Winning the K-pop game: BTS isn't the magic loot box

An image from BTS Island: In the SEOM, a puzzle-slash-management game developed by HYBE IM inspired by boy band BTS [HYBE IM]

Fans will buy just about anything so long as their favorite K-pop artist’s name is stamped on it — or will they?

K-pop companies have been churning out a variety of content using their artists as the main characters in an endeavor to create a sustainable business model without exhausting their stars. From games to webtoons, new idol-based content is created each year only to prove that a simple K-pop nametag just isn’t enough to please today’s discerning fans.

Just try searching for BTS on the Google Play Store. The first three apps that appear aren’t fan community services or an official app for the band’s agency HYBE, but games using BTS members as the characters or the group’s music. BTS Island: In the SEOM, Rhythm Hive and BT21 Pop Star are a few examples.

The same goes for Blackpink: The first search result on the Google Play Store shows Blackpink The Game, the puzzle and simulation game using Blackpink members as 3-D characters.

Three of the aforementioned games have each been downloaded more than 5 million times, so it may seem like the BTS and Blackpink trademarks have once again done their job. But there’s a catch: Two BTS games ended their service last year, without specifying a reason why.

As the K-pop world strives to find new business models to keep itself afloat and prove that it’s not just a gigantic bubble ready to burst, the unguaranteed success of K-pop-themed games and webtoons begs the question, what actually does make them succeed?

An image of Come Back Taijiboys, a game based on K-pop trio Seo Taiji and Boys [SCREEN CAPTURE]

If you like it put a game on it

The move to turn K-pop artists into characters of extra-K-pop genres, especially games, actually began almost three decades ago in 1997 with a game called Come Back Taijiboys.

The game was based on Seo Taiji and Boys — a trio often attributed as being the root of K-pop by combining perfectly synchronized choreography with dance music sung by multiple members of a band — turned into music warriors summoned to beat off apocalyptic monsters with their guitar, drum sticks and bass.

Games based on girl group Fin.K.L, boy band Sechskies and singer Uhm Jeong-hwa were also developed with the artists fulfilling different missions within the game, but mostly just as in-game characters that had nothing to do with their real-life identity as singers.

A gameplay image of BoA In the Game, a simulation game published in 2003 based on K-pop singer BoA [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Then came BoA In The World, a 2003 game developed by G Square Entertainment and published by Fujitsu Korea that was themed on managing SM Entertainment’s singer BoA as the singer’s substitute manager. The player was in charge of training BoA for her singing, dancing and acting skills by completing minigames such as rhythm or typing games.

The game got mixed reviews for not containing a single real-life photo or video of BoA and instead filling the whole game with illustrations of the singer along with poor quality minigames that were dubbed tedious. Still, the game managed to sell 10,000 copies within a week of its release and is credited as a well-made failure of venturing into a new genre.

The idea of artist management fused with minigames has since been readily utilized when creating games using the intellectual property (IP) of K-pop idols, as they’re referred to in Korea, as seen in the two most popular games of 2024 currently: BTS Island and Blackpink The Game.

A captured image from the 2018 Naver Webtoon "Save Me," based on the BTS Universe story [SCREEN CAPTURE]

BTS isn’t the key

BTS’s puzzle-slash-simulation game BTS Island is by far the best idol-based game that has been released so far, but not just because it’s a game based on BTS. In fact, two BTS games were terminated and one was even sacked mid-development, proving that BTS isn’t the magical ingredient to everything.

Netmarble, a game company 24-percent owned by HYBE chairman Bang Si-hyuk’s cousin Bang Jun-hyuk, released two games using BTS members as the main characters: BTS World in 2019 and BTS Universe Story in 2020. Both followed a set storyline of the seven BTS singers, but BTS World focused more on the real-life BTS artists while BTS Universe Story allowed users to build a fictional world around the singers' stage personas.

Long story short: Both games were met more with mediocre-to-negative reviews and terminated their services last year. BTS World struggled to provide updates with new content because there was a limit to how much could be disclosed about the real-life BTS members, and BTS Universe World was too complex for those unacquainted with the world of games.

“What they failed to see is that the K-pop fans and game users are two completely different consumer groups,” said an industry insider who spoke under the condition of anonymity.

BTS World mobile game [NETMARBLE]
Netmarble's BTS Universe Story [NETMARBLE]

“Some people may overlap, but the general needs of the two groups are different, and the two games unfortunately didn’t touch on any of them. The fact that they were based on real-life people would also have meant that there are many hoops to jump through when updating new content.”

The same went for BTS’s webtoon series “Save Me: The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” (2019) that ran for three months on Naver Webtoon. The 16-episode series ended with an average rating of 8.6 out of 10, but the comment section was filled with people complaining about such a niche genre being published on a major platform catering to the general public.

