TECH
12/23/2012 10:56 am ET

Pyongyang Racer: North Korean Video Game Gets Western Release (VIDEO)

Watch out, Super Mario Kart -- there’s a new racing game on the market, and you’ll never believe where it comes from. That’s right: North Korea has made its first video game for Western release, a “simple browser game” called “Pyongyang Racer.”

And simple it is -- the Verge review has this to say about the game:

The "goal" of “Pyongyang Racer” is to explore the country's capital city while collecting fuel barrels to keep your car moving. Other than popular destinations in the city — which are surprisingly well-modeled compared to the rest of the game — there's not a whole lot to see. You're tasked to avoid other traffic, which shouldn't prove difficult since other cars on the road don't actually move. The entire experience looks like it was pulled straight out of the 32-bit console era.

The game, made exclusively for the British travel agency Koryo, has no high score comparison to speak of -- Chris Welch of the Verge says that “if you're looking to see how you fared against other drivers, you'll need to manually take a screenshot of your completion time and email it to the travel firm."

The game also gives a warning to stay on the right side of the road, “or else” (and we’re not sure we want to know what that “or else” is).

The North Korean company Nosotek, which made the video game, was founded in 2007 by German expatriate and entrepreneur Volker Eloesser. It has previously produced phone games for Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, including "Men in Black: Alien Assault" and “Big Lebowski Bowling.” Its tagline is "IT Outsourcing Redefined," and apparently it wants Western companies to outsource software work to North Korea.

Nosotek’s English language website’s “About Us” page announces itself as the “first western IT venture in DPRK (North Korea)." But more unusually, it notes,

Nosotek has attracted the cream of local talent as the only company in Pyongyang offering western working conditions and Internet access. In addition to the accessible skill level Nosotek was set-up in DPRK because IP secrecy and minimum employee churn rate are structurally guaranteed.

The level of IP secrecy the company talks about is likely the same given to any game developer in North Korea. North Koreans, after all, are largely forced to use (and thus develop on) the Kwangmyong, North Korea’s internal intranet designed primarily to isolate the country from the rest of the world -- and reportedly deny citizens “of any information other than government propaganda.”

It’s fairly clear that the initiative that produced "Pyongyang Racer" is government sponsored, as this is likely the only way it could have reached Koryo's website. Internet access in North Korea is strictly controlled by the government, and wider access is generally only available to “elites” within the government or academia. The “General Federation of Science and Technology,” the technical institute from which Nosotek hires its employees, is tightly controlled by the North Korean government. Kim Jong Un, successor to the late Kim Jong Il and Time readers' Person Of The Year, has taken pains to portray himself as an “astute technological mind” in contrast to his father’s “military genius," reports the BBC.

North Korea likely has a long way to go before it's a true "player in the Software Outsourcing market," as it says in its mission statement. Koryo’s disclaimer, released with "Pyongyang Racer," also acknowledges that the game is not very advanced technologically: “This game was developed in 2012 and is not intended to be a high-end techological [sic] wonder hit game of the 21st century,” it says, “but more a fun race game (arcade style) where you drive around in Pyongyang and learn more about the sites and get a glimpse of Pyongyang.”

As the Verge points out, popular destinations in Pyongyang are “surprisingly well-modeled compared to the rest of the game." But to be a true player in the software outsourcing market, Nosotek and any other Korean software companies it inspires might first have to move out of the 32-bit era.

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