Game Trends #2 - Korean MMOs Venture West

The Anomalous Success of Black Desert Online

Korean MMOs almost always have trouble pleasing Western MMO fans. Without fail, popular Asian MMOs announce their Western release, the West gets excited by the prospect of a shiny new MMO that will finally revitalize a genre that is staler than 10 year old bread left out on the kitchen counter, and then the game entirely fails to deliver. 

The MMO fanbase is by far the hardest fan base to please in the gaming market, simply because it is diverse and massive. Millions play MMOs and they all want and enjoy different things. Expectations are set so high that only the Mona Lisa of MMOs could hope to entertain half of MMO players for more than three months.

Asia and the West are two very disparate markets. Game design choices that are Korean MMO staples are utterly frowned upon in the West. Korean MMOs are too “grindy”, and require too much time invested in order to progress. They are often “pay to win'' where people with deep pockets can simply buy things that make their character stronger and then stomp you. These problems are why other Korean MMOs, such as Archeage Online, failed.  

So how did Black Desert Online, a Korean MMO that is one of the most grindy, pay to win games ever created become a top 5 MMO in the West, up there with World of Warcraft and the others? The short answer: it’s just a really good game. 

BDO released in the West for PC in 2016, and Xbox One and PS4 in 2019.  It‘s primarily known for its gorgeous graphics and fast-paced action combat system. The game is absolutely beautiful. Just look at this.

Screenshot Credit to NA Deekitty

The game brings many unique innovations to a genre where every other game is cut from the same cloth. Combat doesn’t feel like a traditional MMO in the slightest. Normally, when killing mobs, you hit the Tab button to target the mob, then press 1 2 3 and the mob is dead. The experience is just as boring as it sounds. In BDO there are combos, dodging, and you have to aim most of your skills. Combat is engaging, and is similar to Action RPGs like the Dragon Age series. Combine that with flashy graphics that follow the theme of the character you pick, and you feel like a badass even when you are killing squirrels in the forest as a lowly level 5.

BDO is different from other MMOs because it is a true sandbox game. You can do almost anything you want and still progress, and there is a lot to do. Most MMOs are “theme parks” where the endgame is determined. Raids, dungeons, or PvP are the only ways to progress your character.  In BDO, you can be a horse breeder, a sailor, a trader, a lumberjack, a chef, or whatever you want. The systems are so complex, that even something as simple as taking items from one place to another, turns into a full on optimization test filled with spreadsheets and brainstorming. If there is a part of the game you love doing, you can spend all your time on it and still progress. 

Pearl Abyss adds new content, new regions, and new classes, faster than Usain Bolt’s 100m dash time. It is mind-blowing how much new content there is to enjoy after not playing for a few months. It throws rewards at you constantly, getting the dopamine coursing through your veins. Despite this and its popularity, BDO is one of the most controversial titles in the genre.

Why is that? It is a textbook Korean MMO. It is extremely grindy, progressing is completely random, and the game offers enormous rewards to players that microtransact. BDO has no max level, and to level up once a player reaches endgame can take thousands of hours. To upgrade your weapon from level 4 to level 5 you have to gamble. You only have a small chance to succeed and if you fail, the weapon gets downgraded back to level 3 and so on. For some pieces of gear, it is destroyed all together. It is filled with high highs, and extremely low lows. People that spend money on the game progress much faster than people who don’t. Why don’t the devs just remove these controversial mechanics? Because all of them are essential for the amazing things the game has to offer.

Since gear can break, decline in rating, and is completely random, it is a massive silver sink. Unsurprisingly, economies within MMOs function like real world economies. Progressing  without combat is viable because the best gear is not obtained through dungeons or raids as in theme parks, but through the in-game currency, silver, and everything in the game generates silver. In most other MMOs, currency is meaningless to players, since it’s primarily used for cosmetic items. If there is a massive supply of currency, but nothing to spend it on, it just becomes worthless and heavily inflated. 

Silver is always valued in BDO because it regularly exits the market through gear breakage. Because of this, inflation is much lower than other MMO economies. This allows other activities that generate silver to continue being something worthwhile to spend your time on. 

After 6 years, Black Desert has generated $2 billion in revenue, and as of 2020, 40% of overall revenue comes from NA and EU. While many players complain that others can pay to progress in BDO faster, these “whales” fund new content updates that gets everyone excited to log in. MMO players are extremely picky. Every revenue model is critiqued. MMO fans don’t want to pay subscriptions, don’t want to pay $60 for the game, and don’t like pay to win. But if a game doesn’t produce new content at a sufficient pace, it dies. MMO devs are forced to perform a balancing act that would make a professional tightrope walker double take.

After BDO’s success, expect more Western publishers to bring already established Asian MMOs to the West. BDO proves that the difference in markets is not insurmountable, and popular Asian MMOs can thrive in the West if the right problems are conquered. Amazon is publishing the popular Korean MMO Lost Ark in NA and EU, and more are sure to follow. The challenge will be adapting to a different market, and overcoming the West’s hatred of grinding and pay to win. Will they try to get rid of it? Or simply make a good enough game to overcome these problems, following Black Desert Online’s example?