Is South Korean Mobile Market in Need of Genre Diversification?

Is the South Korean mobile market becoming more and more RPG dependant when it comes to genre and mobile games? We know in South Korea it’s all about RPG: the country is currently ranking at the 4th place by total game revenue with an estimated $4.2 billion in 2017, compared to $4 billion in 2016 according to Newzoo.

In recent years, the South Korean gaming market has been re-centred around mobile. While the mobile market has an ARPU of US$86.68, it seems that the overall market is not very diversified. Among them, the mobile RPG market is the one which has been mainly and rapidly flowing, with many developers investing massively into MMORPG. The Korean market, according to journalist Won Hee Lee, is in the strong need for game diversification.

If we take a look at the Top 10 Grossing, we can highlight, together with the evidence of the dominant local developers, RPG as the main genre:

Top 10 Grossing for Android in South Korea (Image Credit: Appannie)

Five out of ten are RPG games. This can be said to be also quite unlikely for a Korean top 10, as usually eight or even nine out of ten being RPG games is the norm. This does not change when researching the top 100 Games for iOS and Android, and have a look at the most popular genre. RPG is still the most played. Unsurprisingly, Lineage 2 Revolution is still in the top 1 Grossing for both Android and iOS. The game had generated more than $176.6 million USD in only one months since its release, according to Pocket, and the n. 3 app developer Netmarble has successfully debuted on the country’s main bourse KOSPI above its initial IPO, Yonhap News Agency had reported last week.

When looking at the Top 100 for Android (Google Play is dominant in the country, with Android having conquered 90% of the market, according to author and blogger Jini Maxin), we can see that most of the games are all RPG genres, representing 40% of the overall top 100, with strategy games falling second with 13%:

South Korea Top 100 Grossing by Genre for Android (April 2017)

The situation does not change much if we look at the iOS platform. RPG games represent 43% of the overall top 100, with strategy games far below at second place with 13%:

South Korea Top 100 Grossing by Genre for iOS (April 2017)

The situation at the moment according to Won Hee Lee, is that the companies are forced to turn around on RPG (and especially MMORPG) when developing and publishing games in South Korea. There are several variants of RPG games, therefore a game genre, when titled simply as “Card”, can be deceptive, as some games like Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links can be defined more as RPG-Card than Card-casual. We can find authentic MMORPG (like Lineage 2 – Revolution) and casual RPG, turn-based RPG, card-collecting RPG, as Won Hee Lee says, and like the ones we have seen in the Top 100 Grossing. Even casual and card based games have something related to RPG, consultant Josh Burns reported, The RPG element is massively in the mind of Koran players, and games with RPG elements are a key to succeed in the country.

Card Games Are Very Popular in South Korea, and All Seem to Have an Element of RPG (Image Credit: NHN Entertainment)

Each game emphasizes differentiation with different modifiers, but eventually the RPG is at the core of the game, and this is becoming more and more intense in the country, especially with highly competitive companies like Netmarble, NCSoft, Com2Us and Nexon taking the biggest shares of the markets among any genre. Small and medium size developers have to invest on the same genre to get a share of the market, however, can they deliver the same quality as the industry giants with (much) less resources?

When we look at foreign games, these are mostly strategy, action or casual based: Clash Royal has been hugely popular in the country, but where has the latest Supercell game not been popular? After all, the Finnish developer has invested a large amount of profits to break into the country with Clash of Clans (Josh Burns says about $20 million in App Lovin) and an extensive time of researches from their marketing department, the author says, together with having a strong brand, quality and IP.

Puzzle Game Are Very Popular in South Korea, With Nine Present in the Top 100. They Also Have RPG Elements (Image Credit: GungHo Online Entertainment) 

Some authors and bloggers, like Jini Maxin, have stated it repeatedly: “that’s not to say you shouldn’t try developing a non-RPG game. Non-RPG games needs to be backed up by a strong IP”. For foreign developers, a strong IP is everything when succeeding on the Korean market: you can make casual, but can you do it as successfully as Playrix does? You can do sports, but can you do it like Nexon, or Netmarble?

Genres other than RPG Mobile new products are often lost among the numerous titles in the App Store or Google Play store, swallowed by the highly competitive market and are forgotten. FPS (First Person Shooter) and AOS (most commonly known as MOBA, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genres, while having a high share of PC platforms in South Korea, have not been very successful on mobile within the market. Many developers have been releasing non-RPG genre mobile games with high ambition, but according to local news, it’s no exaggeration to say that the revenues has not certainly been memorable. Even the giant Netmarble, when trying out FPS (Fist Person Shooter) with Final Shot, has not seen memorable results in terms of downloads and revenue since the game was launched in 2016, as we have noticed in public data sources.

The 2017 new releases from Netmarble are again, mostly MMORPG games with strong IP, like King of Fighters or Blade and Soul. However, some non-RPG games, like Pentastorm have attracted a small number of industry stakeholders and gamers, according to Won Hee Lee. Pentastorm is a MOBA genre, and it has been recognized for its great gameplay. Developed by an internal Tencent game studio, it has been released in English under the name Strike of Kings. It has all the basic skills of the MOBA genre game with a good, completed optimization. The initial response was not too bad for the game genre in the country, according to the author and to public data sources. If the number of users will increase for this genre after full launch, we could expect a successful market entry for these non-RPG. The game Penta Storm shares some similarities with the Chinese League of Legends, according to the MMOCulture magazine.

Netmarble’s New Release Penta Storm Shares Similarities with Chinese League of Legends (Image Credit: Netmarble)

The success of these type of games from local developers could hopefully give a push to the non-RPG genre games in the country if they could sit stably in the market, which would bring positive signs in terms of game genre diversification of the South Korean mobile game market. It will be possible to try out new genres that have not been tested in the market, before a new genre structure can be released in various genres, according to Won Hee Lee.

If only RPG titles from Netmarble, Com2Us or Nexon will still dominate, the other genres will be becoming more and more likely to disappear, or developers from both Korea and foreign countries will all need to adapt to this standardization process towards RPG games also for casual, card and puzzle which is now more and more stratified. It’s hard to find a new genre even in the major genres because RPG totally dominates. With this structure, it is difficult to provide users with new genres or gameplay types that have not be been previously experimented. Is the Korean market in the need of revolutionary, new products from local developers? According to Won Hee Lee, without a change, the Korean game market will be more likely to shrink. Yet, as RPG is in deeply in the mind of Korean players, how can developers disrupt this inner, unchanging user’s buying behaviour?


Newzoo, 2016, Global Games Market Report, Newzoo Games

Won Hee Lee for Daily Game

Jini Maxin for Linkedin

Josh Burns for App Lovin

MMO Culture on Penta Storm – Quick Look at First Mobile MOBA Under Netmarble

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