In Conversation with Wargaming APAC General Manager, Jungwon Hahn

Welcome to the inaugural ‘In Conversation’ feature. It is a conversational series where we invite people from the gaming industry – be it Designers, Producers, General managers or even CEOs – to talk about their roles within their respective companies, give their opinions of the industry at large, or share insights into their personal and working life. Conversations are kept casual, not quite like a formal interview, and we avoid censors or cuts unless absolutely necessary (PR minders don’t get the full suite of questions from us beforehand, just the topics that will be discussed).

Today we have with us Jungwon Hahn from Wargaming, and without further ado, let’s fire away.

Hi Jungwon, how would you describe your role at Wargaming and what you do on a day-to-day basis from a local and regional capacity?

My name is Jungwon Hahn, I’m the General Manager for Wargaming in APAC. My job is to make sure we do a good job in APAC, and a good job means many things. The first is to make sure that Wargaming has a strong foothold in Asia Pacific, meaning that we have a solid foundation in terms of infrastructure, giving the right player experience, giving the right customer services, the right acquisition and marketing plans and execution. So, I’m sort of running the business in Asia Pacific, which is an incredibly attractive market for any global gaming company. That’s kind of my job in a nutshell.

Can you elaborate on what “attractive” is?

The gaming industry is roughly a US$100-billion business in the world right now.  Of which China occupies half of that. Let’s say we take China out of the picture, it’s still a 22-23 percent of the global market. You’ve got key countries like Japan, which is the third biggest market in the world after China and the US. You also have countries like South Korea which is primarily a free-to-play and a big market for mobile. You also have Taiwan, Australia, and densely populated countries like the Philippines, Indonesia.

Singapore also plays a big role because it’s really the hub from an infrastructure perspective. It’s key to have a good foothold in Singapore so that we can reach out to different markets nearby. That’s why I’m saying it’s a very attractive market – it’s because it’s very populated. It’s also a very difficult market to master because unlike North America, where you’re dealing with different states, here we’re talking about diverse cultures, different languages, different climates, different everything. But, at the same time, we’re geographically grouped as Asia Pacific.

What would you say would be your key challenge in the Southeast Asia market, and what top-line strategies do you have in place to meet this challenge?

If we go into specifically Southeast Asia, I think it’s our future. It’s a region where we have the biggest size of population, and I think we have a lot of opportunities in this region because not many companies have really focused in this area that much. They tend to go after Japan or South Korea because they’re the big markets and strategically they make sense.

Are you referring to traditional AAA publishers?

Exactly, like our friends at Electronic Arts or Activision Blizzard and Riot and so on. And it makes sense. At the same time, I think we need to prepare for the future, and I think a great game is attractive in any part of the world. I think giving access, an easier path to the users to have access to our game, is critical and this is why our Asia Pacific headquarters is in Singapore. It’s because we believe that we should service as many players that wants to have a great experience, specifically in a free-to-play Wargaming genre. We’ve had some successes already but we want to go in deeper and create an environment where we can reach out to as many players as possible.

So Wargaming as a company has been in Singapore for five years now, since 2012. I’ve seen how the company’s grown but I’ve also noticed, for the past couple of years at least, that there seems to be a lot less activities here. This is compared to what I’ve seen in 2013 or 2014 when there was a lot more buzz going around in, say, Thailand and Singapore. I know this may not be a fair question since you’ve only been with Wargaming for…

Five months.

I don’t exactly know what’s been done in the past. I mean, I’ve seen what’s been done through literature so I can’t visualize what we’ve done in terms of different types of promotions and events.

Wargaming, World of Tanks, started in 2010, and we just exploded out of nowhere. Our company is very, very good at free-to-play games. We’ve kicked it off in 2010, we’ve had great successes, we’ve launched in new markets and when you launch in new markets you do a lot of things. And as a game matures, you adjust your promotional activities and advertising, and that’s probably why you mentioned there was a lot more activity before. When you launch a new product, it’s natural for any company to do a lot of things that’s visually out there.

Now I think we’re focusing on providing a great experience but also being productive and efficient. I guess that’s probably the reason why you may not see as much but it doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the market. We’re continuously focusing on trying to build our user base, but at the same time I think we’re shifting our focus from not just bringing in new players, but making sure that when players come to us, we provide a great experience. I don’t think we’re there yet, we’re not perfect, and we’re really hungry to understand what makes our users tick. What is good for them?

And we’re hungry to listen to different voices because at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. It’s our current user base and making sure they’re having an awesome experience with our games. At the end of the day we’re providing an entertainment service and it is our most important job to provide them the best experience we can possibly provide.

What milestones have you set for the next couple of years for Southeast Asia?

