Korean publishers also struggled, early on, to introduce their business model into a hostile American environment. Virtual asset purchase (that is, in-game item selling) makes up at least half of Korean MMOG revenue. People pay for them on their phone bills. These games rack up millions, $0.25 at a time. Micropayments are still new here, and many payment systems either aren't set up for it or seem perversely user-hostile. Target's MapleStory game cards foreshadow a breakthrough (a REALLY IMPORTANT breakthrough!) that may transform the entire MMOG industry.
In a November 2006 Gamasutra interview that plugged Pearl Research's "Games Market in Korea" report, Allison Luong talked about the importance of micropayments: "A critical success factor in growing the online games market is having a reliable and inexpensive system to bill, make payments and collect micropayments. In Korea, the development of a mobile billing system, capable of processing small payments of less than $5 has been instrumental in helping publishers monetize gameplay."
More than market size and logistics, Korean MMOGs in America face cultural obstacles. Every gamer knows, and most roll their eyes at, the default Korean look: big-eyed, underfed waifs in a low-end 2-D isometric view. The imports are also rife with dismaying "Engrish." Among many examples, a recent IGG press release announcing Godswar Online asserts, "Every scene in game presents a characteristic physiognomy."
Far more important, though, is the difference in play styles. Korean games emphasize endless grinding, easy rewards and heavy player-vs.-player competition. The status ladder, the hierarchy, is all-important. In an interview on the Korean game blog Pig-Min, Manifesto Games CEO Greg Costikyan notes, "In the US, most players prefer to avoid player-versus-player combat, at least most of the time, so games are built primarily on character advancement and quests. In Korea, grouping together and fighting battles against other groups seems to be the main point of most [MMOGs]. So what's a minority taste here is the majority interest in Korea, and vice versa."
NCsoft's much-delayed Tabula Rasa MMOG tried to bridge the American and Korean markets. In a March 2007 Next Generation interview with Colin Campbell, TR designer Richard Garriott said, "We started with a very international crew trying to make a collaborative game design between the US and Asia. We wanted to make one game that was going to solve all the design and artistic issues for both territories." After two years of wasted work, the experiment failed.
"Asia has a whole set of unique differences," says Garriott. "Some of these are subtle but important. But one of the most obvious is what a heroic character looks like. In the United States, a heroic character is often very buff, broad-shouldered, square-chinned and barrel-chested. The dashing hero is a very clear idea to us. In Asia, characters who look like that are always the bad guys, always. The people who are the good guys are young, nerdy, skinny little kids who survive against those big people because of an inner strength. ... And so when we create heroic characters and try to send them over to Asia, they're saying, 'Why are you making me play these big, dumb brutes who are clearly evil?' That's a big disconnect."