Korea Guide: Apple vs. Google Play



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.

Buff Knight, a Korean Indie supported by Google.

Buff Knight, a Korean Indie supported by Google.

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.

Mobile Game Trends: Why is BAND Games failing to compete with Kakao?


There’s no denying that the Korean mobile game market is a market big enough to share. Since the success of Kakao and their own distribution system, other media outlets and competitors have been scrambling to cash in on Kakao’s success, hoping that their own unique spin to the social networking and gaming distribution scene.

BAND from Naver is one of the latest services to attempt to join the increasingly crowded market. BAND strives to deliver service that allows you to create different groups for different kinds of people you want to communicate with. Similar to Google Plus, BAND allows users to curate their followers, giving the user full control over what information is shared their friends. Along with their social media feature, BAND also features a marketplace to distribute chat stickers, coupons and games. While this seems like it could possibly be a interesting and unique alternative to Kakao, in terms of game distribution, BAND unfortunately features several flaws that hold it back and ultimately, keeps it squarely in the second tier spot compared to other services such as Kakao and HIVE.

A New Way to Communicate

On the surface, BAND appears to be on the right path for game distribution. Launching May 12, 2014, BAND launched their service with 10 titles for their game store. Similar to Kakao, while distributed on BAND’s service, the games themselves could also be downloaded through Google Play’s Store or Naver’s N Store.


One month later, BAND switched to an open platform format, meaning that any game could be offered through the platform, no longer limiting it to just BAND titles. It was shortly after this that the company announced that they would be acquiring more than 250 different developers to make games for BAND with the goal of releasing a new game every three days, giving BAND an average of around 40 games per month.

BAND was also attempting to gain the goodwill of their developers as well. Keys for application programing were sent to 170 different gaming companies in order for developers to quickly and efficiently upload their games to BAND. Along with a starting development kit, making games for BAND also appeared more profitable than other resources since developers could avoid paying the 30 % tax fee that other services offered and could end up keeping 52% of the profits made from each game, slightly more than some competing services.

The Problem with BAND and Games

The problem with BAND isn’t with the service or attempt to gain developers, its the games and target audience. While Kakao Games originally attempted to appeal to women in their 30’s and 40’s, and then expanded to the casual audience, BAND’s target audience is with men in their 30’s and 40’s. While this by itself is fine, its also a limited audience, arguably smaller than any other target group in the Korean mobile gaming market.

The casual audience is massive. The hardcore audience continues to slowly grow. The middle age market men hasn’t exactly moved massive amounts of mobile games nor has it made the meaningful impact outside a few select genres that BAND seems to hope for. A quick look at the top grossing games in Korea has the highest ranking BAND game, Legion of Heroes an MMORPG,  at number 134, the next two are both 148 and 191 respectively. While its not impossible that men in their 30’s and 40’s may want to play an MMORPG on their mobile devices, its not all that likely either. The genre’s target audience: the hardcore gamer would be the most interested, and with several other alternatives on much more popular services, it seems unlikely they have any incentive to switch to BAND anytime soon.


Missing the Target


It’s possible that BAND hopes to start at the middle age men market, and then branch out to a more casual market, similar to what Kakao did, however this provides another problem of being too little, too late. A majority of BAND’s available titles, despite having different titles, look oddly familiar. Puzzle games, endless runners, and other titles similar to their rival service fill the market place. While this is not an entirely bad move, making what you know will sell, in this case it does more harm than good. Nothing about these titles offers any new gimmick or interesting enough twist to the formula in order to entice anyone to play these titles. Instead it comes off as more “me too” games that already exist on more well established services which again, gives very little reason to leave.

The casual market is over-saturated to the point that it’s no longer feasible to make a clone of a successful game and expect success overnight. Knowing who your audience is, knowing what they like and knowing the games they want to play now (and beyond) is the key to success in this quick moving and unforgiving market. Having 250 developers to make games for you is pointless if you’re not exactly confident who to target those games towards.