I think like many companies you start focusing on key countries like Japan, and we have to be very fair. But I think the next step is to be more focused in a more local context, from a Singapore experience. We want to be better in Malaysia, we want to be better in Singapore obviously, it’s our home ground. Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia – we have a certain number of people that can do as many things, and now because we’ve set up offices in Korea, in Japan, in Taiwan, those can run. Now I think we need to start looking at how we can do better in Southeast Asia.

You mentioned this earlier and I totally agree, that Southeast Asia is such a fragmented market with diverse cultures and such. Obviously, these are key challenges but, beyond that, what would you say are other challenges that you foresee?

Well as a global gaming company it’s very difficult to find the right solution for every single country and to make it all work at the same time. So sometimes we need to prioritize what is more important for us, but ideally what we want to do is to find a common denominator that actually works specifically for said region. I think we’ve tried to do that in the northern parts of Asia, and I think now it’s key for us to look at what are the key drivers to give our players more access to our entertainment experience. That, mingled with different languages, different spending power, different service set-up where latency is different, all these are factors and we need to deal with one at a time. I don’t think we’ll find solutions overnight but we are definitely going after the key territories one by one.

Let’s roll back the years a little. Is being the GM for Wargaming APAC your most challenging role to date, compared to what you’ve achieved at Blizzard and before that, at Electronic Arts?

I think it could be my most rewarding role yet. But only if we succeed. Because, one, I don’t think our competition is really there, and that’s a blessing for us because there’s definitely a first-comer advantage.

I’m not saying we’re first. There’s definitely presence from our competition, but I’m saying if we really focus and give the right access point to our experience, I think we’ll be in a good spot and the reward would not just be financial.

What’s most important for us is not how much earnings we have, but that it’s really about what players think about our brand, and about the experience we provide. I think that’s when our team, on a more realistic level, will really be happy about what we’re doing. It’s all about providing a great experience to our user base, and that’s a continuous challenge for not just myself but everyone in the team here.

At Blizzard, you helped to launch StarCraft and World of Warcraft. Between Electronic Arts and Blizzard, from a personal development point of view, what would you say were your key milestones and how do you think you’ve developed career-wise, from each company.

Well, you know, I’ve worked on many different projects.

You were only looking after the Korean market, right?

I was looking after the Asian markets so going back to EA (Electronic Arts) — actually, I had a role before but let’s start with EA.

How long were you at EA for?

For about four years. I started off as the marketing manager and I ended up running the office. For me it was really exciting because I got access to manage many different products that I grew up with. I’m a die-hard sports fan and I also practice a lot of sports, so for me FIFA, NBA Live, all these were super franchises that I loved but also Command & Conquer. I’ve launched a lot of (counting fingers), there was a month where I had to single-handedly launch thirteen products alone. It was a nightmare. I had no life but every second was worth it.

I remember a time when I was working on Ultima Online and Richard Garriott was in town, and I was hanging out with him. That was a dream come true for me! Being exposed and being able to work with franchises that you love and play was great, so I learned a lot, starting off as a marketing guy and then taking on a more leadership role. I learned how to work with the P&Ls and all these different things at a very early age, which was great.

But I was also a strong believer in online back then, and that’s why I joined Blizzard. And I actually worked on StarCraft in Korea, which ended up being one of the best-selling product ever and the biggest phenomenon in Korea. I have worked on World of Warcraft, and launching a MMORPG is not easy. Going through that it’s not just strategical but also operational, I learned a lot and it kind of defined who I am became because I’m just another guy who’s learning day-to-day on the spot. That really helped me to understand what’s the most important thing in gaming. That is, “what are we bringing in terms of value and experience to the player?” And you can’t beat that. No matter what, a good game with a great experience, you almost don’t even need to market it because people would just talk about it. It’s the community that’s going to drive that, and I think marketing is more like a match that’ll light up, ignite, and accelerate that process.

What kind of childhood did you have back in Korea? What was it like for you? Were you a gamer?

Of course I was a gamer. My first computer was an Apple IIe and I started off playing military games like Lode Runner, I played Ultima, Bard’s Tale. I just played a lot of different games then I switched to an Amiga 500, it was the best visually, graphically, it was the best gaming machine for me. So that was my gaming days, I loved games.

Were you more of a PC gamer or more of a console gamer?

I was a PC gamer.

In South Korea, right?

I’ve lived in different parts of the world. I was in Paris most of the time when I was a child.

Otherwise, at the same time, I’m a die-hard sports guy. I love watching and practicing sports. My favorite is baseball. I still play baseball.  Well, I moved here (to Singapore) so my last game was two weeks ago. I’ve been playing baseball even after university, and since the year 2000 we’ve made a baseball team between friends. We’ve been playing for 17 years.

