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[Yang Sung-jin] What Korean gamers want

On average, 1 in 10 PC gamers across the world is now playing “Battlegrounds,” with more than 8 million copies sold worldwide as of August. The number of concurrent users -- a key yardstick measuring the popularity of an online game title -- surpassed a whopping 1.1 million on Sunday.

What’s truly remarkable is that the multiplayer online game has yet to be formally launched. “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds,” by South Korean developer Bluehole, previously best known for multiplayer game “TERA,” is still in what is called “early access” mode, with the formal launch scheduled for the fourth quarter of this year.

In every aspect, “Battlegrounds,” otherwise known as “baegeu” in Korea and “PUBG” elsewhere, is the hottest game of the year. Expectations among Korean marketers, PC salon operators and, more importantly, gamers are mounting for its official launch toward the end of the year.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s game market is witnessing a shakeup sparked by “Battlegrounds.” A growing number of top-rated YouTube and AfreecaTV streamers here are playing the game, drawing a huge amount of online traffic and converting many mainstream gamers into enthusiasts. At internet cafes, it’s now fairly common to see “Battlegrounds” players engaged in the cutthroat shooting competition to stay alive. It’s no exaggeration to say longtime online game leaders such as “League of Legends” and “Overwatch” face a real threat from “Battlegrounds.”

Although Bluehole is a South Korean company, the game itself is the brainchild of Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene, who is now the game’s lead designer at Bluehole. Greene got the inspiration for the game from the 2000 Japanese flick “Battle Royale.” The key to the game’s huge success lies in its creative and immersive gameplay.

When a new game starts, up to 100 players are parachuted onto an island and have to scramble for weapons and equipment to kill others. In the process, they have to think and act fast to survive surprise attacks from other players.

The tension builds at a rapid pace as the safe zone shrinks, forcing players into lethal showdowns. The last remaining player or team wins the round, earning game points and a congratulatory on-screen message (“Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!”).

As the pace of the game is fast and level of immersion is deep, not only players but also the audience watching streaming videos on YouTube or Twitch feel they’re engaged in realistic combat where the slightest misstep in judgement about the location of a rival could lead to the death of the character. So it’s a good gaming experience as well as decent streaming content for those who prefer watching games rather than playing them on their own.

Since the early access, or beta, mode began in March this year, many Korean gamers have embraced “Battlegrounds” because it’s, well, fun to play! Of course, other big hit titles such as “Overwatch” are interesting to play, but “Battlegrounds” has become something special for Korean gamers.

First and foremost is that a lot of Korean gamers identity “Battlegrounds” as a homegrown game, even though it’s now distributed mainly through the US-based Steam platform. At a time when the majority of local PC and mobile games are produced in a way that pushes players to open their pockets and spend ridiculous amounts of money to buy in-game items to stay strong, “Battlegrounds” bucks the trend by focusing on the experience of gamers. There are no cash items to revive your character instantly, and no incredibly powerful weapons to be obtained only by gambling away your savings accounts. As long as your gaming ability is good, you’re good to go and play against other gamers in the hopes of seeing the famous chicken message.

Such expectations of the game had been maintained until mid-August, when Bluehole announced a deal with Kakao Games, the gaming unit of Kakao, which operates the country’s most-used mobile messenger KakaoTalk. Under the contract, Kakao Games will publish “Battlegrounds” in the Korean market once it is formally launched later this year. It is widely expected that Kakao Games will make the game available at tens of thousands of PC salons across the nation.

Gamers expressed deep concerns about the deal, leveling accusations that Kakao Games will seriously undermine the gaming experience of “Battlegrounds” by introducing in-game items and limiting various features, as many Korean publishers have done with other promising titles that have been dumped by players, despite their great potential.

Bluehole, sensing a warning sign, placed a formal announcement that the game will remain intact, but many gamers, including high-profile streamers, continue to express doubts.

Personally, I’m also sick and tired of cookie-cutter Korean game titles that require buying in-game items to stay strong -- a pathetic yet predominant business model that is pushing many local players to seek alternatives on Steam or other gaming platforms. Given the unprecedented early success of “Battlegrounds,” I hope Bluehole and Kakao Games opt for a wise decision that takes into consideration what many Korean gamers really want.

By Yang Sung-jin

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at — Ed.
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