If you were to ask most games enthusiasts about their current favorite massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game (commonly abbreviated to “MMOs”), they’d probably wouldn’t have much of an answer for you. They might point to nostalgia factories like old-school “Runescape” or the upcoming “World of Warcraft Classic,” which both aim to reproduce older versions of popular MMOs from the heyday of the form. If they’re a particularly hardcore MMO fan, however, they might enthusiastically recommend Pearl Abyss’s “Black Desert Online,” which has become one of the premiere Asian-based examples of the genre in its waning days.
Pearl Abyss’s game design director for consoles KwangSam Kim admits that MMOs have run into more than their fair share of problems in the past few years, but he personally believes there’s plenty of room for the Black Desert brand to grow. “If you give me examples of all the problems that Western MMOs face, they basically all apply to us, too,” says Kim, speaking through a translator. “Player drain, competing with an increased number of games, keeping our players invested, it can be very hard. Our community has become very hardcore over the past few years, and we do what we can to keep them happy.”
At E3, the studio announced that the MMO will finally make its way to the PlayStation platform, following in the wake of the Xbox One version back in March. According to Kim, the process of adopting the reams of content onto a console platform presented many challenges, particularly when it comes to the way the game controls. Although “Black Desert” enjoys a reputation as more action-oriented than its competitors, it’s still a game that relies heavily on mouse-keyboard coordination, with many players employing “macros” to automatically input certain commands to save unnecessary keystrokes. Kim says that Pearl Abyss focused on making the console versions of the game feel more like a traditional action game than an RPG, which necessitated a lot of experimentation.
In an age where the most profitable games are viewed as “services” designed to operate until they cease to be profitable, many developers have struggled to keep up the pace of content updates to sate their hungry players, which can result in studios like Epic Games forcing their employees to “crunch” indefinitely to keep the mill churning. While “Black Desert Online” is known for its weekly updates and frequency of fresh quests, Kim fully admits that what he calls “high productivity” sometimes requires the employees to work many hours. He personally believes this productivity is key to the continued success of the franchise, particularly because it allows the studio to release major updates at strategic moments. For example, they recently revealed a new class for the PC version of the game, called “Shai,” that had been completed for months prior to launch. “When we produce content far in advance of when we plan to release it, it allows us to test and modify it more thoroughly to make sure we’re happy with it,” Kim says. “It’s an approach that works well for us.”
Though the console version of “Black Desert” lacks some of the updated content that Pearl Abyss has added to the PC version of the game since its launch in 2014, Kim says that they plan to add in the missing pieces slowly. “Though they’re in many ways the same game, we treat the PC version and console versions of the game differently, because the audiences have different expectations and needs,” he says. “For example, several of the quests in the console version are ordered differently, because it makes more sense that way. It also takes a lot of work to ensure that the content works well on consoles, so we have to take the time to ensure that.”
Overall, while Kim and the program director for the mobile version of Black Desert, Yongmin Jo, both agree that the free-to-play games space has become increasingly competitive over the years, they feel that their games are in a good place. “People don’t realize this, but in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, fans of the Black Desert mobile game and ‘Black Desert Online’ aren’t the same people,” Jo says, speaking through a translator. “They want very different things from our games, and it’s our job to keep them happy. That’s all that really matters.”
When asked about the state of MMOs, Kim speaks frankly: “I don’t know what other people who make MMOs are thinking, I only know what we’re thinking,” he says. “And I think that we’re still known as the best-looking MMO, and we’re known as a sandbox game that lets you approach things in the order you want, and that we offer a good experience for a solo player. All those things matter to people, and I think they’re all a part of why we’re going to continue to be successful.”