Media : Game Theory

American knock-offs, coming to stores near you

For as long as most of us can remember, American writers, musicians, and filmmakers have dominated world culture. Even today, the phrase “global culture” is sometimes viewed as a code word for McDonald’s, Superman, and other elements of American popular culture.

Long accustomed to this dominant position, Americans tend to classify other nations’ cultural products in familiar terms. We might describe a situation comedy as “a Thai version of Friends,” or decide that a new movie is nothing more than “the Korean Fight Club.” Without consciously trying to do so, we tend to see ourselves as the epicenter of planetary culture.

However, our days of cultural hegemony are rapidly coming to an end. As Pico Ayer notes, “the planet’s most populous continent, home to three in five of the entire world’s people, is increasingly taking over the present ... and even the future.”

Consider the interior of Thailand’s ubiquitous game shops. At first glance, one might notice that gamers are happily enjoying first-person shooters, real-time strategy titles, RPGs, and other familiar genres. However, a closer look reveals that half the shop’s customers are digging into content that is never seen on American shelves.

A case in point is a Korean game called PangYa. The newest sensation to capture the heart of Thailand’s gamers, it is one of several games that herald a fundamental shift in the geography of the gaming economy. This decidedly quirky multiplayer golf game has met with great success in Korea, Japan, Brazil, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Thailand, the United States, and the Philippines, and its popularity continues to grow.

As with most multiplayer games, PangYa’s players spend much of their time tending to the needs of highly customized personal avatars. However, unlike World of Warcraft, the game does not thrust players into an immersive virtual world. PangYa is about golf, conversation, and shopping. Players earn points by demonstrating mastery of the game, and they use these points to purchase better clubs, helpful caddies, and fashionable outfits. Preliminary research suggests that fans cannot get enough of the game.

Two years ago, I visited more than two-dozen Thai game parlors in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, interviewing approximately 60 parents, gamers, and shop owners. At that time, the multiplayer game Ragnarok Online was sending shockwaves through Thailand. News-paper editorials railed against the game’s addictive qualities, while Thai teens spent millions of baht on hourly access fees. From the evening news to the tabloids, Ragnarok’s reign was unchallenged.

In June of this year, I launched a new round of interviews in both cities. With very few exceptions, gamers report that they no longer play Ragnarok. While acknowledging that Ragnarok introduced them to the pleasure of online games, they explain that they were tired of the monotonous, grinding gameplay that characterizes the game at its highest levels. Once the virtual world started to feel more like a job than a game, they could no longer justify paying approximately $25 per month to sustain their habit.

Most of these players say that they now devote their time to PangYa, Maple Story (47 million players), Yulgang (400 million registered players), or other games based on the “free-to-play” business model. Under this model, gamers don’t have to pay a single cent to enter the game world. However, if players want to quickly obtain new items for their avatar, they have the option of using real-world currency to “unlock” the additional content.

Surprisingly, most of the players’ virtual purchases have little effect on game mechanics. Rather than buying enchan-ted swords and deadly poisons, they use their pocket money to buy virtual pets, crazy hairstyles, and stylish clothing for their undeniably cute avatars.

These free-to-play games highlight the increasing fragmentation of the MMO audience. While fans of deep virtual worlds such as Lineage II and Everquest II seek gritty visual realism, intriguing narrative, and carefully balanced game economies, those who play PangYa are looking for less complicated fun.

These games also remind us that Asian game developers are increasingly prominent on the world stage. In less than three years, a handful of small Korean companies have reshaped our understanding of what a multiplayer game can be, while successfully revamping the underlying business model.

And now, it is America’s turn to follow the cultural leader. During the coming year, NCSoft will introduce several games targeted at American audiences. Dungeon Runners (fantasy), Smash Star (tennis), eXteel (robotic warfare), and Soccer Fury (soccer) all rely on the free-to-play model that has been so successful in Asia.

NCSoft Austin was deeply involved in the creation of Dungeon Runners, but this does not mean it is an “American game.” After all, the Austin outfit is merely a branch office. NCSoft, one of the world’s most successful game companies, has always been based in South Korea.

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