The world of console gaming in Korea may be massively dwarfed by the country's ever-booming PC sector, but don't be fooled -- it's come a very long way in recent years. Back in 2001, when the Korean government had barely begun to lift its long-held ban on domestic sales of Japanese game systems, Korea's console industry virtually didn't exist at all.
It was, up until that time, something that had remained extremely underground, the obsession of a small but dedicated and resilient group of hardcore fanatics. Then, in December of 2001, PlayStation 2 was given an official Korean launch, and things took off. Slowly.
The PS2 Era
Though Xbox and GameCube launched in Korea shortly after PS2, Microsoft and Nintendo didn't push their products nearly as heavily as Sony did, and as a result, didn't see a fraction of the success that Sony saw. Still, Microsoft's efforts with Xbox, while not exactly successful, did reap some positive fruitage -- the Xbox name became known as an identifying mark of the hardcore crowd, paving the way for 360's more successful launch years later.
Nintendo's GameCube, however, was a complete flop, a fact almost entirely attributable to Nintendo and local distributor Daiwon's reluctance to adapt in any way to the Korean market. The system basically appeared to have been 'thrown' into Korea, the only adaptation being the necessary change in voltage. Heavy-hitters (and potential Korean hits) such as The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Metroid Prime, for instance, were released without translation, making them virtually inaccessible for all but the hardcore willing to trudge through foreign games with a dictionary at their side.
Game Boy Advance (the SP model, in particular) was quite a different story. Though Nintendo/Daiwon did virtually nothing to push the handheld, it still became a very coveted schoolyard item in no time flat. Unfortunately, it was very expensive here, as were its games, making it out of reach for the average kid.
On the other hand, most kids I knew from wealthy families in Seoul were proud to sport their GBA SPs (and now their DS lites) everywhere they went. Games may have been in Japanese or English, but as the really popular titles here weren't text-heavy, that didn't matter much. Also, as in other regions, GBA had no major competitor for the majority of its lifespan, making it an easier sell.
The one fact that cannot be overstated is just how big a role Sony has played since 2001 in the growth of the Korean home console market. The company's unwavering, full-fledged determination to break into PC-dominated Korea is what paved the way for virtually all of the progress, competitors' included, that has been seen since.
Other industry heads -- including former NCL head Hiroshi Yamauchi, who reportedly believed there was no real potential for the console industry in Korea -- were extremely wary on entrance into Korea, seeing it at a small and rather insignificant market, and hence tried to minimize investment. In contrast to this, Sony went to great lengths to push PS2 and make it seen everywhere, helping it to become the clear winner of the last generation, even if the numbers it did are rather unimpressive when compared with its performance in other territories.
Another thing that helped PlayStation 2 to gain ground in Korea was (and continues to be) the PlayStation Baang, the console equivalent of a PC internet cafe. While nowhere near as rampant as PC baangs, the 'Pul-seu Baang' is still a popular destination for game-loving youth. (Note: PlayStation isn't referred to as 'PS' here, but rather, as 'P+L+S' pronounced in Korean, which sounds like 'Pull' plus 'Seu'. Not easy to get used to for the Westerner.) Rates are quite a bit steeper than those of their PC counterparts, but most customers don't mind, as they offer a great venue for multiplayer matches in FIFA, Winning Eleven, and more.
PSP & DS Take Center Stage
The launch of PSP in mid-2005 further helped to solidify Sony's number one position atop the Korean videogame industry. Cool advertising and various instances of specific catering to Korean audiences quickly made PSP the hottest item around, coveted by just about everybody. Before much time had elapsed, however, Sony's advertising for the product (and for PS2, it should be noted) seemed to quietly fade away, and in this window of opportunity, Nintendo's DS started to silently make its approach.
While PSP was (and continues to be) quite popular, the vast majority of those who bring it along on their daily commute use it for watching movies. Sure, there have always been those who play Lumines and Ridge Racer on the train (interestingly, the former is still the game you see people playing most), but people figured out from the get-go that PSP isn't exactly the ideal system for playing simple games in short bursts, something that Koreans love.