There’s potential with BAND. The service is steadily gaining more follows daily and there have been signs of success with the overseas markets gaining interest. However, as far as game distribution goes, BAND seems to be thinking more in the now than the later, Mobile game users are more savvy than ever when it comes to downloading games and in order to keep up with the demand, distributors and publishers need to be even smarter.



profile picKyle Hovanec is a writer currently living and working in South Korea. He writes for several Korean publications including Latis Global Communications. You can contact him at khovanec87@gmail.com 

Kakao Talk Odds & Ends: What makes a great Sim game?


Korean gamers, no matter their tastes or interests all share a common element: the need for pick up and play mobile gaming. They look for gameplay that offers a satisfying and rewarding experience that can be achieved in a matter of minutes. Daily commutes using public transportation may only last a few stops. Breaks at work may only be twenty minutes at most. It is within these short periods that gamers have to use their time wisely. No player wants to waste their limited time on an experience with little to no incentive to keep playing.

Sim and management games have always had a niche in the Korean market, but what separates the great successes from the merely average? Supercell’s Hay Day has seen great success globally, but has only manage to remain a top 50 grossing game. WeMade’s Everytown, however, has managed to make it to the top 20.

Both games offer rewarding gameplay in a short amount of time, so what makes one a bigger hit? In this post, we’ll be examining what separates a major success, from a mediocre one.

Overview of Games


Release November 14, 2013
Last Update June 12, 2014
Developer Supercell
Google Play Installs: 50,000,000- 100,000,000
Top Grossing Rank (Google Play) #39



Release March 4, 2013
Last Update June 23, 2014
Developer WeMade Entertainment Co., LTD.
Google Play Installs: 1,000,000- 5,000,000
Top Grossing Rank (Google Play) #4


Gameplay Analysis


Hay Day’s gameplay is designed to be accessible and welcoming to all gamers, especially players belonging to a more casual audience. From the cartoonish, almost children’s storybook looking visuals, to the numerous tutorials at the beginning, the game tries to make the player feel as comfortable and stress free as possible as they ease into the game. The controls are simple and intuitive to use, making completing multiple objectives in a short amount of time easy and quick to do.

For each level gained, rewards are given to the player in the form of new tools, extra land to grow more crops, new areas to explore and other various enhancements. Almost every reward is immediately useful to the player, giving the game a constant feeling of momentum and progress. It is always possible to complete a task and receive some sort of reward from doing it, whether you spend five minutes or one hour playing.

Tasks in the game though, occur in real time. This means that there is a waiting period for each task to finish before the player can receive a reward or a finished item. These times can range from little over to a minute to over a day. Players have the option to use premium currency to speed up time and instantly complete the task if necessary, but the game never puts the player in a situation (outside the tutorial) where this is a requirement.

Hay Day capitalizes on social sharing by allowing players to visit each other’s’ farms to lend a helping hand or buy goods. Facebook and Google+ integration also allow players to include their real friends into the game.



Artistically speaking, Everytown is much more familiar to the Korean audience. Not only is it a more traditional anime style, but even the UI is more cluttered and complex than its foreign counterpart. This complexity is carried throughout the game play as well, requiring more work from the player in order to get the most out of the game.

Rather than starting out with a huge swath of land to farm, players to build their town from a small, square plot, to a bustling metropolis filled with restaurants, factories and farms, all of which need to be maintained. A significant amount of micromanagement and player interaction is necessary to keep towns lucrative and active.

For example, along with the normal activities of crop farming, buildings need to be cleaned in order to produce the best items. Once items are harvested or created, they can be combined with other items to produce something of more value.

NPCs give you tasks to complete for in game currency along with experience points to grow the size of your city, allowing you to make it more successful. Different characters can be unlocked who also come with their own unique items and abilities to earn more experience and opportunities to grow your town. Like Hay Day, certain actions take place in real time, also offering a way to speed up time through the use of premium currency.

Everytown features a heavier social emphasis than Hay Day by connecting with other friends and players through their respective Kakao accounts. Like Hay Day, players can visit each other’s towns and earn currency, complete jobs and sell their own items to other players. While being social is not required to succeed at the game, it is heavily encouraged as a fast way to earn currency. In the higher levels, maintaining a large town and having enough currency to expand your town further would be a difficult task without the extra points from other players.

Kakao integration is likely one of the major reasons why Everytown has seen more success than Hay Day. Kakao, by design, is a much easier and less intrusive way of engaging with friends, and is more ubiquitous in Korea than Facebook and Google+.



