Lost Ark and the Impression of Korean Games from the Western Perspective
22. 4. 10.
* You can see the Korean version of this article in:
Lost Ark and the Impression of Korean Games from the Western Perspective On February 11th, 2022 after three days of early access, Lost Ark officially released in the west to over one million players. Produced by Smilegate, a Korean developer, and distributed in the west by Amazon Game Studios, the release of Lost Ark is an opportunity to consider the impression that Korean games have made among western audiences. Despite several successful Korean games launching in the West over the last 20 years, the idea of a ‘Korean game’ hasn’t really taken hold in the public consciousness of western players in the same way Japanese games have dominated the gaming landscape. Through a combination of Lost Ark’s management, the engagement of high-profile content creators, and the role of the Korean Lost Ark community in helping the game succeed among the western playerbase, Lost Ark is in a unique position to configure western player expectations about what a Korean game
To all the Korean games we loved before
Lost Ark is far from the first Korean game to make an impact among western players. Since the early 2000s, there have been several Korean MMOs that resonated with a relatively small number of dedicated players. Ragnarok Online (Gravity Interactive, 2003), MapleStory (Wizet, 2003), the Lineage series (NCSoft, 1998, 2003), and more recently games like Blade and Soul (NCSoft, 2012) and Black Desert Online (Pearl Abyss, 2014) have defined Korean games for dedicated players engaged with this segment of the MMO landscape. A substantial number of these Korean games, for better or worse, live in the shadow of World of Warcraft, the perennial market leader in the western MMO market.
From the perspective of a former World of Warcraft player, the release of Lost Ark is reminiscent of another Korean MMO release, 2009’s Aion (NCSoft). WoW frequently has content draughts - or the periods in between patches and expansions where players become fatigued by completing the same content. In search of something new, they gravitate to new games, oftentimes new MMOs, to fill their time. These new games, often labeled ‘WoW Killers’ by players, have strong launches as upon release the games are full of promise for a tired MMO player base: familiar yet fresh systems, improved graphics, new locales, new classes to try and new monsters to defeat. In the lead-up to release, players work themselves into a frenzy of hope believing that this new game will be the one that they can dedicate another few years of their lives to playing. Aion was one such game, but as the story so often goes, it had a short-lived moment of glory upon its release, and as WoW released new content players migrated back to their familiar home in the wake of another failed ‘WoW Killer’.
It would be easy to think that Lost Ark’s situation is more of the same, and while it has lost over 50% of the 1.3 million players it launched with according to steamcharts, it has crucially survived the release of an important content patch for World of Warcraft’s latest expansion that would have otherwise doomed other competitive MMOs. At this point, Lost Ark is set up to sink or swim on the back of its own management, both by Smilegate and Amazon Game Studios. Lost Ark has the opportunity to succeed or fail on its own merits and is presently positioned to represent Korean games beyond what prior Korean MMOs have been able to do.
The only other Korean game with this much potential to shape the west’s understanding of Korean games was PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG Studios, 2017). Peaking at just over 3 million players after its release and consistently floating above 400,000 thousand players since this time according to steam charts, PUBG was a successful Korean title and a pivotal moment for the last few years of gaming. Along with H1Z1 (Daybreak Company, 2015), PUBG launched us into the battle royale era. However, for all its monetary success and its impact on the industry, PUBG’s legacy as one of the progenitors of the battle royale genre overshadowed its status as a Korean game.
In his work, The Rhetoric of the Image, French philosopher Roland Barthes coined the term ‘Italianicity’ to explain how certain signs - the colors of the Italian flag, particular Italian words and names, and a combination of ingredients (tomato, mushroom, pepper) - combine to express the idea of Italian culture.1) While these images are built on cultural stereotypes, they are easily legible from the outside as something that represents Italy, regardless of how Italian those images might actually be. Bringing it back to games, the ‘Koreanicity’ of Korean games, if there is such a thing, has been established primarily through early Korean MMOs, although I would argue even those games haven’t left a strong impression within western gamer culture beyond their niche. PUBG, for all its success, has no obvious tropes of Korean games or clear design quirks of South Korean game development that are clearly legible to the average player. What’s more, the grassroots spread of the game didn’t rely upon marketing the game as a Korean product. The result is an incredibly successful and impactful game with unprecedented reach for a Korean title that didn’t become a representation of Korean games in the West, largely because it was not clearly perceptible as a Korean game except to the most engaged players.
