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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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.
Kyle 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 firstname.lastname@example.org