Dae Il Kim is a person with multiple sides. He’s a game developer with both persistence and skills, who founded Pearl Abyss in order to create the MMORPG he dreamed of. The very first title Black Desert Online (BDO) became a global success, and the company was placed 10th based on the market value on KOSDAQ at November 27th. In the meantime, the title on his business cards changed from a game developer, CEO, and to the chairperson.
Some may say that there’s no higher place he can climb as a game developer, but he’s still an active developer no matter what. As soon as we entered his office room for an interview, we could see him typing on the keyboard in front of a programming-specialized computer.
This interview is somewhat different from other ordinary ones. This is not about an introduction to a game that is about to be released. This is to highlight Pearl Abyss and its chairperson on their path to success. We learned about the future of Pearl Abyss, BDO, and BDO mobile.
Please note that the interview was done at the end of October.
“I’m still making games.”
From a developer to CEO, and from CEO to chairperson, and yet still an active developer
Inven: This is the first interview after the company was listed. How is it compared to the time when you solely focused on development?
Mr. Kim: Um… I feel that we have more allies now. The number of players has increased globally, and we have more investors. It means that there are more people who are supporting our works. This helps us both internally and externally and raises our morale. This also makes us feel responsible for succeeding with the game that will be launched next year.
Inven: The IPO of Pearl Abyss seems quite different. You know, it was a medium game company going public. Did you think about listing the company when you founded Pearl Abyss?
Mr. Kim: Not at all. I felt that it was necessary as I ran the company. I saw the other company’s shareholders caring for them, and I was kind of envious because we didn’t have that. We needed an environment where all staff, shareholders, and people who love to play our game could grow together.
Inven: How many employees are there in Pearl Abyss?
Mr. Kim: Around 300. The company had to grow as the service was continuously expanded.
Inven: You originally worked at a different game company. It is difficult to leave and make your own company when you already have a stable job. Having an MMORPG as the first title when the genre generally costs a lot is also an unusual case.
Mr. Kim: You need to have authority if you want to build the game you want. You also need to freely hire people you want. Also, the way devs work is quite tough, and you need solid compensation for that. The team won’t survive long enough without it. You can’t keep up the pace. The dev teams in the previous company were too competitive against each other. You can’t survive without any cooperation nowadays.
You are more than likely to compensate your people when the game succeeds to the certain point. That’s why I thought to hire skilled people even if their salary is high. The difference between a typical person and a very skilled person cannot be ignored. It becomes greater in this industry, and that’s why it’s best to take good care of those who are doing well.
In fact, the development cost for BDO wasn’t that high. We had as many skilled personnel as we could get, and I personally put much dedication into it. It was around 11 million dollars. We modified the whole process in order to save some costs. The process was completely different from that of R2 or C9. We discussed many times internally, and we had to make an instant decision from time to time.
The company’s motto is “make it first.” You have to have initiative first, and we had many mistakes because of that. However, I realized a few days ago that piled mistakes can become an asset in the future.
Inven: It means that you have used those mistakes from the development process as an asset as well. Could you elaborate?
Mr. Kim: We created a certain system, and it turned out to be really boring. “Let’s just hold onto it for now and we’ll probably get back to it later” and we just left it. After some time, we really got an opportunity to use this feature. As time went by and devs became more skilled than before, they then became capable enough to develop this feature even further and complete it. Some of the features of BDO that you can see in the game now were re-created like this. The node war wasn’t in its current form from the beginning.
Inven: Are you then still taking part in the development of BDO?
Mr. Kim: Yes, I am.
Inven: the mobile version, too?
Mr. Kim: and the console version later on (laugh).
▲ BDO Xbox One official trailer
“We put effort into making the system optimized for development.”
In order to make a game that lasts 10 or 20 years, post-management is a must and is more important than development
Inven: There were many criticisms in the beginning of BDO. Some said that the game is too hardcore, and others said that the questline and UI are complex. What did you think about these opinions?
Mr. Kim: Although we are aware of the UI problem, it is unlikely to be resolved just by changing it to the typical MMORPG UI, and we did not want to make it the same as others. We are still studying about this internally, and I think that we found the solution to this.
Inven: So, there will be a UI improvement?
