Six million virtual inhabitants? No, it’s not Everquest, it’s not Star Wars Galaxies and sadly it’s not EVE – Cyworld is a Korean virtual community, and the fastest growing site in the country.The site has proven so popular that Park Geun-hee, the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee caused a stir last month by creating her own Cyworld site with pictures of her hobbies and video of her playing the piano. “I wanted to find a way to show young people, especially young girls, who I really am”, she later explained to the press.
Cyworld was founded in 2001 and toodled along for a few years with a number of keen fans, but its popularity exploded when SK Telecom bought it. SKT put marketing Won behind it and it now has 13% of Korea’s 47.6 million inhabitants as members. Korea has long been a key part of the connected world – nearly 80% of Koreans subscribe to broadband internet services, spending an average of 13.5 hours per week.
Subscribers to Cyworld, meet, decorate their homes, wander about a bit, listen to music, accessorise and invite friends over for parties – just what young trendy avatars like to do. Graphics are stylish, but simple and colourful isometric drawings – none of the 3D polygon look that has blighted many attempts at virtual worlds in the past. Think eBoy meets meets MacPaint.
So, apart from subscription costs, what’s the revenue stream? Cyworld’s currency is the Acorn – Acorns are used to buy music for your virtual gatherings, furniture and accessories to keep you at the height of avatar fashion. Here’s another incredible fact: about 100 million Won worth (€72,000, US$85,000) are sold to subscribers every day. That’s about €26.3 million (USD$31 million) worth of play money sold every year.
With 30,000 new members signing up every day, there’s obviously a lot of money to be made in virtual worlds. Could a site like Cyworld be this popular in the West? And who would design it?