NCSoft is a truly unique game developer. It does not depend much on younger players. It is focused largely on wealthy, middle-aged users with deep pockets, who are willing to “pay to win.”
NCSoft’s flagship PC and mobile title Lineage keeps introducing new upgrade options and expensive packages on a weekly basis, and players, fearful of getting left behind, are forced to spend a lot of money to stay competitive.
This business model, based on the fear of users in the hypercompetitive game, has been extremely profitable. NCSoft, which started as a small game maker in 1997, is now listed on the main bourse Kospi, boasting a market cap of 21.8 trillion won ($19.3 billion). Net profit soared 63 percent in 2020 from a year earlier, largely due to the popularity of its twin mobile titles Lineage M and Linage 2M.
NCSoft’s creativity in designing a web of intricate upgrade options to make money, however, is in sharp contrast to the murky way it handles a crisis that it has created.
At the heart of the dispute is a change for Lineage M’s upgrade option. On Jan. 27, NCSoft modified the character ability upgrade system in a way that would benefit players spending a relatively small amount of money.
But the change angered a host of top-ranked players who regularly spend a lot of money. On Jan. 31, a well-known gaming streamer, who is said to have spent over 7 billion won for Lineage M, threatened to halt purchasing item upgrade options and instead kill less powerful players at random, unless NCSoft did something about the change.
Several hours later, NCSoft, not known for making quick responses, rushed to announce that the latest change “seriously undermines the fairness for existing customers” and it would remove the change.
On Feb. 1, the company indeed rolled back the server and offered compensation to players in the form of in-game money -- not the real money players actually spent to upgrade their characters.
While the dispute gained traction, NCSoft remained silent about the specific metrics it used to pay cyber money to players regarding the upgrade system. Players had to figure out what ratios were used for the compensation, and it turned out that some users got more than they invested, while others ended up with far less than they spent.
A YouTuber, who allegedly spent 160 million won for the new ability upgrade system, received in-game money worth 50 million won. On Feb. 8, he made a visit to NCSoft headquarters but failed to meet a company official. Angered by NCSoft’s treatment, he blocked the company’s parking lot with his car, resulting in a police call and accusations about formal complaints. The streamer claimed his case was transferred to prosecutors, but NCSoft argued it did not take a legal measure against him.
What’s important is the reason why the streamer took such drastic step. It appears to stem from NCSoft’s communication policy that could be summed up as “no communication with users.” NCSoft is not generally attentive to the complaints of players, much less explaining reasons and specifics about policy changes.
As the public as well as Lineage players began to show their anger by preparing a “No NCSoft” boycott, the game maker belatedly issued a new announcement for extra compensations on March 22. As with previous statements, NCSoft did not offer any apology. The tone of the announcement was also problematic. Instead of expressing regrets sincerely, NCSoft claimed it took the controversial rollback “after collecting various opinions from players.” How could an abrupt rollback be paired with the process of collecting diverse views from players is a mystery.
It is regrettable that NCSoft is under fire for mishandling a dispute sparked by its own misguided judgement. NCSoft was a representative pioneer in online gaming. It is time for the “legendary” game maker to ponder what it has to do to stay relevant for the deeply disappointed players.
By Yang Sung-jin (firstname.lastname@example.org
) Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.