RPGs in 2021 and beyond: The Nexon take

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The flavor and mechanics of role-playing games are all over the industry these days. The way you build skills, statistics, gear, and even worlds borrow from the ideas we first saw in tabletop war games, Strat-O-Matic Baseball, and Dungeons & Dragons.

But I know where RPGs have been. I’m more interested in where they’re going.

So I’m going to spend the rest of 2021 talking to people who make RPGs of every genre. Of course, we’ll talk about the games they’re working on, and we will through the lens of what the industry is like now and where they see things going in 2022 and beyond.

I’m starting first with Dennis Bernardo of Nexon. He’s a producer working on a few games, such as Darkness Rises and Konosuba: Fantastic Days. These are both RPGs — Darkness Rises focuses on action (a mobile Diablo-like), while Konsuba is a mobile IP game of a Japanese anime.

Both represent popular styles of RPG on mobile, a space in which free-to-play, microtransactions, and gacha mechanics reign and can influence design at a game’s most granular levels. Yet developers like Bernardo also want to push what they love about RPGs — story, building characters, and fiddling with gear loadouts.

This is an edited transcription of our interview.

GamesBeat: What are the RPGs that you’re working on right now?

Dennis Bernardo: Two of the games I work on, Darkness Rises and Konosuba, are both RPGs, but they’re both different in style. Darkness Rises is an action-RPG with real time combat. The art style is traditionally a little bit more gothic, a bit darker, sort of like World of Warcraft or Diablo. Konosuba is based on an anime IP developed in Japan. The style is more turn-based, a Japanese RPG.

GamesBeat: And these are both on mobile?

Bernardo: Correct, they’re both mobile games. I’ve been at Nexon for about six years now. Previously, I worked in the PC department on Maple Story, which is one of our most popular MMORPGs.

GamesBeat: Darkness Rises is an internal IP, and Konosuba is an IP game. Those two markets are very different. What’s it like handling two different games like that?

Bernardo: It’s definitely something we have to juggle. A lot of what we do at Nexon America specifically, a lot of what my role is, is overseeing how we connect with North American players, European players, players in Australia and New Zealand, all over the world outside of Asia. We talk to them and see what they’re responding to, what they like in other games that are popular in those regions. It’s a balancing act. It’s very different depending on the IP and the game.

For example, with Darkness Rises, it has a lot of similarities with Western-developed IPs like I mentioned before, in the art style and the gameplay. It’s more action oriented. We have to take that into account when we plan our sales, plan our events, plan the collaborations we want to do with other IP to see if it fits with those people. Konosuba is going to be released this year, so we’re still doing a lot of research on that, but as you mentioned, it is based on an existing IP, and so we try to look at that audience. What did they respond to for that property? What do they like about these characters and this world? That’s what we want to bring out in the sales, events, all the marketing and planning that we do for the game.

Above: The Assassin does what it does best — slay in the swamp. (OK, it slays well in other places, too.)

Image Credit: Nexon

GamesBeat: What is an action-RPG in 2021? How is it different from what we maybe think about in games from five years ago, like Dungeon Runners or something like that?

Bernardo: I feel like there’s a lot — the term RPG is sort of nebulous. There’s a lot of different games that fall into the category, a lot of different elements. But some of the things we’re trying to focus on with these two specific games are building immersive worlds, building worlds that people want to be in, character growth, and player choice. For example, for Darkness Rises, it’s real time combat, and so we try to make sure that the combat feels impactful. The player feels like they’re these warriors defeating monsters. That’s how we try to immerse people into the world. For that game specifically, too, deep customization. There are tons of different choices in the weapons that you can equip, costumes you can put on, and just the look of your character, different facial features, hair colors, all those things we try to instill and add to the game. For an action-RPG, it feels like we’re trying to focus on the moment, because it’s real time combat. We’re trying to make sure people feel like the combat and immersion is visceral.

GamesBeat: You talk about choice. For this game specifically, the choices are about what your character looks like, how your character fights, and not as much about the story.

Bernardo: Story choices, there’s not too much in the way of different paths you can go down, but there are different characters you can choose that have their own storylines within the game. There’s different content you can engage with. Tons of PvP content and PvE content. Aside from the story mode, there are different side modes telling their own different stories. There’s a lot of choice in the variety of activities that you can do in the game.