In theory, then, Nintendo's DS, with its plethora of pick-up-and-play titles and universal appeal already demonstrated in Japan and the West, was a perfect match for the Korean market. The only problem was that no one knew it existed, and things remained this way for a very long time. Daiwon advertising for the portable was almost nonexistent, as was any sort or retail presence. Still, little by little, the original DS 'Phat' started showing up on the subway, most owners having ordered it online or made the purchase at Yongsan, where the buzz was growing every day. It wasn't until DS lite's early-2006 release in Japan, though, that things really started to pick up steam.
By that time, the Korean online community (which is basically everyone under the age of forty) had all started to hear about the portable's unstoppable success in Japan with odd titles such as Nintendogs and Brain Training, and people were anxious to find out more.
When pictures of the lite redesign hit, interest reached new heights, and as soon as it launched in Japan, expensive (and illegitimate) imports started showing up and selling out at Yongsan on a daily basis.
Soon after this, news hit of NCL president Satoru Iwata's renewed interest in the Korean market, and of his plans to establish Nintendo of Korea, finally putting an end to the unfruitful Daiwon era. This turned out to be a slow process, however, and in the meantime, while DS Lite saw a semi-official release, it was still well off the radar and difficult to find, holding it back from mainstream success.
Once December of 2006 hit, though, everything changed. Nintendo of Korea came charging out of the gates with a barrage of slick commercials featuring some of Korea's biggest stars playing DS titles like Brain Age and New Super Mario Bros., heralding the release of the official Korean language DS Lite, affordably priced and available everywhere. On the marketing end, these moves were both well planned and well timed, and in no time flat, Nintendo's dual-screened portable became the hottest thing around.
This momentum has largely been maintained since then, and Sony has done little to answer it. Ask any retailer at Yongsan, and they'll tell you that for the past six months, sales of DS games have been their biggest source of income. (As Yongsan merchants generally sell hardware for less than its MSRP, all profit is made from other transactions.) On that note, it'll be interesting to see what kind of reception Sony's PSP Slim gets upon its Korean release later this year.
The New Generation of Consoles
Microsoft, having learned its lesson with Xbox, put a great deal more effort into the early 2006 Korean launch of its successor, the Xbox 360. Since then, the company has still continued to push the system in various ways, but promotion has become decidedly lax overall.
Go to any of Seoul’s ultra-hip malls or entertainment meccas, and there’s a good chance you’ll come upon a stylish 360 mini-lounge complete with huge HD displays, futuristic low lighting, super-comfy sofas, and attractive young employees paid to keep everything in check. Some of them, such as the one in Yongsan’s Space 9, even have rows of computers for free internet surfing.
You can also spot a bus or two from time to time in swanky Gangnam (‘South River’) that’s quite literally ‘wrapped’ in Xbox 360 in order to attract attention and raise awareness. Further, and perhaps most importantly, nearly every big box retailer in Korea has had an official 360 demo setup since day one, in addition to very visible retail displays provided by Microsoft. The demo units are generally very popular and well maintained by field employees who make the rounds on a regular basis.
What’s mentioned above, however, is just about all there is. TV commercials for 360 are virtually nonexistent, and have been for the majority of the eighteen months since its release. Also telling is the fact that in the wake of Ninety-Nine Nights’ lukewarm reception, there have been no more major domestically developed releases for the system.
From day one, 360 sales in Korea were never spectacular, and that hasn’t changed. It’s not unpopular, but it hasn’t found much of an audience outside the hardcore crowd, who generally hold it in much higher esteem than PS3 and find it to be quite a steal at its current price – the Premium Package can easily be obtained for around 330,000 Won, or about $350 USD.
At this point, it rather feels as if Microsoft came out of the gates running full speed, only to slow down to a walk when it realized that the spectators weren’t going to respond with quite the enthusiasm it had anticipated. 360 is certainly going to stay around in Korea, but it’s unlikely at this point that it’ll be making any major waves in the industry.
