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Smilegate’s Lost Ark rewrites rules of online PC game market

Lost Ark enjoys a resurgent boom as the most popular RPG title in South Korea, as players seek a haven from scandal-laden titles

A screen shot of Lost Ark (Smilegate)
A screen shot of Lost Ark (Smilegate)

Lost Ark, developed by Smilegate, has emerged as the most popular title in the role-playing PC game category in South Korea, a surprising performance given its rise to the top slot took some time and benefited from a host of external factors.

The multiplayer game was launched in November 2018. As with other mainstream games, it pulled off a stellar record when it formally kicked off its service, drawing a record 350,000 concurrent users. Over time, its popularity declined as fickle players migrated to other games, forcing Smilegate to reduce the number of servers.

If Lost Ark followed the conventional cycle, it would be time for Smilegate’s top managers to decide whether to keep investing in the game. But Lost Ark bucked the typical cycle in dramatic fashion and is now enjoying a resurgent boom, attracting not only newbies, but also veteran video game streamers.

On Aug. 13, Smilegate said the number of concurrent users surpassed 240,000 shortly after it had a new character update. Other metrics, including new and returning players, also soared, while the number of active users hit the milestone of 1 million.

In response to a surge in the number of players and reports about a long login queue, Smilegate rushed to open a new server.

According to data published Monday by Inven, the country’s biggest game community, Lost Ark ranked second after League of Legends, outstripping other online titles from the “3N” game developers -- Nexon, NCSoft and Netmarble.

Lost Ark’s resurgence is widely deemed to have stemmed from a mix of in-house efforts and external developments. From early this year, Smilegate has been rolling out a series of updates at a steady pace, introducing new fields, raid courses and characters that offer fresh experiences for existing players.

Smilegate’s strategy of maintaining a stream of updates has contributed to shoring up key metrics, including concurrent user count, while improving its reputation with local PC players.

Another key factor behind the game’s popularity is a relatively soft approach to the “pay to win” scheme. A growing number of local gamers are tired of injecting huge amounts of money on a regular basis to stay competitive in major mobile and PC games, especially those developed by the 3N companies. Lost Ark also offers items that users can purchase to empower their virtual characters, but Smilegate allows players to choose whether to opt into the scheme that lets them climb the ranks faster. If they opt out, they simply take a leisurely pace without spending money.

Aside from in-house efforts, Lost Ark came to welcome an influx of new players largely because its rival companies made operational mistakes and disappointed paying users.

MapleStory, a popular game from Nexon, lost loyal players after it was accused of manipulating the ratio of random cash items. Many of MapleStory’s users who were angered by the developer’s policy quit and migrated to Lost Ark.

Lineage M, of NCSoft, touched off a firestorm of criticism from paying users after the game maker rolled back the character ability upgrade system. The scandal brought another fresh group of users to Lost Ark.

In recent months, players from other games are also paying attention to Lost Ark, largely because the game is regarded as the new best destination for those who want to play a popular PC game.

Existing mobile and PC game developers are reportedly drawing up new marketing strategies and events targeting users who consider migrating to Lost Ark.

One clear sign of a game’s popularity is how many video game streamers opt for a title. On streaming platform Twitch, many of the top-ranked streamers have switched to Lost Ark. In recent weeks, well-known streamers of World of Warcraft moved to the Korean game after Blizzard came under fire for an alleged sexual harassment scandal, along with the departure of top figures.

Since Lost Ark has benefited from such external factors, there is a possibility that its standing might be affected by a new round of developments in the gaming industry.

Experts point out that Smilegate has made efforts to communicate with users and keep the game playable without requiring players to fork over huge amounts of money. They say if Lost Ark is to remain popular, Smilegate should retain the game’s combination of constant updates and smooth communication with players.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)
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