Gamers going for the Gold in Asia

 - By Charles Runckel

 Electronic Arts (EA) Games, the world’s largest computer game publisher, has set Asia in its sights, along with other game producers who realize that gaining and maintaining a market share in Japan, Korea, China and India’s rapidly growing online markets will be essential to their long-term survival.  While market entry into Europe and Australia has been easy for US game studios, with similar language and cultural expectations in gaming, these issues combine with the pervasiveness of high-speed internet connections in Asia to require new types of games specifically tailored to not only the Asian market, but also the markets of individual countries.  To meet this need, EA and other producers have set up facilities in Asia using local talent to redesign games and set up agreements with local companies to port games onto local systems.

 The language barrier is the first western companies must face, requiring not only translation but rewriting software to accommodate the different alphabets and character systems used in Asian languages.  To this end, EA announced last year it would set up a development studio in Singapore with developers from Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore to modify major EA titles to the needs of five Asian languages.  This is in line with Singapore’s push to become a major intellectual services hub in Asia, moving on from its past of rampant intellectual piracy.

         This piracy is the second obstacle companies face, and requires more than a simple translation of their software.  Asian programmers rapidly crack the protections developers place in their software and the bootleg copies are circulated in cheap CDs or available to the world online.  Asian countries skipped the stage of dial-up most western nations crawled through, with broadband connections in over 13 million of South Korea’s 15 million households.  Networks like Bit Torrent allow the rapid dispersal of illegal software and the high-speed connections allow it to be done conveniently.  This has challenged the traditional game model of a large, upfront purchase of software followed by free multiplayer support from the producer.

          Yet another hurdle is the gamer culture in Asia, especially in South Korea and Japan.  Professional gaming events are well attended, with corporate sponsors and large cash prizes.  Victors are treated as rock stars, complete with groupies.  Online game rooms and physical internet gaming cafes provide the major social venue for many East Asian teens and young adults, making the online, multiplayer component of games more important to Asian markets than the stunning graphics that often captivate western audiences.

          The answer to this can be seen in the few Western games that have succeeded in East Asia, mostly Massive Multi-player Online games, where players pay a monthly subscription for games that are cheap or even free upfront.  Other games, like Korea’s homegrown Kart Rider, operate without subscription and make a profit by selling in-game upgrades for real money or by advertising in-game, such as Coca-Cola billboards around a racing track.  The model foreseen by many game developers for Asia are systems that do not require large upfront purchases that piracy can circumvent and that the generally poorer Asian buyer cannot afford.  Instead, games are bought in “bite-sized” pieces, generally less then ten dollars at a time, either for subscriptions or in-game items.

          The trials for a western company do not end with the gamer culture, however, but also include the differences between Asian cultures as a whole.  While US games are often popular in Europe and Australia, EA’s roster has been infamously unpopular in Japan, damaging the company’s reputation and future sales.  In general, game designers divide Asia into Japan, China and Korea, India and the rest of Asia.  Korea leads China in gaming trends, with the same games being played in both markets with some lag time.  The miscellaneous category does not reflect the similarity of other Asian cultures, but rather the fact that the small size of these markets makes specifically tailored games unfeasible.

          With an eye to capture a meaningful share of these markets, EA has made arrangements with local game designers in South Korea and in India to modify its games for locals markets and to design new ones more likely to succeed than American versions.  One example is EA’s new FIFA soccer game, which resulted from a collaboration with Korean firm Neowiz.  The game was designed for the Korean market and will debut there.  Likewise, EA partnered with Indian firm Indiagames to jointly publish games for mobile phones.  Such collaborations and the willingness to innovate and adapt to Asian markets, both technologically and culturally, will determine whether western firms like EA will succeed in Asia’s “must win” markets.



Copyright, 2005 © Runckel & Associates
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