Asian wave changing look of online games (2004)

Ed: I was extremely disappointed to find out that the archives of my old articles when I was writing at the JoongAng Daily-International Herald Tribune have been wiped. Digital death! So I’m posting one article that I liked from 2004. There were really cool graphics with this 3/4-page feature. 

“Asian wave changing look of online games” (Aug. 11, 2004)

Journeying north of the fictional city of Hawanggwan, there are a variety of actions to choose from if you meet an unfriendly nine-tailed fox. You could gather up an electric force into a ball between your palms and throw it, or summon the air into a whirlwind with your fan to send the animal flying into the sky. Or you may choose the old-fashioned way, stabbing it with a sword.

This scene is a common one that can be found in “D.O.,” a Korean online game where tens of thousands of players play simultaneously. But unlike past games, the characters they play don’t sport blond hair and blue eyes. Instead, they are designed to look more like the people who play these games. The old heroes for massively multi-player online role-playing games, or MMORPG, are being replaced by Asian fighters that wear long, ornamental robes and are skilled in martial arts. Even the terms in the games are derived from Korean.

Although online games are not new, terminology and change of characters give a twist to “D.O.” For instance, “skill” is replaced with “mugong,” a Korean term used to distinguish military achievements. Most terms that contain Western concepts were changed to those that have Asian connotations.

Geographically and philosophically speaking, the game takes place on the other side of the globe. It’s a trend that’s reflected in Hollywood, with action movies such as “Kill Bill” and “The Matrix.”
In the current online game market, “Lineage,” “Lineage 2,” and “Mu” make up most of the sales. With characters and settings similar to Middle Earth in “The Lord of the Rings,” these three games made it difficult for other developers to enter the arena, since they would have to come up with a better story or better graphics.

Many new games that were launched last year disappeared quietly. That is when developers began turning their eyes to different subject matter. If it’s not going to be better, their thinking went, at least it can be different.  The first online game in Korea, “Land of Wind,” which was released in 1996, was based on Eastern motifs. Taking place in the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, the main characters are fighters who fly through the air and are skilled at Asian martial arts.

Quite a few similar games followed, but the emergence of NCsoft’s “Lineage” took over the online game market, paving the way for Western fantasy games to dominate the market. Now, however, martial arts games appear to be back in vogue. One such game comes from the developer CR Space, which, after a massive failure several years ago, jumped back to the scene with a third chapter of “D.O.” for players who were sick and tired of the same old fantasy stuff.

Characters in Western fantasy games are usually divided into elves, orcs, trolls, dwarves and humans, but “D.O.” has four main character categories: human-warrior, assassin, monk and spiritual teacher. Each category has three levels. In addition to well-known weapons such as axes and clubs, these figures have their own special characteristics that are familiar to people who read Chinese martial arts stories. For instance, a “dosa,” which is like a spiritual teacher, carries a fan with which to perform certain feats. A monk will carry small weights and a sphere. Also, players can join a “munpa,” which is like a clan or tribe that passes on certain fighting skills to characters.

“Our players are a bit older than other online game users. They are mostly men in their 20s and 30s who enjoyed reading Chinese martial arts comic books or novels when they were young,” said Kim Sin-ae, “D.O.’s” marketing representative. “They wait for new episodes like they would a comic book. Also, they are more familiar with the terms, which are in Korean instead of in English.” Most online games use names of skills, locations, characters and weapons in English, but “D.O.” used Korean terms transliterated into English.
“Nine Dragons,” another Asian fantasy game, features about 300 weapons used in martial arts such as swords, staffs and canes. Characters can learn up to 500 different military feats such as firing gusts of wind from the palm of their hands. The basic plot was written by one of Korea’s top martial arts fiction writers.
“Yulgang,” a “lighter” martial arts game based on the popular Korean comic-book series, is less serious and more of a fun game played by comic-book characters.

Korean games are gaining popularity outside of Korea. “Legend of Mir” currently rakes in billions of won every month in China alone. “Nine Dragons” reportedly receives the highest overseas royalties among domestic online games. The success of martial arts in entertainment is soon expected to take over games developed in Western countries as well. Richard Garret, an American who is one of the top game developers in the world, recently announced that martial arts will be included in his new game, “Tabula Rasa.”

“Korean martial arts games that are being developed these days portray the world of martial arts in their true form,” said Kim In-chan, an online game analyst. “The games open new possibilities in the global market, especially China.”

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