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A History of Korean Gaming

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Softmax:

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소프트맥스 Softmax

Founded:

December 1993
October 28, 1994 (registered company)

Status:

active

Key People:


(formerly ):
CEO
:
Director, Producer
:
Director, Producer

Website:

www.softmax.co.kr


The story of Softmax begins in the early 1990s with a company called K.B.M, a distributor of 8-bit consoles, who also had a programming division that reportedly performed a number of outsourced jobs for foreign game companies1. Sometime in 1993 - the company by now had been renamed to Gabin Mulsan (갑인물산) - a young employee named Jeong Younghee joined the company, after being fed up with the discrimination against female employees in her old occupation at Hyosung Information. Gabin was already swaying because of the dwindling 8-bit console market, but by the time the company went bankrupt, Jeong Younghee had resolved to stay in the industry, and used her savings and much help from acquaintances to get Softmax running2.

Since not many employees of Gabin remained, a new staff was needed, and thus Jeong Younghee made an alliance with the indie team Artcraft. Still during the development of their first title, Lychnis, team Artcraft broke apart due to personal differences. Kim Hakgyu took part of the team to found Gravity, while Choi Yeonkyu, Cho Younggee, Jeon Seok-hwan and Cho Namyoung joined Softmax fully, where they created the most successful Korean offline game series ever, The War of Genesis3. At that time, Softmax had three teams, one each for PC games, console games, and conversion of Japanese games. The plan was to focus on one of the branches eventually, which was very soon decided in favor of original PC game development.

Ever since, Softmax has been a mainstay in the Korean gaming world. After having their games published by various bublishers like G&M and HiCom, Softmax established their own publishing company Digital Age in 1999, through which they released their PC games4 (and re-released a couple earlier ones), but it was eventually sold to Hamkke Haneun Soft (later renamed Softian) on August 7th, 20015. On May 1st 2000, Softmax Japan was founded, but the branch ultimately released only one game (the Dreamcast version of Rhapsody of Zephyr).

Softmax continues to go strong both in online and mobile games sectors, and is today one of only two successful console game developers (the other being BlueSide with their Kingdom Under Fire series). It is also the oldest Korean PC game developer in existence, which also makes Jeong Youngwon (who had her first name changed in the early 2000s) the longest-serving CEO in the industry.


Games

MoleMole Wars - IBM PC (1994)

MoleMole Wars was just a little demo team Artcraft put together while they were still developing Lychnis. In it, two players controlling weird animals (who return as enemies in Lychnis) have to fight each other in a small sideview arena. The game was freely distributed via newsgroups.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Artcraft

Genre:

Action




Lychnis (리크니스) - IBM PC (June 1994)

Don't be fooled by the cutesy graphics: Lychnis plays like Castlevania on drugs. First comes the choice between the two main characters. Lychnis the Knight fights with a sword and can wall jump, while Iris' magic staff gives her a longer range, and gets a double jump. The jumping physics follow the "stiff" variant from the early Castlevania titles, so the only way to change one's fate in mid-air is using these specialabilities.

The controls are as tight and the scrolling as fluid as they'll ever get in a DOS game, aside from occasional slowdowns the technical execution is excellent. So is the level design, with only a few frustrating spikes in the passages with forced scrolling. When the heroes find a "Shop" sign in any given stage, upgraded weapons and armor can be bought in a shop, especially the latter eventually becomes an essential investment.

The only true letdown in Lychnis are the bosses - cause there are none, safe for the terrible, terrible final fight. Suddenly the game switches to an active turn-based RPG scheme, only that the player's actions are dictated by a slotmachine. Pure luck decides the outcome, and without an extremely upgraded armor, the odds are just ridiculous. Way to completely ruin the climax of an otherwise excellent game.

Lychnis was reasonably successful, but still not quite the kind of bestseller Softmax would become known for later - about 10,000 copies were sold.6

Quick Info:

Developer:

Softmax
Artcraft

Publisher:

Game Town

Genre:

Platforming

Theme:

Fantasy


Lychnis (IBM PC)

Lychnis (IBM PC)



탄생 (Tansaeng) / Debut - IBM PC (December 1994)

Korean IBM PC Cover

This girl band management simulation was originally a PC-98 and PC Engine game by Headroom, with whom president Jeong had still contacts from Gabin times. Softmax took it onto them to port and localize the title.

During the process the script was actually naturalized rather than just translated, turning all the characters into Koreans. In scenes where the heroines would wear kimono, the graphics have been edited to make the clothes cut more like hanbok. Some of the more frivolous scenes have also been censored, some by editing the clothing, others more bluntly by putting some newspaper in front of the image7.

