Last night’s bombshell that Bless Online is closing down its final Korean servers, leaving the game’s Steam version in the west as the only one still running, surely has the community wondering about Neowiz’s intentions here.
We recently spoke to the studio on multiple subjects revolving around Bless: on the curse of early access expectations, localization, the game’s age, retention, launch, pay-to-win perceptions, comparisons to Final Fantasy XIV, and where the money for Bless Unleashed came from (spoiler: It’s not from Bless Online). We’ve got that interview for you today. Do note that while technically this interview was conducted before the formal announcement that Bless Korea was closing, Neowiz does make a brief mention about that at the end in noting that the western Steam version is now the “main and sole version of Bless Online across the globe.”
MassivelyOP: It seems like Bless has just been blasted with bad reviews and bad press all summer – even our own impressions piece, the closest thing we do to a review on MOP, was riddled with disappointment in the state of the game. I know you’re technically in a paid early access, but the whole situation has to be utterly demoralizing for the team, right? I know you didn’t go to all the trouble of redoing the whole game and porting it westward just to watch it struggle – I remember the devs calling it a “passion” project both then and now. Can you folks talk about why you ported over the way you did and how that “passion” is still fueling development? How are you pushing through both the legitimate criticism and the – I’ll say it – actual toxicity from the gaming community in regard to the game?
Neowiz: We decided to go with Early Access because we believed it would be the best way to let our players know that the revamped version of Bless Online was a work-in-progress for the early months of our launch on Steam. Bless is the sole reason this studio exists, and as such it will always be a passion of Neowiz. We recognized in other regions that there were insurmountable issues, and that’s a large part of the reason we wanted to revamp a lot of the systems for a Western launch. In retrospect, we understand exactly why it’s hard for western users to digest that Bless Online is “Early Access” when it had been launched in other regions previously. A different tactic may have been to launch a Closed Beta and then wipe progress before an official launch, but at the time we thought it would be more interesting for players to be able to keep progress and offer feedback on the new combat and progression systems we worked on for the Western release. Going forward, our goal is to launch Bless Online fully this year, and to make sure that new players and those who left, come back and see all the progress we’ve made since the Early Access began. We’re committed to making the game the best it can be, and we hope our players will see that.
MassivelyOP: In several of our articles on the game, we’ve mentioned how we first started covering Bless back in 2011 or so, which means a lot of people believe the game is seven years old, when really that was just when development began. Even so, it launched in Korea a few years ago. But you folks don’t think that’s fair – you think Bless is just as modern as anything else in early access in 2018, given the major overhauls of the last few years. Can you speak to that perception?
Neowiz: Leading up to Bless Online’s OBT launch in Korea for the end of January, 2016, we first revealed that the game had been in development to the media in 2011. However, since the “Bless” title has been serviced and known in South Korea, Russia, and Japan, we understand that players may think of it it as an “old game.” It really only launched in Korea in 2016. Five years is about average for an MMORPG’s development, as well.
We also realize that localization in different countries is about more than just translation of text. When we launched the game in new countries, we spent a lot of time working on the build, such as for the Japanese release. This was the same for the Steam release. As many of our more diehard fans can attest, the combat and progression systems are completely reworked for the Steam launch. And while we had some unfinished translation of text at Early Access launch, all of this has since been completed and we continue to work on other languages for the Steam client as well.
For Steam, we prepared a new build while taking the gameplay preferences of North American and European players into account, and aimed to offer a gameplay experience different from those in other countries through changes to the one of the biggest factors in game content: the combat system. Also, we rebalanced and adjusted combat difficulty to match the current Steam build’s growth floor and reward balance. Through this, I think that we were able to give our players a different gameplay experience.
Massively OP: One of the downsides to having a rough early access, it seems to me, is that people form opinions and never refresh them as MMOs push onward – it’s something we have to actively fight as an MMO site, while regular players (and their Steam reviews) can cling to outdated opinions for years. I wonder what Neowiz is doing specifically to counter those kinds of negative early impressions – I’ve seen those impressions even spilling over into discussion of Neowiz’s other games now. I see the studio working on things like daily login bonuses, but how will that bring old players back to see how the game’s come along?
Neowiz: We entered Early Access as most other developers do when putting a game into that category on Steam. We believed that we would be able to work on such problems while communicating with our players and collecting feedback. But we learned quickly that few players really thought of our Early Access launch as “Early Access.” They expected a complete and final experience, since the game had been out in other regions. I think that we should have been more cautious and prepared much more to make up for the support and love that we received early on.
