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Interview: Gamevil USA President Kyu Lee On Mobile RPGs, The Korean Market

In this new interview, Gamevil's Kyu Lee talks to Gamasutra about the South Korean company's move into iPhone with titles like the Zenonia RPG series, and the shifting mobile game market.
[While Korea-based mobile publisher Gamevil is a major player overseas, the company only recently made an impression stateside, thanks to its success in the iTunes App Store. Within the last two years, Gamevil has released several hit titles for the iPhone and iPod Touch, including the popular Baseball Superstars and the action-RPGs Zenonia and Hybrid: Eternal Whisper. Recently, Brandon Sheffield caught up with Gamevil USA president Kyu Lee, discussing the recent Zenonia 2 and other Gamevil projects, including the upcoming Hybrid 2.] How do you think that the mobile market has changed in the last two years? Kyu Lee: Two years ago, our focus was on traditional mobile phones, or "feature phones." With over 100 million iOS devices out since the introduction of the iPhone almost three years ago -- and with over 65,000 Android devices being shipped every day -- most of our high-data consumers have been switching over to smartphones. For that reason, we thought it was a logical move for game developers to move into that space. Before, we had to work with a lot of different carriers. Even in the U.S., we had to work with 15 to 20 different carriers to get our titles out. But now, with one submission to the App Store, you can get distribution to 84 countries around the world. The tough part for a game developer like us was that we didn't want to spend so much time getting deals done for distribution. We wanted to concentrate on creating better games. So it's been great. The changes have been great for us. Percentage-wise, how much are you doing for smartphones versus feature phones? KL: In the overseas market, it's getting close to 100 percent. How about in Korea? KL: In Korea, smartphone penetration is less than 20 percent. It's still early, but the pace is really fast. Within the last six months, KTF -- which is the iPhone's exclusive distributor in Korea -- sold 700,000 devices. That's almost the fastest rate ever for a single device. And if you combine all the iPod Touch devices with that, we're also getting into the MP3 player market. It's not just the phone market alone. And SK Telecom announced that they're going to launch 13 Android devices by the end of the year. That's going to be really interesting, to see how the market will be changing. Our development will adapt to the market changes. You guys have been taking the tactic of making larger games that offer a much longer play experience. How has that been working out? KL: I think it's been working out pretty well for us. Putting in larger production costs makes it easier to compete in the App Store, and the RPG genre itself is very underserved. I think it has to do with the budget RPGs need. I think in the RPG category right now, five games in the top ten are from Gamevil. Our only other competitor right now is Square Enix. As for other traditional large console players, I don't think they've explored the RPG sector much. It's an open opportunity for us, so why not take advantage of it? Do you not consider [Korean mobile publisher] Com2uS as a competitor in that area? KL: They're a great competitor. They've put out a lot of good quality products. It's just like when you run a marathon -- you need a pace runner to get better records. I think in that sense, Com2Us has been a great competitor for us in the local market. They make us a better company. We might be a straight-up competitor in the domestic market, but the opportunity globally is so huge that I think we end up sharing more information with them, rather than competing with them in a traditional sense. One thing that I noticed is that it almost feels like the recent Zenonia 2 was launched the way that an MMO might be. It seemed like it was launched in a beta form, and there were a bunch of fixes that came right after. Was that intentional -- the tactic of getting it out faster, rather than checking everything before release? KL: I think that sticking with our release dates is an important promise that we must keep with the end users. Of course, we should have ensured the best quality while at the same time keeping that promise, but I don't think we did a good job in doing that. It actually taught us a lot of things, and we'll be reviewing the project to see if there were better ways to improve the process in general. I wouldn't say it was a perfect launch, but the iPhone enables you to continuously update. We're still getting a lot of feedback from customers, and we're preparing another update pretty soon. You'll probably see it within the next month. One thing that I noticed is that the animation is really excellent, and some of the system design is good. But it feels like some of the level design is not all the way there. For instance, the first dungeon is an ice dungeon in which it's hard to control your character. And it's already hard to control your character because you're still getting used to the d-pad. KL: For controls, we're doing a d-pad on a touch device, and I think that's one of the biggest reasons why it can be frustrating from time to time. I don't know if you noticed it, but we've been working on controls and the user interface year-over-year. If you compare it to Zenonia 1, we changed the whole user interface to touch control, where it was totally d-pad-controlled before. We may not hit perfection within a year, but year-over-year, we're constantly trying to improve ourselves. Yeah, the touch screen control within the UI was good. Unfortunately, I can't really beat the first dungeon boss, so I kind of stopped playing. [laughs] KL: Are you leveling up? Yeah, but I don't want to grind forever. KL: We got a lot of feedback on the grinding part. I think Korean users are a little more used to grinding. In Zenonia 2, we tried to reduce the amount of grinding and put in more story or even mini-quests so that we could lead the users to do the quests and not feel like they're grinding in situations where they actually are grinding. I think that as the sequels continue, you'll see more and more improvement on that side, too. Indeed. So what's next for you guys? KL: We just launched Soccer Superstars. It's a sports title, but it's also a role-playing game. Just like in Baseball Superstars, you continuously raise your own character and totally customize it and do super shots. It's a role-playing experience in a sports game. That's what we were trying to bring with Baseball Superstars and our new Soccer Superstars franchise. Our next game is going to be Hybrid 2, the sequel to Hybrid: Eternal Whisper. Opinion was split with the original Hybrid; some people liked it, and some people didn't. We're trying to make it have more of a general appeal, so that everybody can like it. That's one part that we've been focusing on. The other part that we've been focusing on is brightening up all of the sprites. Hybrid was a little bit dark, while Zenonia was more approachable. It was more feel-good than serious. But that was one of the decisions that we've made for Hybrid 2. Brightening up the sprites is one of the things that we'll do. We haven't disclosed much about the game yet, but you'll see screenshots and more details pretty soon. Is NOM creator Bong Koo Shin still creating games? KL: Yeah. He's still doing a lot of interesting stuff -- stuff that hasn't been announced here in the U.S. yet. He's made some fun games that are solely for touch-based UI. He thought, "There's no rubbing games," so he made a game where you have to rub the screen. After NOM 1, 2, and 3, he went back to NOM Zero, and NOM 4 just launched. NOM is continuously going on, and he's still trying to do something that's very unique for the mobile market.

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