Softmax sold 25,000 copies of Debut in Korea, more than twice as much as their first original game, and also made a contract for 10,000 more copies to be published in Taiwan8. Originally, there was talk about Softmax also localizing Headroom's Graduation9, but since Softmax eventually focused on development of original titles, that was brought to Korea by LG Media instead.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Headroom (Japan)

Conversion:

Softmax

Publisher:

Samsung

Genre:

Life Simulation

Theme:

Contemporary: Urban


Debut (IBM PC)

Debut (IBM PC)


Comparison Screenshots


스카이&리카 (Sky & Rica) - IBM PC (March 1995)

Cover

A pastel colored cute-'em-up with lots of silly enemies like corn that pops when shooting it. Unfortunately the bosses are not as inventive, most of the time the fights are against the same three blobs in their ships. It might look a lot like Twinbee, but it has none of the air/ground gameplay, there's just the common simple upgrading system with double shots, "options" and the like.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Softmax

Publisher:

Samsung

Genre:

Shoot-'em-Up: Vertical

Theme:

Cute-'em-Up


Sky & Rica (IBM PC)

Sky & Rica (IBM PC)



창세기전 (Changsegijeon) / The War of Genesis / アンタリア創世記 (Antaria Souseki) - PC-DOS (December 15, 1995)

Cover

The beginning of the legendary War of Genesis series feature illustrations by manwha artist Kim Jin (Pada-ro Kan Sae, Baram-ui Nara) and the promise of a stronger narrative than any other Korean game at the time. It was an immense success for a Korean game at the time (though reports about actual sales figures vary from 17,000 to 50,000 copies10), but afterwards many resented the unpolished mechanics and a cliffhanger ending. It also got a publishing deal in Japan, although through a completely unknown company called Sherlock. The contract reportedly covered for 10,000 copies11, but one would be hard pressed to find the Japanese version at all nowadays. A planned PSX version12 didn't make it.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Softmax

Publisher:

G&M

Genre:

Strategy
RPG

Theme:

Fantasy


The War of Genesis (IBM PC)

The War of Genesis (IBM PC)



Aim Point (에임포인트) - IBM PC (September 25, 1996)

Cover

A tactical Action-RTS, that has often been likened to Syndicate. Soon after its release, Softmax announced an extended Windows version primarily for the Japanese market, complete with character illustrations by Masamune Shirow (Ghost in the Shell)13. Those plans, however, eventually made way for a sequel called Zero Hour, which ended up unreleased all the same.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Softmax

Publisher:

Miwon

Genre:

Strategy
Action

Theme:

Military


Aim Point (IBM PC)

Aim Point (IBM PC)



창세기전 II (Changsegijeon II) / The War of Genesis II - IBM PC (December 10, 1996)

Cover

The first The War of Genesis sequel finally cemented Softmax' position as the most successful PC game developer in Korea, with 75,000 copies sold it manages to exceed the expectations set up by his predecessor14. It also makes it mostly obsolete, as the vastly extended plot contains most of the first game's story, polishing the mechanics' rough edges in the process, making this a sequel and a remake at the same time. The game is also much more varied, now with two starting scenarios to chose from (which eventually merge into the same story, though) and battles at sea and in the air.

Being the single most revered Korean game of the DOS era, it's surprising that The War of Genesis II is the only part of the series that never made it out of Korea. There were of course talks about another Japanese localization, and via the unnamed Japanese publisher, Softmax also got in contact with IDE Software in France15. There doesn't seem to exist any French release whatsoever, although Softmax still claimed in 1999 to have received $25,000 royalties at $5 per copy, which would have made for a small-scale release of 5,000 copies16. Why IDE Software wouldn't publish the game even after paying the royalties remains a mystery.

Artwork

Quick Info:

Developer:

Softmax

Publisher:

HiCom

Genre:

Strategy
RPG

Theme:

Fantasy


The War of Genesis II (IBM PC)

The War of Genesis II (IBM PC)



Panthalassa (판타랏사): The Alternative Noah - Windows (December 10, 1997)

One of Softmax' less celebrated works, an RTS set in an underwater world. There are two campaigns, one featuring the "Earthians" with mechanic structures and units, while the "Atlantians" rely on organic technology. The differences are mostly aesthetic, though, as both races play roughly the same. Other than in most FPS, the base isn't build on the map, but contained in one single Mobile City, that can move around and fight together with all the other units. The latter are assembled from a pool of torsos, weapons and extras. The game is almost more of an adventure-RTS, for lack of a better word, since much time is spent doing errands and talking to various people by docking onto their homes.

The graphics feature a weird waving underwater effect, but it can be turned off. Unfortunately the game wasn't designed for posterity, and running it on modern systems can be a bit of a hassle.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Softmax

Publisher:

HiCom
Digital Age

Genre:

Strategy

Theme:

Nautic


Panthalassa (Windows)

Panthalassa (Windows)



창세기전외전 西風의狂詩曲 (창세기전외전 서풍의 광시곡, Changsegijeon Oejeon: Seopung-ui Gwangsigok) / The War of Genesis: The Rhapsody of Zephyr / 西風の狂詩曲 (Seifuu no Kyousikyoku) - Windows (March 14, 1998), Dreamcast (February 22, 2001), PlayStation 2 (January 29, 2004)

The Rhapsody of Zephyr was dubbed a "sidestory" to War of Genesis, although the story inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo (complete with Rennaissance flair and Italian names for characters) still tied in directly with the rest of the games. The main differences lay in the scope, as the still grid-based battles now were fought out between much smaller groups of typical RPG-party size. In turn there was more focus on micromanagement, with new features like breakable weapons and limited ammunition for guns.

