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(Yonhap Feature) As Korean game industry expands, cultural hurdles are breached
By Curtis File
Contributing writer
SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- For anyone who grew up with a Game Boy or Playstation controller in their hands, Gordon Brown's job seems like a dream come true.

   For the 35-year-old game localizer, a few hours of every day are spent wandering through fantasy lands, slaying monsters, and chasing down quests. Business meetings consist of impromptu brainstorming sessions over skills, spells, and character names.

   "You have to know the games inside and out," said Brown, who works for Korea's largest localization company, Latis Global Communications. "You need access to design documents, gameplay, everything, if you are going to properly localize a game."

   As South Korea's game industry continues to expand, people like Brown are needed more than ever. In 2011, Korea's game exports reached US$2.3 billion, a 48 percent increase from 2010, according to a report from the Korea Creative Contents Academy. Since 2006, the amount of exports has continued to grow more than the average growth rate of the game industry, says the same report. That growth is projected to carry all the way through 2015.

   But despite the rapid expansion in game exports, industry representatives say there is still a lot that needs to change before South Korea sees its domestic success repeated overseas.

Gordon Brown says Korea's game industry overlooks some key issues in localization. (Photos courtesy of Curtis File)

"The Korean industry seems about 10 years behind in localization in terms of preparation and available resources," said Brown. "It feels like an after-thought, started in the last stages of production. It contributes to the less-than-stellar reaction games like Tera Online have gotten from other regions."

   Brown cites storyboarding and language structure as prominent issues that are overlooked in the localization of South Korean games. Korean does not always include number or gender, and subjects are often dropped from sentences, complicating translation. This crucial information is not always provided to localizers.

   Other industry representatives agree that there is room for improvement in chasing Western markets. "Some of the more widely identified factors that are raised by Western users include overly stereotyped character art styles, a strong emphasis on PvP content, and grinding (having to complete repetitive tasks to advance in the game)," said Nick Marceau, an assistant project manager at XL Games. "Some Western gamers become immediately turned off upon hearing that a game is 'Korean,' invoking these reasons as justification... even when the game has been localized effectively."

   Other hurdles include the different preferences between Korean and Western markets. Consoles still dominate the U.S market with a more than 50 percent market share, according to a 2012 report from Magid Associates. This is a stark contrast to South Korea, where online games take up 70 percent of the market compared to just 3 percent for console games. However, as trends shift toward digital distribution over retail, PC users are spoiled with an ever-growing selection of download and installation methods and game titles. As the popularity of PC games grows in the West, South Korean developers are in a great position to dominate the online gaming world.

   There have already been a few international successes out of South Korea, including Aion, Lineage, and Maple Story, some of which have reached multiple millions of users in North America alone. Other publishers have experimented with bringing their content to more mainstream distribution outlets in the West. Last year, Webzen rolled out two of their largest titles, Continent of the Ninth: Seal and Arctic Combat, on Steam, becoming one of the first few Korean developers to tap into the largest digital game distributor in North America.

XL Games' online game ArchAge has generated much interest overseas even before official international release.

Adding to the desire to tap into these increasingly appealing markets may be some of the problems with South Korea's domestic market, particularly where government intervention is concerned.

   A shutdown system in South Korea that prevents anyone below the age of 16 from accessing online games between the hours of midnight to 6 a.m. has been in place since late 2011. The current administration has hinted that they may strengthen this legislation by expanding the shutdown period and extracting 2 percent of sales from all game companies to fund Internet addiction centers.

   "This obviously puts a lot of pressure on the industry, and will definitely encourage many studios to look overseas," said Marceau. "If this indeed becomes more widespread, I think there might be quite a bit more cross-fertilization in terms of game design as developers strive to keep the wants and needs of foreign gamers in mind."

   Already the desire for South Korea's online games is growing. Anticipation for games like NCSoft's Blade and Soul, and XL Games' ArcheAge has spawned fan sites and unofficial translations in forums and wikipages as eager gamers wait for the official international releases.

   "As more people show interest in Korean games, more developers are showing interest in catering to international markets and they are paying more attention to localization," said Brown. "The future of the industry looks promising, even if it will take some time to get on its feet."