Q&A: Gala-Net's John Young Talks Asian MMO Domination

Throughout the rise of the Asian MMO company in the West (NCSoft, Webzen, Nexon), San Jose-based Gala-Net has been quietly debuting 'free to play, pay for items' games like Fly For Fun. As it ramps up to launch free car combat MMO Upshift Strik
The last couple of years have seen a major surge in Asian companies bringing MMOs and online games to the West, with companies such as NCSoft, Webzen, K2 and Nexon scaling up significantly, particularly with regard to the 'free to play, pay for items' business model. However, there's at least one company - San Jose's Gala-Net - that's been pursuing this model for some time already. Founded in August 2004 as a subsidiary of large Japanese online community firm Gala, the firm was set up partly to publish Fly For Fun (or Flyff for short) in North America. This title, distributed via Gala-Net's portal, is a free-form flying game which is free to download, but in which you pay for items. Flyff was developed by Korean-based Aeonsoft, another of Gala's subsidiaries, and has been launched in multiple countries - and is probably Gala-Net's most well-known title. In addition, the firm, which - like newer startups such as the revamped Acclaim - also distributes other free-to-play Asian titles such as Rappelz and Space Cowboy Online, has just announced that it's bringing online multiplayer car combat game Upshift StrikeRacer to North America. Particularly notable alongside this is the hiring of former Massive Inc. exec John Young as the corporate vice president of operations. Recently, Gamasutra caught up with Young to talk to him about his new position, and why he thinks “Upshift's culturalization for the North American market” will make sense. A fifteen year industry veteran, Young most recently worked as the senior director of business development with in-game advertising firm Massive Incorporated, years he claims gave him “unique insight into different revenue streams open to the gaming industry”, and prepared him well for his new job at Gala-Net. “One of the reasons I was attracted to Gala-Net was this idea of new revenue streams, in particular virtual items,” Young commented. “I really think [the rise of pay-to-download virtual items in online games] is one of the next great things.” But are Asian-originated games such as Upshift StrikeRacer an appropriate fit for the North American market in cultural terms? Do players connect well with the content? Gala-Net has so far had some success with Flyff, which is arguably an under-the-radar success story. It turns out that careful cultural changes, in Young's eyes, are the key. “If you were to literally translate the game's dialogue without creatively thinking about it, it might not turn out so well. You have to 'culturalize' it as well. With Upshift we renamed it [the original game is called Accro Xtreme in Korea], added a new graphical look, new characters, and new music and sounds,” Young explained. “There are all sorts of different themes underlying why you do things, and I think we have an active approach to do just that.” He also noted, in addition to making the title grittier and changing the characters to be more Western-appropriate, that the technology for Korean games is getting increasingly complex - hence: "The Korean market offers a lot of technical innovation, that is their strength. We are adding ours." Young was most eloquent when talking about the advantages of the 'free to play, pay for items' model: “Essentially, if our only buy in with consumers is for them to walk up to the counter and purchase a $70 product, I think we're missing something,” he said. “You can't beat free, and with our products we are off the radar in a lot of ways... but if you look at stats from [gaming IM/friend service] Xfire, we have tens of thousands of people playing concurrently.” However, he conceded that “there's an art in constructing a game that is satisfying to both audiences,” namely those who are keen to devote hours to a single session, and those “who just don't have the time, but want to get to the end-game content.” However, it's clear that Upshift StrikeRacer, which may not be completely dissimilar to NCSoft's less successful, subscription-based Auto Assault, is intended to draw people in with some simple, visceral gameplay - Young described the overall concept of the game as an “adrenaline snack." As for Gala-Net's plans for North America, he revealed that the company plans to release “at least one more game this year, and four more next year." The specific titles are not yet revealed, but he did note that "...for some games we'll take a game in the latter stages of development and bring it to the North American market, while others are developed internally." Wrapping up, we asked Young if Gala-Net was content to stay within the PC space, or if the company had aspirations to eventually court console players as well. “I wouldn't rule it out,” he responded. “The Xbox 360 especially has pretty similar architecture to what we are used to with PCs. When Massive was acquired by Microsoft, we got to look at the console, but it wouldn't support all of the things that we support today, namely virtual items and trading.” “However,” he added, “...we want to keep the focus on the screen, and provide games that are very 'pick up and go' sorts of experiences. In this way, our games may be a good fit for the console market in the future.”

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