The South Korean game market has a multitude of vital lessons for the Western game biz, and in this extract from Gamasutra's unprecedented series of interviews with top Koren execs, Brandon Sheffield talks to Com2uS president Ji Young Park on the market in 2007 and prospects for 2008.
Can you give a bit of your company's background and history?
Ji Young Park: The company was founded in 1998. At first, we were not a mobile game company, but we started developing mobile games since '99. We were the first company who started to service mobile games in Korea. Certainly at the time, it's a really early stage. Few Japanese and Korean companies try to service mobile games. We were one of the first companies to develop Java games for the phone, and the game was showed when Sun Microsystems introduced the Java system.
We now license mobile games in Korea, and we also are servicing our games through our global network over employee carriers. Also our game library is almost over 80 titles, over eight years. We're now focusing on making the handset to a real game platform, so we make the creative titles designed for handsets. Even though users download mobile games, they can play over three hours. If they want to keep those games on the handset for whenever they want to play it, they can play it. Last year, we launched a mobile MMORPG. Many people log on through the mobile and play with each other.
Is that only in Korea right now?
JP: Right now, it's only in Korea. Over 10,000 people are playing this game, and we're upgrading. When they log into the game, they check on the current version, and if there is an upgrade, then they push down the upgrade files on the handsets. Those kinds of mechanisms...
Don Lim, general manager: Such as adding more maps. It's a regular MMORPG based on a mobile.
JP: They make guilds in the game, and then groups play together. Also, Mini Game Pack was our number one downloaded titles. Mini Game Pack 1 and 2 combined generated five million downloads in Korea. Five million downloads is like megahit film sales. Now we're persuading the market that mobile games can be a hit content, and the messenger can be a content conveyor to the users.
What did you do before? You founded the company. What did you do before that?
JP: Before that, at first, in '99, we were a private company. At the time, we were just university students. We wanted to [release an] MP3 player at the time. It was just an idea, so to make that real, we needed money. We started to find out how we can make money, so from that time...
So you wanted to create one?
JP: Yeah, create. At that time, there were no [players]. At that time, it was really only staged for the Internet. There was no business in mobile in the internet. So we started a BBS, and we started to service content. We shared the information about computer hardware, and when they see the contents, then we charge them. Also, we started service through hardware and video game information services.
After that, we found out that the information service is really hard to earn money, so we knew that there would be a new Internet system for the handset. At the time, PC Internet was all free, but with handsets, people recognized that it was not free. I think we can try something through handsets... if the Internet in handsets becomes popular, people will potentially like the games. That's why we started mobile games.
How large was the company when you started at that scale?
JP: Only three people, started with a donation of $5,000. I lent them money from my father.
So who designed the first games?
JP: We really kept together and had an idea about which kind of game can be possible. At the time, the platform was just a web browser, so it was like a character raiser like Tamagotchi, or fortunetelling. The first RPG on the WAP platform we launched in 2000. At first, it was fortunetelling, but in a year, we launched an RPG.
This is kind of an obvious question, but how do you find the Korean and U.S. markets to be different, in terms of mobile stuff?
JP: When Verizon first launched mobile titles, we launched about four or five games. At that time, they were really basic titles, like bowling and baseball. As time goes by, many web publishers had to do the business and they had licensed the titles. I feel that the gameplay itself is not different. I feel that our game title, in gameplay itself, was really exciting. I'm very confident in the content. With our brand, it's really hard to persuade the carrier. It's a big barrier. US players try to buy brands and combine brands and games... It's kind of hard to persuade the carriers.
Yeah. The other problem that happens with that is that when people are buying the licensed titles, they're usually not very good, and then they think that all cell phone games are like that.
JP: Everybody has limited resources. We put orders on developing titles. That means that we put 12 months with a full team developing and testing and leveling and separate things. But with a branded title, capital for development would go to acquiring the license, whereas we focus on development itself and making quality games. Developers should reduce the development costs to get the brand. It's really tough to make a better game.
Some of your games seem to have a very Korean art style. Do you think that is a plus or a minus in the U.S. market right now?
JP: In the mobile platform, it can be a minus, because there is a gateway to persuade a person. It's really up to the person who chooses the game in that market. If he likes that style, then it will be great. If he doesn't like the style, then it is really tough. In Korea, carriers don't decide it. Carriers have usergroups to play the games. They rely on the gameplay and the usergroups. We think it's really good for us in the Korean market, but in the U.S., usergroups are not that popular. We should get to do the research later, whether this game is good for you or not. Then we need to decide to upgrade or not.
DL: In Korea, each carrier has their own usergroup. They change the user every time, in every genre. So each usergroup gives feedback, and a score, and then for each game, the carrier gets a score and feedback. It's more open and clear.
JP: On the development side, it's beneficial, because we can reduce the size of the graphics and put more on the gameplay. In mobile games, the size of the game file is very limited, so we put more real-style art on the mobile games. That will take over half the size of the game for us. But if we simplify the graphics, that will only take under 30 percent of the whole file, so we can put in more stages or make more playtime, or put the scenario of the games. With that, we can do more.
