South Korea: Wireless Wonder-Workers or Game Content Sweat Shop?
By Justin Hall, Wed Oct 23 00:00:00 GMT 2002

The pulse emanating from Seoul is palpable from anywhere online. Professional gamers from around the world are moving there to play computer games for sponsorship and fame.

There are more homes connected to broadband Internet in South Korea than there are in any other country in the world. With over 60% of the population now carrying mobile phones, South Korea might yet produce some of the bravest experiments in networked mobile gaming. Or it might end up as the place where the world gets mobile games cheap.


You wouldn't know that South Korean companies are innovating games from a quick glance at product catalogs or booths at trade shows: bright fluorescent-lit South Korean software publisher stalls feature women in colorful plastic outfits, eager salespeople in drab business wear, and a bewildering array of game titles that seem either so culturally specific so as to be incomprehensible to most outsiders, or seem like carbon-copies of predecessor games made popular in other markets. But South Korea has a clear lead in massively multiplayer games, games like EverQuest and Ultima Online in which players crouch over their computers clicking their way through battles and relationships with thousands of other live gamers playing alongside online. Massively multiplayer games are attracting inordinate amounts of attention, money and talent as the video games industry wonders if these games might not make the largest segment of the entertainment software business in the not-too-far future. It's not often spoken of in the Western gaming press, but far and away the most popular of these next-generation entertainment products is a game called Lineage, from South Korean company NCSoft, with over three million subscribers in South Korea (about one account for every twelve people). After gaining a heady start in its home country, Lineage has begun a push into the rest of East Asia and the United States, with other varieties of multiplayer online game to follow next year. More than half of the software used in South Korea is illegally copied. This rampant software piracy has kept console game makers like Nintendo and Sony largely out of the market for games. Instead piracy in South Korea has pushed distribution of massively-multiplayer online role-playing games. Multiplayer online games are more immune to theft, since each individual player pays a monthly fee to subscribe to the game. Sure, you can share accounts, but not if you want to be online at the same time as your friends, or cultivate your own portfolio of elves, wizards, knights or royalty. American game designers, talking casually after the recent Tokyo Game Show, referred to these early popular South Korean multiplayer subscription games as "money-printing machines" that are spurring on dozens of me-too titles and true attempts at next-generation play and business models. In South Korea money pouring into online games, combined with a rich network of game-rooms and game enthusiasts, supports a rich professional gaming culture. Here electronic play is elevated to similar status as other sports play, yielding both celebrity and cash. From around the world, amateur and professional gamers alike look to South Korea as a gamer's promised-land.


Among the advantages to gaming in South Korea is speed. For PC gamers, it doesn't get much better than broadband; there's less of a chance you'll be left out of the action or killed by network lag. South Korea is among the most bandwidth-rich countries in the world. Near 40% of South Koreans live in apartment buildings, centralized locations for cable and high-speed phone line provisioning. As the rest of the world reaches for faster wires, South Korea's urban citizenry is already hard-wired and cruising fast through virtual worlds; as of April 2002, more than half of house-holds in South Korea were broadband Internet connected (versus just over 10% of U.S. households). And once these people got wired, they stayed there - South Korea ranks first in time spent online per user, according to Neilson/NetRatings; sixteen hours on average each month: about six hours more, per user, per month than Canada and the United States, a distant second and third place. These long hours spent online are doubtlessly padded by the leveling of over three million Lineage players.

Mobile Phones

For years now, South Korea has ranked among the world's most saturated mobile phone markets as well. According to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) statistics, over 60% of South Koreans carried mobile phones last year: a ready market for domestic wireless content. And they have access to the latest technologies, including 3G style mobile multimedia services for some months now. But the biggest story in South Korean wireless might be exports: South Korea was the first place to use CDMA networks commercially. Now they are the world's largest exporter of CDMA products, occupying near 80% of the market including over 120 million users worldwide. Last year, mobile phone exports exceeding semiconductors, South Korea's recent sustained moneymaker. Still, South Korean companies license CDMA from a U.S. company Qualcomm; fees are streaming out of South Korea at the same time that phones and phone parts are loaded on to the cargo freighters.

