What Is KakaoTalk? An introduction to Korea’s biggest game platform

Kakao Talk Messenger

Kakao Talk Messenger

The sounds of Kakao notifications going off may now be the most ubiquitous noise in all of Korea. Installed on nearly every smartphone in the country, it’s fair to say that KakaoTalk has dominated the domestic market, both as an OTT/SNS app, and more recently as a gaming platform.

Now that they have announced a merger with the tech titan, Daum, KakaoTalk may be the most powerful app in the entire country. So why do so few outside of Korea have deeper understanding of it? In this article, we’re going to give you a big picture view of the powerful platform, elaborate on its success, and explain how to register your own game onto Kakao.

To start, let’s talk about where the app began.

 

The Origins of Kakao

Kakao Corporation was founded in 2006 by Kim Beom-soo, former CEO of NHN Corporation, with the mission of creating web-based SNS services (NHN is the parent company of Naver, the leading Korean search portal, and LINE, the #1 OTT messaging app globally). In 2009, due partly to its lack of services for the web and the blossoming potential of the mobile market, Kakao pivoted from designing web based projects, and devoted themselves to the mobile market.

When KakaoTalk launched in March 2010, its main competitors were Google Talk, Whatsapp and NateOn. KakaoTalk quickly differentiated itself from all 3 apps with its highly polished user experience and aesthetics. Unlike Google Talk, Kakaotalk understood the significance of a smartphone’s contact book over email contacts, automatically porting a user’s phone contacts to create a Kakao friend list.

 

OTT-Apps-Kakao

 

This would not only make for a convenient user experience, but would later form a powerful, smartphone-centric social graph that would serve as the bedrock for Kakao’s later ventures into SNS (through KakaoStory) and gaming (KakaoGame). Google and Facebook, encumbered by their own proprietary social graphs based on desktops, would be late in realizing the importance of the smartphone social graph.

Furthermore, Korea’s long history with freemium mechanics (see: Maple Story) helped KakaoTalk embrace a more forward-looking, micro-transaction based model from launch. This business model would guide its future products, especially in the monetization of stickers and in-app-purchases within games on their platform.

Contrast this with Whatsapp, which was organizationally uncomfortable with micro-transactions. Though the two apps are similar in original concept, their paths would soon diverge due to these philosophical differences.

Within two years, nearly 90 percent of all Korean smartphone users were chatting, or “Ka-talking”, achieving the same branding and cultural importance of services such as Google (“Google It”).

 

Enter the Gaming Market

Kakao worked diligently to expand its product line. Through apps such as KakaoStory, a smartphone-centric replacement to SNS sites like Facebook, KakaoTalk grew dramatically more influential. Photos, groups, videos and other apps were also developed, ultimately leading to KakaoGame, the crown jewel of Kakao.

Before KakaoGame, many companies had to bridge the divide between social networking and gaming. Often, this would involve a company creating a new social graph from its customers, usually based off their email. However, most mobile games had a short shelf-life, severely reducing the incentive for users to sign up for the platform. Those that did were hardcore users, not only in their allegiance to the game, but to its respective company. The end results were communities of hardcore gamers with very little reach to the more desirable casual gamers. Common examples of communities like this include EA’s Origin, Glu, Gamevil, Com2us and Openfeint. Even Apple’s Game Center, despite its ubiquity, initially had trouble integrating social elements to the platform.

kakao-business-explained

KakaoGame made SNS users care about mobile games, and vice versa. The service allowed games to sync with a phone’s contact list, allowing for effective implementation of networking features such as invites and co-op play. Through this platform, the modern Korean mobile gaming market was born. Profits ballooned, as two of the earliest titles, Anipang and Dragon Flight went on to become hugely successful, shooting their popularity to the top of the charts and becoming “national games” after only a month.

The South Korean gaming market increased from $300 million to $1.1 billion in a year thanks to the success of Kakao.

kakao-talk-dragonflight

DragonFlight was one of the first successful games on Kakao, driving millions of downloads across the country.

To put it into perspective further: a year ago, a Korean mobile game was lucky if it hit 1 million game downloads. Games on Kakao have boosted that with 8 games on Kakao generating more than 8 million downloads. The previously mentioned Anipang and Dragon Flight have generated more than 20 million downloads. It’s also worth noting that as of now, eight out of ten of the highest grossing games in Korea are games from Kakao with only Clash of Clans and FIFA being able to slip into the top ten.

 

Can I join too?

While Kakao games were built with smaller publishers and developers in the beginning, larger companies have flocked to the platform since its success. Big names like CJ E&M, WeMade and Com2us have put out numerous popular titles on Kakao.