GamesBeat: Over the past five years, how much has visual customization become important to action-RPGs on mobile?

Bernardo: It’s become increasingly important, and I think that’s due to the increase in technology. Every year brings better phones and other mobile devices. 2020 and 2021 were no different. You’re starting to see these characters in high fidelity, and that’s exciting from an RPG standpoint, because we’re able to show more detail and give the player more choice in the different eye colors they can have, different shoes they can wear. All these different things, you couldn’t see that before in older games. It wasn’t technically possible. It’s exciting for us to be able to enhance that and present different visual choices.

GamesBeat: Is that visual choice a gameplay element, or is it also a monetization element?

Bernardo:  For Darkness Rises, for example, we have costumes and armor and weapons, a lot of these things with different stats. You can earn a lot of them through just playing the game. Some of them we sell in the in-game shop. There are multiple avenues to acquire different items. For something like Konosuba, we have costumes and characters based on what you see in the anime, what you see in the movies, what you see in the light novels. We have these characters in different costumes that you can acquire as well, either through gameplay or through the in-game shops.

GamesBeat: How have monetization approaches changed over the last few years and heading into the 2020s?

Bernardo: With monetization, we try to augment the gameplay, rather than make the players feel like it’s necessary. A lot of the monetization we’re doing, even for mobile games, is cosmetic. It’s that player choice in how you want your characters to look. It’s a sense of pride for players, to be able to customize the way their characters look, show them off in game in the lobbies and competitive or cooperative modes we have in the game. We’re trying to use that and what the players want out of the customization to augment the gameplay through our monetization.

GamesBeat: Do you see that augmentation as a trend that’s continuing? Or with changes like IDFA coming to Apple, do you see free-to-play games looking at more things like season passes and other offerings you buy in chunks as part of their monetization?

Bernardo: We’re looking at a lot of different models out there as far as monetization. We don’t have a specific overarching plan that we want to apply to different games. It depends on the game. For example, with Kart Rider Rush Plus, we do have a season pass. We have that battle pass system that’s becoming increasingly popular, and we’ve seen success with that type of monetization system. But we also have more traditional monetization systems in the game, purchasing things outright. It depends on the game. It depends on how it fits into the overall design and the world of the game. I can’t say for sure what direction and what trends we’re going to be going for in our future games. We’re evaluating that on a game-by-game basis.

GamesBeat: Has there been any interest in bringing games like these to PC, going cross-platform?

Bernardo: I don’t think we have plans for that at the time. We’re focusing on the mobile aspect for now. I can’t speak too deeply into the cross platform strategy because I don’t work on these other games, but if you look at something like Maple Story, we brought that from the PC to mobile, and they have some interactions. One of the most recent things some of my colleagues on my team worked on was V4, which we released on both PC and mobile simultaneously. Players can interact with each other on whatever platform they choose. That’s something we’re interested in, and we’ve experimented with it, so it’s not new to Nexon.

GamesBeat: As a designer working at a company that’s multiplatform, do you see cloud gaming as something that can make future titles — something where you don’t restrict it to mobile, but just do it on every platform.

Bernardo:  Again, I’m not a technical expert or a design expert, so it’s tough for me to speak with authority about how the trend will go. But personally I’m excited about cloud gaming. As you said, it affords those opportunities to be platform agnostic. I’ve tried some of the services out there myself. One thing that some of our territories may need to catch up on is just that latency issue and the bandwidth issue. I don’t know if we’re quite there yet. But again, I can’t speak to anything Nexon-related on that.

GamesBeat:  Let’s talk about mechanics for a second. The one thing that could happen to any action RPG, be it Diablo or an independent game, is that it gets repetitive and boring. What tactics do you think Nexon and other designers are going to look at to make these games more replayable in the future?

