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Ina Jang is one of the few female CEOs of a major game company. At South Korea’s Smilegate, she helped make CrossFire into the biggest free-to-play first-person shooter game in the world.

The title isn’t well known in the West, where Call of Duty rules. But CrossFire has been a dominant game in China and much of Asia, and the game has reached more than a billion players on PC and mobile. To date, the game has generated $10.5 billion in revenue, and it is just one of many titles that Smilegate publishes.

Jang joined the company as a developer in 2007, the same year the company launched CrossFire. She made the game more accessible for users of all ages and focused on making it run on all systems, not just the high-end computers of hardcore gamers. The game was still speedy, but it didn’t have the lush graphics of Western games. That played well in China, which had wide variation with high-end machines owned by rich gamers and low-end machines played by middle-class and poorer players. The company also worked hard to fine tune CrossFire so it could run well on local country networks. It was a formula for growth.

By 2018, the game had 8 million concurrent players. That’s about where massive games like League of Legends are now. I interviewed Yang through a translator for the Gamelab Live virtual event. Jang said the company has more than 500 developers, and it is now opening a new studio in Barcelona. It is also launching a beta test of CrossFireX, a new version of the game for the Xbox One that Smilegate is working on with Remedy Entertainment, this week. That version should debut as a free-to-play offering this fall.


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Jang said she still sets the way forward for the company’s future games, and she likes to keep a firm grip on the company’s operations. And she holds out hope that the game industry will see more female CEOs in the future.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Ina Jang is CEO of CrossFire maker Smilegate.

Image Credit: Smilegate

Running Smilegate

GamesBeat: Can you tell us more about yourself?

Ina Jang: I’m the CEO of Smilegate Entertainment. Smilegate developed a sequel to CrossFire and many other games on online and mobile platforms. CrossFire is our main topic. Smilegate is also in charge of game publishing and game services for titles like Epic Seven at home and abroad.

GamesBeat: How did you come to be in charge of Smilegate?

Jang: I was a game developer myself before I joined the company. I’d heard that Smilegate was seeking game developers, so I went through a job interview for a position in development. I first joined the company as just a staff member, doing planning for games like CrossFire and many others. I built up my career here in the company to become CEO.

GamesBeat: How did you learn to be a good CEO? What helped you become a good CEO for Smilegate?

Jang: The CEO of a company has a lot of jobs to do, of course, but because of my background, having started out as a game developer myself — I feel that a great CEO should be a person that has a lot of capability in making a game a fun one. Other types of attributes are required of a CEO, but one I think that is important is that based on the market insights I have, I need to set the way forward for our games to evolve in the future. I need to be capable and confident enough to manage my organization of developers here at the company.

Growing CrossFire

GamesBeat: CrossFire is a huge game. Can you tell us how big it is in terms of the number of players, the number of dollars generated, and how many people it’s allowed you to employ? Just how big has it gotten?

Jang: In terms of global FPS games, CrossFire is No. 1. It’s definitely a huge game. It has a presence in 80 countries around the world, with 670 million users and revenue amounting to $10.5 billion dollars on an accrual basis. It’s very big all around the world. In terms of monthly concurrent users, as of 2018 we had 8 million people. To get a better idea, the population of Hong Kong is 7.5 million, so imagine every one of them being present at the same time. At the end of 2015 and into 2016, the mobile version of CrossFire kicked off. On an accrual basis, the number of users for CrossFire actually amounted to 1 billion, meaning one-out-of seven people in the entire world has played it at least once.

GamesBeat: In the U.S. and the west we’re quite familiar with FPS games like Call of Duty and Battlefield. How would you compare CrossFire to those games? Battlefield and Call of Duty are very heavy games, very large games with high-end graphics. Why do you think CrossFire has been just as successful or even more so?

Jang: CrossFire is somewhat different from the other games you mentioned. It’s a very fast game, where mobility is much higher compared to other games. The sense of hitting and being hit is very different. It could be defined as a casual FPS, something different from popular western games. As you said, these other games have very high-end graphics, a lot of focus on the visuals, but CrossFire is a bit different. However, we are planning CrossfireX in partnership with Microsoft, a console game. We can’t say exactly when it will be launched, but the focus will be on high-end visuals combined with the inherent strengths of CrossFire.

