America sells loyalty. Japan sells functionality. Korea sells instant gratification.
In America we subscribe to one school of thought. That's just how we do. Democrat or Republican, Global Warming or nothing, Domestic cars or Foreign, etc. There are plenty of people who stay in the middle but most people's decisions are usually guided one way or another.
Companies know this and try to play into that. When it comes to video games (and video game companies) brand loyalty is a major factor in development and marketing. Are you a Sony fanboy or an Xbot? Nintendo hardcore or PC elitist?
Even though many people have multiple platforms nowadays, it was always (and still is) a war between brands. Its part of American culture. Pepsi or Coke?
Japan sells you on functionality. Companies try to tell you why you can't live without this product and what this product will do to deserve your hard earned cash.
Nintendo's entire console claim to fame has been functionality. This console has more colors, or has half a dozen screens, or motion controls, or 6D or some other piece of arbitrary electronic designed to make it harder to enjoy being lazy. Sony opted for the same thing this generation with a console that plays BD, acts as a home theater device, has a billion GB HD, 80 processor cores and what.
When you add brand loyalty into that you get a console war. Which console does more for me? Which company do I trust more? This is the same problem facing the Smartphone market as well.
Game developers are forced to play favorites based on sales figures, ease of development, fan backlash, console exclusivity agreements... it all herds consumers into buying along one track and bickering about which platform is better. Then developers get unnecessary flack for choosing the best financial path and accused of abandoning their "true fans". Or even more unfortunate for those people who just want to play the dang games and have to purchase all platforms. In a lot of ways- everyone loses.
Korea plays a different game altogether.
*Soju* is a millet/grain alcohol that's brewed locally throughout Korea. It can be anywhere between 18-45% alcohol per volume but the general idea is that it gets you hammered before you even drink it. Something about the way its brewed will absolutely destroy your mind and any hope of mobility moments after 2 or 3 of your Korean colleagues force multiple shot glasses full of the stuff down your gullet.
Oddly enough, they have some crazy recycling system where the bars and gin joints that serve it keep the empty bottles and the (local) manufacturers clean and re-use them. It keeps costs to an outright minimum and a small bottle of quality stuff will only set you back $1-3 dollars.
Its basically a micro-transaction system of alcoholism. It works rather well though. Only buy what you want and only little money is required to get buzzed right away.
Herein lies the secret (and the genius) of Korean gaming culture.
In my last trip to Seoul I did a lot of electronics shopping and research. I encountered kilometer after kilometer of PC shops trying to sell me on the latest RAM, CPUs, and GPUs. In all my time there I only found one store selling current Xbox/PS equipment and games.
The ironic thing about that particular store was its location directly adjacent to an arcade. After thinking about it I realized the truth. Why would I want to spend $300+ dollars to take a console home when I can spend $3-4 dollars at the arcade right now? Just to reference- arcade games in Korea only cost 10c per credit instead of 25c.
Korea, being a group minded and social culture, prefers playing games next to other people instead of sitting around your living room in your undies eating a sandwich and saying things your mom would be embarrassed to hear at the top of your lungs.
Of course, as I mentioned, you could find all your PC needs if you wanted to do that but then comes the PC Bang (pronounced BAHng, literally translated as "room").
More common then Starbucks are these interesting dens of gaming gluttony. For as little as $1 or $2 an hour you can play (or do) anything on a high end PC preloaded with all the hottest games and software. If you don't have a lot of space at home or have a bunch of friends who want to game together its your best option hands down.
These rooms are so influential to the gaming scene in Korea that Blizzard opted for a licensing program specifically for PC bangs in which you can play Starcraft 2 by the hour (about $1) or by the month (about $10).
It completely flips the game industry and our "western" concepts on its ear. Gone are 3-10 year development cycles resulting in the singular sale of one $60 disc. Now there is endless development (balancing, server updating, modding, additional content) on games that are continually profitable.
A game isn't considered a success if it sells- its considered a success if people play it, resulting in a higher quality experience directly controlled by developers and ultimately- consumers.
Have you ever noticed there aren't many Korean developed games for Xbox or PS? That's because they're not interested in picking sides when they could be getting games to customers and making money.
I'm not an MMORPG guy but the few Korean MMOFPS games I've played have been of higher quality, are more balanced, easier to play, and have more content then some of the biggest of the big budget western shooters. I'm sure there are bad ones but having spent $60 on more then a few disappointing titles this year it seems no different to me.
The best part is there is no brand loyalty or limitations. Everyone plays on PC and the content goes direct from the developers/publishers to the people. With the PC bangs, you aren't even limited on your tech- you don't need an expensive computer to play the newest of the new games.
Western developers have taken notice like Japanese women like Korean dramas. Its no coincidence more and more games are going "free to play". I anticipate we'll see more of that in the years to come.
I suppose this blog was supposed to talk more about specific genres of game development but I think Western AND Japanese developers have to take notice of what works and companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft will ultimately be left behind if they don't. Having said that- there is lots of evidence that both Sony and MS are playing around with free to play models but both still require purchase of the console.