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Interview: En Masse VP Talks Tera, The Company's Future

Seattle-based En Masse has attracted many industry veterans in the run-up to its 2011 MMO Tera; Gamasutra speaks to VP Chris Lee about the game and the future of the U.S. based, Seoul-funded publisher.
Earlier this year, South Korean MMO developer Bluehole Studio, which was founded in 2007, announced the formation of En Masse Entertainment, a publishing entity focused on the Western market and based in Seattle, Washington. The company quickly attracted a number of industry veterans from companies like BioWare, Bungie, and NCsoft. One such veteran who joined the company is publishing vice president Chris Lee, who worked at Electronic Arts marketing the Need For Speed franchise, then at Microsoft on Xbox 360 and PC games before landing at NCsoft, working on its most recently launched MMO, Aion. He's now at En Masse, which he calls an "awesome opportunity" he "couldn't pass up". The publisher currently only has one product: the South Korea-developed PC MMO Tera, which it plans to launch in 2011, with the usual slate of closed and open betas in the run-up to release. Though he describes parent company and 200-strong Tera creator Bluehole as "primarily a developer", he says that its board of directors is "very business-minded." So "they decided that they wanted to self-publish in the West, and that's why they put the effort and the energy behind En Masse." Interestingly, the game is being published by NHN in South Korea. Tera is in many ways a traditional PC fantasy MMO, but features an emphasis on action-based combat to appeal to a broader audience -- one broad enough to make its release as premium boxed product feasible in a market crowded with free-to-play options, when it launches next year. Targeting Tera Though developed in Seoul, Lee says that the game is "absolutely" targeted at the Western market, thanks to the vision of angel investor and Neowiz founder Byung-Gyu Chang. "His vision behind starting Bluehole and making Tera was to have a global success, so they really studied a lot of what Western gamers' preferences were, what successful Western games that they had seen in the marketplace did before deciding on the approach that Tera would take," says Lee. As far as the premium pricing goes, Lee says that the company "looked at all of the alternative business models. We looked at where I think Tera fit... we felt like it was a triple-A [game] client, we felt like we could deliver a triple-A service, and when we looked at the games that were still -- you know, a small number -- but the games that were still in that space, that Tera could certainly hold its own." While Bluehole recognizes that the game has to have all of the basics of MMO game design -- classes, guilds, quests -- Lee says that the title stands out "when you're actually engaged in combat, to have a more visceral reaction, more gratification out of walking away from a single encounter." There's a good business reason for this, says Lee. "I think we look at our primary audience as still being within that MMO community, but the opportunity [is] to really grow the market -- I think growing the market is the key. "If we only ever address the people who are in the existing MMO audience, we're expecting them to come to us -- without really ever extending beyond what we're, as an industry, capable of doing." Attracting the Right Audience Confident that experienced PC MMO gamers will appreciate the game, Lee says that Tera's action gameplay -- including making the game compatible with the Xbox 360 control pad on the PC -- is calculated go after an audience used to playing console games and encourage "get their feet wet" with the genre. However, En Masse isn't ready to target them more directly, though the team has considered that. "I think there's some challenges, depending on the platform that you're looking at," says Lee. "Our client in particular happens to be a bit of challenge to run on the existing hardware" -- meaning Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Tera is built on Unreal Engine 3, which drives many popular games for those consoles, recognizes Lee. He adds: "But at the same time... there are few games that run thousands of players simultaneously. Most of them are dozens of players at the most. I would love to do an MMO on a console, and I think at some point the game design and the system requirements will line up, and hopefully sooner rather than later." Lee hopes to get an expanded audience interested in the game, in the meantime, through marketing and via media and community outreach efforts. "We'll try to be strategic about the media that we buy, about the assets that we create that really deliver the message. At En Masse Entertainment, we try to do everything very earnestly; we're trying to take an approach where it's not about the slick voice-over guy doing the Hollywood trailer. We wanna get people excited, but we also want to be real." Life Beyond Tera? When it comes to the future of En Masse, is there life beyond Bluehole and Tera? In fact, says Lee, "Our goal would be to go beyond what Bluehole's producing. I think they're the type of studio that's going to produce blockbuster hits, but take multiple years in between each one." Post-Tera launch, Lee says that the publisher will investigate adding "a small portfolio of high quality titles to our lineup as well," and only online games at that. "I would say our primary goal would be to stick with MMOs, but we also want to take a good look at what's out there, and find the best content." En Masse staffers like chief operating officer Patrick Wyatt, recently of ArenaNet, has the contacts to augment the Asian market-focused board of directors when searching for new developers, says Lee. "I think that gives us the opportunity to really look at both, and we haven't really dialed into one and said that that's just going to be all we do."

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