Western titles, such as Wooga’s Jelly Splash, have also joined the platform, with varying degrees of success. Given that Korea is currently the #3 Google Play market in the world, it’s an opportunity that you can’t afford to miss if you want to be truly global. The best way to achieve this is by building a relationship with an experienced partner in Korea, submitting your game to the Kakao platform is easy enough.

 

How to Submit a Game on Kakao

Even if you can’t speak Korean, the process for submitting your game is very straightforward and easy. Start by going to their website (http://with.kakao.com/game/en/proposal), and filling out the form with the details of your game and some basic information including:

  • Title
  • Genre
  • Whether your game is released yet or not
  • A brief description of your game
  • A place to attach your proposal file (you must explain how your game will integrate with Kakao’s social graph here, as well as how the game will monetize)
  • A download link to your game
  • Your company info

After filling out and submitting the form, Kakao then goes through a process of reviewing your proposal. If it looks interesting to them, they will contact the developer or publisher with the possibility of signing a contract.  It may be necessary to visit Korea personally, or to have a Korean speaker available, to explain some of the more elaborate points of your game. Finally, if Kakao accepts your application, it’s time to move onto SDK integration. But we’ll save that for another time.

 

The Future

WeChat adopted a similar platform for China in 2013 with great fanfare and even greater revenue explosions. LINE has also integrated its popular OTT messenger with its games, most notably in Japan. Even in Korea several alternate platforms are popping up, which will be discussed in future posts.

So, not only are alternate platforms rising up to compete with Kakao, but with so many apps now on the Kakao store, it’s becoming harder for companies to find success even with Kakao’s powerful social graph.

Over the course of the month, we’ll discuss some of these alternate methods for finding success in Korea. But for today, we recognize the juggernaut that is Kakao.

 

Have a question? Contact us!

Please leave a comment if you have any questions, especially if you’re interested in launching in Kakao. We’ll be more than happy to get back to you with all of your questions and concerns. In the meantime, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook so we can connect you with more information about making your games a success in Korea.

 

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 

A Day in the Life: Postmortem on a Launch Failure

Running-Quest-Banner

Sterling Selover’s story is one that a lot of developers are familiar with. He had a great game idea with a twist on a favored genre, some friends willing to help make it into an international success, and even great press.

But like so many hopeful game developers, a few bad decisions led to the game flopping in the charts. The game in question is Running Quest, an RPG runner hybrid inspired by games like Temple Run, Everquest, and Elder Scrolls.

In spite of his efforts to combine those games into a mobile chart-topper, it peaked at #611 in the top grossing charts for the iPhone in the US. I met Sterling in January at the London Pocket Gamer Connects event, just prior to the release of the game. At the time, I told him I thought the game could do really well in Korea (and I still stand by that), but he was already overwhelmed with the international releases he had scheduled.

I’ve kept in touch with him since and he agreed to share some of the lesson he learned in working on the project on the blog. They are brief and to the point, but they highlight the problems and decisions a lot of young developers have to face when releasing their games, so I hope you’ll be able to learn from his experience too.

Q: Why did you choose Japan as your entry point into Asia as opposed to Korea?
A: I chose Japan and China because I personally knew people in those regions that were willing to help translate the app for a reasonable share of the revenue in those countries.

Our Advice: While it’s great to have people you know in new markets, translation is rarely done on revenue share basis and ought to be a relatively inexpensive cost in your marketing budget. It’s better to partner with someone who is able to deliver, not just localization services, but access to a network of ad agencies or publishers who can assist with translation and user acquisition obstacles.

Q: If you could single out the biggest problem or mistake that was made, what would it be?
A: Spending money on advertising as opposed to user acquisition.

Our Advice: No doubt user acquisition is the problem to solve in the mobile sphere. It’s both an issue of quantity and quality, so not only do you need to acquire users, you need to make sure you keep them. Resources will also need to be allocated to community building and maintenance, so factor those into your budget when you decide to tackle new markets.

Q: I saw that there were multiple languages available for the game, what was your methodology for localizing it and what made you choose those languages?  
A: I will likely not be localizing in the future.  I have not generated a return for the investment in localization.  I chose the most popular languages of English, French, German, Italian, Spanish as that is pretty standard these days.  I also included Japanese and Chinese because I knew people that were willing to help.

Our Advice: For an initial release, immediately expanding into multiple markets without prior experience may be a bit more ambitious than feasible. Entering a new market is a time investment, so make sure you’ve got a good understanding of what is required of you for each place, or look for publishing/marketing partners who can handle the bulk of the work for you.

