The famed Silk Road spanned the thousands of miles between Byzantium with China. Actually made up of multiple land and sea branches, it carried not only the prized cloth for which it was named, but also other goods in both directions - jade, lacquer, ceramics, furs, gems, precious metals, glass and more. Historians believe the route's importance peaked during the first third of the Tang Dynasty, which ruled from 618 to 906 AD. After that, the empire needed its armies to fight and defend against its rivals. This meant caravans had to fend for themselves against increasing numbers of bandits.
Joymax' Silkroad Online takes place in a fictionalized version of this period. Combining elements of history and culture with legends of the time, it offers players three roles and the ability to switch among them. Merchants buy goods to transport elsewhere and sell at a profit. Thieves take from the rich and give to... well, typically themselves, and hunters are mercenaries who can be hired to stop them. I first saw it in Korea a decade ago, a few years before the game's global service made it available to North American players in 2006. However, it has been in operation even longer. Last month, it reached a notable milestone, 15 years in service. This prompted me to get in touch with Choi Inho, Head of Development for the title, to learn more about its past.
In terms of highlights, he prefaced his remarks by noting that it's a very positive experience just seeing players still enjoying the venerable MMORPG after all these years. Then, he chose to name two things that stood out above all else. One is its unanticipated global success. “You see, at first we did not have any plans to launch a global service, as such attempts were still not very common among Korean-based companies. We were given a chance and took it on a whim, so how well we've succeeded is unbelievable. We didn't expect so many players from around the world to become interested in Silkroad Online.”
The other main high point for Choi is the memory of creating the first expansion aimed at western users. It was apparently much larger than the team had tackled previously. “Following all the international interest, we prepared a major expansion to add an entirely new race, more classes, quests, and maps tuned to interest a western audience. Although we only had 10 months to prepare and test this massive amount of content, it was one of the most rewarding and well-received updates in the game’s history.”
If anything Asian publishers tend to be even more reticent than western ones to discuss their issues and difficulties. However, Choi was willing to talk about one such area. It relates to Joymax' being less than fully prepared to go global. “With our global success also came several unexpected difficulties. As mentioned before, we had no plans for global service at launch. We were one of the first Korean game companies to provide a global server, which meant most of us were inexperienced in this area. We quickly realized some hard lessons. For example, we found many players from Turkey had computers that couldn't handle highly detailed graphics. We wanted to cater to everyone, but it wasn’t easy finding the middle ground. Of course, with time, we gained experience and learned to please fans throughout the world.”
In terms of the key factors that have contributed most to Silkroad Online's longevity, Choi cites its unique concept, combining a quasi-historical environment with a tripartite but not three-cornered system of roles. “The basic idea behind our game is what makes it unique from other MMORPGs,” he states. “Based on the Silk Road's history, it follows the journeys of merchants traveling along this route. We designed a realistic trade system so players can control the economy between China and Europe. They can be hunters and thieves, and it is their job to protect or steal from those who play as traveling traders.”
Considering how easily some gamers dismiss any game more than a couple of years old, I also asked Choi for his take on the future, especially the challenges related to staying competitive against the ever-increasing numbers of newer offerings. He was forthright about the difficult environment. “We admit that times are changing fast, and older games are struggling to remain relevant. Better graphics, fully voiced quests and extensive character customizations are becoming the norm in all the latest pay to play MMOGs, while old ones like Silkroad Online have yet to implement them”
On the other hand, he feels his team and their game have some significant competitive strengths. “We have experience and massive amounts of content that can only be accumulated through years of service. We adapt to the changes in the ways we can while not losing our charm. Our latest focus is on player participation, especially with content development. That’s why in our latest event, players get to design their own original avatar, which will be player-voted and eventually developed by Joymax and be in the game. It’s great to see all these creative ideas from those who love Silkroad Online as much as we do, if not more.”
Unsurprisingly, Choi ends with a word of appreciation for the players. “We would like to thank all those who have ever played Silkroad Online. Your genuine interest and support helped us reach this impressive milestone. We hope to see you all on the Silk Road in the near future.”
As one of only a few titles to reach the 15-year mark, Silkroad Online has earned a place in the annals of MMOG history. I'm interested to see what still lies ahead.