If I could share some of the secrets behind the success of CrossFire, we did focus a lot on our localization strategy for the title, in order to gear toward very specific details of players’ needs. By the time we launched globally, a lot of countries around the world still had very poor quality network infrastructure. We worked to fine-tune our technology in order to make it more synchronized with different networks. It wasn’t so easy to do this, but we overcame the technical hurdles to make sure the game was in sync with whatever network was available in each country.

Many game development companies lose the essence of their games once they reach out to other countries. They fail to do the right kind of localization. We try to stick to the core features of our game, like that sense of scoring a hit and the speed that are the inherent strengths of CrossFire. Even if we had to change our UI a bit to better localize the game, we still try to maintain the game’s core assets as much as we can. Before we launch the game, we do thorough market surveys and research for successful localization.

Above: CrossFire has more than a billion registered users.

Image Credit: Smilegate

GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about some of the best development decisions from the making of CrossFire? If there were any big mistakes that were made, how did you correct them?

Jang: There are a lot of development decisions we’ve made, so I can’t pick and choose a single one. But many of these decisions were requests from different publishers in different countries. They would make very detailed requests about putting in different characters and different media for their territories. A lot of these decisions were positive, so I can’t really pick a single one.

But one of the mistakes that we made along our journey — because this is an FPS game, we thought that the fast speed of the game was our number one asset and a value that we should stick with. Many complaints came from players, though, about how they could be quickly killed by other, faster players. They didn’t want that. We added HP, a type of liquid energy, so they could increase their energy level. But that created a lot of resistance from users anyway. We had to have a rollback and the server went down for days, so that was a great loss for us. It was a key lesson for us, that we shouldn’t go out and just recklessly update different items without thorough research and testing around consumer needs.

GamesBeat: How large was the team that made the original game, and how large is the team that maintains and works on CrossFire and the sequel today?

Jang: No matter what game we’re talking about, we start very small, with a small team. Now we have about 500 developers, which includes people involved with both CrossFire, the sequel, the mobile game, and live operations.

Crossfire X

Above: Crossfire X

Image Credit: Smilegate

Keeping it going

GamesBeat: How do you keep the original culture of the team and the inspiration of the team strong when you add so many people? It seems like it would be a lot harder to do that with 500 people.

Jang: When we first started, it was like a little family setting. A very small team got together to design the game, and then it got very big. We have a lot of diversity in our thoughts and ideas with so many people getting involved, though. One thing that has never changed at all, from the very beginning, is we make sure that CrossFire remains a very fun game, even as we scale it further as much as we can. We want to make the CrossFire IP even better and expand into different fields.

The team itself is very big, so I have to think a lot about organization and management. We can’t just have face-to-face meetings anymore. We have a sophisticated pipeline to share information throughout the team. The purpose that we have carries on from the very beginning, though. That’s never changed, making sure that the game stays fun and we scale it further and further.

GamesBeat: How has CrossFire stayed so strong? It came out in 2008, and 12 years later, it’s still going strong. What do you do to keep it fresh?

Jang: We’ve had very stable updates every month. We provide new content to refresh the game to keep players coming back. It’s never boring. We make sure we keep up with current trends. We always keep an eye on the market and make sure it’s very trendy each time. Also, we work on better graphics. The engine is very old, of course, so we do a lot of R&D to keep it up to date. We’ve done more than 200 big updates by now. We’re always working to make sure it stays fun without falling out of date.

GamesBeat: What have you learned about your players? Why do they keep playing?

Jang: People who play shooters have very similar tendencies, but those who play CrossFire are a little bit different. They’re more fond of a very high-speed game. In other shooters, they’re often focused on camping and ambushes, sometimes moving very slowly and carefully. We don’t do that. Everything is very fast. That’s something all of our players have fun with. I think our players have very fast-moving eyeballs. [Laughs] That’s one thing I find they have in common.

Above: Smilegate’s CrossFire gets continual updates.

Image Credit: Smilegate

Going West

GamesBeat: How hard have you tried to make CrossFire successful in the U.S. and Europe? How well has the game done there? Do you think it translates well to western audiences?

Jang: We have tried a lot to reach out to the North American and Latin American markets. We have a specific publisher, Smilegate West, to cover those markets. We’re trying very hard, and we do have a big fanbase there. I actually flew to Brazil myself for the marketing event where we introduced CrossFire there. The number of concurrent users has gone up there hugely. We’re doing quite well in those markets.

GamesBeat: What led you to working with Remedy Entertainment on CrossFire HD and CrossFireX?

