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Top 5 Lessons I Learned After Decades Designing Blockbuster RPGs

From modest beginnings in a South Korean classroom to spearheading the evolution of RPGs, my journey in the gaming industry has been anything but typical. The world I immersed myself in as a child, Dungeons and Dragons, laid the groundwork for my eventual role as a game designer. Today, as the industry teeters on the cusp of the 4th wave of RPGs for mobile, I reflect on the top five invaluable lessons learned, challenges faced, and the driving force behind my pursuit to redefine gaming for the next generation.

Seek To Quell Boredom

I didn’t enjoy school while growing up in a working-class neighborhood in South Korea. My grades were so bad my instructors thought I had a learning disability, but when they took me aside to give me assessment exams, they were surprised that both my math and reading levels were multiple levels above where they were supposed to be. I had one thing to thank for that: Dungeons and Dragons.

The motivation was never there for me in class, but I played that magical tabletop game with a passion that I didn’t know was possible. It taught me more about myself than anything else could in grade school. I used it as an interface to experience all sorts of fantasies that just weren’t possible anywhere else, especially since video games were still very rudimentary. I didn’t know it at the time, but Dungeons and Dragons was the foundation for my future as an RPG designer.

Caption: As a game developer, I’ve led the creation of several major role playing games, including Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes

Boredom is a natural part of life, but it should never be a staple of how you live. Look for what excites you and it will drive you towards your passion. This doesn’t just apply to finding a career – it propelled my passion for designing fulfilling fantasy in RPGs.

Balance Your Kirk And Picard

Throughout my time at startups and major companies like EA, I’ve found that the concept of leadership can be distilled into two prime and direct ideas: Kirk and Picard. The two legendary Star Trek captains have different types of leadership styles. Captain Kirk, with all his bravado, takes command and directs his crew to go about the mission in whatever way he sees fit. Picard, on the other hand, lets his crew find their own way as he instills confidence in them through guidance.

Early on in my career, I was definitely more of a Kirk. People that worked with me at Klicknation and EA called that out in my 360 performance reviews. They’d say I was brash and arrogant. At first, I tried to brush that type of feedback off, but I realized how important it was to encourage those that work with you to grow. I needed to be the Picard to their Riker.

That’s not to say that there’s no place for Kirk in the game creation process. In the early stages, when creating the concepts for different aspects of the game, Picard’s style is wonderful for encouraging creativity. Kirk needs to come out later in the process in order to hit deadlines. The key is to find the right balance and not let one overwhelm the other.

Seize Opportunities

Even though I fell in love with Dungeons and Dragons, my first career wasn’t in gaming. I worked as a CTO at a web startup ahead of the dot-com bubble burst and then a manager at an investment firm. I knew that wasn’t what I wanted as I got into my late 20s, though. I knew I wanted to make a game. The main problem? Money.

While I wasn’t entirely confident in my game design skills, I had no idea how I would fund a small team of creatives in designing something that I had never done before. I simply believed that I could find a way to make it work, so I came up with what may be the strangest funding mechanism for a game studio ever devised: I opened up a yogurt shop in Sacramento.

Caption: I had offers to franchise my yogurt shop, but that was never part of the plan. I had always planned to use the yogurt funds for my first game.

I went all in on yogurt. I used some of the money I had saved up to hire a food chemist in Arizona to create a flavor that couldn’t be found elsewhere. I called it Zing, and it was a huge success. The store’s success followed and I eventually put all the money I raised there into 3 months of development time for a seven person team. It took us more than twice that time, but we did it. I designed, funded, and created my first game.

We can seize opportunities in life, and also in game design. RPGs are the highest-grossing gaming genre, making up 29% of game revenue, and RPG specialization drives the highest margins. In the last 15 years, the global games industry has seen three generations of RPGs, and now, my focus is on seizing the opportunity to build the next version.

Take Care Of Your People and They’ll Build Great Things

After years of designing games, I eventually took a break from the industry and, for a while, even stopped playing them. But, as you might have guessed, games pulled me right back in. I found myself playing God of War and Heroes of the Storm and thinking about what I would do if I was developing these games. I knew I had to get back in.

And the most important part of getting back in was building a great team. Fortunately, I had learned over the years how to do this. First and foremost, I needed to set a strong and inspiring vision for our company’s mission. Talented employees crave this and respond to it. Once I had attracted the first few “rock star” teammates, others followed, because talent seeks out talent. Great employees like to work together.

Caption: Azra Games is heading toward our first game launch, which we’ve code named Project Legends

That’s how Azra Games came to be. I lead a team of incredibly talented creatives who share the same vision of the future of role playing games. I didn’t just hire them, I gave them a generous amount of equity and excellent benefits to be part of the studio, where we’ve created a culture of mentoring, open feedback, and career development. Sixty percent of our team worked together previously at the studio I founded, sold to EA, and led, and they came back together at Azra because talented contributors crave an environment like this. We take care of our people, and that’s a critical part of building great games.

Take care of the people you surround yourself with and they will turn into the best creative builders that they can be. You won’t be able to climb that mountain when any part of your team lacks nourishment.

Look Towards The Future

We’ve all heard the cliche about skating where the puck is going. I’ve spent my career thinking ahead, building games I thought people would like to be playing three years from now, rather than looking around at what they’re playing today. My first RPG was built to run on Facebook when it was barely considered to be a viable place to play games. But I saw the value in letting people play with their networks of friends, so I pursued it, and it was the right choice. Two years later, everyone was playing Farmville and my RPG supported a studio of 70 people.I’m still looking forward, and I’ve gotten better at it. Azra Games is in the middle of developing what we believe to be the 4th generation of RPGs with our next project. It’s a major paradigm shift in the games industry that we’ve been looking forward to for the past several years. RPGs are the highest grossing genre in gaming, and the competition for player attention has never been steeper. If you want to stay relevant, you have to look ahead.

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