LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - South Korea, home to the world's most sophisticated online games, is preparing an assault on North America, Japan and Europe, setting the stage for an international scrum in an industry poised to nearly triple in value in the coming years.
South Korea is one of the world's most Internet-connected nations and only recently began allowing sales of video game consoles that are so popular in Japan and the West.
As a result, all of the country's gaming efforts have gone into online games that offer open-ended stories set in virtual universes that can support tens of thousands of players.
South Korean Internet cafes, known as PC baangs, are the launching pad for online gamers and such a vital part of the social fabric that it is not unusual for youngsters in the throes of puppy love to visit one while on a date.
With domestic growth opportunities crimped by a relatively small and saturated market, South Korea's leading game makers, NCsoft Corp. (036570.KS: Quote, Profile, Research) and Webzen Inc. (069080.KQ: Quote, Profile, Research) , are looking abroad.
Publisher NCsoft is already a contender in wealthy and comparatively red-tape-free Western markets with massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) like "City of Heroes," "City of Villains" and "Guild Wars Factions," but it has yet to have a cross-over hit with a home-grown game.
"MMOGs are still a relatively niche segment of the North American video games market, but I believe they have the potential to be as big here as in Asia," said Webzen America CEO Cindy Armstrong.
Josh Larson, director of GameSpot Trax, said NCsoft's "Tabula Rasa" and Webzen's "Huxley" and "Soul of the Ultimate Nation" are among the 10 most anticipated massively multiplayer games, based on buzz on GameSpot's U.S. Web sites.
Thus far, the only title to crush international barriers in the fragmented industry is "World of Warcraft," the record-shattering online game from Blizzard Entertainment.
California-based Blizzard has operated for several years in South Korea, where its "StarCraft" online strategy game is a best-seller and has spawned a television show and tournaments that draw more than a half a million spectators each year. Blizzard is a division of Vivendi Games, a unit of French media giant Vivendi. (VIV.PA: Quote, Profile, Research)