In Other Recent Game Developments

Since the late 1990s, the South Korean government has been pumping money and planning into technology companies in hopes of bootstrapping a vital national IT industry. In conjunction with foreign and South Korean interests, they have funded a number of game development education programs to train fledgling developers and "make the digital games industry to South Korea what Hollywood is to the United States." Those are the words of the South Korea Game Development & Promotion Institute, recently funded and supported by handset-maker Nokia. KGDI gets more technical expertise and resources for their game development efforts; Nokia gets first crack at some of the world's leading mobile gaming content, especially for CDMA phones. In April 2002, Game programmer and experimentation evangelist Chris Hecker lectured in Seoul during a rigorous four day seminar attended by South Korean game developers. "It's great that the South Korean government is actively helping the game industry grow there," Hecker said recently. "They could take it a step further and help push games forward as an art form, and make the South Korean game industry a creative leader in the field, by funding experimental games that are risky for developers to take on themselves." Hecker's comments reflect the opinions of many people in the game industry who hope South Korea will bootstrap their own unique visions for entertainment, rather than implementing existing, external designs as the world's game-content sweatshop. If South Korea might innovate gaming for global audiences, it's likely to be something involving multiplayer networked gaming. Mobile phones could make an excellent arena for these attempts.

Mobile Game Korea

You-Chang Song is the 29-year-old Founder and COO of Mobile Game Korea, a company boasting a number of mobile phone games; some are ordinary games you can see on nearly any phone in the world, and some are trailblazing multiplayer experiments. In an email shortly after he returned from the Tokyo Game Show, Song uses basic mathematical symbols to explain "there will be three kinds of networked game in a mobile market:" * Games where the computer = mobile phone; the phone is the standalone entertainment terminal for simple play like Poker, Reversi or Chess. * Games where the computer > mobile phone; here the mobile phone is used to complement a computer game. Explore dungeons or earn money in a mini-game and then transfer the experience or resources back to the computer game. * Games where the computer < mobile phone; here the computer merely tracks stats for players of mobile phone games. Many of the early multiplayer games work this way, tracking of your progress in a mobile game in online rankings. For now, Song's company is focused on the first type, simple player-to-player games. But the goal is to develop technology for linking players across a wide variety of platforms to support other kinds of games.

We asked Song about the early efforts from South Korea: "It is true that there were many imitation and pirate games; it was like a period of transition from an immature to a mature market." He points to evidence of increasing use of South Korean-local content licenses; instead of the predictable, familiar Pac-Man and Galaga, South Korean gamers can now play with the ornery strange Mashimaro rabbit and characters licensed from South Korean films. While licenses are often the kiss of death for innovation in games, it could be a positive sign that South Korea is developing its own content. Mobile Game Korea has a vision for something different: Mo' Multi GoStop, a version of a Japanese card game that can be played simultaneously between players using mobile phones, wirelessly-connected PDAs, and PCs. Mo' Multi GoStop is interconnected multiplayer gaming that reaches out beyond phone-to-phone and location based play, making all the users of the Internet worldwide potential playmates. As You-Chang puts, it, "Who wants to pay money to wait for the other man?" He continues, "Online provides a user pool to mobile users. All the time, there are a lot of users waiting for the other man." If they can successfully wed broadband gamers with next-generation wireless device gamers, they will have a platform for innovative forms of gaming and communications. They have plans to develop more sophisticated games to take advantage of this technology: "Next year, we will try to make strategy combat game and bring-up (Tamagochi) game. It takes a lot of time, because it is not easy to work stably among PC (ActiveX), Phone (Java) and PDA (WinCE) all together. Because of phone and network speeds, we still make turn-based network games, but someday we will make real-time network games." Mobile Game Korea is only one of the young wireless content companies in South Korea; others include GameVIL and Web Eng Korea. They've got government support and foreign business interest. They've got a rich pool of players, a society on the leading edge of network-connectivity and networked gaming. If they can manage to mix all this opportunity with some original thinking, and shrink it down to fit in our phones, we might all some day be playing in virtual South Korea.

Note - For all this talk of South Korean connectivity, North Korea has one of the world's lowest rates of teledensity. According to the International Telecommunications Union, the total percentage of the population with either land-line phones or mobile connections is about 4.6. Thanks to Jane Pinckard and Alex Hafez for their help researching this article.

Justin Hall has been writing about digital culture for over a decade now, mostly on his web site He splits his time between Japan and the United States, west of the Mississippi.