Then there’s Sony and its PlayStation 3. While the console’s launch party in Yongsan this past June was put on with quite a bit of fanfare, there was virtually no excitement in the air, and not many people showed up until rather late in the proceedings.
With a price tag well over 500,000 Won and many months’ worth of bad pre-launch press, only the hardcore were interested. Sony’s problem here turned out to be the fact that for the most part, the hardcore were already more than satisfied with their Xbox 360s, and weren’t going to drop the cash until the system’s real heavy-hitters would show up.
That’s not to say that PS3 isn’t selling; it is, just not at any remarkable pace. As pointed out earlier, Sony attracted a sizeable following in the PS2 era through great effort and heavy investment, and much of that following still feels a loyalty toward the PlayStation brand.
With that in mind, what’s troubling at the moment is the way Sony of Korea is handling PS3 in its infancy. Aside from the mildly publicized launch party, there’s been virtually no visible marketing whatsoever. Any advertisements, TV or otherwise, have been rare and/or forgettable, and it’s hard to find a PS3 demo station anywhere, even in Yongsan. All in all, this bears very little resemblance to the PS2 launch of 2001.
Granted, it’s an expensive machine, and Sony knows it’s not going to get anywhere at present by trying to sell PS3 to money-conscious moms and dads, but the lack of enthusiasm is alarming. Much like Microsoft at present, it feels as if Sony is going through the motions without a great deal of care.
Still, while Xbox 360 and PS3 may not be experiencing a remarkable degree of mainstream penetration (though in all fairness, the latter’s only been around for a very short time), they’re doing fine in their own right, as the latest console software top ten list shows. Here’s the list for the week that ended on 7/29, courtesy of AK Communications:
1. Super Mario 64 DS – NDS
2. Super Robot Wars OG – SCEK, PS2
3. Transformers – Activision, 360
4. Tetris DS – Nintendo, NDS
5. Dynasty Warriors: Gundam – Namco Bandai, PS3
6. Shrek 3 – Activision, Xbox 360
7. Virtua Tennis 3 – SCEK, PS3
8. DS Fairy Tale Touch RO Puzzle – Skonec (Korean), NDS
9. Sudoku 10,000 – Skonec, NDS
10. Ratatouille – SCEK, PS2
We can see a pretty even spread across all platforms, with the notable exception of PSP. DS has four titles present, while 360, PS3, and PS2 each have two. (Note: It bears mentioning that reliable sales lists for software, and especially hardware, are not easy to come by in Korea. While the above list from AK Communications is generally regarded as the most official, there’s still no guarantee that it paints a completely accurate picture of the current marketplace.)
Finally, looking to the future, we have Nintendo and its Wii, which is expected to launch in Korea sometime toward the end of 2007. As of right now, it’s just about the hottest grey market import item around, and the buzz surrounding it is growing every day.
Ask anyone within the Korean games industry what they think of Wii’s prospects in Korea, and you’ll always get a response that goes something like this: If Wii follows in the footsteps of DS with the right price and a dedicated onslaught of mainstream advertising, Nintendo could have a seriously massive hit on its hands. That’s a fact. Every single Korean I know who’s tried Wii Sports or Wii Play is dead set on purchasing one, and that can only mean good things for Nintendo.
It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next few years. While Microsoft seems like it’s going to stay right where it is for the time being – in a solid position catering to the hardcore crowd – the real question at this time hovers around Sony and whether or not it’s going to be able to repeat the success it had last generation with PS2. In the meantime, the newly formed Nintendo of Korea is riding high on the success of DS, and this is a streak it looks poised to continue with Wii.
Korea’s console market may not be expanding at breakneck speeds, but it’s growing just the same. Along with this growth comes an increase in one of the domestic industry’s greatest problems – piracy. Tune in next time for a report on that issue and what’s being done to remedy it.