Interview with Jake Song, developer of Lineage

jakesong“How do you feel about becoming, once more, a developer of unchartered game genres?” Perched on a podium before dozens of reporters, there is a strained pause as stony-faced game developer Jae-kyung Song pushes his hair back over his shoulder with a thin, white hand, looking every bit the charismatic “godfather” of Korea’s online game scene in a dark leather jacket. “I never think about doing something just for the sake of doing something new,” he says slowly. “I just develop things that I think are interesting.”

A murmur ripples through the crowd, many of whom are seeing Mr. Song for the first time– as he seldom makes public appearances. Mr. Song, 41, is the chief executive officer of XL1, a small game developing company, which has just launched a new online racing game under the same title. Known as Jake Song outside of Korea, he was also the developer of Land of Wind, the first online role-playing game developed in Korea, and also Lineage, the first Korean massive multiplayer role-playing game. He founded the game company Nexon in 1995 and was vice president of NCsoft before stepping out to found XL1 a couple of years ago. In the late nineties, Mr. Song was one of four young CEOs that led Korea’s dot-com boom.

Stepping out of the limelight for a private interview, however, the grim-faced Mr. Song became a bubbly, enthusiastic character whose face lit up as long as the subject was games. I asked Mr. Song how he first came to develop games and why developers can make games but can’t control them.

Q. Your friends are CEOs and you’ve gone back to being a developer…

A. [Laughing hysterically] I’m still a CEO!

Q. Okay, okay. But still, you’re doing edgier work. Does your family ever worry?

A. They’ve been very supportive. They do worry sometimes, but I wanted to get away from all the administrative things and the business. Right now, I’ve just developed this new game so I’m really busy again, but sometimes I wish I could just forget about everything and just sit around and play games.

Q. Do you consider yourself normal?

A. I always think of myself as normal! That is… until people point out something weird that I’ve done or said [giggle]. I get along very well with my co-workers, but it’s hard to find common interests when talking with other people. Q. Are you affected by what other people say? A. Sometimes I’m worried about what others will think and how they will evaluate my work, but I make an effort to ignore the pressure.

Q. You’ve just developed a racing game but I can’t imagine you as a racer. Do you like to drive?

A. No, not really. I’m actually a very cautious driver, not a racer at all. It was my co-workers that are the racing fans. I thought it was a good idea.

Q. So you were somewhat persuaded into making the game?

A. Well, after we formed the company, we were sitting around thinking of what kind of game to develop and these guys were hard-core racing game fans. As we developed the idea, we saw how small the racing game market was here and that there was huge potential for the motor sports market… and I’m not just talking about computer games.

Q. What was the first game you ever made?

A. It was in college. Now that I recall, it was a racing game. Not like XL1, but where objects fall from the top of the screen and you have to avoid them. I made it with Turbo Pascal when I was a freshman.

Q. I understand you were a computer major at college. What made you study computers?

A. I only studied computers because I wanted to play games. The first computer I saw was when I was in my second year of junior high school at a friend’s house. It was an 8-bit computer and there weren’t many games. To me, the computer was like a very expensive toy.

Q. What do you think you would be doing now if you hadn’t studied computers or started developing games?

A. Probably engineering… making semiconductor chips or something… no, that’s an overstatement. Anyway, I think I’d be fiddling with some sort of gadget.

Q. You’re now a father of two, and they’re old enough to play games. If they wanted to become game developers, would you support that?

A. One’s eight and one’s five. I think I’d be happy if they shared similar interests but I know that’s not something you can force.

Q. Since Lineage was launched, most of the online role-playing games that have been released have been more or less very similar. Do you think that the “look” of the characters or game-playing method in Lineage is particularly appealing to Koreans?

A. I don’t think there’s a style of game that players like. World of Warcraft, for instance, is very different from other Korean online games, but is still very successful. When Lineage first came out, it was a new type of game, but it became tremendously successful. The similarity of those games is that a lot of pain went into developing them to produce a high level of finished outcome. One day, some new developer will sail in like a comet with a totally new type of game.

Q. I wonder if you’ve ever felt any guilt or responsibility because of all the “daywalkers” you’ve created who are totally addicted to Lineage.

A. There have been a lot of social problems regarding Lineage which I’m sure you’re aware of. I don’t think “guilty” is the right word. I know there are side-effects, but there are also cases where shy people gain confidence or adjust to society.

Q. What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?

A. I think, I hope [laughs] I’ll still be playing and developing games.

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