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‘Big bang’ of mobile games

After government deregulation, sector is seen exploding

May 17,2011
When it comes to the mobile games sector, Korea hasn’t fared nearly as well as it has in the online game segment.

The growth of the mobile game business in Korea has been notably slow despite the explosive popularity in the use of smartphones. One of the main culprits has been strict government censorship. In Korea, games must be reviewed and rated by the Games Ratings Board before they become available on the market.

This has prompted companies like Apple and Google to simply not offer any games to Koreans. The companies that operate the App Store and the Android Market closed their game category for Korean users last year.

Giants are coming

That’s about to change. The so-called “open market” law was passed by the National Assembly in March, relaxing the censorship. It is expected to take effect from July, although the degree of the relaxation is still being fine-tuned.

“For the last two years that the reform proposal was pending at the National Assembly, the growth of Korea’s mobile game business has halted, as well,” said an industry observer. “So while it is good news, there’s a lot of catching up to do.”

While Apple and Google remain mum about whether or not they will reopen the game category, most industry sources expect them to do so.

It appears they are hardly the ones eyeing the promising segment, signaling intensifying competition in a market that has been mostly dominated by IT start-up companies.

Samsung Electronics joined forces with U.S. game publisher “ngmoco” to preload a game platform dubbed “Game Hub” on the foreign version of the Galaxy S II smartphone. KT will reportedly launch its own game platform, codenamed K-park, this year.

“We are ready to respond when the game category opens in application stores in Korea,” a Samsung official told Korean media.

Online game publishers are jumping on the bandwagon: Nexon, Korea’s No. 1 game developer, is planning to release about 30 mobile games this year; NCsoft, another game giant, is working on the mobile version of its online game “Might and Magic Heroes Kingdoms”; Hangame, the game unit of NHN, recently founded a smart device game developing entity.

Why mobile games?

Despite the restrictions thus far, game applications are some of the most downloaded applications by Korean smartphone users.

They worked their way around the restrictions: Game software makers would list their games on App Store’s entertainment category. And Korean game users would create a secondary Apple account set outside Korea to download games from the App Store.

So it’s no secret that there’s money there. And experts say the future is rosy.

According to Korea Creative Content Agency, under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sports, the Korean mobile game market was worth just 424.2 billion won ($390 million) last year but will surge to 487.8 billion won this year and to 536.5 billion won next year. And that is excluding the game categories of Apple and Google.

“Should Apple open a game category at the App Store for Korean users, the predicted market size could be double or more what it is,” said Shin Pil-su, the policy director at the Korea Association of Game Industry.

Observers also note how mobile games appeal to the general public, not necessarily just hardcore game fans. “If you look at who plays popular mobile games like the Angry Birds, most of them are women,” an industry source said. “Mobile games are easy to enjoy and have a huge potential beyond game manias.”


By Kim Hyung-eun [hkim@joongang.co.kr]



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