issues later on. There were a lot of mistakes along the way with Lineage II that we corrected.
But there were also some things that we did good. I think we've done a good job of keeping Lineage II up to date. And I think we're working hard to make sure that Aion is even more up to date. That delta between the Korean launch and our launch, while it's long this time, it's better for both community and players and development team to be as close as possible. If you're familiar with game development -- obviously you are -- supporting two different branches of code becomes a huge pain in the ass. So, you want to keep that as short as possible, that window of time where you're different.
Are patches going to be global and simultaneous once the game is out in both territories?
BK: We're going to get them as close as possible. I think that everyone will be a little different in terms of the timing. If a patch is maybe heavy on some sort of content that maybe doesn't require as much localization work as another patch, than maybe that one will be a little bit smaller, as far as the delta. There might be an instance where it's best for all of us to launch all at once. I think we're just going to take it on a case-by-case basis. It's definitely our goal to stay within one to two months, as far as up-to-date.
There's an issue in the market, and you've alluded to it. The markets are sort of breaking down into a lot of free to play games right now -- people are really pushing them -- and then premium subscription games, which Aion is. How do you see the room for subscription games and the room for competition there?
BK: Yeah. I think the other market is still maturing. We had the late '90s and the early 2000s, where everyone was trying to figure out what exactly an MMO was, and everyone was trying all these things. Every year, there's something different that someone's trying.
Most of the time, the people that are successful with something are somebody that just put out a good quality product. They well planned from the beginning their business model and their product. That's what we're doing with Aion. We set out from the beginning with this game and our business model in mind and what we're going to do. As long as we deliver a high-quality product, which we will, we think we'll be fine.
That's a fair point. But it does seem like there have been some fall off on the major launches. Warhammer closed a lot of servers not that long after starting. Age of Conan stumbled majorly. I'm not asking you to theorize what happened with other products, but what kind of planning did you do to make sure you've got that solidity to compete?
BK: I think that some of it goes back to the unique advantage that we do get to launch a little bit after Korea, right? A game that has been on the market for almost 10 or so months when we launch provides huge advantages.
Our pressure was to launch, but we needed to make sure that we launched a product that was very high quality. I think we went that extra step. I think we probably could have had a high quality product maybe a couple months ago, but I still think that we want it to be super high quality and not take a chance because you only launch once, and it's very hard to recover from a bad launch.
So, for us, it was better to wait and go with that very high quality later on. We've had three major updates since launch. I think most people say every MMO should always launch with its first major update, so lucky for us, we have three.
Have there been any actual substantive changes from the Asian version? Or did you all plan it so effectively that that's not really the case?
BK: I think it was adding versus changing. I mean, we changed things like the default control scheme -- I'd say "added", because it's true. We've added channels for different languages, but Korea is going to use that feature as well. We've added more Western faces inside the character creation, but Korea, we're going to use that as well. They'll be using those faces. We've added quests and instances.
You don't necessarily want to hold out because they might be appealing to people in that territory. For instance, we have a vendor in the game where you can and buy like the traditional garb for each territory. Our garb is in the works right now, but you can go and buy a kimono from Japan or you can buy a hanbok.
It's like those things are so cool, to show this is a global game, and we're all together and a part of this. They'll be able to buy ours over there. It's not like "ours". It's all about providing, and letting each market determine what they want to use and how they want to promote it. We're not going to have a giant web page with a kimono on it, but at the same time, we don't want to deny people the ability to wear a cool kimono in a game, because I think it's really cool.
I think that's intelligent, because in the end, you can try as much as you want to predict or cater to user behavior, but you don't actually know what will stick.
BK: Aion has very Asian parts to it. I think that if you start suppress that, that's not a good thing, necessarily, because we have a lot in our audience who will really enjoy those particular aspects. For instance, the visuals. Can we show different things on the front of our website or page to appeal to Western audience? Yes. But should we still have that option to make the cool looking anime figure in the character creator? Yeah, because that's going to be a large portion of our audience, people that are attracted to Asian games.
If you think about it, if you look at Square Enix, they can make a success out of retaining their identity. Look at Final Fantasy. It has a huge audience in the West despite the fact that it does retain its identity.
BK: Right. And we think that audience will actually like Aion.
It is definitely an interesting question, though, because it's all coming to the fore in what is a huge launch for your company. This is really NCsoft's biggest launch since Tabula Rasa.
BK: Yeah. I'd say it's pretty big for us. We have some things in our past. We really want to do this right, and we've learned a lot. It's very important for a company.
It's somewhat a competition thing, too. Korea launched, and they're kicking a lot of ass, so is Taiwan, and so is Japan, and China as well. We all want to do our best with the products in our market. We can't let anybody down, right?
I do feel like this game has gotten a lot more buzz than Lineage did.
BK: You're totally right. As an example for closed beta, I planned on having two servers for each territory, North America and Europe, and we ended up with six just to accommodate the influx of users from our preorders, our giveaways, and all that stuff. It really took off. I think people noticed the quality. They said, "You know what? This game's ready, and it's not even launching yet. And they're putting that extra effort in."
On top of that, we go into our Westernization and localization, and they start reading, and they're like, "Hey, this isn't just weird translated text that doesn't make all that much sense. This is a compelling story written by a Western writer." I think it really has taken off. I think people really want to have some high quality MMO choices, and I think that's what Aion is about. It's going to be out there as another high quality MMO choice for users to play.