It seems like a much better way to do things, but it seems like it's really hard to push over here, because it's all very carrier-driven, rather than being a publisher or developer-centric market. It's very unfortunate. I hope it'll change, because if it doesn't change, mobile games aren't going to get any better.
DL: My philosophy of the mobile game is to increase the game experience, and the playing of the games. At your first impression, you're like, "It's okay," but as you play, you become more addicted, and you start to like it. But for some publishers in the U.S., their first impression of the sound and the graphics is so powerful, and people have a very high expectation for these games. As she said, the game itself is just a very generic game, or a simple game, and the gameplay time is so short that you can't play for more than ten minutes.
A lot of them seem to focus their attention on the intro screen and the music at the very beginning.
DL: The attract mode.
Yes, that's right. It's totally that, except it's unnecessary, because you can't actually see it from the menu. This is a total market question, but why do you think that Korean companies have excelled so much in mobile and online games more than consoles?
JP: For consoles in Korea, people need to buy before they experience. That means that people should buy additional console platforms, and should buy titles at first before they experience something. Those console titles were [pirated] a lot on the market, and the market itself had a very hard time. Same with the PC game market.
The offline PC market.
JP: Yeah, right. So all the game developers moved to the Internet platform. That means that people can download games for free, and after they spend some time with it and they like it, they decide to spend money. It can happen because we have a really good infrastructure, Internet-wise, where mobile-wise we had a really rich network and rich computer system. It's a power source in everyone's house, and there are Internet PC cafes. Almost all of the gamers are very good at games, because there are a lot of games that can be played without paying any money. If they like it, they can pay. We need really good games which can persuade them to pay money, so they make us really concentrate. But after we persuade the user, it's really a full market.
That makes sense. Do you think that something like Xbox Live Arcade could do better in Korea than previous consoles, just based on what you said? After you buy the console, you can download demos of smaller Arcade titles as well as big titles. Do you think that could do better there?
JP: There are still lots of people who love console boxes. With those people, it really makes the market. But people who already enjoy online games already have good PCs in their house, and pay to have network. In Korea, the PC or mobile platform will be the better platform for games, for the time being.
I don't know if you can answer this question, but in terms of development cost versus number of purchases, what does it take for a mobile game to be considered a success for you?
JP: How many downloads?
Yeah. In terms of getting back your development cost, and being more profitable on top of that. What does it take for a title to be considered successful? Does it have to be 100,000, or 50,000?
JP: Nowadays, our game development cost is going higher and higher, in fact. Now people will only pick what they want to buy. Over half of people buy games because of other peoples' recommendations, so they are really focused on buying games. We need to do more on the culture side, and giving them new experiences. They make us spend a higher cost to develop. Right now, we put that 300,000 downloads -- that means about $600,000 -- then we put this game as successful in a year. But even after a year, if we see it's a good game, it keeps selling. So in a year, if a game makes over 300,000 downloads, then we think it's successful.
That makes sense. In terms of getting word of mouth, or people saying which games they like, have you looked at Nokia's N-Gage platform at all? What do you think about that? It's got user reviews and stuff.
JP: On their website?
No, actually on their handset. They have a front end where you can see the games and look at user reviews, where people say, "Yeah, I really liked this game, and here's why." And also it's got Achievements inside the games. I was just wondering what you thought about it, if you've seen it.
JP: I haven't seen that yet, but I feel that making word-of-mouth... if it's only possible in some handsets, it's really hard to make word-of-mouth. They can make an N-Gage community, but I'd like to talk about the game with my friend sitting beside me. So it's really important for mobile games. I know that discussing with my friend or people in my class, discussing about the game itself make word-of-mouth. So Nokia should sell more.
We talked about this a little bit, but do you think developers or publishers will ever be leading the market in the U.S. the way they are in Korea, Japan, or even Europe? Even in Europe, you see ads on TV for mobile games. Here, you never see that. It's easier to find out how to get that game. You can text to something, and get the game. But the carriers have a lot more control over everything, and you have to go through them in many situations. Do you think that will change here? Do you have any idea?
JP: I'd like to ask you about it! But now it's growing in the U.S. It's really an appealing platform. Now everyone has handsets, and everyone can connect to the Internet and download games, even though right now they can't find what they want to download. But it's really easy to download. It's really a cool platform. As it is, it will grow, but at some point, it will stop growing. Then, people in the market will find out the ways. They need to enhance the infrastructure, or they need to find out more creative content. People always prepare for the hard times, but the market will change, I believe, sometime. I saw that the U.S. market has really good potential, and if people believe that is the new way, they will go. I believe in some points about the U.S. market. They have a high possibility and potential to decide something and then go with it. I believe that it will go the right way.
I hope so. In terms of ease of download, it seems like Japan is the easiest. I don't know if you have this in Korea, but there and the UK, they have barcodes, and you can take a photo of it. Does that happen in Korea as well?
JP: In Korea, it's a different way. We have a link system. It's numbering. So if we put 777 and then press the Internet key, then it will go to the website of our service. It's like a picture, but we chose to put the number in. It's like a URL. 777 is our site. We only need to advertise our number, "Come to join by pressing 777."