Mr. Kim: Yes, we were inspired while making the mobile and console versions. There were many features we could retrieve and implement in the PC version. One example is the minimap. To be honest, the minimap we have in the PC version is not very good. You’ll see what I’m talking about now when we present the modified version of it.
Inven: BDO is known for its fast update speed. The community even says that the company is grinding devs to make it so… Though it looks like the pace has slowed down a bit.
Mr. Kim: The amount of updates is the same as it was before. I pushed myself to make a system which makes the updating progress much faster and easier. I recognized how important it is to make a fast updating system when I was making R2 and C9.
Inven: You claim that solidification of an updating system during service is a mandatory feature.
Mr. Kim: Exactly. You are not done when the game is made; the rate at which the game changes depends on what content you add to the game. We struggled so much in order to reduce the time of the process. For example, when we had to come up with a new character and backgrounds, or 1000 NPCs. We automated any parts that we could. The game was created based on data and scripts, and that’s who we got this far.
Inven: What’s the biggest obstacle for speeding up the development? The decision-making structure and such?
Mr. Kim: Yes. Although people share the same role, they may consider matters differently. For example, there is a programmer who looks into a matter in detail for people in other roles, whereas there may be a selfish one who does his/her job as little as possible.
Inven: There must be many dev tools that you have created internally.
Mr. Kim: Yeah, we gathered them all in one place. There are a few that we used only once and discarded, but yeah, we still have all of them. We created the BDO mobile exclusive dev tool as well.
Inven: Although it’s a hassle when you try to make it, it later becomes an internal asset.
Mr. Kim: Absolutely, and we would like to expand it further. For example, the tool with the AI feature would make it more automated, and analysis of the players’ activity patterns would make the development process much more practical. So I started studying AI last year.
Inven: That automated process is not something that players can experience directly, right?
Mr. Kim: No, we’ll try to automate parts that players don’t usually see or experience.
Inven: Speaking of which, we always see the BDO community website on your monitor whenever we have an interview.
Mr. Kim: Well, that’s not the only thing I check out (laugh).
Inven: There must be a couple of harsh criticisms by players… Do you read all of them?
Mr. Kim: Not really, but I admit that there is some sharp criticism. They do help us a lot whenever we struggle to plan something. No matter how massive the company becomes, there can always be a part missing.
Inven: The development is usually done by the dev team, and feedback is received by GMs and/or QAs, documented and reported. It seems that Pearl Abyss does not really filter the details.
Mr. Kim: I believe that there is a difference between filtered and raw information. We try to get the raw one. Whenever a player writes something, there is a specific emotion or concept in that writing, and that’s what we’ve been trying to understand.
Inven: And you adjust it as soon as you think that it needs to be changed.
Mr. Kim: Of course, we talk with the devs immediately. There are some staff members who obviously don't really like it this way, but we have to. I think it’s inevitable. Even I sometimes find a couple of features that I think players will become upset about.
Inven: BDO is being serviced in various countries worldwide. How are things going?
Mr. Kim: Things are greater than I anticipated in many countries including South Korea. What matters at this point is how we maintain it. We’re analyzing other successful games in that region. We are collecting references and studying why they are loved by many players.
Inven: Isn’t the engine also drawing much attention from overseas? No other non-target MMORPG has shown graphics of this quality before.
Mr. Kim: I’m not sure… In fact, major game companies tend to make their own engine. Making a private engine isn’t actually a big deal. We just made it because we needed it for BDO.
Inven: Although you needed it, you also had a specific objective to achieve and that’s how the engine was developed.
Mr. Kim: Yeah, true.
Inven: Did you personally decide the limits of the graphics quality in the beginning?
Mr. Kim: That decision included me and the dev team.
Inven: We’d like to hear about any plans regarding remastering the graphics or something like that if you have any. Or is there anything related to a new class or map?
Mr. Kim: I think that kind of update is now at its limit. I believe that we need to start preparing a different type of update. Speaking of new class, it would be derived from existing classes; it would not be a completely different one, in order to increase the interrelationship between the existing content. What I always felt the game lacked whenever we updated the game was that players still tend to play the content that they’ve been enjoying, without experiencing the newly-added content, so we try to focus on making other content more mainstream.
