Across Asia, schoolchildren of all ages spend a large proportion of their free time in internet cafes competing against each other in various amazingly animated online computer games. Many, or perhaps most, of the games being played come from South Korea and mark the quiet infiltration of Korean culture across the region.
This infiltration extends beyond the computer screen: teenagers and young adults in many parts of Asia are also hooked on Korean soap operas and sing along to Korean boy bands. Hallyu (the Korean Wave) has hit Asia and it looks as if its influence is spreading further afield: Americans are tuning into the lives and loves of everyday Koreans with several soap operas being broadcast on US television, and Europeans are using multi-player online games.
Well known as having the world’s most internet-savvy population, with the highest per capita broadband access (about 82% of the nation’s 48 million people have access to the internet and a flow up to 10 times faster than anywhere else in the world), the country is revelling in its position as a world leader in digital media content. The growth of the knowledge-based society in Korea has been the subject of many studies. One of them, a 2002 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey, showed how the Korean government has digitalised five main areas of society including, education, history, science and technology, culture and telecommunications. South Koreans spent more than $1.6bn shopping online in the first quarter of 2004, twice as much per capita as US consumers.
The rapid growth of the ultimate broadband-based society prompted Intel to create a research and development (R&D) centre in Seoul in 2004 focusing on digital content and platforms to provide consumers with the best quality content – movies, music, games, photos, communication and information – anytime, anywhere and on any device.
The creation of a country of ‘netizens’, as the Korean population is now called, is the result of a concerted effort by the national government to provide the right regulatory framework to encourage competition and to ensure that the best possible infrastructure has been put in place. With the country now firmly established as a technology leader and the cultural impact manifesting itself in the Korean Wave, the government is building on this expertise and further developing the economy through the creation of a digital media cluster that can take advantage of its position as the leader in a regional market of 1.7 billion consumers.
In 2002, the Seoul Metropolitan Government made the decision to locate a media and entertainment cluster in the SangamNewMillenniumTown, a $1.3bn development north-west of the capital. The town houses the 2002 FIFA World Cup stadium, an ecological park and intelligent residential homes.
Digital Media City
The Digital Media City (DMC), which is due to be completed in 2010, will be the centrepiece of Sangam and is intended to be the world’s best media content development, production and distribution centre, and an R&D cluster for the media and entertainment field, including broadcasting, film, animation, gaming, music and e-education, and the IT and software industries. There will also be development of general business facilities, hotels (US hotel chain Stanford has already invested $30m in the development), an entertainment complex and shopping centres.
The city is expected to develop into a tourist attraction with Digital Media Street, which will run through the centre, exhibiting futuristic ‘Intel-lights’ which brighten as people approach them, and ‘etherbeetles’, small, electric-powered, intelligent personal transporters that are equipped with voice-recognition software.
DMC serves as a benchmark for other locations that are developing digital media content clusters. The city aims to be one of the most successful information and media complexes in the world. Many countries, including the US, the UK, France, Netherlands, Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and others have similar plans to develop clusters like DMC and some have visited the project.
Just as the Korean government has been the driving force behind the technological revolution in the country, Seoul Metropolitan Government has given full funding to the DMC. Generous funding allows the DMC to offer attractive incentives to entice foreign investors, which will help to generate the reputation of the cluster.
Land parcels in the DMC are provided at low cost, half the market price, to foreign companies and serviced with a direct contract with the city government to minimise red tape. The city government also provides full administrative support, linking developers and tenant firms to reduce business risk. There is a 100% tax exemption for the first five years and 50% reduction for a further two years from corporate and income taxes.
These incentives, coupled with the prestige of Korea’s digital media content industry, have already attracted foreign institutes and companies. The total investment to date amounts to $350m. To emphasise the DMC’s reputation for R&D, the Korean German Institute of Technology (KGIT), a consortium of 10 leading German universities, has chosen to base itself there to take advantage of local expertise and pursue joint research projects with other resident companies.
