Back in 2009, the landscape wasn't exactly rosy for NCsoft - at least in the Western markets. Tabula Rasa, hugely expensive to create, had failed to make an impact and relations with lead designer Richard Garriott were strained. The company opted to streamline operations and end development of new titles in the UK headquarters in Brighton, leading to a number of redundancies.
Two years on and under the stewardship of MD Veronique Lallier the boat has stabilised - the recent financial results were solid, and here Lallier explains how the business is more focused than ever before, and looks ahead to future developments.
Q: Take us through the development of the business since you took on the role of MD for Europe.
Veronique Lallier: Well, since early 2009 we launched Aion, which is one of our biggest MMO franchises, and coming from the East we also had Lineage II. It was crucial for us to launch that game globally - at the same time in the West - and we're very happy. We take great satisfaction from the results.
As you can see from our recent financials we're maintaining a steady course, with both of those franchises central to our success. Lineage has been amazing - but then we've also got the City of Heroes and Guild Wars titles, and they're bringing in millions of players.
So back in 2009 when we restructured the team with NCsoft West we focused on making sure we were launching our games in the best manner possible. The products we launch aren't so much games as they are services, so it's critical to be organised and make sure we have the best team in place here in Brighton to support them properly.
At the moment we're very focused on customer support, and the publishing side of the job - but over the past couple of years we've been looking to add key talent to our team... Cat Channon being one of them, for example, so that we can build more bridges with the press.
What we've been doing has perhaps been a little unclear, but we were lacking those talents - we've also appointed a couple of executives in the NCsoft West headquarters, so finally that team is complete. We're really excited, and looking ahead to launching future games.
Q: The last real batch of news we had from NCsoft in Europe was a bit difficult - you mention the restructuring that ended game production in Brighton. What's the landscape like now?
Veronique Lallier: Our focus is really triple-A MMO games - big games like Aion, Lineage II, Guild Wars and so on. That's the key focus for NCsoft West - we had been looking at other kinds of more casual games, that were free-to-play or browser- or small client-based, but back in 2009 we decided to completely refocus our efforts on what we're good at.
We know how to launch big MMOs, and I think our focus has been very successful. Our recent financial results were good, and I think for us it's key to provide to the market a new gaming experience - something very exciting for the players. We tried different genres of MMOs, but we decided to focus.
I've been in the games industry for ten years, and previously publishers might launch 100 games in a year. If you look at the market today that's changed to really focus on the very big titles - fewer games but with higher quality - and that's the strategy we're really going for, targeting those MMO games that we know will be successful.
We don't want to launch ten smaller games which might be more niche - we're looking for global success, and that's what we're getting with games like Aion.
In terms of how the European team looks now, we have a publishing team, that incorporates communication. We've got a sales team, a marketing team - that includes community and localisation - and a big customer support team that's split between games.
Then there's finance and HR, and that's basically it - we're really focused on how to serve our customers and how to bring our products to market.
Q: Are we likely to see development happen again in Brighton in the future?
Veronique Lallier: To be honest, not in the short term. We already have a lot going on in terms of development at NCsoft - we'll unveil more about that later this year, but you'll probably be aware of some of the announcements we've made in Korea on Blade & Soul, and of course Guild Wars 2. There are a few other unannounced projects too.
But as I said before, what we're really looking at are big MMO projects - and those are so big that we really only want to focus on a few projects to create high quality. The life cycle of an MMO is so long compared to a traditional solo console game.. it's a completely different way to approach things, and at the moment we're not looking at more projects in Europe.
Our European input is received in the US and Korea, and we have a lot of meetings to make sure that when we bring a game into a market, it's not only localised, but adapted to that market. It's what we did with Aion - the recent patch applied some new features for the European market, and we'll always make sure that the game is in sync with player expectation.
That's also part of the reason why we have such a large customer service and community team in Brighton - to be able to gather customer feedback at every stage of the development; but also when the game is live in order to make improvements.