Screenshot_2014-06-27-10-27-51(1)Hay Day features two kinds of currency in game, gold and diamonds with the gold acting as in game currency and diamonds acting as premium currency. A majority of items can be purchased with the in game currency, which is relatively easy to obtain as long as the player is willing to invest time completing tasks and selling in game items. However, since many of the activities take time to complete, the game’s option to use premium currency to speed up the time can be tempting to some players wanting to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time.

The major pay walls hit in waves particularly where storage is concerned. The players’ barn and silo can only store a finite amount of goods, and players can expect to feel the squeeze every five levels or so as they advance through the game. The items needed to expand the barn and silo storage are rare and can only be either discovered randomly, bought with premium currency, or be lucky enough to find them in the shops to buy from another user.

Prices for both the standard and premium currency range from reasonable to outrageous. A small helping of currency both standard and premium will cost you little more than 3,000 won. However for larger amounts of currency, players can be expected to pay over 100,000 won.


Kakao_Everytown_FreetoPlayEverytown features three kinds of currency in game: hearts which you gain from other players and are used to buy items for your characters, gold which is used to buy items for your town, and seeds, the premium currency used to speed up real time events in the game. However, unlike Hay Day, you only have the option of purchasing premium currency. The prices for this currency range from a little over 1,000 won to almost 100,000 won. Players can also earn currency with incentivized downloads of other Kakao published games.

Perhaps most importantly, there is simply more to spend money on. Not only can you spend money to speed up your progress, but you can unlock new characters and purchase different upgrades as well, allowing for deeper customization of your town than you can find in Hay Day. Combined with Kakao integration, this is likely a big reason that Everytown has outpaced Hay Day.


Despite being in similar genres and sharing the same core gameplay, Everytown offers more depth and a more familiar environment than Hay Day. Both in terms of art and layout as well as the complexity of game play.

Though both games have social integration, Everytown has leveraged the might of Kakao to help push it forward, where Hay Day has used the less popular Facebook and Google+ platforms. Everytown also puts more emphasis on connecting and playing with friends, making it a more socially cooperative experience.

Weekly News Round-Up: May 31st


1. Rumor Confirmed: Kakao and Daum to Merge

Kakao-Daum-PartnerWhispers of a merger between Kakao Corp and Daum that began last week have been confirmed as the two companies announced plans for the merger earlier this week. They will merge through an equity swap, creating one of Korea’s largest internet companies valued at around 3.4 trillion won ($2.9 billion USD). If the deal goes through, the combined company will be listed in October. Together the two companies will be better positioned in the market to take on Korea’s leading internet portal, Naver, and its OTT messaging service Line.


2. 5Rocks and Has Offers Announce Partnership

5Rocks-HasOffers-MobileAppTracking5Rocks announced plans to partner with Has Offers’ MobileAppTracking (MAT) this Friday. 5Rocks’ mobile game analytics and operation service has been integrated with MAT to provide clients with immediate access to the user analytics function that 5Rocks offers without any additional set-up. The goal is to allow marketers to beter segment users, create more targeted campaigns, and optimize the lifetime value of each user.



3. Top 10 games for Korea (Google Play, Grossing)

  1. Blade for Kakao (by 4:33)
  2. Anipang 2 for Kakao (by Sundaytoz)
  3. Seven Knights for Kakao (CJ)
  4. 몬스터 길들이기 for Kakao (CJ)
  5. 모두의마블 for Kakao (CJ)
  6. 별이되어라 for Kakao (Gamevil)
  7. 영웅의 군단 (en: Legion of Heroes) (Nexon)
  8. Cookie Run for Kakao (Devsisters)
  9. 원티드 for Kakao (Palmple)
  10. 에브리타운 for Kakao (WeMade)

Driving Retention in Free-to-Play: The basics of community management


Any conversation about free-to-play games inevitably takes a turn down one, if not two, frustrating rabbit holes. The first is how it is evil, destroying the game industry (a conversation I am guilty of myself), or it gets mired in the details of some facet of user acquisition, usually cost or retention.

I’m going to be diving down that second rabbit hole to talk about some basic community building strategies that can help you create a better experience for your users that will make them want to stick around for more.