▲ BDO graphic remastering footage, introduced at the GDC this year
“BDO Mobile? That is a separate game from the PC version.”
Final goals: 1. To show the ending of mobile MMORPG 2. To allow players to enjoy both versions
Inven: BDO has its own style, and that’s why it’s a bit concerning whether this style will continue on mobile as well.
Mr. Kim: We have our own knowledge as to how we can extend the gameplay. There’s a standard that must be fulfilled before the launch.
Inven: What’s that?
Mr. Kim: Whether the guild war is run perfectly, or up to how much the items should be upgraded… you know, that kind of steps. We look at how much a character can grow. One day, I had this thought that there are not many games that you can enjoy non-stop for a year. It’s also only one month for me playing the game, even if that’s a really entertaining month. I believe that we need to make a game that can surpass that time limit.
Inven: Isn’t BDO considered an MMORPGs with a vast amount of content?
Mr. Kim: We still need to add more. Not all players enjoy all the content. Most of them just play specific content. That’s why we need to make other sub-content more detailed.
Inven: Some say that BDO players will move onto BDO Mobile when it comes out. What do you think about this?
Mr. Kim: Our final goal is to have players enjoy both versions. The experience that you wouldn’t have on mobile can be given on PC, and vice versa. I think this is a matter of one’s taste. I personally think that content like the massive siege war is for the PC. Features like fancier action and more dynamic controls can only be done on PC. The mobile version definitely has its limits for now.
Inven: There aren’t many MMORPGs coming out on PC nowadays. There were some after BDO, but most of them failed.
Mr. Kim: First of all, development costs are usually too expensive. It takes a very long time. I understand it’s difficult. You would need 4 to 5 years of developing one game, and that makes receiving investment much harder.
Inven: What do you think when you see those cases?
Mr. Kim: Well, we need to focus on our job, so we just keep going forward.
Inven: To keep making MMORPGs.
Mr. Kim: There’ll be another MMORPG by Pearl Abyss. But, it’s not PC exclusive. We are currently making BDO’s console version, and we realized a couple of features that could’ve been added to the PC version in the beginning. So we’ll try to look from a broader perspective for the next title.
▲ Official BDO Mobile trailer
Inven: Will you link the PC and mobile versions?
Mr. Kim: No, because they are different.
Inven: Many players are curious about the order of releasing classes, as it is different from PC.
Mr. Kim: We realized one thing after making BDO on PC. There’s no publicly-known class. There wasn’t any type of mage that players would find ordinary. We will release classes that would fit in the fantasy world on mobile first, followed by the rest with good publicity.
Inven: So, all of the classes will come out eventually.
Mr. Kim: I suppose so. It will be such a waste to not use them.
Inven: The business model of mobile games is quite controversial nowadays, and it must also be an issue for BDO mobile.
Mr. Kim: The payment capability per person in our country has been pretty much standardized. The difference comes from whether companies that are aware of this discharge an aggressive model or not. We plan to implement a somewhat different model compared to other mobile games. It will be partially similar to the PC version, and there is also a different model we thought of. We think that it is more advantageous in terms of prolonged revenue when the company has more loyal players rather than aggressive business models. It also saves players from a lot of stress.
We studied extensively about the model internally, and we came to the conclusion that we can still reach our goal even without an aggressive model. Although we’ll sell keys for those who don’t have enough time to play the game, you’ll still be able to get enough of them in the game. The lootboxes will also be different from typical ones in other mobile games. We’ll do our best to balance this out.
Inven: What would you want players to say about BDO mobile after it’s released?
Mr. Kim: Wow, they did this?
Inven: On mobile.
Mr. Kim: It would be good to hear that we have reached the epitome of the mobile MMORPG. Something like that, the game has surpassed the limit of mobile with attractive items and good graphics, and such.
“We are thinking of an MMO for the next title as well”
‘MMO for all ages’, ‘FPS + MOBA’... We will show the capabilities of Pearl Abyss
Inven: Let’s talk about the next title. Do you have any plans after BDO mobile?
