One year ago today, NCsoft announced the formation of NCsoft West - a subsidiary that would combine its existing Western subsidiaries into one central company based in Seattle. The unification of these divisions, it was hoped, would result in a more efficient and effective presence in the West, although some European jobs were lost as the company downsized, including development jobs as its Brighton studio was shuttered.
Today business is going well for NCsoft following the successful launch of Aion across Korea resulting in buoyant financials for the year to date, and the showing of the company's Guild Wars 2 at this year's Gamescom.
As a 'culturalised' Aion completes beta testing and is prepared for release across Europe and the US later this year, we talk to NCsoft's managing director of publishing for Europe Véronique Lallier about the division's progress one year on, its future plans and whether the company has ambitions to create games especially for the West.
Q: So, first off, how is the fresh start working out for NCsoft West?
Véronique Lallier: We decided upon the formation of NCsoft West in September of last year. Our HQ is based in Seattle and basically NC West is an umbrella and NCsoft is helping us to release and put into the market, in the best manner, our games in the West. We have a few developers based in Korea and we thought it was very important to get this setting to make sure we had a consistent messaging and presence across all territories.
Q: How has the business progressed over the last 12 months, since you formed NCsoft West?
Véronique Lallier: It's been very positive. We unveiled a few financial results recently that were very, very positive. The launch of Aion is definitely helping. We had a very successful launch in South Korea and it's looking very promising in the West. We are launching Aion on September 25 in Europe and so far we have more than 300,000 pre-orders, so it really looks very promising.
Q: So how have things actually changed since you combined NCsoft Europe and NCsoft Interactive to form NCsoft West?
Véronique Lallier: NCsoft West is providing us with a Western hub, so we find ourselves more efficient in putting our games into the market basically. That is the main change. However, we have always worked close to our American colleagues, even before we had created NCsoft West, so it didn't bring a lot of changes. I've been working for NCsoft for five years since the beginning and haven't found a lot of changes, except for the fact we are more efficient. The communications flow works better and so on.
Q: And do you think it will help NCsoft become more powerful in the West? Presumably that was part of the strategy behind its formation?
Véronique Lallier: Basically, yes. The aim and our main goal with this formation is to be stronger in the West, that's why we decided to create this umbrella. So, hopefully yes I would say! Things look promising, the future looks amazing with Aion coming and all the amazing results we have so far so, fingers crossed this will continue.
Q: How has the transition gone on the development side? Obviously, you lost staff in the UK to studios in the US...
Véronique Lallier: Yes, we had a few staff relocated. Mainly part of publishing, which is really close to the development team. We’ve moved some community team members from Brighton to Seattle. We had all the localisation and QA team move over there as well. At the moment, it's hard to see any difference because the team is flying and travelling a lot. Two weeks ago, we were all in Germany for Gamescom and we had our entire community team there. It hasn’t changed a lot. The team is working in a different time zone now but it's still useful as their working hours correspond with our users; when the community team start the working day is when our users are starting to play our game. They can be closer to them, play at the same time, and be very responsive to their needs.
We still have the same studios we had before in North America - Paragon Studios, Carbine Studios and ArenaNet - and we also have an in-house studio in Seattle, which is the studio responsible for putting on the market our Korean games like Lineage I and II and Aion. In Europe we stopped development on a casual game that we were working on, because we changed our strategy to focus on triple-A MMO games, that has triple-A ambition as well as polish. We decided to step back from the casual gaming market we were starting to investigate because we really believe our knowledge and expertise lies with MMOs. There aren't many companies that have launched as many MMOs as us. We want to focus on that because we believe we do that the best. In the future, we will investigate again with casual gaming but, for now, we want to focus on MMO games like Aion and City of Heroes.
Q: So what sort of plans does NCsoft West have for the future, now it has been up and running for one year?
Véronique Lallier: We unveiled some actually a couple of weeks ago in Cologne. There was a new trailer for Guild Wars 2, obviously a big part of our future. It's a very exciting future. We had a lot of positive feedback on the trailer. We’ve really amazed all our partners with the direction. We don't have a release date yet. You will hear more about the game next year obviously. Apart from that, we have a very promising game in development in our Korean studio - we revealed this under the codename Blade & Soul, which is not the final title, just a working one. We showed a trailer for this game last year, it is still under development in our Korean studio and is looking very promising too. The graphical quality is even higher than Aion - it's stunning.
Q: You've said that Aion will be 'culturalised' rather than localised for its Western release. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Véronique Lallier: So we released Aion nearly a year ago, in December of last year, in Korea. The version we're releasing here in Europe is a 1.5 version. This new version will allow us to bring to the market answers to our consumers' needs. We have changed and improved our character creation to support a more westernised look and feel for the characters. We wanted to make sure this game was 100 per cent responding to our consumer needs and is something we have always been very strong on at NCsoft. We always listen to our consumers and try to improve the game following their requirements so basically all the character creation has been revamped to make sure they have some options which are closer to what they are used to and what they like.
It is now for instance possible to make a dwarf type of character, or an elf, which is something we’re more used to here in the West. We also improved and changed a little bit the way you move your character in the game to make sure, by default, that the control was on the keyboard and not on the mouse. Because in Korea they love moving the character by clicking on the screen, just using one hand. This control method is very used in Asia but not that used in the West. We wanted to make sure that was available for use by our consumers as well. On top of that, the game hasn't changed dramatically - it's still the same great game! It’s just been improved and the European and the Western users are going to benefit from the latest update. So we have the same content the Korean gamers are playing - so they are not six months behind with the content.
Q: So how's the reception been from Western gamers for the Aion open beta?
Véronique Lallier: Very positive. The feedback we have got so far is very promising in France, Germany, UK and all of Europe. Players are looking forward to playing the game and pre-orders are looking very good. We think our consumers are very excited and we are as well.
Q: Does the company have any plans currently to develop games specifically for Western audiences in the future?
Véronique Lallier: Yes. Our developers based in North America are developing games created for the Western market and our Korean office and the Aion team want to develop a game for the West, as well as for the East. That is why we decided to implement all the needs and all the requirements of our European and Western users requested because this is always an incentive - to develop global products suitable for global markets. We have improved more and more over the years because we are coming to better understand our consumer needs. That said, it's something we've always intended to do.
Q: Is is tricky working for a Korean company? Especially when the Korean online market is growing so fast and here is slower... are expectations on its Western division pitched quite high?
Véronique Lallier: I think no, because NCsoft is a very holistic company. Obviously, yes, the Korean market is more mature than ours. It is completely different in the way they sell to the consumer because in Korea it is basically direct to consumer using a PC buying network, whereas in Europe we are relying on our physical distribution network to reach our consumer. It's different but it's not difficult at all because our Korean office really understands how it works for us in the West and we have always been really supported by both the development team and the publishing team in our Korean HQ. I think the fact we are NCsoft West now and we are in one single entity in the West helps us to communicate in the best manner with our Korean HQ. It's definitely not a challenge.
Q: Other Korean companies, such as NHN, have recently moved into the West, meaning you're facing increased competition. Do you have strategies for competing with them?
Véronique Lallier: At the moment, to be honest, we are the only Korean company that has managed to set up in the West. A few others have tried and have never really succeeded so... I think it's always good to have competition. We don't have a specific strategy to beat them..! We have different games for sure, but it doesn't really matter if the competition is coming from the East or the West - we still have the same strategy, and that’s to produce the best games possible for a global market. With Aion, with Guild Wars 2, with our unannounced titles, I think that’s what we’re doing.
Véronique Lallier is European managing director of publishing for NCsoft. Interview by Kath Brice.