[Our own Brandon Sheffield was at the recent 2009 G* show in Busan, South Korea, and has been filing stories from there on the neat Korean market. In this show rond-up, he looks at G* in-depth, discussing major Western draws like StarCraft II, NCSoft's 'next big thing' Blade and Soul, and the show's changed focus.]

This year, Western games are making decisive inroads into Korea. That's just one major takeaway from Gamasutra's recent visit to South Korea's G* (G-Star) event this year, where we got a close view of the differences between the Korean market and the rest of the world.

G* is South Korea’s answer to E3 or the Tokyo Game Show, a largely consumer-facing event with its own mini-conference and B2B section for those looking to make deals.

The show took place from November 26-29, including two weekdays that were somewhat more business oriented, and a weekend for consumers to gawk at the latest goods. We were on hand to get some sound bytes from notable developers, as well as a general lay of the land, and where the Korean and Western markets meet.

Background

I’ve been studying the Korean game market for some 10 years now, and the industry there has gone through no small set of changes. The native game industry in Korea was initially arcade-dominated, eventually moving to PC packaged games and the odd console title.

Now, everyone is finally discovering the Korean industry as a microtransaction-based online game powerhouse -– and it’s this business that G*, put on by Korean business promotion agency KOCCA, celebrates.

This is my third G*, but the first ever in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city after Seoul, where the show usually takes place. Being in a new city for the first time, the city of Busan is much more inclined to embrace the show, with banners all around the convention area and beyond, and related partnerships, including the city’s own ICON game conference (which, in full disclosure, I did not attend).

The New Show

The show this year is smaller than previous years, but doesn’t actually feel that way, by virtue of taking place in a venue more appropriate for its size. Busan’s BEXCO is smaller than Seoul’s KINTEX, allowing the conference to comfortably fill the space without feeling buffered out, as last year’s show did.

Most of the big players were here in some form -- with smaller booths perhaps, but some of the booths in previous years were unnecessarily large, on the scale of N-Gage handheld-era Nokia at E3.

In the past, I’ve questioned the value of this show to the consumer -– a large number of the games on display are available for open beta or even regular play well before they hit the show floor.

While this is still true, it seems that the show is coming to terms with this, realizing that the value for attendees (remember that this is first and foremost a consumer-facing show) may be more in the pomp and circumstance than it is in the games.

Age of Conan had a huge booth, complete with models, lots of swag, and spinning bottles of free alcohol for happy attendees. Bags, baubles, posters, and more filled the eager hands of the largely middle and high school-age crowd.

The Games

The focus this year was on fewer larger titles, with a plethora of smaller offerings in between. It was a better balance than in previous years -– last year in particular felt like the NCsoft and Nexon show.

This year, some Western games made inroads, such as the aforementioned Age of Conan, and Warhammer Online, but the biggest Western draw was of course StarCraft II. Huge lines and excited crowds were the norm for the Blizzard booth, and in this case, it was the first time almost anyone could get their hands on the title. This is the sort of thing that really draws people in, so was a key victory for the conference.

A pseudo-Western draw was the newest installation of FIFA Online, and to a lesser extent, NBA Street Online. These two titles are developed by NeoWiz for EA Korea, sports games custom-fitted into the microtransaction model.

FIFA had an especially large crowd -– and a crowd is what it was, not a line, as nobody seemed prepared for the rush -- so the kids just crowded on in to get a look (though all of them had undoubtedly played it before).

Of course, not everyone is pleased with Western games tackling the Asian market. Korea is already crowded with native online games of various shapes and sizes, and more competition in a crowded market makes some people nervous. But they say competition is a good thing in the end -– the cream rises to the top.

On the Korean side, the biggest draw was unquestionably Blade and Soul, NCsoft’s Next Big Thing after Aion (which also had a significant presence), with art direction from famed illustrator Hyung-Tae Kim (Magna Carta).

Blade and Soul wasn’t playable at the show, but attendees queued up for 45 minutes on the business days, to say nothing of the weekend. The console-esque big budget RPG looks very casual-friendly, with its action-oriented gameplay, simple interface, and gorgeous art.

The rival big title -- more notable because it was actually playable -- was TERA, from the unfortunately-named Bluehole Studio, which a designer friend said was the single most impressive game he played at the show, and also gathered large crowds. The game had an open beta in early August, but this is the first time any foreign visitors could touch it.

As per usual, the show devoted a small portion of its space to console and arcade games, this time putting these two much smaller areas of the Korean game industry next to each other in the back of the hall. Most console games were already released, and thus were not a fantastic draw. On the arcade side, the most intriguing games were two lightgun offerings from RASSEN -- Vulcan M, sporting a ridiculously huge cabinet mounted with a minigun, and a duck hunting game that had two projection screens stitched together, and overkill automatic weaponry. As could be expected though, the majority of players were simply getting some freeplay time in on Jubeat.

Impressions

Overall, G* seems to be coming to terms with its size. It’s a smaller show than it has been, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It seems more focused now, and in Busan, has a clientele that may be more interested. The weekend crowds didn't quite meet the throbbing pulse of humanity that one sees at the Tokyo Game Show, but the number of people in attendance was still impressive.

The business area seems a good place to get some meetings done, away from the hustle and bustle of the show floor, but not so far away that a wandering licensing scout (or journalist) couldn’t wander through and make appointments with whomever they pleased.

Though there were a lot fewer game developers in attendance than previous years, due to the event being in Busan (the vast majority of Korean game development is done in Seoul, on the other side of the country), some in-the-trenches folks said to me that this year looked like the one they’d actually want to see.