Understanding the Role of Community

Nicholas Lovell of Games Brief wrote an excellent article about free-to-play game development that everyone should read. He details the business funnel (consisting of acquisition, retention, and monetization) and the game model pyramid (consisting of the core loop, retention game, and superfan game).

Though he doesn’t detail the role of community in his post, understanding where it fits in is an integral part of creating the retention that is so important in both aspects of his model.

So where does community fit then?

Snugly between acquisition and retention, with a bit of overlap in both areas.







Your community has to find a balance between these two things. It has to be easily accessible so that new users can latch onto it quickly and feel at home, and it has to offer your current players a way to feel connected to the game even when they aren’t playing it – a non-trivial task. To truly leverage the power of your community, you’ll need to have at least one community manager to oversee it.

Community Manager’s Role & Tool Set

The community manager exists in an ambiguous space between customer support and public relations. At times they will be pushing press releases and managing crisis, and other times helping solve customer inquiries. They will also need to provide feedback to the developer or publisher about what changes the community would like to see implemented in the game.

Not every game is going to have the same community needs, but the basic foundation remains relatively similar across the board. You’ll likely want to create a fan site program (a basic kit so fans can create their own sites), a forum, and a social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.).

Keep in mind though, these are merely the distribution channels. You’ll need to fill them with quality content for them to be of any real value, and there-in lies arguably the most difficult task.

Creating Good Community Content

One of the biggest mistakes I see even big studios make in community management, is creating lackluster content for their communities. They are so focused on the in-game world that their community sphere ends up being nothing more than an official forum overloaded with spam, a barren Facebook page, and a deserted attempt at a twitter account.

Rather than waste your time trying to figure out how to force Facebook and Twitter to work for you, focus on the actual content you create and use social media as a distribution channel. While there are no hard and fast rules for what kind of content your community will enjoy, you can start by asking yourself one simple question:

How can my community engage with this?

The best community content is the kind that can be built on and modified by your users. Whether its memes, contests, or forums, allowing space for your users to project their own identity onto the game creates a sense of ownership.

This is particularly important in the free-to-play sphere where purchases are typically for consumable items and users don’t actually own anything they buy. Visual, shareable content, like infographics, memes, art, and videos, are particularly good for driving interest and engagement.

A cautionary note, however: even after you’ve created great content and set up the proper distribution channels, you’ll still need to pull people in to interact with you and your brand. Each piece of content you create should have some kind of ask: participate in the discussion, share, like, etc.

Making Your Content Work for You

As I mentioned at the beginning, community building overlaps between user acquisition and user retention. This means the community activity you foster needs to accomplish different goals at different times. These include:

Helping your users be successful with your game

Tutorials, build guides, item recipes, strategies, and how-to faqs are extremely valuable for helping new users interact with your game. They help overcome the initial bumps in the road that cause users to leave early. Clash of Clans created this content early on in their Japanese release and it helped them turn the region into one of their most profitable markets.

Grow your user base

The kind of easily sharable content that helps spread your brand and bring people into the game. This can also be things like inside-jokes that the established community already understand and reaffirms the brand image and identity of the game community.

Provide feedback for improvement

Discussions and feedback prompts that community managers can relay to publishers or developers to make improvements in the game.

Before spending time creating any piece of content make sure to ask yourself what goal will this help me achieve?

Share Your Ideas

Have you had any experience with community management? What practices did you find most helpful? What are the foundations you found most helpful for building from the ground up? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Kakao Talk Odds & Ends: Birzzle Fever

Birzzle Fever for Kakao Talk

birzzleBirzzle Fever is a fast-paced match game where players compete to be the best by trying to create high-scoring combo-chains. Players can try to beat solo missions, level up their birds for more rewards, and compete against their friends for the top spot in the leader boards.




