By Kim Tong-hyung
South Korea has been injecting new life into the smartphone party, but outdated local regulations have prevented game developers from joining the fun.
The current law requires all game content to be censored and approved before reaching consumers. However, the rules are quickly being rendered irrelevant in the smartphone era, as Korean authorities don't have a prayer of screening and approving the massive number of games pushed through global content platforms such as the Apple App Store and Android Market every day.
And with so many games provided online through servers instead of CDs or cartridges, it's questionable whether the current reviewing process has any meaning when gamers aren't prevented from accessing foreign websites.
While it's obvious that the country's regulations on digital content have been aging badly, software companies are complaining that their sense of urgency isn't shared by lawmakers, who decided that the discussions on a renewed computer games law could wait for the next National Assembly session.
The requirement for pre-release reviews have forced Apple and Google, the backer of the Android mobile platform, to prevent their local smartphone customers from accessing the games categories on their content platform. However, this isn't much of a problem for the savvier users, who set up foreign accounts to access and download the games anyway.
The real losers are Korean game developers such as Com2us, who are scrambling to pitch their products to foreign users without having much of a local customer base to fall back on.
``Although it's possible to provide some of the game content to Korean users by filing them to be listed in the App Store's entertainment category, this can't be a long-term solution,'' said a Com2us official.
``Frankly, there is no real market for games on iPhones or other popular smartphones. Games developers could be missing out on a crucial opportunity for growth.''
The proposed version of the new games law allows the immediate listing of smartphone games that meet a certain quality requirement, while handset vendors and mobile platform operators get more freedom to self-regulate the decency of the content.
However, a conflict between the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has been further bogging down the talks for the new rules that have been progressing at a snail's pace nonetheless.
The draft law also includes measures to curb compulsive gaming and addiction, which are becoming an increasing social problem here, with the suggestion of including introducing disadvantages in game play when gamers exceed the advised limit for playing time.
However, with game developers resisting the idea of limiting playing times, the culture ministry has suggested dividing the issue and allowing lawmakers to discuss and possibly approve the changes to the games review process first.
The family ministry, on the other hand, insists that the issues should be discussed together. Considering that the next regular parliamentary session is scheduled for September, and the enforcement of the new law will require a three-month adjustment period, game developers aren't likely to see any resolution before the end of the year.
A late start on their home turf is particularly frustrating for the companies as mobile gamers tend to favor domestic content, as evidenced by the lists of the most frequently downloaded games by American and Japanese iPhone users.
Smartphones had been a hard sell due to their lavish price tags and the lack of content, but with the market finally having desirable devices such as the iPhone and Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S to intrigue the average consumer, the country is on the cusp of a mobile Internet explosion.
The country's three mobile carriers ― SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus ― barely had 300,000 smartphone users around November last year, right before KT put iPhones on Korean shelves. By the end of this year, the number of Korean smartphone users are forecast to be anywhere between 3 to 4 million.