Q: What would you do differently the next time you make a game?
A: Strategic partnerships and have a rock solid plan for development and marketing.

Our Advice: As mentioned above, this is a great tip. Strategic partnerships and development plans are a must.

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from making and marketing Running Quest?
A: Don’t release the product until its ready and don’t commit to anything until you’re ready.

 Our Advice: Not really much to add here. Solid advice.

Q: Tell us a bit about your upcoming projects/game releases.
A: I’ve started working on a very cool top down, RPG, adventure game.  Think The Legend of Zelda : Link to the Past meets Dark Souls.  That’s about all I can say for now.  We will actually be releasing the game on PC/Mac before Mobile, but it will be released on mobile as well.  The game will also be a premium title with no In-App Purchases.

 

Tell Us Your Thoughts

Have you released an unsuccessful game? What lessons did you learn? What advice would you give to someone releasing a title in multiple markets at once?

We love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below. Don’t for get to follow us on LinkedIn, and Twitter, and subscribe to our RSS feed.

I Got 99 Problems, But a Publisher Ain’t One: Publisher relevance in an age of indies

publsihing relevance

With the rising number of successful independent game developers, game pros from all corners of the industry have been calling the necessity of publishers into question. While some still see a purpose, other industry experts, like Bryan Cashman over at the Consulgamer blog, are questioning publisher relevance all together.

Choosing to go it alone in your domestic market where you have home-turf advantage is difficult on its own, but launching in new markets by yourself incurs a whole new level of risk that you have to be prepared for.

Wherever you stand on the matter one thing is for sure: whether or not the relevance of publishers is diminishing, the problems they have traditionally solved are more complex than ever.

Knowledge and Experience are the Weapons of Choice

Marketing Support, financing, personnel, brad recognition – and the list goes on. Whether you are launching in the domestic market or abroad, going it on your own means arming yourself with more knowledge and tools than you had to in the past.

I often hear small indie companies heralding the success of games like Titanfall and Star Citizen as evidence that publishers are no longer necessary. The reality is, those games are backed by professionals with decades of experience and a well-established industry network. For developers taking their first baby steps, the expectation that they will reach the same heights is just short of delusional.

The communities of Star Citizen and Titanfall were built on their founders’ previous success, solving the major problem of brand recognition. New developers will have to consider the how they will tackle community building for their games and solve the dreaded user acquisition equation. This is particularly true for the mobile sphere where user acquisition is far more nuanced.

Launching in a new market means finding out what the life-time value (LTV) of your game is in that specific region, what kind of budget you’ll need to expect for marketing, and how to run a proper soft launch to test market interest.

Crowdfunding is Not a Panacea

“But,” you say, “I can always build my community and funding on Kickstarter!”

I heard this multiple times from young studios I met at GDC this year, but I also had the pleasure of listening to a rather sobering talk from Simon Strange about crowdfunding games. He drove home a very important point: both fundraisers and backers don’t know how to use Kickstarter. Not only is it a horrible way to raise money, according to Strange, but crowdfunding isn’t necessarily a viable option in all markets (particularly in Korea and Japan).

Even if you do choose to go this route, there is no guarantee you’ll meet your funding goals, or that the money you do raise will go as far as you expect it to.

So How Do You Remain Indie and be Successful?

A strong team and strong partnerships. While, every now and then, the odd two-man studio has breakout success in the mobile sphere, the honest truth is that we don’t yet fully understand the formula for viral games.

Avoid setting unrealistic expectations and take a measured approach. Set reachable goals and make sure your team includes someone with marketing experience and someone with user acquisition and community expertise. This can mean bringing people on full time to your team, or hiring an agency to work on your behalf. The agency route may be particularly advantageous if you are choosing to enter a new market and you want to do it without a publisher. There are several organizations like KISS, who act as a bridge between Europe and Asia for the PC market, and even Latis Global ourselves.

A Final Thought

I’ll end this with a quote from a Pocket Gamer article I read this week about this issue:

“The thing about publishers is, they do have to take risks,” added Revolution’s Charles Cecil.

“That really shouldn’t be underestimated. If you don’t have a fanbase then going through a publisher is a valid idea – I’m not anti-publisher in the least.”

There are lots of avenues to be successful. While remaining independent and protecting your ideas from the influence of publishers may be your ideal, it’s also worth it to consider publishing contracts while you are earning street cred and getting over the learning curve.

Now it’s your turn

Have you published your own game before? What lessons did you learn from going indie? What do you think about the future of publishing: will it continue to be as relevant as ever, or are we witnessing its gradual decline into irrelevance?

We love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment. Remember to share this article and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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.