Still, whatever the culture divide, Korean MMOG publishers want to cross it. The domestic Korean MMOG market is maturing - or, from another viewpoint, stagnating.
In April 2007, the Korean newspaper Joong Ang Daily reported domestic MMOGs were dwindling in popularity, "because new games were not innovative, having similar storylines and game play characteristics to those in Lineage." The article cites Ministry of Culture statistics showing domestic online game growth projections of only (!) 18 percent this year, from $175 to $211 million - evidently a tepid rate by Korean standards.
Publishers are springing to address this alleged crisis. They're doing more licensing in Western countries, such as Vivendi's May 2007 release (albeit as a standalone retail game) of Nexon's casual MMOG Freestyle Street Basketball, which has 32 million Asian players.
A few Korean companies have started hiring American marketing firms, as when Nexon allied with MTV Networks. But much of this marketing has been awkward. K2 Networks made a clueless big-money PR push in late 2006, complete with booth babes, at - no, not E3, but the sedate Austin Game Conference, where attendees wouldn't look twice at a booth babe unless she flashed an MMOG development contract.
The overlooked issue is, how about improving the games? How about showing America the really good stuff?
There are a couple of promising prospects. KartRider claims 160 million players, including one third of all South Koreans. At its height in 2005, 200,000 Koreans logged in daily. In China, KartRider has reached 800,000 concurrent users. Here, the game is currently in beta, with under 20,000 forum members. And Audition Online (aka Dancing Paradise), the casual dancing MMOG from Korean publisher T3 Entertainment, has 50 million players in China. In June 2007, the Nexon America version hit 100,000 registered users. (See "Will Bobba for Furni" by Russ Pitts in The Escapist issue 101.) Acclaim's Dance Online, now in beta, imitates Audition.
In one important sense, Korean MMOGs have already succeeded here, just by proving the validity of the free-to-play model. In a year or two, every new MMOG you play will use virtual asset purchase.
Korea continues to be the scout, the lab rat for American companies. Its struggles with regulation of real-money trading and net addiction foreshadow our own. Korean companies experiment with original ways to foster community, such as Hanbit Soft's age-segregated servers for Granado Espada (marketed here as Sword of the New World): age 18 and over, 25-plus, 30-plus and a "silver" server for seniors.
Most important, no matter what Joong Ang Daily thinks, Korea's MMOGs are often novel and imaginative by American standards. They bring new ideas to our market. It's possible their MMOGs may become the leading edge of a larger Korea-pop invasion that has already swept Asia; China gave this phenomenon a name, hallyu ("Korean wave"). If hallyu takes hold here, expect much name-checking in the future for the insanely fast rapper Outsider, singers Rain and BoA, films like Oldboy and The Host, and a zillion soap operas. The real Korean invasion may be just beginning.