Growing up did you ever envision yourself working in the gaming industry? What was your aspiration as a kid?

My aspiration as a kid was more, you know, I was just trying to be good at school, get good grades. Some I think I was good in. Others not quite (laughs). I loved numbers so math was my favorite subject. But I had no the idea the gaming industry even existed. I never even thought about it. I thought it just came out of a garage or a couple of people were making it. When I was in college, I was studying business I just thought about joining a bank or get a job in investment banking. My first real job was in the consulting business which I really didn’t like, so I left immediately to join a consumer group product.

How did you end up at EA? Was that the gateway to the gaming industry for you?

Well it wasn’t. It was the job before. I used to work for a conglomerate called LG and they had a software division where my job was to sign off products whether it was in Korea or the US and then letting our sales sell entertainment products. That’s where I found Blizzard. I’ve also worked with Activision and with Atari – well, back then it was called Infogrames.

All these were before EA?

Before EA. So that was my job, I ended up signing StarCraft and then sold and shipped a lot of it (laughs). Hence, I kind of got noticed, because when you do something like that you do get noticed. But it wasn’t my skills, it was the product honestly. That game could have sold by itself, you know. But yeah that’s kind of how I got there.

And how I got to LG was, I was working for Proctor & Gamble. It was the best place to learn marketing and sales and whatnot. One day, my friend there was like, “Hey, we should look at different options.” I was young, 25 years old, I had no idea what to do with life, so that’s when we joined – well, I joined LG, he didn’t get accepted. And the job I was thinking about was doing the same thing but for movies, and I love movies at the same time. It’s probably better than trying to market a soap or shampoo. But they were like, “You’ve got to work in games” and well, that’s even better. So that’s how I started. It wasn’t like I was planning on it.

Growing up did you have any heroes?

Richard Garriott. And when I met him I was like, whoa! I told my boss back then I didn’t have to get paid, it was so good.

So, you would say Ultima would be your favorite game franchise of all time?

I’ve got to say World of Tanks (laughs). I’m kidding. My favorite game of all time? Tetris.

But why?

It’s just fun, it’s addictive, it’s got the right sounds. I’ve spent a lot of money on it at the arcades.

For a PC game, I can name many. I think World of Tanks is great because the depth and the realism is awesome. From companies that I’ve worked for, at Blizzard it would be WarCraft III. I have over a thousand wins on, it took me seven years to get the final [ladder] icon. I’m a gamer after all! At EA, my favorite game was Triple Play because hey, baseball! So, you know, I also loved Civilization II. I can’t say which one is my favorite.

Nowadays I’m spending more time on mobile games. I play [World of Tanks] Blitz but I also play new stuff that’s coming out. Of course, I play Clash Royale and nowadays I’m playing Golf Clash. I don’t try to limit myself in terms of gameplay, I like to see what’s out there, what’s new, but what’s also fun. I’m not expecting myself to be the game expert anymore. I’m getting too old for that, but I’m still trying to be involved as much as possible. Nowadays I try to listen to a lot of people and read a lot of articles.

Do you have a favorite console of all time?

Would you consider the iPhone a platform? I think mobile, more specifically the iPad, is my favorite place to play. I’ve owned Xboxes and PlayStations, it’s great and I don’t have a problem with it, but nowadays you want to carry them around. And also be able to check emails.

My last question. With mobile and the console-mobile hybrids like the Nintendo Switch, gaming is no longer a platform that constrains you to one place. What do you make of it?

We’ve definitely seen mobile growing year-to-year in crazy percentages but that doesn’t mean traditional gaming platforms are going to die.

From a company perspective, we’re not a single platform developer. We provide games on multiple platforms. We provide it on PC, we’re also providing it on mobiles and consoles. I think we’re on the right track. We’re also going to focus more on growing content for mobile but what I do want to say, from my perspective, is that you can’t deny mobile is growing and it’s growing fast. It’s currently the hottest platform. But content actually drives, from an industry perspective, what is popular. Let’s say a game like Grand Theft Auto is coming out — it’ll just go crazy overnight and it will just move whatever platforms it comes out for.

Right now, I think a lot of killer apps, especially ones targeting people that weren’t playing games in the past, is actually joining this (mobile) platform and that’s why we’re seeing this growth. I don’t even know what’s going to happen five years down the road. I mean I have a rough idea but I don’t want to say it because I might sound stupid five years down the road. But I’ll say its changing all the time, it’s evolving, and right now definitely mobile is one of the key trends.

Thank you for your time, Jungwon.

Thank you too, Aaron!

Aaron Yip

Aaron Yip is an industry veteran with more than 15 years of experience. When not spending time on his gaming PC and consoles, he can be found in Hyrule solving ungodly puzzles and collecting gems.