Universes collide when IP is expanded across sectors
Games, music and television are the three staples of Korea's cultural exports that also fulfill the people’s needs for entertainment. While the respective business sectors continue to grow in both local sales and exports, a rising trend has seen these fields come together using the best of their resources, to create a unique K-culture symbiosis where music fans download games to see their favorite stars turned into characters and game fans turn on their TVs to see their favorite games turned into dramas.
The most iconic example is Netmarble’s latest mobile game BTS Universe Story, a “storytelling game” that’s come as the result of a second collaboration between Netmarble and Big Hit Entertainment released on Sept. 24. Each member of K-pop’s biggest boy band BTS has been turned into 3-D animated characters within the game, and players can experience new stories that feature the members as characters of fictional episodes, including the band’s very own background story — commonly referred to as the BTS Universe.
The game topped Apple's App Store popular free games chart a day before its official release with pre-downloads in Asian countries including Korea, Japan and Taiwan, and reached the top five on the list of European countries such as Germany and Russia. Pre-downloads allow players to have the app downloaded to their phones prior to the game service’s opening time, to begin playing immediately after the service opens. A day after the official release, the game ranked high on app stores around the world, including No. 2 in Japan, No. 3 in Hong Kong and No. 5 in the United States.
In BTS Universe Story, the band BTS and the BTS Universe story is the intellectual property (IP) that has been recreated into a game. IPs are the most crucial and also the most basic asset in the culture sector, because one well-made IP can easily proliferate into various cultural contents.
With BTS, Big Hit Entertainment has created albums, documentaries, TV programs, games and webtoons over the last few years, proving that one good IP can be the key to open up the doors of diverse cultural content.
Content expansion with IP has also proved successful for game companies. Local game company Smilegate co-produced a drama series using the IP of its first-person shooter (FPS) game CrossFire with its Chinese game publisher Tencent and Youhug Media, which was revealed through Tencent’s digital video platform Tencent Video in July.
Rather than just making a drama out of the CrossFire background story, the companies took the CrossFire IP and created a story where people from different parts of China face off to become the best CrossFire players, starring actors Lu Han and Wu Lei as the main characters. Within just five weeks, the 36-episode drama garnered 160 million views and Smilegate also announced that it had signed with Sony Pictures to create a Hollywood film using the Crossfire IP.
Mobile game developer Com2uS has also been active in content expansion with its game IP. “Best Mistake” is a storytelling game similar to BTS Universe Story, where users get to experience different results of the game’s episodes according to the choices they make. The synopsis may be a little cheesy — an ordinary girl who’s loved by all the cool guys at the school and must choose her actions wisely in order to fight back the jealousy of her peers — but the web drama series released under the same time garnered millions of views on YouTube, as well as for its webtoon and web novel series. Com2uS also created various content with its mobile game “Summoners War: Sky Arena,” which was recreated in animated form and awaits the drop of its novel remake soon.
Not all IP can be expanded, however. Just as sequels are a privilege bestowed upon only the most popular films and TV programs, content expansion opens up as an option only when the original IP proves successful enough to gather an audience. That’s why the CrossFire drama was released in China even though it’s a local game, according to a Smilegate official.
“An IP can be developed into other content only when and where the IP itself is popular,” the official said. “CrossFire is very popular in China and Southeast Asia, which is why it was remade into a drama in China and not Korea. It’s the same case as the game ‘Witcher,’ which was first published in Poland but it was made into a Netflix drama series in the United States because that was where it was popular.”
Other than IP expansion, different sectors can also collaborate as part of marketing strategy. Last month, BTS joined forces with FPS game Fortnite, developed by U.S. publisher Epic Games, to reveal a new version of its music video for the latest single “Dynamite” on Sept. 26. A choreography version of the band’s music video was revealed through the game’s Party Royale Island mode, in addition to two “emotes” that let the game's characters dance the moves choreographed by the members of BTS.
Popular girl group Blackpink also collaborated with the mobile version of local shooter game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, by playing the band’s track “How You Like That” (2020) as the background music for players waiting at the “lobby” at the beginning of the game. The music was changed to the lead track of Blackpink’s latest full-length album that dropped on Oct. 2, titled “Lovesick Girls” and will be played until Nov. 2.
Two of Korea’s biggest game publishers NC Soft and Nexon don’t have any collaborations or IP expansions at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ready. NC Soft founded its entertainment subsidiary company KLAP in July while Nexon revealed earlier this year that it will make a $1.5 billion investment into global entertainment companies — although neither disclosed any further details.
IP expansion or collaboration with entertainment companies is nothing new, according to game columnist Lee Kyung-hyuk. Games such as Starcraft and Warcraft have extensive background stories that span across the entire universe, and games have often collaborated with celebrities to attract both fans and game players. In fact, the most advanced form of IP expansion already came in 2018 when a virtual girl group comprised of game characters from the game League of Legends named K/DA “debuted” and released its music worldwide.
“It is hard to say that IP content expansion means the convergence of the game and entertainment industries,” said Lee. “There is no ‘true form’ of convergence that we can say is the answer. What will be an important factor to predict what kind of cultural content will be made in the future is which industry has the most say in the IP expansion. The same IP will be made into entirely different dramas, depending on whether the game company has the upper hand or the drama production company, for example.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]