I see. That seems good in some ways, and then in other ways... one thing that I saw that I thought was kind of amazing was that I saw a magazine of mobile games. It had reviews of the mobile games you can look through, and it has a barcode at the end of each one. It's like, "Oh, that looks good. Take!" It's so easy. If something like that happened here, I think people would play games.
JP: Yeah, in every ad, at the end of it, we put, "777, and then download this game."
Something I meant to mention earlier about the Korean art style is that sometimes it seems like it is...we still have this anime and manga culture that's growing up over here. It seems like for those people, it could be appealing. I think that's one of the big reasons that MapleStory is doing well. It has that distinctive, cute, and fun art style, but it's a super-Korean art style. You would never think it was anything but Korean.
DL: They spend a lot of money on advertising. As far as the Korean MMOs go, they've probably spent more money on advertising than anyone, like maybe all the others combined.
But it's also the only one I would ever even consider trying, since it's side-scrolling and casual, and I don't like playing games on my PC. So 3D stuff where it's got like deep stats and stuff, I don't want to touch it, even though you could consider me a hardcore gamer type. It's not for me. It's possible that it could be a draw for some people. It just depends on the market.
DL: I read in Wired that manga has taken over America.
I know. Well, that article is several years late.
JP: We are focusing on easy play, but after you play, you can play whenever you want to play. For a mobile game, its playtime is very short. So while waiting for someone for about three minutes, I can play this game and when my friend comes, I shut down. And then another time, my gameplay is still stored on the phone. Those kind of mobile lifestyles we researched, and then we put that kind of function on the handset games. We can make our mobile game unique, and people think it's really easy to play.
Do you have to put that functionality for each handset in each game? All the handsets obviously have different capabilities -- like, you can close it by flipping it closed, or you can slide it closed, or maybe you have to press "end." Do you have to make sure that's the same?
JP: We record the [ending] point, and we automatically record the progress. Some games make the game itself very short in playtime.
Do you have any interest in handheld console platforms like the DS or PSP?
JP: Yeah. We are interested in them. But before entering the market, we need to do some projects. Each platform has a difference, so we think we need some experience. We will try something, and then for serious after that we enter seriously. It will be in two years.
It seems like it's kind of difficult to get into in different markets. It's good not to rush into it. But right now, I think there are maybe only three Korean companies doing their own titles. Not all of them are developing themselves, but with their own IP. There's MapleStory, Ragnarok, and...
Korea's popular online casual golf sim, Pangya.
Pangya is on the Wii. [Note: Pangya is known as Super Swing Golf in the North American market.]
JP: Yeah, I saw. It's developed in Japan.
DL: That comes through Tecmo.
And then there's the one doing the touch dictionary.
JP: Oh, touch dictionary?
They titled it very unfortunately. They abbreviated dictionary as "Touch Dic." It's really funny. But there are only a few companies doing that. It would be interesting to see how it goes. More Korean companies actually seem interested in Sony platforms like the PSP, like Pentavision.
JP: Yeah, because we feel that Nintendo has a more closed environment for developers. That's why.
Although they're trying to change that a lot now. This may change over time. We'll see. About the console games -- what do you think it will take for consoles to be important in the Korean market?
JP: I think that the major Korean developers start to release titles, at least. The timing will be important, because now there are many Korean publishers, and they announced that they will develop console titles, but none were really released, besides MapleStory and Pangya. But I heard that it was also developed in Japan.
So, the big publishers getting on is what you think it'll take? The thing is, the large Korean companies have not been making offline games very much anymore, and consoles are starting to be online, but it's mostly offline titles. So you've only got companies like Phantagram and just a few companies doing those sorts of titles. It's a strange kind of thing where it seems like no one wants to take the first step, and nobody wants to fail.
JP: Phantagram was merged with NCSoft, but again they divided. So maybe the culture of online games and offline companies might be really different as it is, but soon they should find out to grow more, a Nexon or NCSoft kind of company should go from online to offline, and offline companies like EA or U.S. companies should grow to online and mobile. It's really the same mission, to see who can do well and be successful in the next eras. I think it will be the mission of the companies, so we'll see who can do well.
It's going to be interesting to see that.
DL: The big offline hurdles for MMOs and making them connected here is that your basic U.S. living room is not set up with an online connection. You may have it as a cable box, and you may have it as a satellite dish, but your basic family doesn't consider the TV something to play against other people online.
It's kind of funny, because I live in one room. I have my computer right here, and my TV right here. But still, I don't hook up my console. I have to go out and buy some stuff. Like I have to buy a wireless adapter, or a cable. Actually, even for my 360, I would have to buy a different router so that I can actually get another ethernet cable to plug into it.
DL: For the computer, they say, "We have to have the Internet for homework and business." Nobody buys a computer without hooking up to the Internet, but consoles are considered game machines.
JP: About the Nokia, I heard that their N-Gage platform is going to a general platform for all Nokia handsets, right?
Right now they've only announced six, but eventually it may be supported on more.
JP: We believe that the platform of Korea or Japan will eventually be at the same level. It will be the next model of platform, I think, of European or U.S. handsets -- a type of game platform. So we want to try to do something for the Nokia, because it will eventually be the same. I think we want to do that.