  • Developer: Enfeel (South Korea)
  • Rank on Kakao Top Grossing: #267
  • Release Date: August 26, 2013
  • Last Update: May 12, 2014
  • Google Play Installs: 500,000 – 1,000,000
  • Supported Languages:  English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Simplified Chinese, Swedish, Traditional Chinese


Pros/Cons Summary

Pros Cons
Familiar gameplay (match-3 genre) Cramped UI, Small Font
Decent engagement loops Frequent crashes
Cute artwork and characters Not enough relevant events
Competitive play Not enough fresh updates
Fast-paced, short sessions Poor localization strategy

Where they got it right


Birzzle-Fever-GameplayThe match-3 genre is an easy pitch in South Korean. This may also be seen as a bit of a downside in an over-saturated market, but the familiarity of the game play makes it accessible and the cute bird cartoons make it easy to engage with for all ages. The short, timed play sessions are perfect for the platform and create the same sense of urgency that Anipang, Kakao’s first big game, used to become so successful. The leader boardBirzzle-Fever-Gameplay2s are built into the Kakao platform, allowing you to invite friends to the game and then compete with them (a standard for the platform these days). This feature meshes well with the competitive nature of Korean culture.

The missions are structured so that players must complete a certain amount to level up. They are just challenging enough to encourage continual play while allowing players to purchase gems and skip over particularly difficult missions or ones they don’t want to complete. Overall, I’d say the engagement loops are reasonably strong, but they could be better.

Where it went wrong


Birzzle-Nest-FeatureGiven that the game was developed by a Korean developer, they got a lot of the fundamentals right. Unfortunately, they failed to take it to the next level with some basic problems. Granted I was playing the English version on Kakao, but I can tell that they didn’t think about localization from the start just by looking at it. The UI is cramped and was likely not designed to be elastic. Their solution to this was to shrink the font to make the words fit, making impossibly small on even a large phone screen. They also forget that English doesn’t word wrap the same way Korean does, so in  several spots sentences just break in the middle of a word.

The game crashed quite a bit while I was testing it as well, and this was a frequent complaint in the store comments that doesn’t appear to have been addressed.

Finally, and most importantly, the game suffers from a lack of relevant events and updates. To stay on top of the market in Korea, weekly updates and events are generally expected. With dozens of new releases every week, the only way to stay on top and keep your players interested is to come up with new content.



What could be changed?

The first thing I noticed that was lacking was the Birzzle Nest feature, where you can level up the six different kinds of birds, which each give you different bonuses in the game such as increased experience, bigger combos, more coins, etc. It almost looks like they designed it to have more birds, but never released them. This would be an easy way to update the game on a consistent basis to keep players engaged. Looking at the charts below, both the Google Play Store and App Store analytics show the same trend, suggesting that players got bored with the game quickly. It appears some kind of burst campaign gave them great initial downloads, but they failed to support that momentum and it dropped off quickly.



The Google Play Store analytics hint that Birzzle Fever failed to keep up with the downloads from a strong initial burst campaign.


App Annie Ranks Birzzle Fever

Birzzle Fever had a lot of downloads early on, but tanked quickly due to poor retention strategy.

Tell us your thoughts on Birzzle Fever

What do you think could have made Birzzle Fever a bigger success? You can download the game on the Google Play Store or in the App Store and give us your opinion on the game.

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Where is the Line on Free-to-Play? A Half-Hearted Case for the Industry’s Most Reviled Monetization Model

free-to-play mobile games

This week, I happened across a number of great opinion pieces and articles on free-to-play models. I have a tendency to agree that free-to-play is destroying the game industry, but others argue they are the balance between a fun game and recouping time and money invested. One thing is for sure, with companies like Gungho making $1 billion in revenue from a single free-to-play game, we can rest assured the model won’t be disappearing any time soon.

As both a game fan and an industry professional, this puts me in a strange place. On the one hand, I want my clients to be successful and make millions from their games. But as a player, every push notification or interstitial I’ve ever received has led me to delete the game from my phone.

This makes being a game fan in Korea particularly frustrating, as almost every new game released is now free-to-play and aggressively monetized. And for good reason: Korea has one of the best monetization rates in Asia, and players love to part with their hard earned Won for customizable skins and in-game boosts that will help them reach the coveted #1 spot on the leader board.

But today I am going to play the devil’s advocate and make a small case for the free-to-play model, because, hate it or not, it’s going to be around for a while.

