Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Lord of the Rings Online Executive Producer Jeffrey Steefel where we talked about launching the game in the Korean market and what that might mean for those of us in the west.
As you may or may not know, Steefel had just returned from a business trip to Korea where Lord of the Rings Online is getting ready to make its debut. He told me that right now, they are finishing up the Closed Beta process and are moving toward a limited Open Beta.
It seems as though there is a lot of interest in the game over there and that fans have been enthusiastic as the game gets closer to launch. When I asked him to compare the fans and anticipation in Korea with the fans and anticipation for the same stage of development here in the North American market, he said that it was a bit like comparing apples and oranges as the markets are so different.
While we might not expect that a western story like Lord of the Rings would penetrate into the Korean market in the same way, Steefel gives Peter Jackson's movies a lot of credit for the level of excitement over the game.
One of the challenges that is facing the Turbine team in gearing up for a Korean launch is the speed at which players move through content. For example: while (and remember, we are speaking in broad generalizations here) North American players tend to like quests that are descriptive, but aren't necessarily specific, Korean players would prefer a very specific text description, telling them exactly where they need to go. Fortunately, Turbine has plans to fully localize and culturalize the game, looking to not only bring the game into a different language, but into a different culture as well. As a result (and serving as a pretty good example), a number of the quest texts are being re-constructed to better reflect a more popular Korean play style.
Before we got off the topic of the Korean launch, Steefel pointed out to me another of the differences between developing a game for release in the West and prepping for a release in Korea; customer service. In Korea, game companies have actual physical walk-up windows set up to handle customer service issues. No emails or petitions falling through the cracks here.
So, how does the Korean launch effect western players?
The team at Turbine has their sights set on doing some more work on the Player vs. Monster Player system in the game due to popular demand in Korea where PvP is not only popular, but often taken quite seriously. Turbine has decided to look at both markets to see how they can improve the game for both rather than trying to develop a whole new game for each market.
"Any time that we add anything for any particular region, it's going to be a part of the overall game," he said. "Unless we absolutely have to, we're not going to do anything specific to a particular part of the world."
Often, when North American players think about MMORPG gaming in the east, we tend to think of their dominant business model, the free-to-play / item mall model. As a result, I asked Steefel how the company would handle their business model in the newest version of the game.
"It's something we're talking with them about. The way that you do that for Lord of the Rings is something that you have to be very careful with," he answered. "What we don't want is to ruin the game itself or any of the design or balance of the game... Turbine in general is looking at how we can do that in some of our games coming up. There's no question in my mind that that's going to be a part of the model going forward, period."
As a follow-up, I had to ask whether this means that we should expect to start seeing this sort of model in all Turbine games, or whether we would still be paying our monthly fees.
"It's an and, not an or," he answered. "The market is getting broader, which is great. We're reaching out to more and more people. The way that people want to participate in these games is getting more and more diverse. It's not 100% people who want to take this on as a primary form of entertainment that they are going to spend 30, 40, 50 hours a week on and pay a subscription without thinking about it." Those, he said, are the people who want maximum value and maximum content who would pay a subscription, but they also think that there are other people out there who might play more if they were given a different option.
Turbine is looking for a way to cater to everyone (in terms of their business model). In short, why is Player "A", who plays 30 hours a week paying the same and in the same way as Player "B" who can only play 5-10, tops?
There are lots of ways to look at this issue, and Turbine isn't in a hurry to make any decisions, but they are certainly exploring their options and allowing themselves to be informed by their move into Korea, though I wouldn't expect to see a walk-up window at the Turbine offices any time soon.