Previously we took a look at the T Store and how it houses the largest number of apps in Korea. We also briefly talked about how the three carriers of SKT, LG U + and KT Olleh used to be the gatekeepers when it came to deciding what games would be featured in their stores. The emergence of the Apple App Store and Google Play Store changed this, creating a new open market where developers could bypass the the gatekeepers.
Out of all the platforms and store discussed so far, The Apple App Store and Google Play Store are most likely the most familiar to western developers. This already offers an advantage as the submission process and guidelines for each store are largely the same as their western counterparts. Despite the familiarity of each app store, the mobile game environment in Korea is different than in west and understanding how each store operates in this environment is essential.
Apple vs. The Samsung Factor
To anyone with an even casual knowledge of mobile devices, it should come as no surprise that Samsung devices reign supreme in Korea. 92% of all mobile phone sales in Korea belonged to the Samsung brand with their market share accounting for 63%. LG comes in second place with 22% leaving Pantech Co. with 7%.
This leaves Apple in last place with a 6% market share. This has contributed to a smaller Apple presence in Korea, where iPhone release dates are staggered, coming out months after their release in other countries (the first iPhone released in 2009, years after its initial release in the US) and a lack of official Apple Retail Stores in Korea, with only smaller authorized stores selling Apple products.
Apple has had a long, tremulous relationship with both Korea and Google. While there was some speculation that due to stricter regulatory procedures with electromagnetic compatibility and emission levels, many cite Samsung’s presence for being the reason that Apple has trouble in Korea. South Korean regulators stalled the release of the iPhone in Korea long after its release in nearly every other country worldwide. The same regulators held a ban on games being sold on the Korean App Store, blocking them from being distributed until 2011 and requiring a developer’s full name and personal information in 2013.
It is entirely possible that Apple sees Korea as less of a priority than other countries due to its smaller user base and strong competition from a country that is a bastion for Android-first development. When compared to nearby Japan where Apple has a 17% market share, putting it in second place behind local brand Sony, this makes even more sense.
All these factors combined have led to a significantly different app store in Korea compared to the one most developers are familiar with. The number of downloads for games is significantly less than with Google Play and even lesser when compared to the previously mentioned T Store and mobile messaging platforms Kakao and Line. According to the App Annie statistics for September 23rd, the top ten grossing games on the Apple App Store, seven of the games were for Kakao while two other title was published by publishers Com2Us and Machine Zone Inc. and the highest grossing title being Clash of Clans.
While you have exceptions like Kakao whose rule states that publishers must develop for both Android and iOS software, the game market features more non-Korean developed titles than Google Play with publishers like EA and Gameloft being featured in the top 50, where on Google Play, a majority of western developed titles don’t even break the top 100.
Google Play: Home of the Indies
The Google Play Store has experienced slow and steady growth since its initial release. It experienced a 6.3% growth of revenue in 2012 that has since continued to remain steady. Throughout its existence, while never reaching the large number of downloads that Kakao achieved, it has remained a dedicated store for apps and games and also allowing smaller developers the chance to have their games published. Google, like Apple has also had difficult time in Korea. Trying to establish its web services has been a losing battle against Naver and while its Google Play store enjoyed a period of success along with the Apple App Store, it has recently begun pushing for game distribution without platforms like Kakao and Line.
Google in Korea is divided into four groups: Google Cloud, Google Play, Google Indie and Google Developer Relations Department. Despite being different from one another, all four groups are available to game developers wanting to use their services. Of these four services, the most commonly used service by developers when publishing games is Google Play.
Like the Apple App Store, Google Play hosts a selection of games and apps, including games for Kakao. Looking at the App Annie statistics reveals another selection of the ten highest grossing games on Google Play are titles for Kakao, with the highest grossing being a Kakao game, bumping Clash of Clans to the number 2 spot.
Despite hosting games from Kakao and Line, Google Play has recently begun making attempts to surpass both of them by contacting individual publishers in Korea and offering them incentives to directly develop and launch through Google Play. This can allow both major and smaller developers the chance to create both localized and foreign versions of games simultaneously.
Google Play has a role of a gateway, taking 30% of the total cost of game to publish through its platform, even if the game is meant for another platform. With both Line and Kakao attempting to create their own networks and mobile SNS services attempting to build their own game platforms, this holds the potential to upset the distribution channel of mobile games. While the current environment has most games being downloaded through Google Play, Kakao and Line’s decision to move away from Google means a extreme drop in Google’s profits.
While the decision to pursue game companies and developers may seem ineffective in the current Korean market, the opportunities it can provide to developers is increasingly attractive for newcomers in the market. By making this decision, it can be appealing to developers outside of Korea where separate mobile gaming channels outside of Kakao are not yet established. In theory, Google working with publishers to create both local and Korean versions of games at the development stage would allow developers to have a much easier time entering the Korean market.
One example of this is Google Indie, which in early 2014 was able to help smaller developer and indie studios publish and launch their games through their services. According to a report by the Korea Herald, this was considered a shocking blow to major publishers, showing that Google was willing and invested to helping smaller studios find the same level of success as their larger counterparts. By doing this Google has sent a clear message to the Korean market that indie titles are important and that the key to finding success doesn’t always belong to the major publishers and platforms.
Publishing for Each Store: What You Already Know
Apple and Google opened the door for a more open game market in Korea, giving a level platform for anyone who wished to make a game. Along with having the same submission and publishing procedures as their western stores, this made it easier for developers wanting to break into the Korean market, using a system they were already familiar with. Once Kakao entered the scene, this once again changed the industry. shifting away success from stores to messaging platforms.
For western developers, both Apple and Google Play still offer benefits to those not familiar with Korean platforms and the process required to publish on them. While few games ever achieve the level of success Kakao titles do, they are moderate successes in their own right and allow smaller publishers to have their chance to have their games published against the major publishers within the industry.