14:54 - 30th July 2013, by NEO Staff

Made in Korea: The Rise of the MMORPG

South Korea's gaming culture is near-legendary. From the devoted, full-time gamer gone pro, to the millions of consumers who count online gaming as their favourite hobby, to obsessive players who recklessly endanger their own health, South Koreans certainly know how to commit themselves to the concept of online, massively multiplayer role-playing games. It's little wonder, too, considering that the quality of these games are so high (including the soon-to-be-released and free-to-play Elsword), and South Korea's infrastructure is so well suited to enable its citizens to play games that require fast connections and high-spec hardware.

The online gaming story in Korea really began with the release of Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds in 1996, which gained over one million subscribers and was one of the earliest examples of MMORPGs. The developer, NCsoft, was able to replicate the success of this game with Lineage two years later, sowing the seeds for the genre's place in the hearts of Korean gamers. 2002's Ragnarok Online reached heights of 25 million subscribers according to publishers Gravity Corp, but it was MapleStory, from the same year, that set the model of success for free-to-play online games.

So what is it that makes South Korea such a hotbed of internet gaming? The country's internet café culture is partially behind the success of MMORPGs, as these facilities are both ubiquitous and full of powerful PCs connected to one of the best high speed internet networks in the world. These centres are called PC bangs, and in a similar business model to Japan's manga cafes, they offer hourly rates of access to their facilities, which include the aforementioned high-spec computers, plus access to smoking areas, and food, drink and snacks. PC bangs really began to take off following the launch of StarCraft in 1998, and players can also be incentivised by certain games (such as Kart Rider and BnB) to log on from PC bangs in order to earn extra virtual currency.

Speaking of StarCraft, you can't discuss the South Korean gaming culture without mentioning the American game, developed by Blizzard. The game is so popular that it's spawned an entire industry surrounding professional StarCraft players, but there's a dark side to its fame. At least one death has been alleged to be due to a marathon gaming session, which has led to a government crackdown on under 18s gaming between the hours of midnight and 8am. However, gaming psychologists believe that such behaviour is in the vast minority, and online gaming poses no threat to consumers. In fact, it could be argued that healthy enthusiasm for these games offers a whole new world of social contact for players, who form long and lasting bonds with those they interact with in the virtual world.

One player who would certainly argue in favour of the beneficial effects of playing MMORPGs is Lim Yo-hwan. Dubbed 'The Terran Emperor', he is a professional StarCraft player who has reached the heights of celebrity in South Korea. His fan club has over one million members, and he's even released a DVD compilation of some of his greatest feats in the game. At the height of his fame, he was reportedly earning over £300,000 per year from gaming, prizes, and endorsements, and has pioneered many strategies for success in the game which are still used by gamers today.

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