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Published : 2012-10-18 20:10
Updated : 2012-10-18 20:10

South Koreans have a thing for lining up objects. Omok, a traditional board game in which two players compete to first line up five baduk stones, has flourished as a favorite pastime throughout generations.

A similar game that requires nimbler hands, smartphones and mobile messenger friends, is now sweeping South Korea, one of the world’s most digitalized countries, as a new pastime.

Whether it be a commuter subway or a lunchtime cafeteria queue, it’s easy to spot people squinting their eyes and clutching their smartphones to play a one-minute round of Anipang.

The mobile game shows a screen of 49 animal characters, six types of animals jumbled up in a matrix of seven horizontal lines and seven vertical columns. By swiping the screen, players have to line up three or more identical animals as quickly as possible since a successful “pang,” or explosion, will renew the screen for them to find more sets to line up.

The game, serviced on the country’s most popular mobile messenger Kakao Talk, is free of charge but instead deducts a “heart” for one round of game. A heart is automatically filled up every eight minutes, but users can also receive hearts from their friends.
A player shows off his skills in an “Anipang” mobile game compeition in front of Lotte Department Store in Seoul earlier this month. (Yonhap News)

Players can also compare their scores with their friends and acquaintances as a weekly chart shows the rankings of their Kakao Talk friends who play the mobile game, a key feature of the game that has lured more to play to beat their friends.

In less than three months since its launch, the simple mobile game has become a national phenomenon.

“Anipang showed the power of Kakao’s game platform. On the back of Anipang’s success, other games are also showing great progress and we are getting lots of request on the platform,” said an official at Kakao, which features 21 mobile games on its namesake mobile messenger.

The number of downloads recently surpassed the 20 million mark, which means roughly 40 percent of South Koreans and two-thirds of the country’s smartphone population are playing the game.

A 27-year-old office worker, Yoon Binna, is one of them.

Yoon, who was a late beginner, said she started playing Anipang when the game became the talk of the town at her office.

“Practically everyone, including my boss, was talking about it and playing it. I thought, I have to play that,” said Yoon, who confessed of playing up to 50 rounds in one day.

“I don’t play as much now, but I still play to keep in touch with people. When I’m near the top of the list, people send me messages telling me how well I play,” said the Seoulite.

The popularity of the game has also caught on in the corporate sector.

Lotte Department Store, one of the country’s leading retail chains, recently hosted an outdoor Anipang competition in front of its Seoul main store and awarded a 1 million won ($904) gift certificate to the winner.

A trader at Kookmin Bank even wrote a five-page report on acing the mobile game, which quickly circulated through messengers as Anipang fans eagerly spread the word.

Analysts said the national success of Anipang is a major boon for the mobile game sector.

“Smartphone mobile games were about to enter a high-growth cycle in line with growing smartphone penetration. Anipang really hit it off, powered by the trend as well as its social graph features,” said Sung Jong-hwa, an analyst at Etrade Securities Co.

Social graph, a term introduced by Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg, refers to the social network of relationships between users of a social network service.

“The ranking and heart exchange system, which are good examples of social graph, created the perfect synergy, raising prospects for other mobile games,” Sung said.

Others said the easy-to-play mechanism and networking features excavated a new group of game users that could drive profit growth.

“Previously dormant gamer groups, such as females or people in their thirties or older, started to play mobile games thanks to Anipang,” said Kiwoom Securities Co. analyst Ahn Jae-min, noting how they contributed in increasing the overall market size.

On the back of the spiking number of users, the domestic market for mobile games is expected to reach 580 billion won in 2013, up 25 percent from an estimated 460 billion won this year, according to a projection by Korea Creative Contents Agency .

A bigger mobile game market here will likely help local game developers better tap overseas markets that are also expanding, market watchers said.

The mobile game segment, which claimed 7 percent of the global game industry in 2008, is expected to more than double its market share to 15 percent worth $13.3 billion by 2013, according to KOCCA.

Experts, meanwhile, advised local game companies to build up a more extensive chest of mobile games in order to achieve sustainable growth in the long term.

“Anipang is no doubt a phenomenal success. But that shouldn’t prompt game developers to only focus on easy-to-make ‘pang’ style games,” said Sung.

“Developers and distributors should also foster more sophisticated games in various genres. A short-term focus on ”Anipang“ copycats could eventually rot the whole sector,” he said.

For now, it seems that Anipang users will continue to play the game. “The ranking is renewed each week,” said Yoon. “This makes me keep playing.” (Yonhap News)