Traveling to Korea is grueling. Living in the Eastern Time Zone, it takes me at least 24 hours door to door, up to 30 or more depending on my specific destination and itinerary. But there's no question that the opportunity to see and feel what's going on in the game industry and market via G-STAR over there, even in snapshot-like manner over only a few days, makes enduring the lengthy trip and the inevitable jet lag at both ends well worthwhile.
While the available figures vary somewhat, it's clear that the South Korean online game market is the world's third largest, trailing only China and the US. However, with a much smaller population than either, about 48.75 million, it far surpasses both on a per capita basis. According to various projections, the total value for 2011 seems likely to fall in the $5 to $6 billion range. On the industry side, the country is home to dozens of publishers. They include a handful regarded as the "big five", of which NCsoft and Nexon are probably most familiar to western gamers; the others are NHN, Neowiz and CJ Entertainment & Media.
Another relatively recognizable name, Webzen, is part of NHN following a merger last summer. On November 10, to coincide with the opening day of G-STAR, the huge annual Korean consumer and trade game show, the company introduced the new service plan for its revamped global portal, Webzen.com, by hosting an invitation-only event at its office in Seoul. As the only representative of a North American publication in attendance, I had the opportunity to meet key team members, to view their respective presentations and to discuss what we can expect to see over the coming months.
Two titles that will be added to the global service roster in the near future were highlighted. One was Continent of the Ninth Seal, an action MORPG usually referred to as C9. The game, which launched domestically in August of 2009, won a total of five Korea Game Awards including the top honor, the Grand Award. It has since gone live in China and Japan. For users in other regions, limited testing should start in Q1 of next year and ramp up to full service, likely by summer.
One of C9's key elements is its non-targeting action system, which console users may find familiar. Combining this with WASD movement and a strong emphasis on combos results in fast-paced, visually appealing gameplay. Based on a subsequent brief hands-on session of less than 30 minutes, the initial learning curve seems quite friendly, but observation of experienced players revealed that there are also layers of depth available, especially within the skill system where understanding when and how often to use each one against different opponents and their styles creates a constantly shifting balance of strategies, counters and defenses.
With four basic classes - Fighter, Hunter, Shaman and Witchblade - each offering three advanced options (e.g. the Fighter can become a Warrior, Guardian or Blade Master), mastering PvP almost certainly involves the ability to appreciate and adapt to sundry situational considerations. As for PvE, quests seem to figure in rather prominently. Reportedly numbering over 2,000, most if not all are set in instanced dungeons across five continents. A sixth area will apparently open up in 2012, and three more are planned; thus the nine in the name.
The other upcoming release is Arctic Combat. Previously known as Battle Territory Battery: Arctic Wind, it's a tactical MOFPS in a contemporary setting where hostilities have broken out over the control of newly discovered resources in the far north. There are two contending factions, the Russian-led Red Star Alliance and the Allied Force headed by the US. Here again, the domestic version is already in service; it launched late last year. Betas will take place in China and Thailand by Q1 next year. The stated target for global service is Q3 next year, which suggests testing will begin around late spring or early summer.
Built on the Unreal Engine 2.5 technology, the game looks to be competitive graphically without imposing overly high hardware requirements; the minimum spec includes a 2.4 GHz processor (3.0 recommended), 1 gig of memory (2 Gb) and a GeForce 5700 (GeForce 7600GT). In terms of differentiation within the category, the team noted its gore system. While possibly not everyone's cup of tea, it lets you blow off your enemies' arms, legs and heads with appropriate shots. Another point of interest, although it wasn't explained in detail, is the decision not to have any weapons that are only available for cash.
In addition, Arctic Combat incorporates random trophies, apparently to promote a sense of progression. After each match, two players out of all match participants receive a weapon of at good quality. These items can be sold via the game's auction system. There is also a skill system. Here again, the specifics were not discussed except for a mention that there are no set character classes in order to allow setting up to facilitate shifting among styles - sniping one time, assaulting the next, etc.
Webzen also presented a couple of other titles. Archlord X: The Chronicles is likely to enter global service in the first quarter of next year. Described as a sequel to Archlord with specialized contents, it emphasizes PvP and large-scale RvR between the two races, Humans and Blood Orcs. As before, the ultimate achievement is to attain the titular position, which only one player can hold, thereby gaining a completely unique look that is different for each side, plus appropriate powers.
MU Online, while now 10 years old, still has a solid international following. Webzen has been operating it globally for the past two years, and says that the player base has grown nicely during this time. Expansion 700, so named for the increased level cap it will feature, is also slated for Q1. As one would expect from its venerable status, the game features a large amount of content. The company says it's especially appealing to users who seek this together with a highly accessible learning curve. Some major additions in the new update are elemental items, a new Arka Battle mode for up to 10 guilds, and a substantially revamped user interface.
G-STAR: KOREA’S E3
G-STAR took place in Busan, which may not be a familiar name to many westerners despite its being Korea's main port and second largest city, with a population of approximately 3.6 million. It lies a little over 200 miles southeast of Seoul. The trip takes less than three hours by high-speed train, which is more convenient and quieter than flying. Along with seven other guests and our Webzen hosts, I arrived on the evening of November 10, eager to spend the next two days seeing and learning as much as possible.
With nearly 290,000 visitors and more than 200 companies represented, G-STAR is one of the world's largest game shows, more or less on a level with gamescon in Germany and China Joy. Naturally, the big five Korean publishers had big booths, which all seemed to be of equal size. Webzen had a similar amount of space, as did other domestic companies including mGame, Wemade et al. The western presence on the main exhibit floor was limited, with only Blizzard and Red 5 being highly visible.
Webzen had set up a nearly full schedule for me, which meant the time I had for other meetings or just to roam was quite limited. However, I did catch ArenaNet co-founder Mike O'Brien when we both had a few minutes free. Guild Wars 2 was exhibited very prominently, taking up around half of the NCsoft booth. There was nothing major that hadn't been shown before, just various improvements that occur normally during development. However, one thing was still quite notable, the high level of public interest as indicated by the long lineup to get a few minutes at the hands-on stations. This was in stark contrast to the original game, which was almost completely neglected at the same event several years ago.
I also crossed paths with Red 5 CEO and CCO Mark Kern, but not at the show. We spoke for a couple of minutes at Seoul airport as we were heading toward our respective flights. He was in very positive spirits about FireFall, which drew a tremendous amount of attention. I had seen the line. He said that it was two hours long and sometimes more even though there were over 100 stations. Unfortunately, I only got a few quick glimpses of the game while passing by the booth, so all I can report is that the little I saw was definitely eye-catching.
Another project that may interest western gamers is Dragon's Prophet. It's the second MMORPG from Runewaker, the Taiwanese developer of Runes of Magic. The company had a small booth in the B2B area, where I learned a bit about the game. The concept centers on dragon-based companions, hundreds of types in total, ranging from flying purebloods to land-based, aquatic and gliders, each with different abilities and skill. Players capture and train them. I was told to expect combat to be fast-paced, with position and timing both important. We may learn more before long since it may be ready to launch as early as mid-2013.
As for other companies and titles that may be relevant here, the only one that comes easily to mind is Cyphers, a MOBA from Nexon. About all I know is that it's five per side, and has already launched in Korea, apparently to a fairly positive reaction. If this is accurate, I suspect we may see it in North America, perhaps in another year or so. While this seems a short list, it's worth remembering I didn't have the opportunity to see anything behind closed doors. That said, I returned from G-STAR with a feeling there's more going on in Korea than meets the eye, especially since I try to watch from halfway around the world. Accordingly, I'm keener than ever to see what will surface over the months to come.