Jang: Before we formed the partnership with Remedy, we were thinking of ways to appeal to a Western audience. We decided on building a collaborative mode with a western developer, and we got in touch with Remedy. We have a lot of strong game assets that could be used, and they’ve produced several excellent console games. We saw it as a good opportunity for a partnership. From Remedy’s perspective, they’re glad to be working with us, using Asia’s number one shooter IP. It’s a very synergistic partnership for both of us.

GamesBeat: A lot of game companies have had one very big hit, and then they spend a long time making their next game. What’s your strategy for making sure that your next game comes out successfully and comes out in a timely manner? Rockstar worked on the sequel to Red Dead Redemption for seven years, with as many as 2,000 people, which seemed like a wild amount of time to work on a sequel. How do you feel about making sure the next CrossFire game is good enough to live up to the success of the first game?

Jang: It’s a very simple question that’s very difficult to answer. If the original game is doing well, the sequel shouldn’t offset any of the values the original has. It shouldn’t be too early or too late. It might depend on the performance of the original game. It shouldn’t come when the original has lost all of its energy, but it shouldn’t come too early, either. It should come when it’s sure to attract a bigger group of users in the future.

What’s most important when it comes to timing, though, is simply that the sequel is ready in terms of its quality. Is it well-made? We need to ask that question. With Red Dead Redemption, it took seven years to produce the best possible game.


GamesBeat: What has it been like to be a woman leading your company? Diversity in the game industry is a very big topic in the United States right now. What do you think about that issue?

Jang: As a developer myself, there’s no gender difference at all, really. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a woman or not. I’ve never really thought about my gender as CEO of the company. A leader of an organization is the one whose performance and leadership count the most, and nothing else. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. Smilegate’s founder, Kwon Hyuk-bin, had the same spirit from very early on. There was no gender difference in the very beginning. He only focused on leadership and performance, and that’s why I’m here today at Smilegate Entertainment.

GamesBeat: How would you describe your personal management style? How do you get the best work out of your people?

Jang: I’m kind unique in that I’m a developer and CEO at the same time. Because I’m also a developer, I can focus on the working-level operations, while because I’m a CEO, I can set the stage for the company moving forward. I can talk about very detailed operational issues, as well as very broad long-term thinking. I’m always working hard to broaden my insights into the market as well. I’m at the forefront of leading this company as CEO, and I’m also trying to work closely together with our development operations. The good thing about having a developer as a CEO is that if things aren’t going so well, I can jump right into the problem and solve it. I’m a practical problem-solver as well as a leader.

I work with many of the developers in this company, and their competency is critical, but more than that, they need to have superb teamwork. Team spirit is critical here. When I think about the attributes of a developer, I don’t just look at their competency, but also their character. I see those as critical attributes as the leader of this company.

GamesBeat: Do you know many other women running game companies in Asia, and do you think we’ll see more women running Asian game companies in the future?

Jang: I don’t see many women CEOs at game companies, within or outside Asia. I think it has a lot to do with the specificity of game development. For a long period of time, games have been dominated by male players, and the field was largely managed by men. But I still see an increasing number of women jumping into the field, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t see more women CEOs in the future. More and more games are oriented toward women now, even in the FPS genre, so I look forward to seeing more women playing these games in the future.

GamesBeat: With all the other games you’ve worked on and published that aren’t CrossFire, how do you approach those and inspire your teams to work on them? Why have you decided to pursue making more games beyond CrossFire?

Jang: One of the missions we have is to create a positive impact on society through games. That’s why we don’t just focus on CrossFire. We have a much broader lineup of titles, like you mentioned. We started in the shooter genre, but we can use the popularity we’ve created to approach many other genres in the market. We did make a lot of money and get a lot of love from the fans of CrossFire, but we still want to make even better games, bigger hits that are more fun, sometimes more educational, or even more meaningful to our users. Games are something that can bring education to people and refresh our users at the same time. We want to make a virtuous impact on society through games.

GamesBeat: Are there other topics that you’d like to touch on that I haven’t asked about yet?

Jang: We have CrossFireX for consoles coming up very soon, so I’m very busy working on that project. One thing we do have to announce is that in Barcelona, Spain we have a development studio working on a new triple-A IP. We haven’t made any official announcements about it yet, but we probably will quite soon. I hope we’ll see more players taking an interest in our games, and that a global audience will see what we’re doing as a company, as a game-maker.


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