Skip to main content
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Korea’s Pearl Abyss wants to make games for the whole world. It’s not easy.

(The Washington Post illustration; Pearl Abyss)

At last year’s video game trade fair Gamescom, South Korean developer Pearl Abyss announced “DokeV.” The title’s premiere trailer featured realistically animated cartoon children running, flying, gliding and sliding around a busy cityscape, finding and battling strange creatures with an arsenal of confetti, water guns and magic as funky K-pop blared in the background.

The response from the Western audience was overwhelmingly positive. “DokeV” looked like a proper next-generation game with roots in the popular Pokémon formula, but realized with the tactile feedback and physicality of a modern game.

The reception so far has surprised Pearl Abyss co-founder Dae-Il Kim — in the best way possible. The game, whose title evokes the dokkaebi goblins of Korean mythology, is a manifestation of the studio’s ambitions to create beautiful, immersive and action-packed games that resonate beyond South Korea. Pearl Abyss’s upcoming single-player role-playing game “Crimson Desert” is yet another bid for global mindshare, with a seemingly similar approach to game design: create a highly detailed, lovingly animated high-fantasy game with aggressive particle effects and action.

But Kim said it’s been tough to write stories for a wide audience with varying tastes and gaps in cultural knowledge. That struggle is evident in the studio’s first game, the successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game “Black Desert Online”; the gameplay shines, but the storytelling sometimes falls short when compared to similar titles.

“We want to create a compelling story line for everybody around the globe, but sometimes we find that different cultures like different stories,” Kim said. “Not only the story, also even little things like gestures or sounds people make to express certain emotions are different from culture to culture.”

At one point, “Black Desert Online” boasted 20 million active players per month. But unlike Activision Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft” or the more recently popular “Final Fantasy XIV,” Pearl Abyss’s MMO features player-directed action, rather than the tap-and-target gameplay that characterizes much of the genre. “Black Desert Online” is also far more luxuriously animated than much of its competition, which helped draw a wider audience.

The South Korean game market is among the reasons Pearl Abyss started looking abroad.

“Though I believe more players in younger generations are looking at PC and consoles, the market is still dominated by mobile,” Kim said, referring to the South Korean gaming audience. “Players on different platforms are very different, the market is segmented, so the current Korean market is difficult to approach. And I feel it’s getting more and more difficult to make successful games in Korea because gamers’ perspectives and experiences are more diverse than ever before. This is also a reason why we try to make games for the global audience, not just targeting Korean players. The market is, I would say, skewed and hard to satisfy.”

Forget next-gen consoles. The biggest gaming platform is already in your pocket.

Last year, South Korea became the first country to curb Google and Apple’s strict in-app payment policies, allowing in-app payment systems for developers. It has also sought to explore new technologies like blockchain-based games, NFTs and play-to-earn, crypto-based games, said Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst with Niko Partners who watches the Asian gaming market closely.

Ahmad said South Korean game companies are now investing heavily in big-budget gaming experiences. This has been evident with Pearl Abyss’s recent exposure at Gamescom and the Game Awards.

“Pearl Abyss was one of the first Korean game companies to focus on PC and console games with AAA production values targeting a more global audience,” Ahmad said. “Mobile is a growing segment for the company, but mobile versions of its IP usually come after the main release.”

In recent years, volumes have been written on the subject of South Korea’s growing cultural influence. K-pop has become a worldwide phenomenon, and a Korean drama on Netflix called “Squid Game” came out of nowhere to become 2021′s biggest TV hit.

Kim is careful to point out that much of South Korea’s pop cultural dominance is born out of years — decades, even — of trying to expand to a global audience. K-pop stars may seem to appear out of nowhere, but most groups hone their talents for a long time before hitting it big. The once ubiquitous K-pop star Psy had worked in the music industry for 12 years before releasing his 2013 viral hit, “Gangnam Style.”

“For a very long time, like decades, people in those industries and artists have worked really hard and have gone through a lot to set up a good system to be able to create successful content in the global market,” Kim said. “There were lots of efforts and trials and errors to create a good system and environment for the content creators and artists that led to the success we’re seeing now.”

Netflix just got into video games. It’s already playing catch-up with ‘Squid Game’ fans.

Kim said he feels Pearl Abyss isn’t quite ready yet, but that he’s been preparing the company for massive success.

“If we’re lucky, we might be able to achieve that level of global success of what some other K-content achieved, but if we get there too early, it actually might not be the best thing that can happen to us,” Kim said. “There must be so many other things to overcome and bigger challenges after that success. We are still learning and getting ready.”

But that’s the kind of heady ambition Kim wanted to nurture in his developers when he co-founded Pearl Abyss in 2010.

“When I was working as a developer for other titles in my previous companies, I thought there were too many people I needed to convince to do what I wanted to,” Kim said in a video interview from South Korea. Kim had worked with Hangame and NHN Entertainment, two companies that primarily focused on online portal and mobile games. He recalled being frustrated trying to convince stakeholders to allocate resources for more ambitious ideas.

“I wanted to create a company [that] recognizes the game creators, sees the true value of their hard work, and rewards them what they deserve,” Kim said. “That was the reason why I wanted to start the company.”

Loading...