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E3: NCSoft prepares to go Massive

The videogames industry may have been born in the west, but it was an invasion from the Far East which truly brought games to the mass market, as Nintendo, Sega and later Sony built the consoles which are now instantly recognisable to entire generations of people. Similarly, role-playing games as we know them now were largely invented in the west - but it could well be another eastern invasion that brings them to an audience their creators could hardly have dreamed of.

If Japan is the hub of the console industry, then neighbouring South Korea is the hub of the online gaming industry - most notably, the massively multiplayer online gaming industry. Often described as one of the world's most wired societies, Korea took to high-speed internet before many nations had even started grappling with modems, and while the console game market there is small, PC online games are huge. Just ask Blizzard, whose WarCraft and StarCraft titles have many of their most hardcore fans in the region, or Valve, whose Counter-Strike add-on for Half-Life has been implicated in the deaths of young players who played for so long that they developed deep vein thrombosis, a condition normally seen in passengers on long-haul airline flights.

Big in Korea

Better again, ask NCSoft, the firm behind the world's most popular subscription-based online game. That game is Lineage, and you may well not have heard of it. Dwarfing Everquest, Final Fantasy XI or even World of Warcraft, Lineage boasted millions of subscribers, almost all of them in the Far East. The game was a cultural phenomenon upon its introduction, and along with rival titles like Ragnarok Online, paved the way for massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) to become almost the default form of videogaming for the Korean market.

"MMOGs were the first mass gaming experience for Korea as a whole, as a society," explains NCSoft's Sean Kang. "It's almost like, if you think about how big console games are here, it's almost like that in Korea, except that more people are more familiar with MMOGs, while hardcore gamers like console game titles, boxed products and such."

Now NCSoft hopes to take that phenomenon to the rest of the world. The company has its sights set not only on the rest of Asia - where it already enjoys success in key markets such as Taiwan, "the second biggest market after Korea right now" according to Kang - but on the west as well, where its operations are headed up by legendary MMORPG creators Richard and Robert Garriott, and its intentions are to bring massively multiplayer to the masses.

The key, says Kang, is to get people to try out an MMOG for the first time. "I think that in the last 12 months or so there have been some really exciting titles that have come out in North America, and a lot of people are trying MMOGs for the first time," he says. "When you try an MMOG for the first time, it's a great experience for everyone in the industry, because then you'll be looking for other stuff to try and you'll develop different tastes."

Breaking the Genre

To that end, NCSoft is focusing on expanding MMOGs far past the traditional settings and gameplay with which it is associated - namely the swords and sorcery fantasy worlds which are found in most of the genre's most successful titles, right back to Richard Garriott's own immensely successful Ultima Online, and the title often credited with kick-starting the MMOG market in the west, Meridian 59.

In the company's E3 line-up, then, you'll find a host of titles which don't conform to what most people expect from an MMOG. "I think that there's a new demand for a move away from the traditional fantasy role-playing type of MMOG games," according to Kang. "There's demand for new genres, and more widely appealing factors that are at the face of the game."

City of Heroes is a good example of a game which eschews the traditional fantasy setting in favour of something very different - namely the world of comic book superheroes, and in the City of Villains expansion which will be showcased at E3 this week, super-villains to match. Forthcoming title Auto Assault strays even further from the traditions of the genre, with a focus on upgrading a vehicle rather than a character and fast, action-based vehicular gameplay.

"I think that in North America, where it's a very car-focused culture and people are fascinated by cars, [Auto Assault] will be something that will appeal to them very greatly," says Kang. "That's an advantage that other players in this market don't seem to have right now - new elements and new styles of gameplay."

Warring Factions

Even when they're set in more traditional role-playing universes, NCSoft's titles aren't afraid to break many of the unwritten rules of MMOGs. Take the recently released Guild Wars; a game which was the first massively multiplayer title to be launched simultaneously worldwide, a major accomplishment in itself, but which also debuts a radical new business model whereby players pay no monthly subscription fee, with revenues instead coming from the sale of (optional) content updates.

"One of the reasons is that that way we'll allow people to have more flexibility to play our games," explains Kang. "If you can only play two MMOs or one MMO at a time, it might be a barrier in that kind of sense to have a subscription, and for Guild Wars we're trying a new approach with no subscription, and instead going with paid update content. There are servers and there are virtual online worlds that are happening 24 x 7, we're just not taking a subscription."

And then there's Tabula Rasa - the mystery project being worked on by Ultima creator Richard Garriott, which may get one of its first airings at the show this week. Little is known about the game at this point - especially since it reportedly underwent a major rethink quite recently, rendering all past reports potentially outdated - but NCSoft is promising another "genre-breaking" title, and on the strength of its current output, that's a promise worth taking note of.

Massive Future

Given the breadth of the company's line-up, NCSoft may well be justified in seeing a huge future for the MMOG sector - and it's worth noting, of course, that all the next-gen consoles are tipped to be able to support massively multiplayer gaming. "That's something that we're interested in, and that we're exploring right now," Kang says of console development, "so we'll see about next-generation stuff. It's definitely something that we're interested in."

If the world really is ready to go massively multiplayer, then specialist companies like NCSoft are certainly better positioned to take advantage than traditional publishers, since running an MMOG business is a radically different proposition than running a standard boxed games business.

"It's way, way more difficult," according to Geoff Heath, games industry veteran and now NCSoft Europe boss. "The MMO business is a marathon not a sprint. It's a many year cycle business, and our relationship with the customer really begins when we sell them a box - whereas traditionally, in the regular PC or console game business, you create a product, you put it in a box and sell it, and with very rare exceptions, that's the end of your relationship with the customer. Our relationship actually starts when we sell them a box, and hopefully goes on for years."

NCSoft can be found in booth #1024 of the South Hall at E3

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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