In the medieval kingdom of Aden, thousands of princes, princesses, knights, elves and wizards hunt monsters and dragons and battle to take over each other’s fortresses.
That’s the adventure now shared by some 108,000 Japanese gamers playing “Lineage,” a South Korean-born video game that falls under the category “massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).” According to NC Japan K.K., which has offered the Japanese version since September 2001, players pay 1,400 yen a month to join in.
With the domestic video game software market shrinking over the past four years, game suppliers see a ray of hope with the gradually expanding market for massively multiplayer games, which usually require PCs with broadband access to the Internet.
Although it is uncertain if a boom will break out in Japan for such online games, some companies are gearing up to cash in on the emerging entertainment business.
“Before more companies enter this market, we would like to pull in more subscribers to our online games,” said Kim Jong Shin, president and chief operating officer of GameOn Co., a Tokyo-based online game service under the South Korean electronics conglomerate Samsung Group.
GameOn has launched three massively multiplayer games since November. One of them, “Tenjohi,” had 20,000 subscribers as of the end of June, while the other two titles, released in May and June, have been offered on a free-trial basis until their formal release in autumn.
Since the late 1990s, with the debut of Ultima Online in the United States, mass online games have been spreading to various countries.
The number of subscribers in Japan, however, is estimated at only 1 million at the maximum, according to Enterbrain Inc., which publishes computer game magazines.
Experts cite the slow expansion of broadband communications infrastructure in Japan as the reason for the games’ weak market presence here, compared with South Korea and the U.S., which are more advanced in terms of broadband networks.
“In other countries, some (massively multiplayer) online games have 2 million to 3 million users,” said Ichiro Harada, editor in chief of Enterbrain’s Login personal computer game monthly magazine.
In Japan, popular massively multiplayer online games, including “Ragnarok” imported from South Korea and “Final Fantasy XI,” an online version of a popular Japanese video game series, have each logged around 270,000 paid members.
Another obstacle for the mass online games’ market expansion in Japan is that some 80 percent of households already have video game consoles. With numerous game titles having hit the market to date, Japanese gamers have various video game choices, Harada said.
This is in sharp contrast to South Korea, where this type of game console made an aggressive debut last year. Against this backdrop, the recent surge of new PC games featuring the latest network technology has made people spend a lot of time at their PCs and in Internet cafes, industrial experts said.
To promote the new type of RPG, it is important to make Japanese understand how it differs from conventional RPGs, in which players follow certain stories and try to achieve goals individually by fighting enemies, said Hideki Tsuchiya, spokesman for game soft maker Square Enix Co., which operates “Final Fantasy XI.”
In a mass online RPG, thousands of people access the same virtual world at the same time. Players interact with other players by using chat functions and build communities. Although they often need to form groups and beat enemies and monsters to make their characters strong, the end of the game is not set.
“When playing video games, people want to conquer (enemies and obstacles) to reach goals quickly,” Tsuchiya said. “But online gaming can be a communication tool. By playing the game, you feel as if you are talking with several people on the telephone at the same time.”
This factor, however, may limit the size of the online games market in Japan, according to Shunji Yamashina, an industrial analyst at Morgan Stanley Japan Ltd.
As players need to spend a few hours a day to really enjoy the games, it is not easy to involve those with little time in this type of game, he said.
For instance, most Japanese “Lineage” players spend three to six hours at it every day, according to a study on players in Yamanashi Prefecture conducted last year by Kenichi Ikeda, a social psychology professor at the University of Tokyo.
“For most (heavy) gamers, it may be difficult to spare time to play more than two games during the same period of time,” Yamashina said.
Although more and more games are provided on the Internet, with broadband-capable consoles being introduced, light players would prefer online games that can be played by a small number of people at lower fees, he said.
These mini online games include Japanese “shogi” chess, quizzes and fishing, which costs 1,000 yen or less a month, compared with mass online RPGs, which are usually available for 1,000 yen to 1,500 yen.
Yamashina thus believes only a few online game companies could profit enough to survive in the domestic market.
Despite those problems, some observers are optimistic.
Although massively multiplayer online games made in South Korea are mainstream products in Japan, releasing online versions of popular Japanese video games may be able to draw more people in Japan, Enterbrain’s Harada said.
In addition, online game companies could cultivate the market further by targeting women, he added. Currently, main players of the online games are men aged 18 to 25, according to Ikeda.
To expedite the spread and secure an edge on the Japanese market, online game providers are drawing aggressive strategies.
GungHo Online Entertainment Inc., which operates “Ragnarok” in Japan, will release two massively multiplayer online games next year.
GameOn’s Kim said the firm will bring two games from South Korea next year and produce a new title for release in Japan in 2005.
“We hope to earn 500 million yen to 800 million yen in sales this year and 2 billion yen next year,” he said, noting that sales in 2002 reached about 50 million yen.
NC Japan also plans to start offering the “Chaotic Chronicle” in October, which was launched in South Korea as “Lineage II” in July, and another game from South Korea next year to grab female gamers, said Suseri Yaguchi, a spokeswoman for the firm.
“No firm has made a major success in this business here,” she said. “We still need to publicize features of the massively multiplayer games and let people know they have an additional choice for entertainment.”