Bernardo: That’s something we’ve always thought about with all of our games, even on PC. Because all of our games are live service games — Maple Story has been around for more than 15 years now — we’ve tried to listen to players to see what they’re asking for, whether it’s quality of life improvements, new content, new bosses, new cosmetics. What do they want? And again, it differs based on the game and the player base that’s excited about that game. For Kart Rider Rush Plus, our update strategy is adding new karts, new tracks. These are the core focuses for trying to continue that lifetime of the game. For Darkness Rises, we add new characters, new weapons, better armor for players to achieve, and more bosses. Again, it depends on the game, but in general, more content, more things for players to do, more things for players to engage with, and engage with the things that they already like to do in the game.

Above: Face-off!

Image Credit: Nexon

GamesBeat: As a designer, are there action RPG mechanics you think need to go by the wayside while you find new things to do?

Bernardo:  One thing we try to do in all of our games, action-RPGs specifically, is try to enhance that new user experience and make it less obtuse. That’s one thing I do as a producer. I look at all the different ways players are engaging with the game and looking for those pain points, seeing where they drop out, and trying to alleviate that. A lot of our focus when looking at analytics is that first new player experience, making sure players understand all the systems. I’m not sure that there’s any one system that is antiquated or needs to fall by the wayside, but I think the ways we teach the player the game need to be updated based on new technologies we have, switching from PC to mobile. There are different attention spans among players, different tolerances for the amount of information they can retain. We have to figure out how to instill that into the player and capture them from the get-go.

GamesBeat: After so many years of making action-RPGs, how do you make loot something that’s still exciting to a player? Especially someone who’s been playing since as far back as maybe the first Diablo.

Bernardo: Again, this is more of a designer thing. I haven’t thought about it too much. But with any game, any RPG, there’s always going to be loot. There’s always going to be, like I mentioned, ways to improve your character, enhance your character, grow your character. Inevitably that always boils down to loot, stat points, those types of things. My personal opinion, it’s more about making sure all of these things feel meaningful when you get them. Trying to respect the player’s time. That’s what we try to do in all of our games, ensuring that any new content we release, any new feature we add, any new thing that we want the player to work for and toward, we want to make sure that the players feel an accomplishment when they get it. Whether it’s a loot drop, whether it’s the next level, going from level one to level two, all these different things have to instill in that player a sense that, I’m growing with this character. It’s fun for me, whatever it is that I’m doing.

GamesBeat: There are two paths for action-RPGs. There’s one where you level up and get to new powers, and another where your abilities are tied to weapons and gear. Do you have a preference between those two?

Bernardo: I play a lot of different MMORPGs. One example I really like that I’ve played a lot is Final Fantasy XIV. I love the way the class system in that game is based on the weapon that you’re holding. That dictates the skills you have, what you can do. For me personally, that’s something I enjoy. Seeing how different weapons and play styles vary with the different skills you get from those.

GamesBeat: Looking ahead to the next decade, how do you think action-RPGs on mobile are going to evolve?

Bernardo: The easy answer here would be, with the new technology, you’re going to see bigger worlds. More characters. More immersive environments. There have always been mobile MMOs that have been popular in the east, in Asian territories, but that have never really broken out here in the west. We’re just starting to see that, even within the last two years. There have been some of those breakout hits recently. We’re going to see more of that. We’re trying to instill a lot of that in our existing games, like Darkness Rises, but also this year’s releases like Konosuba. We’re trying to bring that audience that loves Japanese RPGs, that loves anime, and may have experienced that style in other media and other platforms — we’re trying to bring that to mobile. We’re excited about Konosuba because I think it’s a good opportunity for that, just through the nature of this IP. It’s a bit more approachable, more accessible. That’s something we’re looking forward to this year.

GamesBeat: It’s funny that you see it as more approachable, because I’ve always felt that IP games sometimes aren’t if you don’t know the IP. How do you get people who may not know that IP interested in that game?

Bernardo: It goes back to what I was saying before about figuring what it is that people like about that IP. What drew them to it? And then exposing that to a wider audience. Anime, manga, all these Japanese media and pop culture have a niche audience at the moment, but there’s a wide variety of different types of this media, different types of anime. Trying to bring Konosuba specifically to the mobile market, there’s a whole pool of mobile gamers, RPG gamers, that don’t know about that IP. They may find some of the same common things about it appealing. For example, Konosuba is a comedy IP. We’re trying to instill that humor into everything we do — marketing, PR, community. It’s about exposing a larger audience to what draws people to the IP. I’m a sort of light anime fan. I dabble here and there. But I’ve never seen something like Konosuba that is so in touch with itself and its viewers.