Mr. Kim: We are developing one more mobile game. We are discussing the direction of Pearl Abyss internally and concluded that we shouldn’t only focus on the Korean market and make games. We need to make games that would prosper worldwide. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Korean market is not important (laugh).
Inven: Yes, the Korean market is important, and the company also needs to make a game that would succeed worldwide.
Mr. Kim: We are planning to make various concepts in order to make a game that would work in the global market. The mobile game we are currently working on is also an MMO, but it’s not based on the Middle Ages or anything. The target is all age groups. The main point of an MMO is not competition, it is rather a communication with other players. One more thing. We considered what other genres we could make as good as an MMO, and they are FPS or MOBA. In fact, MOBA is a compressed version of MMORPG, and we are trying to mix the FPS features with it. This is not mobile, by the way.
Inven: BDO, BDO mobile, a mobile MMO for all age groups, and an FPS MOBA… There are 4 projects in total.
Mr. Kim: Yes, there are still other games in progress, but I can’t reveal them right now… What we need to get our hands on first is the graphics remastering of BDO. This is not only for BDO, but it determines the direction of optimization from this stage, and we’ll be able to gain some momentum for other works after this.
Inven: Are the graphics of the all-age MMO completely different from BDO?
Mr. Kim: The artwork is already different. We have the art director working on it.
Inven: And what about the shooting MOBA?
Mr. Kim: Although the direction is more realistic, the concept is different from BDO. It’s the kind of realism that console games have been going for traditionally. This is what we are good at, so we’ll keep on going with this.
“Your own knowledge is the most crucial part of any company.”
Accumulated knowledge equals game quality, and Pearl Abyss is in the stage of accumulation
Inven: How would you want the next titles to be appraised?
Mr. Kim: When we make another flagship after BDO, I suppose that it should have the word “excellent” in front - excellent game elements, excellent graphics, excellent game design, excellent programming, and marketing and revenue, all of them.
Inven: That seems to apply to every game. The company may need something distinctive in the market; “the ultimate hardcore game”, for example.
Mr. Kim: No, we don’t have that kind of goal, and we’ve never thought about it. We just make games. And above all, I don’t think that Pearl Abyss has that much capability yet. We would have considered if we were capable enough, but we are still not on that level.
Inven: Aren’t you being too humble?
Mr. Kim: You know the recently-released Super Mario Odyssey? We can’t make that. Not with what we have now.
Inven: In what aspect?
Mr. Kim: We are not developers with the ability to develop such game. Nintendo has in-depth knowledge that has been saved up for several years making Mario. That knowledge is scary. PUBG is likely also the result of accumulated experience and knowledge. We are at the stage of gathering knowledge. It may take some time. We are not planning to open a new chapter of the game era or anything right now. We might give it a try in the future, but not now.
Inven: Speaking of accumulation, does it mean that you are accumulating the knowledge of how to make MMOs?
Mr. Kim: MMOs contain so many genres. That’s why we can try a different genre. For now, we just need to keep making games and save up the knowledge. Look at Blizzard. They weren’t as famous as they are now in the beginning. They still continued to make games nonetheless, found their identity, and grew up to what they are now. The same logic applies to Japanese companies. This accumulation can truly be scary.
Inven: Are there any other notable games like Super Mario Odyssey, or anything you found entertaining?
Mr. Kim: I don’t really play newer games, although I’m playing Final Fantasy 6 nowadays.
Inven: That’s also a masterpiece.
Mr. Kim: I did play it when I was young but didn’t get to see the ending. That’s why I restarted it (laugh). But, now that I’m playing it, I can see things that I wasn’t able to see when I was younger, and become surprised at the creativity they realized in the game. I’m playing it while astonished.
Inven: Do you consider yourself ordinary, or someone with a bit of mania?
Mr. Kim: There are ordinary musicians and maniac musicians in the music industry, but it doesn’t seem to work that way in the game industry. Games just need to be fun, and they will spread very rapidly. I consider myself an ordinary person.
Inven: An ordinary gamer?
Mr. Kim: I think that there are not very many games that can be considered timeless. Of course, there would be some, but not as many as pieces from other industries. People listen to one song for a year or even decades if they like it. Movies can become popular later on if the quality is top notch, even if their theater run is over. Games are not like that. Of course, some are rediscovered after some time, but how fast they fade away is different from other industries. Games must be public-oriented.
