Gamevil is the fantastic company behind Zenonia and Baseball Superstars. I recently had the chance to review their latest game, Zenonia, and it blew me away; you can read my review here, but suffice to say that I thought it clearly surpassed other RPGs in the App Store. While the Korean-based company has only released two games in the US App Store so far (the other Baseball Superstars), both have been very well-received.
The president of Gamevil USA, Kyu Lee, generously agreed to answer a few questions about Zenonia, Gamevil, and the App Store in general. He has some really interesting and intriguing insights—it's not often that we get to hear things from a mobile game developer's point of view.
Parts of this interview were also used in my Search for Satisfaction editorial, but there's plenty of additional content here!
Bonnie Eisenman (148apps): Hi, Kyu, and thanks for taking the time to do this! For starters, what inspired you guys to make Zenonia? I don't just mean "why make an RPG"--I mean, "why make a good RPG?"
Kyu Lee (Gamevil): We've been developing and publishing mobile games since 2000 in South Korea. One of the most popular categories in South Korea is Role-Playing Games, and it is an extremely competitive category. We "had" to make good RPG games in order to survive through the tough competition. We have been developing RPG games ever since we launched "Last Warrior" in 2001, the first RPG mobile game in Korea, which was less than 50KB. ZENONIA was a project decided to be done after we launched our multiplayer network game, "Path of a Warrior".
Unfortunately, due to the file, heap size restrictions and business restrictions, it has been a tough journey to break through the US market with an RPG game. ZENONIA is still not able to run on most of the regular J2ME phones out in the market. iPhone was more than enough to bring the technology over, and we felt that chances of original titles to succeed on the App Store was higher.
Bonnie: Interesting--it sounds like Korean consumers are more demanding than American ones, at least in regards to RPGs. I haven't seen anything remotely close to Zenonia, quality-wise, in the U.S. App Store.
Kyu: Well I definitely feel there were needs but just that the publishers haven't been serving them yet. There was a large amount of interest from the user communities when we first announced that we will bring ZENONIA to the App Store.
Bonnie: You said that you thought that the App Store gave original titles a better chance of succeeding. Most of the higher-priced titles in the App Store don't make it into the Top 100; of those that do, most have big brands behind them. What do you think of the App Store system, from a developer's perspective—its opportunities, its flaws, etc? What makes it unique, compared to other platforms?
[img id="app_store-150x150.jpg"]Kyu Lee: [With most mobile platforms,] when we first came to the US market from Korea, one of the first things that we had to do, is building a relationship with the carrier. This was a very long and lengthy process. The next thing that we had to do, was to port to all the devices available on the market. Getting to know all the hundreds of devices took a long time, and developers had to fly back and forth from Korea to do this since the phones couldn't be tested in Korea. Finally, we had to get a premium deck placement in order to get a certain amount of attention on the carrier's deck. Most of the carriers back then couldn't even show screenshots, and it was extremely difficult for the users to see if it is a good game or not. Users had to make decisions on what games to buy just based on the name of the game. For this reason, branded games did extremely well even if they weren't the best products.
The App Store actually fixed all of these issues. No building relations with Apple required, no porting required, no deck placement negotiation required since they were ranked in order of sales, and easy access for the users to see the screenshots and reviews. The big-branded games on the App Store now are now actually superb quality games, and I believe that is the reason why they are succeeding. Even with a great brand, if the title isn't good, I don't see them succeeding on the App Store long term. The App Store does have a huge amount of original titles in the Top 100, compared to where there used to almost none on the traditional carrier deck.
Bonnie: I know that you guys recently broke into the Top 10 paid apps overall. What has the community response to Zenonia been like? You were very active in the community pre-release; how have gamers reacted now that the game is out?
Kyu Lee: Well it is not Top 10 paid "apps" but "games". We're #13 in "paid apps" right now. :P A lot of people were happy about the value that we were providing. I haven't checked all the games in the App Store, but I definitely feel like there is a lack of "replay value" in general. In the beginning a lot of gamers were excited that they can do all sorts of different things on the iPhone, but they really didn't have one thing that they can be really focused on.
After a year of launching the iPhone, people are now thinking about the value that they are actually getting in return after seeing their bills pile up. Many a little makes a mickle. Of course, this "value" can be created by the amount of effort it takes by creating ex. a gorgeous 3D game. But we believe that this "value" is not created by the amount of budget that the publisher puts in to develop a game, but by the amount of "playtime" that the end user enjoys. I can't promise what type of games we will release in the future or if it will really be fun to everybody, but one thing that I can promise is that every game that we do release will have a lot of "depth" or at least have a lot of "replayability".
We initially thought that ZENONIA might be hardcore, this might not appeal to the western culture, and would be a tough battle to promote the game. But we're actually surprised by the initial amount of attention and positive feedback that this game has already been getting. We're still keeping an eye out on the patterns of how people play the game. We hate to say, but admit that more people in this market aren't used to the amount of grinding we are used to doing in Korea. I do want to give an advice to all ZENONIA players to pay special attention to their levels early in the game.
Building up hype before the launch is a double-edged sword, and I think luck was on our side. When we planned out our marketing activities, we originally planned to be as active as we were pre-launch to the game post launch, so we still have more to come. Please look forward to these.
Bonnie: I certainly agree that value is a major factor when it comes to app purchases--I know that I, for one, am getting tired of $0.99 "app snacks." We'll look for these "activities" of yours, too!
Can you tell us anything about the future of Zenonia? Is there an update in the works?
Kyu Lee: Thanks. All I can say about ZENONIA for now is that we will release a patch to fix the bugs that we've found and been reported. Also, we're trying to put in the missing Hard Mode back in. (not confirmed). We will be announcing a new title that is under works during E3/WWDC.
Bonnie:All right, so gamers who've gotten a bit into Zenonia and played some side quests will recognize this question. Did someone's girlfriend really swallow a ring in a fortune cookie? ;)
Kyu Lee: Everybody is curious about that, but I cannot let you know yet. :P
Bonnie:All right, then...in that case, I'll have to keep my fingers crossed over that "yet." And, finally, do you have any closing words for us?
Kyu Lee: I just wanted to thank everybody for the amount of interest in this title, and we definitely feel a lot of responsibility to put out better games. We've learned a lot through the large amount of positive/critical feedbacks on ZENONIA, and will do our best to improve in the future.
And thus concludes our interview. Thanks to Kyu for taking the time to do this review! Gamevil's website can be found here.