Pokemon Go, the game that took the world by storm last summer, has finally arrived in South Korea. The game was officially released in Korea on January 24. Even though the release here was about six months later than most other countries, the number of users exceeded the 10 million mark by February 1, just 9 days after the launch. Today, we’re joined by Professor Lee Seung-hoon (이승훈) of Youngsan (영산) University’s School of Game and Film to assess the meaning of the intense popularity of Pokemon Go here in Korea.

Pokemon Go set a record last summer as it was downloaded over 600 million times around the world. At the time, people in Korea had only limited access to the game in some regions like the east coast, which may have stoked the interest even more. While conventional games are enjoyed in an artificial space within the limits of a PC or a smartphone, games like Pokemon Go utilize augmented reality technology. Such games feel new and different because they make use of real spatial information. Also, Pokemon Go is based on the already popular game Pocket Monster. It’s more popular than other games as it allows users to become the main character in real life and catch various monsters.

Pokemon Go is an AR, or augmented reality game. Users can see Pokemon characters when they view a specific place in reality through a smartphone. They walk around streets and parks to catch these Pokemon characters and train them. When Pokemon Go was officially released in Korea, three million people downloaded the game on the first day, and the figure exceeded five million in four days. Koreans have shown explosive interest in the game, and in fact, the streets look different now, because there are so many people trying to catch Pokemon with their smartphones here and there. Seeing the success of Pokemon Go in Korea, eyes are now on how Korean AR games set to be released next month will fare.

Of course, I hope games developed in Korea do well. Numerous Korean game makers including Mgame and HanbitSoft are preparing to develop Korean AR games. I think they will have some potential in the domestic market, but we’ll have to see if they can be as globally competitive as Pokemon Go. Korean AR Games will be based on the MMORPG format, or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. Time will tell how these styles of game will do, and what kind of synergy they will create overseas.

Mgame’s AR game set to be released next month allows users to find monsters in places that exist in real life, turn them into cards and battle with other users. HanbitSoft aims to release its AR game at the end of March. The game will set itself apart from others by allowing users to meet with real life heroes such as General Yi Sun-sin or Joan of Arc. The game is also aiming to place these heroes in real life tourist spots and historic sites, hoping to attract more tourists. If these games are successful, it may open up the AR game market in earnest.

The capabilities of Korean game developers are internationally recognized. Korean game makers have a competitive edge when it comes to this technology. In fact, AR based games were released in Korea far before Pokemon Go. But the augmented reality had not been as well developed then, and the games lacked intellectual properties like the Pokemon characters in Pokemon Go. Game users did not find them fun and so the games did not do very well. Now that interests in the AR games are growing thanks to Pokemon Go, I believe that Korean AR games will help the Korean game industry grow, as long as they are well-made and unique.

Korea’s game developing skills are globally recognized. Korea kickstarted the online game trend with the world’s first graphic online game ‘The Kingdom of Winds’ in 1996. In 1998, Korea also became the first country in the world to establish a professional gaming league, becoming the birthplace of e-sports, leading the global game industry. In 2011, the AR game “olleh CatchCatch” was released, allowing players to use smartphone cameras to catch monsters on screen in order to obtain various coupons and points. However, the local game market is expected to grow only 2.9% this year, which is about half of last year’s growth rate of 5.6%.

The growth of the Korean game market is currently stagnant at the 10 trillion won level. An industry needs both domestic sales and exports to grow, and at the moment, the global competition is fierce. While the Korean government says it will nurture and expand the game industry, in practice, it has been treating the whole industry as if it is problematic. For example, the game shutdown law was introduced, and when some side effects occur on web-board games that allow users to play poker or go-stop online, strict restrictions are put in place immediately. Such restrictions have stunted the growth of the domestic game industry, almost bringing it down to the level of retrogression. Also, due to the growing negative views on the industry, investments are increasingly shrinking. Such vicious cycle has been repeating to reduce the competitiveness of the country’s game industry.

Countries with advanced game industries, such as the United States, China and Japan have already jumped into the next generation platforms like virtual reality and augmented reality. But the Korean game industry is tied down by the government’s strong restrictions. The Korean government even named gaming as one of the “Four Evils” in 2013. The country’s game industry is in retrogression despite strong developing capabilities due to negative views and restrictions. What will help revive the industry?

The game industry is a contents industry that aims to be creative and fun. All advanced nations are nurturing it as a future core industry. But in Korea, the industry is on the verge of withering away due to negative images and government restrictions. Such problems must be solved no matter what. Also, the computer and smartphone markets now have little room for growth. The new VR market, on the other hand, is expected to grow in earnest in about 2 to 3 years. If we can train experts in such new fields, we may be able to compete in the global market. And with promotion policies, I believe the future of the Korean game market will be bright.

The massive popularity of Pokemon Go could serve as an important momentum for the growth of the Korean game industry. Korea’s game industry once enjoyed a boom thanks to its preemptive actions. The times call for a wise decision in order for Korea to maintain its fame as a game industry powerhouse.