Since the North American debut of NCsoft’s Lineage II in 2004, South Korean game publishers have launched, or are now launching, well over a dozen Korean massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) translated into English for a Western audience. In Asia, some of these games are colossal hits. What response have they gotten in North America? With a few exceptions, not much:

Lineage II did all right in North America – well, barely OK – but disappointed those hoping to repeat its Korean success (1 million players), let alone match the first Lineage game’s spectacular 30 million.

• Nexon’s MapleStory is a solid hit here, having reached 3 million registered users since its 2005 launch. Target superstores sell MapleStory game cards; game security expert Steven B. Davis, whose PlayNoEvil blog extensively covers Korean MMOGs and other Asian games, calls the Target deal, in capital letters, “REALLY IMPORTANT.” In February 2007, according to Business Week, “North American players spent $1.6 million on 600,000 virtual products within MapleStory.” The game shows another, darker sign of success: pervasive, uncontrolled hacking. Still, it’s doubtful the American MapleStory will ever reach the Asian total: 50 million players. That Asian figure includes 30 million in South Korea alone, a nation of 49 million people.

• The social networking site Cyworld, having engulfed about 20 million Korean users, launched here in July 2006. Has it engulfed 40 percent of America’s population? Uh, not yet, though it’s pushing toward half a million members and is about to launch a mobile Cyworld.

• Acclaim, resurrected from bankruptcy in 2004 (in name only) as Acclaim Games, is localizing several Korean MMOGs, including 9Dragons and 2Moons. BOTS recently reached 1 million American accounts.

• Servers across Asia and Latin America host crowded GunBound combat games, but GunBound Revolution has only a modest American following. The operator, game portal ijji, runs six Korean MMOG imports. Ever hear of Soldier Front? KwonHo: Fist of Heroes? Drift City? Pocket Masters, a pool-playing MMOG? Didn’t think so. The ijji forums have about 12,000 active members.

Albatross 18, anyone? War Rock? Voyage Century? Shot-Online? Myth War? Tales of Pirates? Global MU? Fishing Champ? Come on, some of these games have hundreds of thousands of Asian users. Someone here must be playing.

By Western standards, some Korean MMOGs have performed respectably here. But they fall so far short of the Asian originals, we may ask why.

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Partly, of course, because Asian companies count players differently. There, many players pay by the hour at net cafes – though that’s changing fast in Korea, where 90 percent of homes now have super-fast broadband. One cafe player might be counted multiple times. Yet no matter how you boil down 50 million accounts, you’re still talking lots of bodies.

The shortfall is not just players, but money. How far short? A GameStudy.org report by Jun Sok Huhh lists 2006 global revenues, or rather, lack of revenues for many major Korean companies in Japan, Europe and North America. Last year, Webzen, once a mighty player, bled $3.4 million in America.

Why do mega-hit Korean games draw a response here politely described as “lukewarm”?

For starters, the Western market for online games is much smaller than Asia’s. The North American MMOG market is variously estimated at $750 million to $1 billion annually; less than a third of Asia’s $3 billion. In fact, Korea earned $698 million in 2006 simply from licensing its games to other Asian countries. In Korea as here, World of Warcraft is a giant success with around a million players – but in Korea, “a million” relegates WoW to a niche market, dwarfed by KartRider and other casual games.

Korean publishers also struggled, early on, to introduce their business model into a hostile American environment. Virtual asset purchase (that is, in-game item selling) makes up at least half of Korean MMOG revenue. People pay for them on their phone bills. These games rack up millions, $0.25 at a time. Micropayments are still new here, and many payment systems either aren’t set up for it or seem perversely user-hostile. Target’s MapleStory game cards foreshadow a breakthrough (a REALLY IMPORTANT breakthrough!) that may transform the entire MMOG industry.

In a November 2006 Gamasutra interview that plugged Pearl Research’s “Games Market in Korea” report, Allison Luong talked about the importance of micropayments: “A critical success factor in growing the online games market is having a reliable and inexpensive system to bill, make payments and collect micropayments. In Korea, the development of a mobile billing system, capable of processing small payments of less than $5 has been instrumental in helping publishers monetize gameplay.”

Even Korea isn’t leading the micropayment trend. In Japan, you can buy a pack of gum with your cellphone. (This is completely different from your Nintendo Wii controller “beaming money.”)

More than market size and logistics, Korean MMOGs in America face cultural obstacles. Every gamer knows, and most roll their eyes at, the default Korean look: big-eyed, underfed waifs in a low-end 2-D isometric view. The imports are also rife with dismaying “Engrish.” Among many examples, a recent IGG press release announcing Godswar Online asserts, “Every scene in game presents a characteristic physiognomy.”

Far more important, though, is the difference in play styles. Korean games emphasize endless grinding, easy rewards and heavy player-vs.-player competition. The status ladder, the hierarchy, is all-important. In an interview on the Korean game blog Pig-Min, Manifesto Games CEO Greg Costikyan notes, “In the US, most players prefer to avoid player-versus-player combat, at least most of the time, so games are built primarily on character advancement and quests. In Korea, grouping together and fighting battles against other groups seems to be the main point of most [MMOGs]. So what’s a minority taste here is the majority interest in Korea, and vice versa.”

NCsoft’s much-delayed Tabula Rasa MMOG tried to bridge the American and Korean markets. In a March 2007 Next Generation interview with Colin Campbell, TR designer Richard Garriott said, “We started with a very international crew trying to make a collaborative game design between the US and Asia. We wanted to make one game that was going to solve all the design and artistic issues for both territories.” After two years of wasted work, the experiment failed.

“Asia has a whole set of unique differences,” says Garriott. “Some of these are subtle but important. But one of the most obvious is what a heroic character looks like. In the United States, a heroic character is often very buff, broad-shouldered, square-chinned and barrel-chested. The dashing hero is a very clear idea to us. In Asia, characters who look like that are always the bad guys, always. The people who are the good guys are young, nerdy, skinny little kids who survive against those big people because of an inner strength. … And so when we create heroic characters and try to send them over to Asia, they’re saying, ‘Why are you making me play these big, dumb brutes who are clearly evil?’ That’s a big disconnect.”

Still, whatever the culture divide, Korean MMOG publishers want to cross it. The domestic Korean MMOG market is maturing – or, from another viewpoint, stagnating.

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In April 2007, the Korean newspaper Joong Ang Daily reported domestic MMOGs were dwindling in popularity, “because new games were not innovative, having similar storylines and game play characteristics to those in Lineage.” The article cites Ministry of Culture statistics showing domestic online game growth projections of only (!) 18 percent this year, from $175 to $211 million – evidently a tepid rate by Korean standards.

Publishers are springing to address this alleged crisis. They’re doing more licensing in Western countries, such as Vivendi’s May 2007 release (albeit as a standalone retail game) of Nexon’s casual MMOG Freestyle Street Basketball, which has 32 million Asian players.

A few Korean companies have started hiring American marketing firms, as when Nexon allied with MTV Networks. But much of this marketing has been awkward. K2 Networks made a clueless big-money PR push in late 2006, complete with booth babes, at – no, not E3, but the sedate Austin Game Conference, where attendees wouldn’t look twice at a booth babe unless she flashed an MMOG development contract.

The overlooked issue is, how about improving the games? How about showing America the really good stuff?

There are a couple of promising prospects. KartRider claims 160 million players, including one third of all South Koreans. At its height in 2005, 200,000 Koreans logged in daily. In China, KartRider has reached 800,000 concurrent users. Here, the game is currently in beta, with under 20,000 forum members. And Audition Online (aka Dancing Paradise), the casual dancing MMOG from Korean publisher T3 Entertainment, has 50 million players in China. In June 2007, the Nexon America version hit 100,000 registered users. (See “Will Bobba for Furni” by Russ Pitts in The Escapist issue 101.) Acclaim’s Dance Online, now in beta, imitates Audition.

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In one important sense, Korean MMOGs have already succeeded here, just by proving the validity of the free-to-play model. In a year or two, every new MMOG you play will use virtual asset purchase.

Korea continues to be the scout, the lab rat for American companies. Its struggles with regulation of real-money trading and net addiction foreshadow our own. Korean companies experiment with original ways to foster community, such as Hanbit Soft’s age-segregated servers for Granado Espada (marketed here as Sword of the New World): age 18 and over, 25-plus, 30-plus and a “silver” server for seniors.

Most important, no matter what Joong Ang Daily thinks, Korea’s MMOGs are often novel and imaginative by American standards. They bring new ideas to our market. It’s possible their MMOGs may become the leading edge of a larger Korea-pop invasion that has already swept Asia; China gave this phenomenon a name, hallyu (“Korean wave”). If hallyu takes hold here, expect much name-checking in the future for the insanely fast rapper Outsider, singers Rain and BoA, films like Oldboy and The Host, and a zillion soap operas. The real Korean invasion may be just beginning.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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