Even more remarkable, Lineage has emerged as a serious money-spinner. Its stock has nearly doubled, to some $100, since it was listed on Korea's technology-rich Kosdaq market last July. That's because its operating profit jumped nine times, to $23 million last year, on sales of $45 million.
As such, Kim, 34, stands tall among dot-com CEOs. At a time when many e-businesses are struggling, he has devised a model that people will actually pay for. Individual users, who fork over $21 a month, account for 30% of revenue. The rest comes from fees paid by 16,000 computer salons, which offer high-speed Web access for less than $1 an hour. Says Kim: "I never believed in free services and the grow-at-any-cost mantra."
Kim's domestic success is just a beginning. Since introducing Lineage to Taiwan a year ago, NCSoft has attracted 75,000 loyal users and garnered $2.3 million in royalties. Now, Kim is gunning for the lucrative U.S. market. His goal is to be No.1 in the network game industry, outshining the likes of Sony, Microsoft, and Electronic Arts. In May, he recruited Richard Garriott, a veteran American game programmer, to develop three-dimensional, "movie-like" entertainment games that will be marketed in the U.S. next year. NCSoft also is entering Hong Kong, Europe, and Japan.
For Kim, Lineage is the fulfillment of a student dream. "I was like many youths who wanted to be a hero and let people have the life they chose in cyberspace," he says. Some Koreans, of course, worry that the Lineage fad has gone too far, enticing teenagers to skip school and work. Then there is Lineage's romantic side: A dozen couples have wed since meeting over a game. In May, says Kim, 2.3 million Koreans--roughly one in 20--logged on to play Lineage.
Lineage players create figures representing themselves living a cyberlife in a medieval kingdom. NCSoft unveils a fresh, individualized Lineage episode every three to six months, so notoriously restless gamers don't get bored. "The Internet allows users to keep providing feedback as to what they want to do in their cyberlife, and we create a new environment to meet their demands," Kim says.
Considered one of Korea's most computer-savvy engineers, Kim has a track record of setting new standards. He co-wrote the best-known Korean-language word-processing program, called Hangul, in 1989. Then he led the team at Hyundai Electronics Industries Co., now Hynix, that created the country's first Internet service provider in 1995. Now, he is on his way to creating what could end up as the world's most popular computer game. "I've found what I wanted," he says. "My plan is to write a new history in the online game industry." Millions of Koreans, meanwhile, are waiting for NCSoft's next offering.