It doesn't really matter that we don't have a development team based in Europe, because the goal of our games is to provide an amazing experience globally - we make sure that Europe is factored into that.
Q: One thing from those financial results that stood out was that the original Lineage yielded its best ever annual revenues in 2010... despite being 12 years old. How on Earth is that possible?
Veronique Lallier: Yes - Lineage is an incredible product. It's still acquiring users and still exciting - it's showing great results and that's thanks to a development team that's listening to the market, to what's going on and what the player wants. The success of the game is continuing to improve, year after year - it's true that MMO games have a long tail, and Lineage is an example of that.
Q: Ongoing development is obviously one thing, but the MMO market has fundamentally changed in just the last five years alone - and 12 years is a very long tail. How does the company refresh and reinvent that experience, to that degree?
Veronique Lallier: The market has changed, as has the player expectation - but the patches and game updates are huge, and in some ways we're recreating the world to make sure it's appealing to the market. It's something that NCsoft is very good at - we're one of the only publishers in the world to have that expertise, and the talent to help a game that's very old continue to see success.
Q: Have you been surprised by the way that the games industry has expanded, with the growth of companies such as Zynga and Playfish? It's interesting, as it implies there are massive new markets that have hitherto been untapped.
Veronique Lallier: It's amazing - it's great. More people are coming into the market, who won't necessarily play a big MMO yet, but they're starting with Facebook games - for us it's great, because they're helping to develop the market. More people are online and starting to play - and perhaps one day they'll buy Guild Wars 2?
But it's certainly very interesting, and we're looking closely at what they're doing - although it's not something we're developing in the West. In Korea they're doing some things, but those are specific to that market.
What we do understand, though, is that the game experience should extend beyond the PC - and the mobile platform is a good means to deliver more enjoyment for the user outside of the PC. So it's something we're looking at in terms of platform, I'd say. We launched some iPhone apps for Aion last year, and we're always investigating that kind of thing.
Q: Do you look at ways of converting all those Farmville or Cityville players into Guild Wars 2 players?
Veronique Lallier: Definitely it's a new target audience for us, so we'll look at what they're doing. We're really looking at a fresh stream of users, and it's a type of user that will be very happy with a game like Guild Wars 2 - because our focus on that game is to make the best MMO ever created on the PC, and we want to make it accessible for any ages.
We don't want people to feel pressured to pay by subscription, or something - the franchise has never had that, and Guild Wars 2 won't either. I think we'll make the game appealing to a wide audience, and we're trying to remove all of the barriers that a premium MMO player faces - needing to play a certain number of hours to level up, or things like that.
It's a key priority in our development for the game - to make sure that it appeals to a wide audience, that it pleases core gamers and non-core gamers alike.
Q: How important is it for NCsoft to provide a range of business models today? Consumers certainly have a lot of choice these days.
Veronique Lallier: Well, we already have multiple business models, and we still believe it's the way to go to suit a wider audience. We don't have anything to add to that in the short term, but in time we'll reveal other games, and they may include other business models.
We're working on different strategies for monetising our games, and it's something very close to my heart - you might remember that I presented a session at Develop in Brighton on how to monetise your digital world - but it's a subject I love.
We're always looking at how to provide the best for the users, but also the company, and we're always keeping an eye on what's happening elsewhere.
Q: So we've talked about the past - now to look ahead. What more is there to do from your perspective, and where do you see the business going from here? Would you like to see the European revenues compete with or overtake North American revenues, for example?
I expect that the evolution of those Eastern European revenues will be greater in the coming years - territories like Russia, Greece and Poland are really important. We're definitely looking at those markets to bring more to our bottom line in the future. We have tailored offerings for every territory, and we're using distribution partners for each EMEA region - it's a total of 50 territories altogether.
Veronique Lallier is MD for Europe at NCsoft West. Interview by Phil Elliott.