The DMC cluster provides a perfect environment for joint research projects, according to Professor Ingo Wolff: “In Korea there is an atmosphere of innovation. Young people here are very active, very future oriented. Korea is the centre of Asia and we wanted to set our institute in Seoul. DMC was the perfect fit, as the activities we will be undertaking are very well suited to the DMC concept.
“The KGIT project is the first time ever that 10 leading German universities have come together in a consortium to invest; what we are building is a centre of research and academic excellence. The main research areas for KGIT’s 400-450 scientists include communications and media technologies, all areas of IT, nano-technology, cultural content, film design and technological management.”
Negotiations are under way with the US-based Carnegie Mellon Institute to locate R&D facilities in the DMC. Many organisations like these are drawn by the idea that some of Korea’s most prestigious digital media content and related companies and organisations will be located there.
The Ministry of Information and Communication’s IT Complex and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s Culture and Content Complex, which supports the development of the multimedia industry in Korea, is based in the city. Game portal, publishing and development firm Actoz Soft, plans to locate its head office there. The Korean Broadcasting System subsidiary, KBS Media, plans to base its head office in the city, too.
Byung-soon Lee, president of KBS Media, emphasises that the company is making every effort to develop itself, “We are actively engaged in the constant commissioning and production of content. DMC offers an excellent environment for us to do exactly that, and to take our programming to a new level. We anticipate DMC being not only a space in which a blending of film, animation, music and other media can take place, but also a hotbed of international creativity.”
Byeon-yeop Park, president of Pantech & Curitel, a Korean mobile phone manufacturer, regards the DMC as “a living laboratory” for the latest developments in hardware and software, and the kind of content that next generation users will require and want.
From this year, Seoul city is providing plots of land for the construction of a landmark building site and an urban entertainment centre which will play an important role in the development of an international business hub. By 2006, the DMC will have public support buildings that will offer low-cost, long-term lease office space for foreign firms and investors, and will house the R&D Centre for Co-operation between Industry and Academy, a high-tech industrial centre and serviced apartments.
Apart from the business services offered in the cluster, the DMC is a 15-minute underground train ride away from the centre of Seoul, where there is access to international financial, consulting, legal and technical support. The capital is home to 6000 venture capital companies, many of which specialise in the high-tech sector.
The creation of DMC is an endeavour to ensure that South Korea’s vision of a digital culture is not just found in R&D laboratories but is properly commercialised and exported to the rest of the world.
GAMES: THE KOREAN WAVE GENERATOR
South Korea’s online games obsession hit the headlines earlier this year when a young man died after playing for 50 hours straight. The product of PC Baangs (internet cafes, of which there are about 28,000 in the country), the online games sector is now worth about $397m. It has become extremely popular in Asia and the export of Korean online games has boomed since a concerted promotion effort in 2004. By the end of the year, Korean online games contributed 51.4% to total online games (154 games) in the Chinese market. As broadband is now more commonplace in Europe and the US, online game-playing is expected to grow rapidly with the help of Korean exports. DFC Intelligence, a multimedia research company based in the US, estimates that the online game industry in 2003 was worth $1.9bn, with more than 50% of the revenue coming from Asia and 10% of revenue coming from Europe. By 2006, this revenue will grow to $5.2bn with worldwide revenue reaching $9.8bn by 2009, the company forecasts. Asia will remain the largest market but Europe will be the fastest growing market with revenues reaching $2.2bn. By the end of 2004, wireless internet use in Korea had increased 4.1% to 40.2%. Thanks to more sophisticated and functional mobile handsets, expectation and growth potential of the mobile games sector is high. Revenues of mobile games in Korea in 2004 stood at $135m with a growth rate double that of the PC standalone game market for the consecutive two years from 2003.
As the supply of high-functional handsets expands, not only in Asia but also in Europe and the US, the time of high-capacity 3D games is unfolding. Mobile games are expected to have more colourful graphics and a greater variety of content as handset functions improve and exclusive game handsets become popular.