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What's Behind NC West?

MMORPG.com Managing Editor Jon Wood recently caught up with David Reid, the President of newly minted NC West. The formation of this new company from NCsoft has been the starting point of a number of rumors about the future of NCsoft Austin. In this interview, Reid speaks about the new company, and the future of games like Tabula Rasa and Dungeon Runners.

What's Behind NC West?

Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to David Reid, the new President of Publishing at NC West, the recently announced spinoff company from NCsoft.

There has been a great deal of confusion and speculation coming out of this most recent announcement. Even looking around at various forums and even some news sites, reports and rumors of the closure of the NCsoft studio in Austin, among others, have been circulating.

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The best guess for the heart of the circulation of these rumors is the line in the company’s original press release which read: “NCsoft’s existing subsidiaries NC Interactive, NC Europe, NC Austin, and ArenaNet will be led as a unified organization under NC West with a dedicated focus towards becoming the world’s premier western publisher of MMOs.”

This seems to have been mis-interpreted (at least according to Reid) by some readers and members of the media alike.

“Basically, the idea here was to set up a new publishing headquarters for the company,” Reid said in the interview, “that would govern the operating roles throughout our western territories.”

What we’re looking at here, according to Reid, is the fact that before this announcement hit, the four companies listed above: NC Interactive, NC Europe, NC Austin, and ArenaNet all have various and sundry responsibilities when it came to publishing and marketing NCsoft games.

“If we’re really serious about getting into the big leagues,” he continued, “then we need to consolidate those efforts and make sure that everyone is on the same page.”

Essentially, the company decided that rather than having a number of different smaller companies with a myriad of responsibilities, that they would bring them all together under one roof in Seattle. This also allows the company to keep a separate outlook for the Eastern Market (Asia) than they have for the Western Market (Everywhere else) which, according to Reid, require quite different approaches.

The long and the short of the situation is that, according to Reid, rumors of the death of NCsoft’s studio in Austin have been greatly exaggerated. And that they are more of a case of mistaken identity than anything else.

“There has been some misperception about the Austin office, which is still a very vibrant place with over 200 employees. Nothing has changed on that front other than the publishing headquarters which is primarily: marketing, sales, PR, some of those customer facing things are what is moving up to the Seattle office.”

This is all fine and good, and completely understandable. NCsoft has always had a bit of an identity crisis in terms of being a developer and a publisher at the same time.

This left open the question of the recent rounds of layoffs that we have been hearing about, leading fans and industry speculators alike foretelling doom.

“The first one was several weeks ago,” Reid said in response to my question about the two recent incidents of layoffs. “and that was really a decision based on focusing the company’s development efforts on these large scale AAA MMOs that very few companies are successful in doing aside from ourselves and maybe two other companies. Those particular positions are related to what we call “light” MMOs, a couple of unannounced projects, some explorations on things that just weren’t really in the wheelhouse of what has made NCsoft the successful company that it is.”

In terms of the move toward AAA MMOs, David had this to say:

“We are one of the best companies in the world at these large-scale MMOs. The business is great, the product is successful, the gamers love our products. Why should we be doing anything else?”

The implementation of this new focus for the company, we were told, is what was responsible for the first round of layoffs.

The second and more recent round only last week, we were told, was 12 jobs out of an office of 250 employees. These were positions that were eliminated as a result of the move of positions (from the departments listed above) into the Seattle office.

So what about the speculation that these consolidation moves are born out of Tabula Rasa performing under expectations?

“The company has been fairly straightforward about the fact that Tabula Rasa hasn’t delivered exactly on the level that we had hoped it would but we are still very behind the game.”

The company has indeed been behind the game as of late, with a marketing push centered around Operation Immortality that will see human DNA taken into space when Richard Garriott reaches the International Space Station. This promotion, which has collected not only public DNA, but also the DNA of people like Stephens, both Hawking and Colbert, and a number of other celebrities.

This has resulted in the program being mentioned on television shows like The Colbert Report and even TNA Impact, a wrestling program.

“We would have preferred that the game got off to a better start,” he said, “but we are behind the game, the team is intact and we are very excited about the progress that we are seeing. In a lot of ways, this is a brand new game… Twelve updates later, people who went through a beta or launch experience with that game would find a brand new game and we’ve got the free trials for them to give it a shot and a promotion around it to encourage them to do so.”

“The move to Seattle has nothing to do with any of our development studios,” he continued. “It has everything to do with building a world-class presence for the publishing side of the business.”

So, a move toward AAA size MMOs is a move away from what Reid described as “Lite MMOs”. A couple of these MMOs have been making waves for NCsoft recently in the form of Dungeon Runners and Exteel.

I asked Reid about the future of Dungeon Runners given this new direction and he told me that while DR would continue to run for the PC, they have abandoned thoughts of expanding its scope to the platforms like Xbox (this would be one of those “explorations” we mentioned earlier).

So, in the end, according to Reid, NCsoft isn’t in the level of trouble that many have speculated. NCsoft Austin isn’t going anywhere and in fact will be a “critically important office”.

“NC West is really about NCsoft getting serious and doubling down back into the AAA side of the business. These games have big teams, require huge investments, and take years to build but there aren’t many people who do that as well as we do and you can expect to see and hear more from us on the Lineage / City of Heroes / Guild Wars kind of product going forward. That’s what this company is going to be all about.”