Perhaps the most salient factor is cultural - there is, as far as I can tell, almost no stigma attached to gaming in the country (at the least, it's viewed as a mainstream activity). A number of Korean acquaintances have commented on the Korean fascination with the new and fashionable: when one co-worker went apartment-hunting with a real estate agent, the agent refused to show him any houses that had been previously occupied, on the assumption that they would be of little interest. And part of that fascination seems to be technological, indicating a possible cause of Koreans' embrace of gaming as a form of entertainment. Indeed, I've seen countless people using a DS or PSP on the subway... and my cheap, used cell phone has more free games on it than I've played on any phone since I began using them in the first place.
Yet although this culture created a need for gaming itself, it didn't necessarily dictate the direction that the industry would take. I would argue that Korean national technology policy has done that instead. South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world from a telecom standpoint, partially as a result of its population being concentrated so much in urban areas like Seoul. (The Seoul metropolitan area has a population of over 22M people, nearly half of the country.) 3G is entrenched and well on the way to 4G, and broadband penetration is enormous ... about 70%. I currently get download speeds of upwards of 6 MB/sec from my hotel.
"PC gaming is considerably more popular than console gaming: in fact, most consoles launch later in Korea and sell worse"
The effect of this infrastructure is to dramatically reduce the problems associated with internet gaming and online content distribution. In conjunction with a technologically-savvy population, PC gaming is considerably more popular than console gaming: in fact, most consoles launch later in Korea and sell worse. PC Bangs, rooms where individuals gather to play LAN-based PC games, are quite popular even now, enabled by the high-speed internet access and a desire to play socially. And the games themselves tend towards MMOs and RTS's, games that can be played collectively.
Compare this to the United States. The US is a geographically disparate country with a number of low-density population centers, meaning that serving them all effectively with broadband and related services is somewhat difficult. Without easy access to fast internet connections, content has been much more console-centered: it's much easier to distribute discs and play them with friends through a console than via PC. Additionally, facilities like PC bangs are rarely available (even arcades have largely disappeared) and so each individual needs to maintain an up-to-date computer in order to enjoy new games, increasing upgrade costs significantly. And even if they were available, there's a negative connotation to gaming even now that might limit their popularity. Consoles provide an attractive alternative to these problems.
The upshot is that business environments can be drastically shaped by factors entirely out of a given company's control. Companies carefully consider such factors in determining where and when to launch what products – many of the issues around imports and country-specific availability are the result of the same types of issues, albeit on a much smaller scale. Korea represents both an interesting example of gaming evolution and an example of the many culture-specific factors that gaming companies need to consider on a daily basis.
As co-editors of A Link To The Future, Geoff and Jeff like to discuss, among many other topics, the business aspects of gaming. Game companies often make decisions that on their face appear baffling, or even infuriating, to many gamers. Yet when you think hard about them from the company's perspective, many other decisions are eminently sensible, or at least appeared to be so based on the conditions at the time those choices were made. Our goal with this column is to start a conversation about just those topics. While neither Geoff nor Jeff are employed in the game industry, they do have professional backgrounds that are relevant to the discussion. More to the point, they don't claim to have all the answers -- but this is a conversation worth having. You can reach them at