We sat down with Pearl Abyss Europe’s CEO to talk new player experience, localization philosophies, and unique appeal.
How Black Desert’s Western Push is Taking Pearl Abyss Towards Global Domination
What better place to discuss world domination than a Dutch medieval castle shrouded in fog? And while they're leaving the trebuchets and ballistas out of things for now, Pearl Abyss certainly have bold global plans for Black Desert. At Voice of Adventurers' Europe, we had the chance to sit down with Lybee Park (CEO of Pearl Abyss Europe) to discuss the future of the multiplatform action MMORPG.
The South Korean developer-publisher is already a powerhouse in the East and is making massive strides in the West. Held back by the pandemic, this was the first major Black Desert fan event on European soil (though a sister event was launched slightly earlier for US fans).
There was a sense from Lybee Park and others that the event was "meaningful" and "special". Two years in the making, it was the first chance that they had really had to meet their European fans, listen to their feedback, and show their appreciation.
It's safe to say that they were looking after the fans lucky enough to make it there. Alongside fun activities and competitions, there was fine dining inside the castle halls accompanied by a string quartet flown in from Italy playing Black Desert's greatest hits. And that's not to mention the backpacks jampacked with freebies that every attendee left with.
We have so many things to show our fans and the world. Look forward to what comes next.
Pearl Abyss launched in 2010 and released Black Desert in 2014 to much acclaim. Since then, it has managed a staggering 50 million player registrations. As the person in charge of ensuring the fandom conquers Europe, Lybee was well aware of the challenges that face her.
"Our developers are Koreans; they have never even lived outside of Korea. Sometimes even localization for Japan, Taiwan, and other Asian countries can give them a sharp shock. So then when we started preparing to launch the game for the Western market, it was a different story entirely. So localization, of course it concerns us."
And yet often where there is difference, there is opportunity. For many MMORPG players, the unique Korean charm of Black Desert is a huge part of the appeal. For Lybee, who oversaw the North American and European launches of Black Desert Online in 2016 as well as its global console publishing deal in 2018, this is an important lesson.
"This can amaze our developers as well as shock them. Because the way our fanbases here consume or understand our game is different from how our Asian fans often do. [...] We adore those different experiences of people enjoying what we've brought to them."
It's a lesson Pearl Abyss have taken on board. Originally, they looked into creating vastly differentiated versions of Black Desert Online for different audiences, factoring in the different prevailing opinions and wishes of individual populations. And yet, with time, they realised that that was the wrong approach, and that they would risk losing that which made the game special.
"We recognise that our fans actually love the core idea of the game that developers first came up with." So while they adapt and find a balance, the core of the game stays true to form.
We were delighted to see that they're doubling down on their country's influence. As part of December's annual Calpheon Ball announcements, Pearl Abyss unveiled a new twin class and region The Land of the Morning Light heavily inspired by Korean history, dynasties, culture and folklore.
It's wise for BDO to be differentiating itself like this. Until New World arrived, Black Desert was graphically head-and-shoulders above its MMORPG competitors-- regularly winning MMOGames' most beautiful MMO trophy. Given recent advancements in graphical tech, specifically Unreal Engine 5, MMORPGs are going to be able to be a lot prettier, a lot more easily.
So, we asked how BDO would continue to distinguish itself from the crowds. What is its core advantage over its competitors? The answers were adaptability and choice:
"We're such a huge game full of secrets and activities. Why stop at fishing when you can tame and breed your own horse? We develop our own game on our own in-house engine which we also developed in house. That gives our developers huge advantages. If we want to create something beautiful in-game, we can have it live within 3 days. Whenever inspiration strikes or whenever we want to meet fan feedback, we can develop, test, and implement at lightning speed."
Pearl Abyss's in-house developed proprietary engine is undeniably impressive. Developed in parallel to its games, it features multi-platform support and graphics that compete with the best of the best. Plus, their in-house facilities feature life-sized 3D scanning rigs, motion capture and audio capture studios.
Yet just as new features and choices can be a huge draw, they can also be a deterrent for new players. For players accustomed to relatively streamlined traditional western MMORPGs, BDO and other K-RPGs can feel a bit chaotic. As anyone who played Lost Ark can attest to there are often an overwhelming number of menus, systems, features, and notifications. For the new player, these can be headache inducing. And yet, to conquer the world, Pearl Abyss is going to need to bring in lots of new players to their 8-year-old game -- an unending battle that every MMO faces.
"We know that our game is overwhelming at the beginning, but our community is very mature. They always welcome new players."
Enhancing the new player experience is clearly a Pearl Abyss priority. It's safe to say that their strategy is multifaceted: new-player-oriented chat groups; regularly updated older systems; partner programs with creators publishing hundreds of hours of content; official and unofficial Discord community servers; fast-progression seasons; guided challenges and educational missions.
The best recent example of that is The Magnus -- a huge free update essentially offering mini-games via a standalone story culminating in a top-class piece of loot. Then, of course, there is Eternal Winter, Black Desert Online's highly enjoyable 2022 expansion which, from its new starting point to its fluffy guide Lando, prioritised the new player at every stage.
That left me with one remaining question. What does Pearl Abyss's continued global expansion mean for Black Desert and its other titles? Is global domination the ambition?
"Yes." Lybee laughed, "That would be nice. Our company was founded under the wishes of our founder Deail Kim's dream that we develop the most satisfyingly amazing game that makes us proud and we'd want to play it. So the team love their jobs, even when they're stressful, and they're excited about the possibilities that we can bring into Black Desert and our other games. We have so many things to show our fans and the world. Look forward to what comes next."
And outside of Black Desert, Pearl Abyss have a pretty impressive upcoming offering, including the stunning RPG Crimson Desert, exosuit MMOTPS Plan 8, and open-world creature-collector DokeV. (Not to mention their hands-off ownership deal of EVE Online's CCP Games).
Yet despite this growing ensemble of AAA titles, despite the 50 million Black Desert player sign-ups across 150 countries, and despite interviewing under the parapets of a not-so-humble medieval castle, I was impressed by the team's humility and continued desire to connect with their fans.
As for world domination, who knows? But you can bet your bottom dollar you're going to be hearing the name Pearl Abyss a lot more in the years to come.
Some answers edited for clarity and concision.