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Korean Game companies keep calm and carry on in China

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Nexon hosted a booth to promote its massively multiplayer online roleplaying game Maple Story M in ChinaJoy 2023, the largest game festival in Asia, between July 28 to 31. The game title will be released in China on Aug. 17. [NEXON]
Nexon hosted a booth to promote its massively multiplayer online roleplaying game Maple Story M in ChinaJoy 2023, the largest game festival in Asia, between July 28 to 31. The game title will be released in China on Aug. 17. [NEXON]

Korean game companies are releasing their games as planned in China, despite speculation that China could block their titles due to geopolitical tensions.

Companies such as Netmarble, Nexon and Smilegate have released or are planning to launch multiple game titles in China this year.

It marks the first time in six years that the barriers in China came down from December 2022 as China mostly banned new Korean content, including games, from its market as a silent retaliation against Korea’s decision to deploy the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in 2016.

At the beginning of 2023, China reportedly blocked some Korean internet services, such as the Naver portal, raising concerns that geopolitical tension between the United States and China led to the decision. The portal site is currently available in China again but intermittently.

Despite the tensions, game companies are rolling out their game titles on schedule and are even hopeful that their reentry into the Chinese market will create sunnier spells for the latter half of this year.

China made up 20 percent of the global game market in 2021, following closely behind the United States’ 22 percent market share, according to the annual report by the Korea Creative Content Agency.

And Korean companies have benefited from China’s large market share, such as Nexon. Nexon’s Dungeon Fighter Online began to be serviced in China in 2008 and is still the company’s cash cow in China. Revenue from China made up 24 percent of the total revenue of 3.4 trillion won ($2.6 billion) in 2022.

It is entirely up to Chinese publishers to find new foreign games and apply for publishing licenses.

“Sometimes, the Chinese publishers come to Korean companies first to ask for their permission to use their games’ intellectual property [IP],” a source close to the matter explained. “But the right to request the publishing license lies with Chinese publishers. Foreign companies cannot file for a foreign license, so it’s safe to say that the Korean game companies’ entry to China remains largely unaffected by the surrounding geopolitical tension.”

The publishing and management of the games are controlled by big-name Chinese publishers such as Tencent, Shanghai Roaming Star and Rastar Games. Some of them even manage the Chinese adaptation of Korean games due to the country’s strict censorship of gaming content. For instance, the Chinese content regulator bans all types of games which feature scenes with gambling, strong violence (including bones and blood) and nudity.

Since Korean companies still own the IP, they receive royalty payments from the distributed games.

Chinese poster for Netmarble's massively multiplayer online roleplaying game New Stone Age [NETMARBLE]
Chinese poster for Netmarble’s massively multiplayer online roleplaying game New Stone Age [NETMARBLE]

Netmarble has placed the biggest bet on China with the most game titles among Korean companies — coming in at a total of five — to be approved by China’s National Press and Publication Administration.

“We have high hopes for all the games which will be released in China this year,” Netmarble CEO Kwon Young-sik said during a conference call in May. “Most of the games were developed and adapted in China and we paid meticulous attention to the details [to localize them].”

One of the approved mobile games, New Stone Age, was released in China last month.

Stone Age IP is already a well-established name in China as it has been serviced there since 2003 as a roleplaying game. The franchise accumulated more than 200 million users globally, including China.

“The title is being received favorably in China — it continuously lists on the Top 10 downloads in the Chinese app store,” a Netmarble spokesperson said.

Netmarble will also release a massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), A3: Still Alive, in China this month. Two other roleplaying games (RPGs) Ni no Kuni: Cross Worlds and Shop Titans will also be released in China this year, and another Stone Age franchise Stone Age: Awakening will be released in 2024.

Nexon is set to release one of the MMORPGs from its iconic Maple Story franchise, Maple Story M, on Aug. 17 and it already has over 3 million preorders. Its subsidiary, Nexon Games, released RPG Blue Archive in China on Thursday, which saw more than 3.4 million preorders. The game is anticipated to be a hit because it has already reaped $320 million in global sales from February 2021 to May 2023, according to market research firm Sensor Tower.

Chinese poster for Nexon Games' roleplaying game Blue Archive [NEXON GAMES]
Chinese poster for Nexon Games’ roleplaying game Blue Archive [NEXON GAMES]

Blue Archive is a homegrown “subculture game,” a term coined for games that highlight Japanese anime-style girl characters. The game has proven to be especially popular in Japan, which contributed 74.5 percent of the total revenue, followed by Korea with 12.1 percent and the United States with 6.4 percent.

However, reentry into China may not immediately equal success, experts warn.

“It is true that Chinese gamers have higher standards now compared to the past due to the massive capital Chinese game companies put into developing their own in-house games, like the RPG Genshin Impact,” the source said. “Game companies know that receiving the green light to enter China again does not instantly guarantee success. What is important is the game adaptation process so that Chinese users do not feel alienated by the changed game format while also strictly adhering to the standards Chinese regulators set for their game content.”

Chinese poster for Smilegate's mobile roleplaying game Epic Seven [SMILEGATE]
Chinese poster for Smilegate’s mobile roleplaying game Epic Seven [SMILEGATE]

Another game publisher, Smilegate, is known to have taken meticulous care to localize its game content. For its mobile RPG Epic Seven, released in China in June, the characters’ voices were dubbed by Chinese voice actors for gamers to quickly immerse themselves in the plot.

The publisher also had to apologize for mixing up content for a foreign server with that meant for the Korean server for its MMORPG Lost Ark, which was released in China on July 20.

The problem arose when a June update rolled out in Korea included extreme changes in the appearances of certain monsters. Undead characters, such as zombies and skeletons, were changed to live people, leaving domestic gamers at a loss over the radical makeover and speculation that the change was meant for the Chinese server.

Smilegate Chief Creative Officer Geum Kang-sun apologized for the server mix-up and promised that “game localization will not affect domestic game service” moving forward.

BY LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]