Lost Ark, in contrast to PUBG, is set up to represent Korean games to a large western audience. The game launched in Korea in 2019, and has had players across the globe using VPNs to play the game before it was released in their own regions. In anticipation of the NA and EU release of the game, several Youtubers and live streamers produced content breaking down aspects of the Lost Ark metagame in other regions. One such Youtuber, Kanon, produced videos where he is actively translating from Korean to English for a high-level Korean player to establish a tier list for the NA/EU audience.2) Even before many NA/EU players were able to play the game, the game had been clearly established as a Korean game to those most eager for the game’s release.
Upon Lost Ark’s launch, there was a substantial demand for the game’s original Korean voiceover pack which was included as free downloadable content with the game’s launch, which indicates that a non-negligible amount of NA/EU players want to play Lost Ark as an authentically Korean game, and also signposts the game’s Korean origins for those who might still have been unaware. At the time of this article, well over a month into the game’s NA/EU life, there are frequent comments on the official forums, the subreddit, and in-game chat that compare the content roll-out strategy of the NA/EU version of the game to what has happened, and what continues to happen on the Korean servers. Whatever else happens, Lost Ark has clearly established itself as a Korean game.
The most exciting thing about Lost Ark’s trajectory towards reaching the Western audience as a distinctly Korean product is that it has the ability to set the tone for what a Korean game can be to many players unfamiliar with Korean games. The authors of this article have progressed fairly deep into Lost Ark, with one of the authors having reached the current available endgame on the game’s North American servers. Through that journey, we’ve experienced some extremely satisfying and responsive combat against a variety of compelling bosses. The world of Lost Ark is guilty of being a generic fantasy world, but at the same time aspects of it are also strange and unplaceable compared to other games in the MMO genre. One incredible scene in the Dwarf-inhabited continent of Yorn sees NPCs forge a sword in a non-sequitur broadway musical sequence.
The game is full of these odd divergences in tone that somehow manage to work in the context of the game. There is also an unplaceable cuteness to many of the creatures that inhabit this world. From our perspective as players it is difficult to know how many of these features of the game are representative of traits across Korean games, and how many of them are unique to the game that Smilegate and Tripod Studio have produced. That said, there is a tendency among players unfamiliar with Korean games at large to read the elements of the game that we cannot readily associate with more familiar content, to conditions or trends of Korean development rather than of Smilegate and Tripod Studio. These qualities of Lost Ark are becoming holistically representative of Korean design whether or not they actually are, which further develops the idea of ‘Koreanicity’ among western players.
While Lost Ark is contributing to a developing ‘Koreanicity,’ it has not escaped prior notions of ‘Koreanicity’ that sprung out of earlier MMOs. In the western discourse about Korean games, there is a tendency to view them as grindy: excessively repetitive experiences that require you to do the same tasks day after day for minor rewards or character power increases. Unfortunately for Lost Ark, one of the most visible systems among the most die-hard players is the ‘honing’ system - a system through which you upgrade your weapons and armor by collecting an array of materials. Early on you are guaranteed to succeed in your upgrades and gathering material is fairly simple, but as you progress through the game you require an increasing number of materials and you start to have low chances of success in upgrading a piece of equipment. This coincides with a second element of the game, which is the ability to put real money into the game to purchase some of these materials. For many players this makes Lost Ark a ‘pay to win’ (p2w) game, which is typically an extremely negative trait for a game to have among western gamers, as many believe it undermines the integrity of the game experience, allowing unfair advantages that undercut individual time investment or player skill. It is not uncommon to see discussions about the pay to win nature of Lost Ark in videos, on the forums, and in the game itself. Many advocates or critiques of the game deploy, or suppress, the pay to win rhetoric to convince their fans to try out or stay away from the game.
The pay to win aspect of the game is at the center of what has been the most recent breaking point for Lost Ark. With the release of the March update, a new endgame boss was released, and many players felt pressured to spend real money to progress through the end game, while other players felt as though the gap was insurmountable and began to lose interest. The design choices going
forward regarding how to manage this situation will be pivotal for leaving a strong impression on western players about Korean games. It is not just about the form and content of the games, but about how developers support and communicate with players. This facet of Lost Ark is complex because Smilegate and Amazon Game Studio are both responsible for the game, but are leaving different impressions on players.
* Players debate pay to win aspects of Lost Ark - Author Screenshot.
