Korean MMOs are not only very popular in South Korea but all around the world. However, they are starting to get a reputation for focusing too much on monetization. It is common knowledge in Korea that Korean MMOs are focused very heavily on their pay-to-win model. The game does not target the average player but the highest of society. They target the whales. Those that spend thousands of dollars to level up their characters are typically Korean businessmen who do not want to put in the time like most players. It is estimated that the average Korean player spends between $500 to $1000 on their favorite game during their lifetime.
There is simply something wrong with paying money to become better in the game. This occurs in games all around the world, but it is especially prevalent in Korean MMOs. It is so prevalent that players expect it, and it is now a part of the game.
Korean MMOs are “Free to Play”…Kinda
The worst use of the pay-to-win model comes in free-to-play games. Companies use this model to generate microtransactions which have no limit in terms of how much a player will spend. Almost all of the top mobile games in South Korea are free to play games. This is perfect for the Korean market as they are known to be passionate about taking risks. For example, it is illegal in South Korea for Koreans to enter casinos; however, it is legal for foreigners in Korea. The South Korean government knows its citizens can get quickly addicted.
In addition, many Koreans grew up in a gaming culture where every city block has at least one gaming center called PC Bangs. These gaming centers allow you to play free games based on an hourly rate. Therefore, many Koreans except to play free games when it comes to mobile. Since most of the top mobile games in Korea are free to play, all focus on converting those free-to-play gamers into paying players.
The Goal for Korean Gaming Companies
Gaming companies spend a lot of time and effort on creating a game that tries to get you to the stage of spending money. This includes making the game as time-consuming as possible, and the grind of playing those long hours convinces gamers to just pay. Furthermore, many gaming companies in Korea hire psychologists to see how to target gamers into spending money. Many quests, items, and missions are all designed to get the players hooked. Once hooked, it is difficult for them to get off based on the time and money they put into the game.
The thought of paying to be one of the top players doesn’t sound fair because it isn’t. But fairness is not what gaming companies are focused on. It is about making money. One of the most clever ways Korean gaming companies get players to pay is not to allow them to continue playing without paying. Let me explain. Many of the games allow players to achieve a certain amount of actions before stamina, time limit, cooldown, etc, are depleted. Players must then log off and wait until the next day to play. However, if you pay, you can bypass these cooldowns and continue playing. This and special prize packages such as Christmas specials or anniversary boxes are two of the main strategies used by gaming companies to get players to open their wallets.
Korean MMOs Going Global
Most games developed in South Korea are not brought to the west by development companies. Instead, they are usually imported through a publisher. Only the biggest gaming companies in Korea self-publish their games in other regions. This is due to the infrastructure, such as servers, customer service, head offices, and the ability to navigate laws and regulations of business in a different region. Instead, most Korean gaming companies use a publisher to bring the game to that area.
Therefore many Korean games that enter the US market are run by publishers who have no control over the game. So in getting players to pay, most of the same strategy applies to global gamers playing Korean MMO games. However, since global players are not as willing to pay for games, slight changes to the game mechanics might be applied. This has caused many issues in South Korea. Gamers in Korea said it is unfair that they have to pay for certain items when global players do not. While this is understandable, gaming companies in Korea fully understand that they are dealing with different groups of people. Therefore, they don’t tend to see or play games in the same way.
Future of Korean MMOs
Looking at the future of Korean MMO games, there will likely be no change unless the Korean government steps in. Let’s take a closer look at three popular Korean MMOs in Lost Ark, Black Desert, and Lineage.
Lost Ark is greatly focused on a pay-to-win game design. It has a high number of microtransactions, making it almost impossible to participate in raids unless you pay. To participate in raids, you will need to be at a certain level. To get to that level, you will need more and more resources to upgrade your items. However, what Lost Ark does differently is that it is not a guarantee your item will be upgraded, as the odds of a successful upgrade lowers as you level up! Unless, of course, you spend money to make the process easier.
Black Desert and its mobile version Black Desert Mobile is one of the few MMOs that is doing it the right way. Most of the items players pay for are for aesthetics and game functions that don’t significantly impact the mechanics. Players can buy seasonal costumes, pets, and other in-game items or work long hours. The players use two monetary systems. These are Pearls and Black Pearls. Players can get Black Pearls by playing the game and finishing daily quests. However, Pearls, are paid using real money. These two options give gamers two ways to advance in the game. So yes, it is technically still pay-to-win but done correctly.
Lineage is a very popular series in Korea, but we will focus on Lineage 2M for mobile. It also has an egregious microtransaction model not just for cosmetics but also for premium items. These premium items give pay-to-win players unfair leverage over other players. Players can pay to get items like gear, animal companions, and classes, which can greatly impact their level of progression in the game. While players can get in-game currency by simply putting in the hours, they get depleted quickly with the number of items they will need to progress. In Lineage 2M, like other Korean MMOs, you won’t be able to play or compete against players on their level or ranking. That is unless they buy an item to boost their character’s status.
The Future of Korean MMOs
Korean MMOs are fantastic games with great aesthetics, combat systems, and amazing open-world designs. However, they do have the stigma of focusing heavily on monetization. If a Korean MMO game allowed players to make purchases that focused on aesthetics and not gameplay, it could be a win-win for free-to-play players and players that pay. This could be seen more as digital assets become valuable in the Metaverse. However, paying to advance in the game will always play a role at some level; the big question is how much. The advantages given to pay-to-play players are becoming a problem driving many free-to-play players away. This is not good for anyone.