Inven: Is there any game you’re anticipating that is not released yet?
Mr. Kim: Um… Red Dead Redemption 2.
“You need to be compensated if you moved because of the company.”
In order to increase the staffs’ performance, you need to increase their “quality of life”
Inven: We are curious about Pearl Abyss’ next move in terms of welfare or the company’s vision.
Mr. Kim: There are many skilled employees in the company, and we told them that they will be treated well. We also told staff members that came from overseas that they’d be treated well based on their performance. Money is important, but if you want to increase performance, you need to increase the fundamental quality of life.
Inven: We heard that one receives money for moving closer to the company, and there’s also child-rearing expenses when you have a child.
Mr. Kim: Those are basic things. Regardless of the exact reason, you moved because of the company, and you need to be compensated for that.
Inven: The company didn’t do it in the beginning though.
Mr. Kim: Because we didn’t have much at the time. We invested a lot in welfare as we started to be financially stable. We thought that this should be our priority.
Inven: Is there anything that you wanted to make but still couldn’t in the company? We heard that there’s even a salon for employees.
Mr. Kim: We are getting many ideas, but we’ll get to them when we earn more. We’d like to try things that other game companies don’t do. After we set up basic things, that is.
Inven: You are well known as someone who frequently communicates with others in the company and industry. The number of employees in the company reached 300, do you still communicate with employees?
Mr. Kim: I still do, but it’s difficult to remember the faces of 300 people, so I ask each manager to deal with some things.
Inven: That can also be a type of corporate culture.
Mr. Kim: There are some who don’t really like this type of culture, and I don’t do it to them, of course.
“I want to make the company grow and have “excellent” in front of the name”
For now, a representative game company in Anyang?
Inven: What made you start your career in the game industry?
Mr. Kim: I just enjoyed games and got here. Um, most of us would’ve thought “Ah, I want to continue playing this game…” when you see the ending. I was like that too. It wasn’t dissatisfaction, but it was more like an affection that you want to play that game more even after the ending.
Inven: Do you have an example?
Mr. Kim: You feel that something more would’ve been better when you are nearly done unifying the Three Kingdoms. You start thinking that a more powerful nation like Mongolia could make it more fun, or it would be great if the game continues to let me conquer the whole world or something like that. My thoughts were the expansion of these. I think that other game developers had the same motivation at the start.
Inven: I also made a simple airplane game with a computer when I was young. I also went to the computer club in middle and high schools, but never got a chance to push myself to become the game developer. I’m pretty sure there should be more than that (laugh).
Mr. Kim: Ah, I went to the computer academy when I was young. The teacher asked me to make a program that outputs even and odd numbers. That was the first time I did something by myself. It’s so simple when you think about it now (laugh), but the satisfaction was almost surreal after making this program. I guess that continued to motivate me and made me become a programmer.
Inven: Even and odd numbers are what made Mr. Kim the chairperson (laugh).
Mr. Kim: It really felt good (laugh). I was just in transit when all of a sudden the idea came into my mind. I went back home straight away and made it. I was thrilled. Most programmers would know this feeling and are still living with that similar sensation.
Inven: You are now a developer and chairperson. Do you also manage investments and M&A?
Mr. Kim: I don’t directly get myself involved with those. That’s what the board of directors do, and I just follow them and give opinions. I say Yes or No, as it’s not my specialty.
Inven: Any standards when you give opinions?
Mr. Kim:‘Why did this team fail when they make such a great game, they could’ve done much better’ something like this. I tend to look at the possibility of making synergy with us.
Inven: The interview is almost at the end. Please tell us your next goals.
Mr. Kim: Although I’m the chairperson, I’ll keep developing. My goal after 10 years is… to be honest, nobody knows how the world will change after 10 years, so it isn’t appropriate to predict something like that…
Inven: Then, how would you want people to see Pearl Abyss?
Mr. Kim: A company synonymous with “excellence”. A company that creates excellent games. A company that represents South Korea. A company that represents East Asia, something like that.
Inven: How much do you think the company has achieved so far?
Mr. Kim: For now, I guess we represent Anyang (laugh).