Prior to the release of Lost Ark the game’s director, Gold River, gave an official interview regarding the release of the game and it was received exceptionally well by the community.3) In contrast, Amazon Game Studio has taken a lot of the blame for the shortcomings of the game, particularly issues with the EU server that caused players to have to wait through excessive queue times to even play the game. In all of this, there is a bigger question about who is making decisions about what is happening around the game, and so far Smilegate is able to avoid much of the criticism for the game, with Amazon Game Studios being the punching bag for disgruntled players. However, in responding to these problems, it is AGS that is the constant voice between players and those who manage the game. One Redditor remarked that Gold River was ‘this game’s Yoshi P’ a reference to Final Fantasy XIV director Naoki Yoshida who frequently addresses the concerns of the Final Fantasy XIV community and has a kind of celebrity status among the players. Equally, a western game industry figure akin to Yoshi P is Jeff Kaplan during his tenure as game director for Overwatch. He too generated a celebrity status within the Overwatch community, conversing with players on forums and through developer update videos on YouTube. The power of the auteur cannot be diminished in how a cultural product will be publicly perceived. When thinking about the public consciousness of Korean games, Gold River can play a key role in shaping how players view not just Lost Ark, but Korean games in general.
Pragmatic Players in a Daunting Genre
It is worth noting that beyond the “Koreanicity” and elements of extensive grind or pay-to-win in Lost Ark is that of relative access to a typically daunting genre for new players. The release of a new MMO will always spark a flux of populace movement from other MMOs in the west, whether it is produced by a western or non-western studio. Part of the appeal around Lost Ark for one of the authors was that it allowed access at the ground level of an MMO. Not only this, but it offered extensive onboarding and tutorials to guide players new to the game (and perhaps the genre as a whole) into the world of Arkesia. However, this doesn’t mean Lost Ark offers a simplistic MMO experience either past a certain point in gameplay. Simply put, being able to join an MMO at its launch, compared to trying to join a long-established MMO such as World of Warcraft and its decade worth of content, lore, changes, and dedicated player base, makes Lost Ark so appealing to anyone new to the genre. Lost Ark provided an opportunity for those completely new players interested in playing an MMO the ability to do so. What comes with that, as mentioned prior, is also a lack of historical design knowledge and experience in what makes an MMO distinctly Korean.
So… What’s Next?
The challenge ahead is for Smilegate and Amazon Game Studios to instill confidence in increasingly apprehensive players that they are heard by both entities managing the game. There is a real possibility that, if the future of the game is handled poorly, that Lost Ark as a high-profile Korean release, could reaffirm the most insidious aspects that western players have come to associate with Korean games. Despite all of its charm and the level of polish on its gameplay, if Lost Ark fails to engage a Western audience over the long term and loses players because of the grindy and pay to win elements of the game, it will increasingly solidify those characteristics among western players.
Even if Lost Ark maintains its current player count, these elements are still present as an integral part of the game, but some of the other, more unique aspects of Lost Ark as an experience may receive increased visibility. It’s not enough, however, to change the overall perspective on Korean games. As this article has shown, there are very few Korean games that make it to the west, and so the western perception of Korean games and their ‘Koreanicity’ are built on very few points of contact. Lost Ark could be a good point for reinvigorating western interest in Korean games, but it can only change or enhance the perception of western players so much. Ultimately, western players need more high profile Korean games, whether they look like the Korean MMOs of the past, PUBG, Lost Ark, or something altogether new.
Western players seem willing to take a chance on something unexpected and “new” in the Western market, even with their pre-existing conceptualisation of what such a game might entail in terms of play. Undoubtedly, there is a plethora of western gameplay and design stereotypes and expectations but whether these actually permeate into the Korean market, an idea of “Westernicity” if you will, is unclear. What we can see here is an asymmetrical cultural exchange of sorts. Western players have an inherently stereotypical view of Korean games, gaming culture, and gamers - not always exported from Korea itself (see: D.Va in Overwatch). They have a limited experience with Korean games which leave them unable to fully engage in a larger discourse and comparison between the two markets. Even with tangential comparisons with the Japanese game market, it stands as such a behemoth alone that dwarfs the Korean market with such strongly established norms and discourse. In this conclusion, the authors find themselves wanting more Korean games to launch and disrupt the western market, to reinvigorate the perception of Korean games beyond what has been established among players up until now.
1) Barthes, Roland and Stephen Heath. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
2) Youtube Video “LOST ARK EXPOSED - PVE Interview with KR’s BEST (Jiudau) (accessed March 28th, 2022) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8_kHtaXy8o&t=2919s
3) Reddit Thread, “The Man the Myth, the Legend GOLD RIVER (Accessed March 22nd, 2022) https://www.reddit.com/r/lostarkgame/comments/sn80q4/the_man_the_myth_the_legend_gold_river/