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Interview: How Smilegate Is Laying The Groundwork For The Studio's Future

Joseph Bradford Updated: Posted:
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Smilegate is a name that is slowly gaining some recognition in the West, most notably for the recent release of Lost Ark. However, the studio is reponsible for releasing and maintaining the most played FPS in the world, Crossfire. The Korean game developer has been growing ever since, and has started to invest in other studios and their success. We were able to talk to Smilegate's VP of Business Development, as well as members of the Lost Ark team about bringing their titles to the West, the Korean game market, as well as what the $100 million investment in That's No Moon means for the company.

MMORPG:  What was the main driver to start bringing high profile games like Lost Ark and Crossfire to the West, and the global stage at large?

Harold Kim, Smilegate VP of Business Development - We’ve always considered the international market when developing our games and we’ve been constantly striving to become a global entertainment company by expanding our popular IPs in a variety of ways.

To do this, Smilegate is laying the groundwork for future growth through video, drama production, and the universalization of our globally popular games such as 'CROSSFIRE' and 'Lost Ark'. Some examples include the series 'Cheon wol hwa seon’ based on the CROSSFIRE games and its esports division, which aired in China and saw more than 2 billion views. Then there was our Lost Ark music concert, which sold out in one minute, and had 210,000 people watching in real-time at home.

In addition to expanding our IP business, Smilegate continues to invest and develop video games, which we consider our main field. The CROSSFIRE IP-based console game ‘Crossfire X’ was released this year and in July of last year, we made a strategic investment of $100 million in That's No Moon, which was established by a North American team of veteran game developers. In addition, Smilegate established its first overseas game development studio ‘Smilegate Barcelona’ in Barcelona, ??Spain in 2020.

So all of the above is setting the stage for Smilegate to expand globally and continue to reach a wider audience. And not just a traditional games audience, but those interested in experiencing our IPs through other mediums too.

What were some of the major challenges the team had to overcome in the process, especially bringing a highly anticipated title like Lost Ark to a fanbase that had been requesting it for so long?

The Lost Ark Team - Lost Ark is a game that combines a hack and slash battle experience with the MMORPG genre. It really  allows players to enjoy an adventure in a universe that encompasses influences from both the East and the West.

One of Lost Ark’s main strengths is providing a variety of unique visuals within a vast world, brought to life through ornate graphic production and more. Constantly improving the quality of the game based on player feedback has also been a major driver of the game’s success.

Smilegate went through live service for three years in Korea, raising the quality of the overall game systems and building a vast amount of content. A good example is Region Raid', which caught the attention of global users even before its launch.

In the NA/EU, expectations were high as the game was released later than in Korea, but it gave us a chance to show plenty of content. And we are communicating with Amazon Games, to keep the content update rate at an appropriate level in these regions.

Amazon Games has been instrumental in the communication between players in the West and our studio, making those game quality improvements possible. Again, Amazon Games was a great partner and helped ensure that Lost Ark would be well-received by Western players.

Smilegate put in lots of effort to communicate with Lost Ark users. Prior to its official launch on Steam, Director Geum appeared on Amazon Game's official Twitch channel 'CROWN' to introduce the launch and service plans for Western territories and did a Q&A session with users. Smilegate continues to listen to the opinions of users through Amazon Games and we try to reflect upon them when improving the game.

Crossfire might not necessarily be as well known here in the States as it is abroad. What was the deciding factor to bring it to the American market as Crossfire X earlier this year, especially when it had already released in its original form years prior?

Harold Kim - CrossFireX is the first console version of the CROSSFIRE IP. So our intent was to try to secure a larger player base by expanding the reach from PC online gamers to those that also play on other platforms.

While MOBA and MMORPG genres are currently strong in the Asian market, many gamers in North America and Europe use consoles rather than PCs for playing FPS games. So making a console title was a meaningful challenge for Smilegate, but an important one for growth.

It was an opportunity to introduce CROSSFIRE to North American/European users through consoles. And in the future, we will continue to expand this IP in various fields such as games, TV series, and movies. So we hope to make CROSSFIRE a household name across the world.

Many people associate Lost Ark specifically with Amazon here in the West since they are the NA publishers of the title. Do you think partnering with such a large company like Amazon Games hurts Smilegate’s notoriety among gamers, and do you think this could hurt your growth in the American market over time?

The Lost Ark Team - Amazon Games provided industry-leading capabilities for global publishing, including Twitch, Prime Gaming, and AWS. We believe that Amazon Games is a great publisher to help us bring Lost Ark into the West. As we’ve seen, both companies are producing fantastic results and Lost Ark enjoyed a record-breaking launch in the West.

Smilegate’s full-fledged entry to the Global/North American market has begun, but we’re making baby steps and not rushing. With our various franchises, we will create opportunities to cooperate with a greater number of strong partners within the industry.

The South Korean games industry has a ton of heavy hitters with global standing like Kakao, Pearl Abyss and definitely Smilegate. What is it like competing in that industry, and how do you think it helps your team get better with each release?

Harold Kim - The Korean games industry, which started with online games in the 1990s, has a fairly short history when compared to North America. It is still fairly new by comparison. So it is very encouraging that the major players you mentioned in your question, including Smilegate, appeared in this space over a short period of time.

From an outside perspective, all of these companies may look like competitors, but in reality, each company is developing its own vision rather than competing with each other.

There are many terrific companies in the Korean games industry, and they are all constantly introducing interesting new games, and trying new things. We think it is a win-win environment for both the studios and the players.

Smilegate recently invested in That’s No Moon to the tune of $100 million. Can you explain what you saw in the veteran-led team that made you want to pour capital into the studio, and what you’re hoping to see out of the team?

Harold Kim - That’s No Moon is currently developing a new AAA adventure game, which is a genre that Smilegate hasn’t previously explored. But with the team’s prior experience at notable studios like Activision and Naughty Dog, TNM are the perfect partners to create a brand-new AAA experience within this space.

We see this as a perfect relationship where both teams complement each other, bringing different strengths, such as Smilegate's business know-how with TNM's excellent development capabilities.

Smilegate already operates the most popular shooter in the world in Crossfire, and Lost Ark has taken hold of players globally. What’s next for the team? How do you grow from here?

Harold Kim - We recently celebrated our 20th anniversary this year, which is a huge achievement for the team and encourages us to keep moving forward with new innovations and projects.

One of our key endeavors is the Smilegate AI Center, which is aiming for ‘Human-like AI in Entertainment’. In the entertainment field, where various human emotions and characteristics are crucial, Smilegate is creating an ‘attractive AI’ that interacts like a real human by studying  how humans feel when they experience pleasure or when they laugh and cry. One of our virtual artists called Han YuA is currently gaining popularity in South Korea as an influencer and model.

We also plan to introduce ‘P.pool’, a next-generation social video platform soon. P.pool is a multi-party video communication service similar to Zoom, but with casual social elements.

All of these projects will eventually lead to a Smilegate metaverse, which we are ambitiously trying to build. This will combine all of our capabilities and IPs, as we take another leap forward as a leading entertainment company in the global market.


Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore