There’s a lot of buzz about Korea these days in the video game industry, much of it circles around the amount of people playing Starcraft, or the huge percentage of their population that plays video games, or the fact that games are truly mainstream (meaning you find video games on your Coca Cola cans), or the blistering speed of their internet connections.
Driving Around Seoul – Where’s that Street Sign?
I hate hearing people going on about something without having actually experienced it, so one of the first things I did after leaving Shiny was to buy a ticket to Seoul, Korea and go and visit their best developers. (I traveled with a very very well connected industry friend, and he opened up just about all the developer doors over there.)
For me, one of the interesting business models there is the concept of giving away games for free.
I wish we took the Subway! – Traffic Central
FREE is difficult to argue with. Kid’s don’t even have to offer to cut the grass, or wash the parent’s car to get free games!
“FREE” however can have catches, like when it REALLY means “Free – for 2 hours a day”. Or worse still, it can mean, “Pay our monthly Subscription Fee, and during the day we will give you two hours free!” (Kinda meaningless as I’m already paying!)
What’s mind blowing is that some of the games have up to 6 hour AVERAGE playtime per gamer. Basically people are LIVING in that world!
Seoul Traffic by Night!
What’s interesting is that I think American’s don’t understand FREE, they feel that something “FREE” must have strings attached, it’s probably spyware or something? In Korea, they don’t feel the same way, and after speaking with many developers there, the general feeling seemed to be amazement that Americans are so patient with having advertising rammed down their throats. For me, that Advertising gives me comfort that this “FREE” game is likely not spyware!
Now as we know, nothing is truly free and so they have been experimenting with many different models. The most common I see in development there is the simple concept of micro-transactions, buying/upgrading yourself, inside the game. Like shavers selling you razors, or like printers selling you ink, these games sell you bullets for your gun, or armor for your body etc… One developer proudly told me they make a million dollars a month from these items, and for another game they have over 600,000 unique users per day.
The games generally have somewhere around 10,000 people playing at once and commonly they allow 8 people to play in the same game/race/battle/fight whatever it is. A game I would rate 6/10 makes about $4,000 per day.
Took this for the Wachowski Brothers – V for Vendetta in Korea
A way to really boost sales is to get some kind of promotion going with Cyworld. In Korea, Cyworld is HUGE, it’s just like MySpace over here in the USA.
I did spend some time trying to dissect a Korean game (with it’s development staff) to help them see what the American market would want. It was an interesting conversation and despite it clearly needing pretty major changes, they seemed to be very receptive. I think part of the reason for that, is that the competition in Korea is getting really tough as there’s many many similar games coming out all the time, there’s also lots of competition now from Japan. So they see foreign revenue as a way to really keep their strength and keep growing.
The kinds of things I was noticing in their game was a lack of emotional feedback to the gamer, when you do something really good, there’s very little patting on the back. Gamers love it when the game makes a fuss of a big success you just had, something Nintendo has mastered for many many years. They often design new interfaces for their games so they work with just two or three action buttons, but sometimes I felt the cost was just too dear. Meaning some element of control (that would make the game much more fun) was passed over. There was also quite often very little visual effects, meaning if they have particles, they just have a few. This is always excused as they say they want to keep machine specs low. It’s the same problem we faced years ago when we made the Messiah & Sacrifice games, our goal was simple, to try to make our engines step up to whatever you owned. I think this is important as many gamers have decent PC’s and it’s not fair to not push that hardware. So if I had ONE SINGLE MESSAGE to the Korean developers, it would be PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make your engines scaleable. Meaning if you are going to have an explosion with 8 particles, but my machine can actually handle 800 particles, PLEASE let me see the 800!
If you are going to have 12 blades of grass, but I can handle 500 waving in the wind, then PLEASE let the engine step it up for me in realtime. (Meaning the engine is constantly throttling up and down to keep all hardware running as close to 100% as possible.) Not making my gaming rig look like the minimum spec they are willing to support.
As you can see, this place is ALIVE, even when raining!
Most engines are pretty basic, but as you walk around developer studios, you see they have some incredible artists on staff (there’s beautiful concept artwork hanging everywhere.) I did visit a developer that was working hard on the latest EPIC engine and so I have complete faith that the Korean games are going to get more and more stunning looking in the coming months/years. I know that the Asian developers in general are looking to get very competitive with the USA on PC and I can imagine companies like Epic (Unreal Technology) and the Offset guys are getting hit with plenty of requests to license technology.
Making games based on item sales is an interesting design challenge, it makes games tough to balance when you walk down this road, and just like World of Warcraft, there’s a ton of item/character sales happening behind the scenes.
Is is similar to USA in any way?
Well one thing I noticed was that a lot of developers are working on Sports titles, I think you will be seeing just about every possible sport covered in the coming months/years. (FIFA Online being a great example.)
Their movie companies are also getting interested and funding games, or buying their own development teams. So it’s kinda reflecting what we see over here with Hollywood getting a major interest in games again.
One last thing, all the hype about Starcraft in Korea is absolutely true. When I was standing in development offices talking to their producers, I would see (out of the corner of my eye) the staff would pull out their lunches and fire up Starcraft! STILL AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, they just can’t stop playing it! So I when to a PC Bang, these are the internet cafes where gamers play together and as I walked around glancing at their screens… Starcraft, Starcraft, Starcraft, Kart Rider, Kart Rider, Starcraft. It amazing that a game can stand the test of time like that, where the gamers are now connoisseurs of it.
My Tourist shot with Seoul Tower!
So what if you want to experience some Korean Games?
Well it’s not easy, I was lucky enough to get set through my friend, but the sites are there for you to look at…