Aion Shoulders New Hope As Old Games Fade
By Kim Tong-hyung
It remains to be seen whether ``Aion,'' NCsoft's latest online fantasy game that enters open beta testing today, lives up to the hype of the most anticipated debut ever in the local gaming industry.
And to borrow words from Samuel Beckett, the lavishly promoted role-playing game will be born astride the graves of many predecessors who blazed onto the scene, but burrowed with little fanfare since.
The release of Aion is garnering most of the talk in the media, so it was easy to miss Nexon, the publisher of international hits like ``Kart Rider'' and ``Maple Story,'' announcing its decision to bail out on ``ZerA.''
The company will yank ZerA, a role-playing game that took three years and 10 billion won (about $7.5 million) to develop, at the end of January and is preparing to repay users who own paid items.
ZerA got off to a bright start after its debut in February 2006, with the number of concurrent users peaking at 40,000, but has been losing popularity since with critics questioning the quality of play. The lukewarm reception here was enough to kill the company's plan to publish the game in Japan.
The demise of ZerA touches off a sentimental response from Nexon and other Korean game publishers, as it had been anointed one of the ``big three'' from the class of 2006 ― along with Webzen's ``SUN'' and HanbitSoft's ``Granado Espada.''
At the time of their releases, the trio shouldered hopes to expand an industry that looked to be just entering its peak. Nearly three nondescript years later, the games have been reduced to examples of what can go wrong
``It could be said the companies are starting to pay for their lack of emphasis in creativity and investment in technology,'' said an official from Neowiz Games.
``When the online game industry started out about a decade ago, there were games like `Lineage' or `Baram' that had a lot of originality. However, all the cookie cutter emulations that came after them eventually killed off the creativity in the gaming scene and prevented Korean publishers from widening the gap with their foreign rivals in game development ability,'' he said.
SUN, which debuted in September, 2006, is at least doing enough to keep the company from killing it, gathering a strong following in China, Taiwan and Japan. However, with the game barely reaching the break-even point this year, and with domestic sales remaining miniscule, it's safe to say the franchise isn't worth the 10 billion won Webzen spent on it.
Granado Espada struggled out of the gate after its release in February, 2006, and lost a large part of the crowd it had when it decided to impose a fixed-rate model. However, the game, as in the case of SUN, has been accepted more warmly among foreign users.
The expensive flops had a massive effect on the businesses of the game publishers. SUN's failure meant that Webzen dipped into the red over the past three years, and eventually taken under control by NHN, the operator of the country's top portal, Naver (www.naver.com), and online gaming site, Hangame (www.hangame.com).
Kim Nam-joo, Webzen's founder and former chief executive, resigned last month after NHN acquired 23.74 percent of his company. Former Hanbit Soft chief executive Kim Young-man stepped down in May, citing responsibility for the struggles of Granado Espada and ``Hellgate: London''
All Eyes on Newcomer
With the paucity of excitement becoming alarmingly evident on the local gaming scene, all eyes, and prayers, are on Aion, which NCsoft has declared the heir apparent to its iconic role-playing series, ``Lineage.''
NCsoft, the kingpin of the local gaming industry, also has its own demons that need exorcising. The company is now reluctantly discussing whether to pull the plug on ``Tabula Rasa,'' developed by famed game developer Richard Garriott and the product of a seven-year, 100 billion won investment.
Tabula Rasa is now looking more and more like a monumental bust, earning less than four billion won in the first-half of this year. NCsoft can ill-afford having another expensive project blow up in its face.
The company hopes Aion will generate about one-third of the revenue posted by Lineage II, its biggest hit product. Lineage II posted about 133 billion won in sales last year, so the annual revenue target for Aion is about 44 billion won.
Since about 30 percent of the open beta participants convert to paid-users after commercial launch, NCsoft needs to gather more than 330,000 users during its test period to have a chance of making the revenue target.
Analysts are optimistic about Aion's chances.
``The local gaming industry hasn't seen a mega hit like Linaege or World of Warcraft in recent years, which increases the chances for Aion to create an immediate following,'' said Janice Lee, an analyst from Woori Investment and Securities.
``With a 14 percent share, NCsoft is the world's second largest massive multiplayer online (MMO) game publisher with a reputation for game development and established foreign sales networks. The commercial launching of Aion will help the company gather more customers and bring new growth,'' she said.