NHN's fantasy role-playing game, ``C9,'' is among the big-name titles that await their debut in 2009. / Korea Times File
By Kim Tong-hyung
Tired of all the gloom-and-doom stories about the economy, collapsing companies and slashed payrolls?
Granted, it seems impossible to avoid depressing headlines these days, but what's also difficult to miss is the strong, positive vibe in Korea's active computer games industry, one of the few business sectors where people aren't looking for tall buildings to leap from.
At a time when companies all around, mindful of the economic downturn and murky annual forecasts, are cutting expectations, trimming hiring and searching for inexpensive solutions, online game publishers are still talking about growth, profit and expansion.
NCsoft, the domestic kingpin of the gaming sector, has its spirits soaring with its new fantasy role-playing game ``Aion,'' the industry's most-anticipated debut in years, so far managing to live up to its pre-launch hype, gathering around 150,000 to 200,000 concurrent users per day since its Nov. 25 launch.
It took NCsoft four years and 25 billion won (about $19 million) to release its latest title, but the lavish spending might end up looking like a bargain investment if Aion indeed proves as the heir apparent to the company's iconic ``Lineage'' franchise. The 100 billion-won flops that were Richard Garriott and his Tabula Rasa now seem like distant memories.
NCsoft is not the only gaming company that is making huge strides this winter. Industry rival CJ Internet is gathering a massive following with its own role-playing game, ``Prius,'' which would have been the story of the year if not for Aion's virtuoso performance. CJ Internet will mount a stronger challenge to NCsoft next year with``Dragon Ball Online,'' a role-playing game based on the popular Japanese cartoon series.
California-based Blizzard Entertainment had Korean companies trembling last month when it released ``Wrath of the Lich King,'' the second expansion set of its ``World of Warcraft'' (WOW), the world's most popular role-playing franchise, with more than 11 million monthly subscribers.
The gaming sector is certainly ending 2008 with a bang, and gamers may love 2009 even more, with industry heavyweights CJ Internet, Blizzard, Neowiz Games and Yedang Online preparing a slew of big-name titles to challenge NCsoft's supremacy.
Add that to NHN, the country's biggest Internet company and operator of top portal Naver (www.naver.com), becoming serious about the role-playing genre and the gaming scene looks ripe for a full-blown renaissance.
It's funny how history repeats itself. It was in 1998, in the midst of the Asian financial crisis, that Korea's computer games industry started to come around, with Blizzard's ``StarCraft'' becoming as popular as kimchi and NCsoft rewriting the book of role-playing games with Lineage.
Exactly a decade later, games continue to prove as a recession-proof business. When times are tough, people seek escapist entertainment, which nowadays is all about staying home, and games perfectly fit into the picture.
Even the rising jobless rate is a boon for game companies, as analysts point to past correlations between employment levels and playing time.
According to the Korea Game Industry Agency (KOGIA), the domestic online games market was worth an estimated 2.7 trillion won this year, and is expected to grow to around 3.4 trillion won in 2009.
``Although it remains to be seen how the big-name titles of major gaming companies will perform, the local online games market looks ready for strong growth in 2009 based on the popularity of new games Aion, Prius and Dragon Ball Online,'' said Hwang Seung-taek, an analyst at Hana Daetoo Securities.
``There will be a lot of new games, but the performance of Aion should be considered a barometer for the gaming industry's growth potential. Aion is off to a bright start, and the quality of game play, including its unique concept of `realm vs realm' combat and `player vs environment' structure, is impressive,'' he said.
NHN Getting Serious
Aion has indeed burst the floodgates open, and NHN is one of the many companies looking for a good splash. The company controls more than 70 percent of the search market through the dominant presence of Naver and also operates Hangame (www.hangame.com), a popular online game portal.
Despite the success of Hangame, however, NHN's track record in massive multiplayer online games (MMO) has been weak.
The Internet giant is now hoping that ``C9,'' another hyped up role-playing game eyeing a debut next year, will give them a better reputation in the genre.
The game, built around combat and quests based on a ``Lord of the Rings''-like setting, is the product of an all-star lineup of game programmers hired by NHN, which is confident that gamers will respond to the sophisticated 3D graphics, large-scale combat systems and unique game mechanics.
NHN will also be the publisher of ``Warhammer Online,'' a popular role-playing game by Britain's Games Workshop, which is slated for domestic release early next year.
CJ Internet has scored big with Prius and expects to do the same with Dragon Ball. But the company's biggest weapon just might be ``Dynasty Warriors Online,'' a tactical action game developed by Japan's Koei, which entered its open beta phase Saturday.
Dynasty Warriors is the online version of the console game of the same name, which sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.
The dynamic action and impressive graphics of the original are transferred to the online version, which took CJ Internet years to localize. The company added a few wrinkles, including the introduction of a social class system, to adapt to Korean gamers.
``The quality of action is something that has never been seen in online games before, and users will not experience any drop offs from the console version,'' said Kwon Yeong-shik, an official from CJ Internet.
However, the biggest news of 2009 will undoubtedly be Blizzard's release of ``StarCraft II,'' expected during the first-half of next year.
The game is a sequel to StarCraft, which sold more than 4.5 million copies in Korea alone since its release in 1998 and nearly single-handedly spawned an industry of Internet cafes, called ``PC Rooms,'' that are now ubiquitous around the country.
The game was also responsible for the emergence of ``e-sports,'' with millions of viewers attracted to professional StarCraft players battling on television with live commentary and analysis from experts.
Although StarCraft II, sold through CDs, won't compete directly with online games that are downloaded from computer servers, industry watchers expect the game to have a ``nuclear impact'' that could topple any other title regardless of genre.
Neowiz Games will be the publisher of ``Age of Conan,'' a popular role-playing game developed by Norway's Funcom, which is set for domestic release during the second-half of next year. The game has been a top seller since its release in North America and Europe in May.
Yedang Online, which has generated a significant following for ``Audition'' and ``Pristontale,'' is preparing ``War of Ancient,'' a role-playing game based on the wars between mythical Asian nations, built around a storyline written by popular comic writer, Ya Seol-lok.