Netmarble even terminated the development of BTS Dream: Tinytan House mid-process in 2022, a year after announcing the project, due to “the disparity in the preferences between fans and game users” that the company found after conducting multiple test runs in Canada and Thailand.

An image of BTS Island: In the SEOM mobile game [HYBE IM]

For fans or for gamers?

What made BTS Island popular, on the other hand, was the fact that it was both cute enough for the fans and also quality enough for gamers.

The puzzle-slash-simulation game had been downloaded over 12 million times as of February, 96 percent from outside of Korea, and sits atop the app store game rankings in 28 regions around the world. It revolves around a fictional situation where the BTS members are stranded on an island and must find their way out into the world while making a nice home for themselves during their stay on the island.

“This is by far the best game using the BTS IP,” one user wrote in a Google Play Store review. “The story and gameplay is good enough for someone to enjoy even if they’re not a fan, but the characters have reflected the members’ real-life personalities so well for the fans.”

“I’m not a BTS fan, but I found this game and I feel like I’ve been healed by the songs and cute characters within the game,” wrote another user, whose feedback was echoed by many others claiming that they liked the game even though they weren’t fans of the band.

An image of Blackpink The Game, a puzzle-slash-management game based on girl group Blackpink [YG ENTERTAINMENT]
Girl group Blackpink [YG ENTERTAINMENT]

Blackpink The Game, another puzzle-slash-simulation game, is another example of K-pop well adapted into a game. It has been downloaded 5 million times as of November last year, with comments lauding the game for being made well enough for people who aren’t fans of the girl group with an easy-to-grasp gameplay and cutesy characters.

“Having a K-pop IP helps draw in users in the beginning stage of a game thanks to its global popularity, but it's not enough to ensure a game’s long-term success with that IP alone,” Han Hye-jeong, general manager of HYBE IM's Game Business Team 1, which is in charge of the company's two BTS games BTS Island and Rhythm Hive.

HYBE IM developed BTS Island as well as Rhythm Hive, a rhythm game using HYBE artists’ popular music, which has been downloaded over 11 million times as of February.

“The important thing is to appeal to all users with enticing content rather than relying on a particular artist’s fandom,” Han said. “We have garnered a powerful fan base with BTS Island: In the SEOM and Rhythm Hive thanks to the games’ high quality content and satisfactory service for the K-pop fandom. We’re also trying our best to appeal to the general game users, not only K-pop artists’ fans.”

Poster images of two webtoons inspired by SM Entertainment boy bands NCT and Riize published on Kakao Page, from left: ″NCT: Dream Contact″ and ″Rise & Realize″ [KAKAO ENTERTAINMENT]

Do it well, do it right

K-pop agencies aren’t fools for continually attempting to make new content, even after seeing other companies flop. Industry insiders and experts all agree that there’s a definite plus to expanding outside of music — if it's done well, that is.

SM Entertainment recently kicked off a webtoon series based on its boy band NCT, “NCT: Dream Contact” and a web novel series featuring rookie band Riize titled “Rise & Realize,” both with a 9.8 rating out of 10 on Kakao Page.

A webtoon series based on boy band Enhypen titled “Dark Moon: The Blood Altar” began in January 2022 and garnered over 180 million views by December 2023, two months after the last installment was uploaded in October.

A webtoon series titled ″Crimson Heart″ based on girl group Le Sserafim [NAVER WEBTOON]

Comment sections are filled with readers applauding how the works complement the artists’ musical identity and the narrative they pursue, in addition to the works’ detailed illustrations that resemble the actual group members.

“We hoped to provide a new level of experience for fans and the public through the power of literature and storytelling, going beyond the typical visuals and videos,” an official from SM Entertainment said.

“Having a separate set of narratives can help an artist pursue their activities in the long term. An IP-based genre expansion helps to tighten the bond between an artist and the fandom, and can also be used as promotional content and marketing tools for the artists.”

The prerequisite for the content to serve that desired goal is quite simple: Let the professionals do their job.

"The first and foremost priority is that there has to be a story that's good enough to stand on its own," Lee Taek-gwang, culture critic and professor at the School of Global Communication at Kyung Hee University, said.

"The best case scenario is when the singer's actual selves are turned well into a narrative, like what Taylor Swift does so well. But because the Korean public is more sensitive to stars' private lives, story writers need to come up with something fictional. That's where the agencies need to invest — good story writers that know the balance between what fans want and what works as a narrative."


K-pop agencies need to include more realistic factors into calculation as well. Games typically take years of development and millions of dollars to achieve positive feedback from players, which is often disregarded when a K-pop company commissions a game developer, according to Kim Jung-tae, a professor at the School of Game at Dongyang University.

"A successful game, or webtoon, can only come if the disparity between the different industries are narrowed down," Kim said.

"What this means is that the different parties involved — the agency, the developer and the licensing company — all understand the restrictions of each market and work hard to find a solution. Careful research on the consumer group needs to be conducted first, followed by an ample amount of personnel and development time."