By that I mean, it makes a lot of — it parodies a lot of common anime tropes, common tropes about the genre it’s in. It’s an isekai series, about a person in the real world being transported to a fantasy world. That’s what happens in the story, but it puts a unique spin on it. What drew me to the IP and the anime, even before I started working on the game, the interaction between the characters feels very much like a sitcom. You want to get to know these characters. You want to see the interactions between them. It’s not so much about crazy action or the crazy world around them. It’s about these characters, a very character-focused IP. That’s what I think may be appealing to a lot of people out there who haven’t heard of it.

GamesBeat: Is it fair to say that it’s a lighter take than something like Sword Art Online?

Bernardo: Absolutely.

GamesBeat: Sword Art has something like five or six years of very good video games behind it, games that really do feel like the show. The show’s premise of being in a video game world helps with that. How do you capture a lighter tone in a mobile RPG?

Bernardo: What we’re trying to do with Konosuba is introduce the characters and the world to the player in interesting ways. We have really beautiful 2D illustrations that look like the anime. We have beautiful cutscenes that look like the anime. But the dialogue between the characters feels very much like the IP. As players play the game and go through missions, even as they’re scrolling through the menus and things like that, there are little touches here and there, sound effects, UI design. All of these have a personality that exhibits the lighter nature of the anime and the IP in general. That’s how we’re trying to make sure we’re staying faithful to Konosuba, with everything in the game. Again, the UI, the sounds, the music, the dialogue, all that stuff. It even plays out, again, in our marketing, PR, and community.

GamesBeat: One thing I’m curious about when it comes to making an IP game — you play something like the Shin Megami Tensei series and its mobile game. It’s Shin Megami Tensei, but as you play it, it doesn’t really feel like the franchise in some ways. It feels like another kind of gacha game. But you talk about things like paying attention to the UI, the sound design, cues like that, is something developers are going to need to focus on more going forward when it comes to IP RPGs? Just making every interaction feel like part of the IP?

Bernardo: Absolutely. I’ve worked on a lot of IP games in my career. One of the common things that I think players respond to is when the creators of the game, the people publishing it, the developers — when it feels like they understand that IP, when they’re fans of the IP in general. That’s one reason I was excited to work on Konosuba. I felt that from the moment I played the game. I felt that from going through the missions and seeing all the characters, the love and care they put into the artwork and the storylines. This game has all the characters from the anime, or most of the characters from the anime, but we also have entirely new characters created specifically for the game.

Even in those characters, we have to scrutinize them heavily. Does it feel like this fits in the world? I think our developers have done a good job with the way these characters interact with characters people might know from the other media. It feels very natural. That’s one of the key things we try to do with our IP games, and even collaborations we do. For example, with Darkness Rises we had a collaboration with another IP recently. We did focus a lot on understanding that other game, understanding that other IP, and seeing how it would naturally fit into our game. It’s definitely important.

GamesBeat: Looking toward the next decade of RPG development on mobile, what is it that you can’t do right now that you’re hoping either technology or techniques or the market will change and allow you to do?

Bernardo:  We haven’t had a real breakout MMORPG on mobile here in the west. That’s something I’m looking forward to, with our titles we just released as well as upcoming titles we may release in the future. Building those interactive worlds, interacting with tons of players in real time, is something that is very exciting, and something we could do in the future. We just haven’t had the opportunity and the technology yet to really capitalize on that. Bringing the true MMO experience to mobile is something we want to do.

GamesBeat: Asking this of Dennis the player, not Dennis the producer, what RPGs are you into right now?

Bernardo: I just finished Cyberpunk. That was a very lengthy, very fun game. I loved it. I play a lot of MMOs. I’ve been playing Final Fantasy. I’ve been playing Genshin Impact. On the console side, RPGs — like I said before, RPG is a nebulous term right now. There’s RPG elements in a lot of games. One of my favorite games I’ve played recently was Assassin’s Creed, and that has a lot of RPG elements in it, but you wouldn’t call it an RPG. It’s those types of games I’m drawn to and love to play.

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