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.
• 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.
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.