The sidestory finally brought the international breakthrough for the series, at least within East Asia. It was released not only in Taiwan, were Privilege Digi Information shipped 15,000 copies, but also brought to Japan by the computer RPG experts at Falcom. There Falcom reported 19,000 units sold on release day, confident they could move up to 50,000 copies overall17. That apparently was enough to warrant ports for the Dreamcast (published by Softmax' own newly opened Japan branch) and PS2 (by Marvelous Entertainment). All Japanese versions took out the original character illustrations to swap in more glossy, anime-typical replacements. Although it thus became the first big Korean title on consoles, neither port was ever released on home shores.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Softmax

Publisher:

HiCom

Genre:

RPG

Theme:

Fantasy


The Rhapsody of Zephyr (Windows)


Comparison Screenshots


창세기외전2 템페스트 (Changsegi Oejeon 2: Tempest) / The War of Genesis: Tempest - Windows (December 17, 1998)

The second "side story" to The War of Genesis is widely considered the black sheep of the series, although its pedigree assured that it claimed third place for the first half of 1999 in the sales charts at places like Sejin Computer Land, only behind Starcraft and Broodwar18. While the game looks about the same as The Rhapsody of Zephyr most of the time, battles are fought with super-deformed versions of the characters, and the system is also quite odd. Despite looking like a typical JRPG affair, it retains somewhat tactical elements, as character placement is still important. The semi-sideview makes it all seem really weird, though, as characters can only attack horizontally, while movement between planes is limited - it quite resembles Fatal Fury of all things.

The story though is as elaborate as ever, in fact it's even more long and verbose. The ending even asks players if they want to skip a portion to save time - but it's still more than an hour of monologues and narration either way. With the simplified battles and nothing much else to do but clicking away more and more dialogue lines and a couple of silly mini games, the game almost feels like a visual novel rather than an RPG.

Artwork

Quick Info:

Developer:

Softmax

Publisher:

Intersoft Multimedia

Genre:

RPG

Theme:

Fantasy


Tempest (Windows)

Tempest (Windows)

Tempest (Windows)



창세기전 III (Changsegijeon III) / The War of Genesis III - Windows (December 15, 1999)

창세기전 III 파트2 (Changsegijeon III Part 2) / The War of Genesis III Part 2 - Windows (December 22, 2000)

The crowning finale of the The War of Genesis series was huge. So huge that it had to be divided into multiple games, akin to Shining Force III. The two releases are further divided into five scenarios total, each with their individual characters and storylines that all tie together into one big narrative. But also the scale of the battles has been cranked up; now all the main characters each have a squad of soldiers following them and acting automatically.

Regardless of the rough times the games industry experienced around 2000, the first part easily broke the 100,000 units barrier, and the second was even officially awarded Korean Game of the Year 2001, the only single player PC game to ever receive the honors after 1997's Wangdo-wi Bimil.

The War of Genesis 3 is the only one of Softmax' classic games that also made it onto mobile phones, where it was divided into four seperately released episodes instead. (See the next page for images.)

Quick Info:

Developer:

Softmax

Publisher:

Digital Age

Genre:

Strategy
RPG

Theme:

Fantasy


The War of Genesis III (Windows)

The War of Genesis III Part 2 (Windows)



References
1. Game World 10/1994, page 70
2. Daily Game 11/19/2000
3. Haneul-e Geolchin Dari Blog 4/29/2005
4. PC Power Zine 11/1999, page 164
5. PC Power Zine 9/2001, page 179
6. 6. Kyunghyang Shinmun 7/11/1995, page 29
7. More comparisons can be found on the Korean PC-98x1 Game Library Blog, where the PC-98 comparisons here are borrowed from.
8. Game World 10/1994, page 70
9. Kyunghyang Shinmun 7/11/1995, page 29
10. GameCom in MyCom 10/1996, page 57 gives the smaller number, the 50,000 figure is found in The Hankyoreh 6/29/1998, page 9
11. Maeil Gyeongje 9/10/1996, page 12
12. PC Champ 4/1996, page 93
13. PC Champ 12/1996, page 116
14. The Hankyoreh 6/29/1998, page 9
15. PC Champ 10/1996, page 84
16. Maeil Gyeongje 2/4/1999, page 13
17. Dong-a Ilbo 10/12/1999, page 35
18. Dong-a Ilbo 7/15/1999, page 47


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