Much of the country’s games activity, at both a consumer and industry level, has been on the PC thanks to the large-scale penetration of high-speed broadband while gamer tastes seem to favour a mix of both Western classics like StarCraft and WarCraft and locally-produced MMOs that thrive off item sales and microtransactions.
But that summary does a disservice to one of the world’s most vibrant, vast and vital games cultures. The scale of the Korean market is purportedly hard to quantify according to some researchers – thanks not to lack of data, but the fluidity and variety of use computers have in the country. However with 12m households connected to broadband and PC penetration at over 80 per cent plus games available at over 20,000 internet cafes (according to Pearl Research), the factors contributing to the PC games market’s success are clear. And on an anecdotal level, Korea is one of the few regions to make competitive PC gaming not just a success but also effectively a closely watched and highly contested ‘e-sport’.
Perhaps that latter point is down to Korea’s real strength as a games power – that is, it’s smart commercial models rather than intellectual property innovation. Although local properties like Lineage (NCsoft), Audition (T3 Entertainment) and Kart Rider (Nexon) are popular brands those same developers have admitted that it’s their taking established games concept as a jump off point (compare Mario Kart with Kart Rider, Audition to dancing titles, etc.) into new business where their talents lie.
“A lack of games design skills is perceived to exist amongst even the best Korean developer/publishers, leading to a deficit in globally-successful IP and a need to look overseas for partnerships,” said the UKTI’s recent Playing for Keeps report.
Like India and Singapore, Korea has recently found itself the target for established Western countries looking to expand their development resource and product portfolio.
Nintendo last year established a local office in the territory to manage the success of its handhelds in the country – a unique development given that limited retail option and piracy has curtailed the mainstream sales of most other consoles.
Elsewhere, EA most recently bought local mobile games firm Hands-On – and earlier in the year was rumoured to be planning the opening of its own PC studio in the country, after successfully working with local games company Neowiz (which it already owns a stake in) to make a localised FIFA Online title.
And Microsoft is eyeing the technical talent base, too: the firm plans to invest $147m on growing its business in South Korea. In announcing the investment during a meeting between Bill Gates and President Lee Myung-Bak, Gates singled out games as key, saying a local studio would be able to make Xbox 360 content for consumers in the territory.
Korea’s games companies also have comparative aspirations for the global stage. And some of them have made the biggest East-meets-West successes (outside of Japan’s games giants) as they look to establish a presence in other countries to offset market saturation in both the domestic market and nearby Asian countries where there games are popular. Nexon, the first games company established in the country, has been slowly cracking the North American market and has local offices and a games development team in Canada. And of course NCsoft, founded in Seoul in 1997, is a global force in online games.
Korea’s government has also been investing heavily in technology industries with a number of schemes in place set up to ensure that investment in the region is high. Although the games industry there is not directly targeted by tax breaks, according to Playing for Keeps, half the developers and publishers in the region have benefited from the various funds and grants available to local businesses.