As you mentioned, changing a game’s impression isn’t easy. I think that it is important to communicate well with players and to continue doing what needs to be done. Although “fixing and creating new content” is important, I think that it is also a developer’s job to show “how it was fixed” and “how it was made.”
We will continue to work closely with our users for better changes, just as we did when EA first began. We will also make sure that there is a chance for those who left Bless because it wasn’t fun enough to come back and experience the improved Bless, and we are currently preparing a program that will encourage players to return for the official release later this year. We’ll have more details on the full launch very soon.
Massively OP: Are there any other specific misperceptions Neowiz sees within and without its community about Bless that it really wants to clear up?
Neowiz: Mainly we want our players to know that we’re dedicated to making Bless Online the best game it can be – we have loads of fixes, new content, and events planned for launch, and we hope both those who have played bless in Early Access and those who have been on the fence will come give it a try when it’s fully launched.
Massively OP: I’m also curious about the kinds of problems Neowiz deals with in regard to the Korean playerbase versus the western playerbase – are there things we complain about that the Koreans aren’t fussed over at all, and vice versa? What’s the biggest challenge the team has faced when trying to balance the game for both regions?
Neowiz: The players aren’t concerned with completely different issues. However, they do view several issues from a different perspectives.
Firstly, it isn’t exactly polarized, but there seems to be a big difference between the way the P2W aspects of a business model is viewed. Players in Asia tend to be more accustomed to and have a larger tolerance towards P2W aspects; there is a certain level of understanding among players that those who pay will receive in-game benefits (directly, such as gaining extra experience). Players in North America or Europe tend to value the “fairness” of a game, hence they have a stricter standard concerning things that give more direct benefit in-game, such as costumes that grant combat bonuses and convenience items.
In addition, Asian players tend to be more concerned about group PvP balancing while players in North America/Europe tend to focus more on balancing characters in 1v1 PvP environments. Accordingly, when looking at actual game data, the amount of 1 vs. 1 PvP matches that occur in the field is higher in NA/EU. Adjusting for this difference is never easy, as you’ve seen through our balancing efforts with patches.
Massively OP: Unleashed is not actually interfering with development of Bless Online in any region, correct? Is it also correct that Bless Online isn’t “funding” development of the Xbox One version? This was an assumption a lot of gamers made when the new title was first announced, leading to some grumpiness over the idea that Steam players were being “milked” to fund console.
Neowiz: From what I know, preparations for Bless Unleashed began in 2016. We have different studios under the Neowiz banner working on each title. Like any larger publisher, multiple projects are in development at any given time. In addition, Neowiz decided to partner with Bandai Namco to help fund the development of Bless Unleashed.
In fact, since Bless Online was serviced in Korea at the time of Unleashed’s beginnings, it should be Korean users who should be asking “was Bless Online used to fund the development of the console version?” In short, no. Money made on Bless Online was not used to fund Unleashed. Different investments went into both projects. As those who follow us know, Neowiz also makes games such as DJMax, Black Squad, and more. All independent from the Bless Online project.
Massively OP: The formal launch for Bless Online is still coming in 2018. How much of a “make or break” point is that launch? Is there a playerbase size at which Neowiz would just have to throw in the towel on the western version of the game, even after launch? Is it at a point where it’s broken even? I’m thinking of the way Square Enix took a major financial hit to redo Final Fantasy XIV after it was poorly received, but it seems to have paid off in the long run. Not every game is so lucky!
Neowiz: We are currently making a variety of preparations for Bless Online’s official release, such as improving content and developing new features. However, it is true that after the explosive response we received in the beginning of EA, the amount of players and sales have been dropping.
Above all, we are currently working on continuously improving content and communicating with our users to raise the overall “completeness” of the game in time for our official release. We expect that we will be able to obtain good results for the official release.
If the game is better at launch than it was at Early Access, if it’s more complete and more stable, I think that the results and player counts rising will follow naturally. We believe in Bless Online, and we want to give it as much love and care as we can to make it a game we can be proud of, and one our players will be proud of as well.
Massively OP: We’d like to thank Neowiz for its candor with this interview. We’ve posed additional questions to the Unleashed team and will run those when they return as well.