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The world of PC gaming in Korea never fails to surprise. When I first arrived here over six years ago, I was amazed at the sheer penetration of high-speed internet and the widespread obsession with online play across all age levels, and I still am to this day. While the well-known staples of the Korean PC gaming diet are generally held to be StarCraft and WarCraft in the West, there's a lot more to it than just that.
First of all, in order to understand the way PC gaming works here in Korea, it's necessary to get an idea of what's happening on the actual retail scene. The answer to that, for better or worse, is that there's not much going on at all, and it's been this way for as long as virtually anyone can remember.
I was rather shocked by it at first; I'd ask friends where the game shops were, because, I'd reason, if everyone is playing this software, there must be the Korean equivalent of a GameStop or EB Games on every corner, right? Wrong. Before we go further into that, though, let's take a look at the most recent top five list for retail sales of PC games to see what’s moving off the shelves, courtesy of Korea’s Game Industry Total Information Service System (GITISS).
1. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (EA)
2. Princess Maker 5 (Fujitsu)
3. Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium War (EA)
4. The Sims 2 (EA)
5. Transformers (Activision)
At the end of the day, the above list doesn't mean much at all. While exact sales figures are not available, it's safe to say that they're not going to be anything noteworthy. Going to the store to buy the latest PC game just isn’t a big thing in Korea.
To give you an idea of what things are like, I'll use the area in which I live -- Yangju, a northern suburb of Seoul well within reach of the massive Seoul Metro -- as an example. The population, mostly made up of overflow from Seoul proper, is nearly 200,000, but there isn’t a single dedicated games store to be found in the entire city. The closest would be in the neighboring city of Uijeongbu (population of around 450,000), but even there, you'll only find one fledgling shop in the dark recesses of an underground mall.
The shop owner is a friend of mine, and he'll be the first to tell you that selling PC games in Korea is a dead end; he makes his money by selling console games, the kind that aren't copied so easily.
Even in Yongsan, the retail capital of Korean gaming, there are virtually no customers that come looking for new, legitimate PC games, and as such, hardly any are sold.
Overall, it's a market that barely exists. Granted, every big box retailer -- Lotte Mart, E-Mart, Samsung Tesco HomePlus, etc. -- has a sizeable PC games section, but there generally isn't a whole lot of action going on in it.
There are two main factors that contribute to this. First of all, when it comes to new PC games sold at stores, the vast majority of those interested just download them illegally. In Korea, the consensus among the masses is that P2P downloading is a reality that must be accepted and can't be avoided. It's completely commonplace, and has been for years. Additionally, even if someone doesn't download a certain game personally, they can just as easily make the trek to Yongsan and buy a pirated copy of the title for a fraction of its retail price.
That's not to say that there are none who are opposed to illegal downloading; there certainly are -- at least a few -- but such individuals make up a very small and insignificant minority in comparison with those who support such practices or who don't care one way or the other.