If you're a strategy RPG fan, chances are you twiddle your thumbs and wait for the next Fire Emblem to release. Wanting to scratch that itch I deeply needed, I checked out Lost Eidolons last September at PAX West and was surprised by the quality of this game made by a new, unheard-of developer called Ocean Drive Studio.
Wanting to learn more about what the studio behind these titles was all about, I explored the origins of Ocean Drive Studio and found the South Korea-based developer offered perspectives and ideas more than welcome in the sphere of video games. To that end, we spoke with Head of Global Operations Jungsoo Lee and Creative Director for Lost Eidolons Jin Sang Kim about the past, present, and future.
A Change of Pace
If you're not familiar with Ocean Drive Studio, it's still likely you've at least heard of Neowiz or Nexon Korea, known for developing games such as Counter-Strike Online and Combat Arms. This is where Ocean Drive Studios' begins, with Jae Kim -- the current CEO of Ocean Drive Studios -- working in head roles for both Neowiz and later at Nexon. In particular, he worked on Neowiz's Fifa Online, proving to be a huge success.
Later on at Nexon, Jae Kim developed titles such as Tango 5. The games he and his teams worked on were free-to-play with incentive to spend cash in order to continue. As a hardcore gamer himself, he dreamed of working on premium titles outside of this free-to-play model.
"At Nexon, as he had more resources to work on stuff," said Head of Global Operations Jungsoo Lee, "he started to think of proposing like, those type of game ideas to the company but, you know, big companies -- they cannot just confirm a project based on one's ambition, right? So, unfortunately, his vision for his studio and the corporate were a little bit different."
He decided to make his own studio at this point. Thus, Ocean Drive Studio was born. Talent needed to be pooled from across various studios in South Korea, and some colleagues from Jae Kim's time at Nexon even joined him in this venture. This included Jin Sang Kim, who was previously the creative director for Romance of the Three Kingdoms: The Legend of Cao Cao, a remake of a popular strategy RPG from the '90s.
"The game was very successful, but for Nexon it wasn't that significant, right?" said Lee. "But our team really loved Legend of Cao Cao, how we operated the game as a free-to-play game, it wasn't like really pay-to-win and the fans really loved the direction of the game. And also, Jin Sang was one of the few directors in Korea who enjoyed like streaming and talking to fans of the games."
The mindset of the newly founded Ocean Drive Studio is a refreshing one for the industry. Rather than tracing the market trend, Ocean Drive's philosophy was to focus on the core gameplay of a title and work on genres they themselves were fans and even experts of. Lee cites PUBG as an example. While PUBG's popularity is unfathomable for most game developers, the concept of battle royale was relatively uncharted territory and took off to heights no one could have guessed.
In this sense, Ocean Drive Studios' approach to game development stands out from studios its staff has previously worked at like Nexon. From a Western perspective, many studios in South Korea appear to chase after the free-to-play market. When asked if Ocean Drive is looking to be different from other studios in South Korea, Lee said yes and no. While the possibility of a free-to-play title from Ocean Drive Studio isn't out of the realm of possibility, the studio's current in-development games make them somewhat of a differentiator
"What I meant by yes is, basically, we are trying to differentiate ourselves based on the vision that -- I don't want to say we don't care but -- you know, we don't necessarily want to look at the market before we decide we're going to work on it," said Lee. "Because, we believe, a studio of our size, we believe, you know, even if it's very small niche, if you make some great product for the niche market, we'll be able to survive and we'll be able to work on a sequel and third project, et cetera."
Ocean Drive's Debut and Future: Lost Eidolons
With The Legend of Cao Cao fresh in the mind of both Jin Sang Kim and members Ocean Drive, their first game was to be a tactical, strategic RPG. This game would draw not just from The Legend of Cao Cao but a juggernaut of the genre as well -- Fire Emblem.
"My previously developed game was also a strategy RPG, so it's just natural that we make another game," said Jin Sang Kim. "Given that situation and opportunity, I couldn't resist making this game."
Jin Sang Kim certainly fit the criteria for creative director -- not only has he worked on games in the genre like Cao Cao, he's an avid fan of Fire Emblem. That much was apparent as he and I gushed over our love for the series during my hands-on session with Lost Eidolons last September. Hearing that the creative directors needed to be experts of the genre makes sense after my conversations with him.
Pitching Lost Eidolons, Kim had a vision for something like Fire Emblem meets Dragon Age. In terms of graphics, you can see the Dragon Age influence immediately, but he also threw around other names like Baldur's Gate and Game of Thrones in terms of environments and themes in Lost Eidolons. Clearly, this idea resonated with fans, and Ocean Drive took a leap of faith by unveiling this project to the world with a successful Kickstarter campaign, gaining over a thousand backers as a result.
"We were like completely unknown, right?" said Jin Sang Kim. "So, I didn't expect that much and our goal wasn't really that high either, but like we actually made that goal and I think Jungsoo did a great job letting everybody know."
Lee says there wasn't much to show the public during the Kickstarter just yet -- Ocean Drive had internal documents and in-development assets, but most of these were things that simply couldn't be shared during the Kickstarter since it was too early. For that reason, he was happy that over a thousand backers opted into the vision the team had for Lost Eidolons. Of course, Kickstarter funding is no guarantee a game's development won't be without hurdles. Certainly, there were a fair share of road bumps along the way, especially for a team that's worked mostly on free-to-play games meant to be relevant for as long as possible.
"We were experienced, but then we weren't really experienced in the consoles and single-player games that actually does have an ending," said Jin Sang Kim. "That's something we haven't really done, you know? I've been in the industry for over 20 years, I've been all in online games and mobile games."
Other challenges included writing the lengthy story in Lost Eidolons and experimenting with different ways to create cutscenes and transitions. Even now, the team doesn't seem fully satisfied with the result, and Lost Eidolons has become something of an ongoing project rather than a one-and-done release. Jin Sang Kim says the ongoing support for their game provides "valuable learnings" for other projects and, potentially, sequels.
"For me, if I'm allowed to, you know, if Jae allows me, I'm going to make another one. I mean, I think I can do much better than this," said Lee.
Right now, the team is looking at reviews through various aggregator sites like Metacritic and OpenCritic, as well as taking into account user feedback through Steam reviews. Kim is candid about Lost Eidolons' performance thus far, but it hasn't discouraged the team.
"We don't just want to throw out the game," said Lee, "It doesn't perform well, let's just kill it, let's just move on, you know? We're spending too much money on Lost Eidolons now, take everyone out and move on to other projects. We don't do that."
Both Lee and Kim seem excited about the future of their studio, despite the challenges a new studio may face. With their next title, a roguelite top-down shooter called Blackout Protocol, and hints of even more projects yet to be announced, it's full steam ahead with Ocean Drive Studio. It's likely we'll be seeing many more projects from Ocean Drive spanning all different genres in the years ahead and beyond.