Make it Free and They Will Come

When I was a kid in the mid-1990s, my dad bought us our first family computer. It was a beige Packard Bell with Windows 3.1 that weighed as much as a fridge. My favorite memory from that time was the collection of shareware floppy drives from dollar store that were piled up in the office cabinet. Those were the disks that introduced me to games like Duke Nukem, Commander Keen, Hugo: House of Horrors, and my all-time favorite puzzle-quest: Paganitzu. These games all had the one thing in common: they were free – to a point.

Most shareware titles were released in episodes, with the option of paying to upgrade to the full version. This solved a major problem for developers back in the day. They needed to get discovered, but they didn’t want to just give their games away. By lowering the risk of spending for their users, shareware provided a great way to get discovered and shared in the relatively small niche of gamer hobbyists.

Free-to-play mobile games are the modern day answer to the same age-old problem of discovery. The major problem for developers today is the competition is on steroids. While a fraction of games are leveraging it to pull in Scrooge McDuck-like fortunes, it’s proven itself to be an ineffective method for the wider industry. And that brings me to my next point.

What is now will not always be

According to this Forbes article, 0.01% of mobile apps are financially successful. There’s a good reason for that: we’ve only just begun. The mobile gaming industry is like a new-born infant trying to suck its thumb: every once in a while it achieves its goal, but for the most part it just drools all over itself. We have not yet learned how to coordinate our movements or plan for the problems we don’t even know exist yet.

Just like shareware eventually gave way to the golden age of PC and console gaming, so too will free-to-play eventually change in form and function. As it stands, free-to-play may be popular, but it is a largely unsuccessful model, and if there’s one thing that will drive change, its profit.

We haven’t found the sweet spot, but we will

So where is the balance? Well, we haven’t found it yet. At the moment, we are caught between the news frenzies of major successes and the bitter disappointment of our individual failures. With free-to-play being the relatively new model that it is, both developers and consumers will become more aware of its pitfalls and will learn to temper their designs and avoid exploitative games.

Having less than 1% of the player base support a game is inherently unsustainable, and progress will be made over time to find a middle ground.

At least as a game fan, that is my hope.

Share your thoughts

What is your take on the free-to-play model? Will it ruin gaming as we know it, or will we eventually find a balance? Let us know by tweeting @latisglobal or @CurtisFile, or leave a comment below. As always, remember to follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn for more articles on gaming culture and Korea.

[Speaker Profile Series] Anna Cho – Storm8

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Next week, Latis Global Communications and KOCCA will be holding a discussion panel in Seoul to talk about issues in game development and marketing. We’ll be introducing some of our panelists on the blog throughout the week, so keep checking back for more updates.

Anna Cho - UI Engineer, Storm8

Anna Cho – UI Engineer, Storm8

Anna Cho is a UI Engineer at Storm8 in sunny California. Her job involves many interesting areas of game production including brainstorming cool UI and game screens that designers create and implement with Engineers. She also works with Product Managers and Game Designers to improve features on games. She says there is not a single part in the game that is not relevant to User Experience.  Here are her thoughts UI, the game industry, and working with Storm8.





What do you like most about working in the game industry as a UI engineer? Can you give us some insight into the environment at Storm8?

I love the live interaction with players all over the world. Mobile gaming is such an amazing and still a new media compared to other traditional entertainment media like TV or film, so it’s very exciting.

In terms of the work environment, Storm8 fosters a very collaborative culture where we all work together as a team. Storm8 tries to make our office environment fun and encourages everyone to play games. Of course we are pretty rigorous on our product quality and follow a fast-paced release schedule as well.

What are the major differences between American UI’s and Korean UI’s?

The primary difference is that Korean UI has Korean letters. We spend quite a large amount of resources to localize our games – and it is not as easy as it sounds.

Is there any difference in designing UIs for Apple vs. Android? If so, what are those differences?

We try to make all players happy through a game’s core mechanic, which is the same for both platforms. The difference in developing for the Android platform is that there are so many unique devices with varying screen ratios and capabilities. With that, it can be a challenge for game developers to be able to test and optimize for every single type of Android device since there are many varieties. UI testing in Xcode is simpler because it is uniform in all of Apple’s devices.

Last year Storm8 launched its third party publishing platform. How has the first quarter of 2014 been for that business?

We’re very excited about the launch of Storm8 Publishing and looking forward to engaging with talented developers around the world to help expose their games to our strong network of users worldwide.