Last week, we discussed the Kakao platform and showed the essential knowledge necessary for getting started with Korea’s most popular mobile platform. Today, we take a look at Line, Band and Naver AppStore. Three related platforms that seem similar, but function very differently from one another.
Naver began as a project within Samsung to develop a Koreanized search engine. After some early successes, the company was spun off in 1999 as the search portal Naver, which also included a children’s site and a game portal: Hangame. In July 2000, after a meeting between Naver’s CEO Lee Hae-Jin and Hangame’s CEO Kim Bum-Soo, Naver merged with Hangame Communications and changed their corporate name to NHN, or Next Human Network, in 2001. It was through this union of being Korea’s top web and game portal that Naver became Korea’s top internet company, with the next several years spent expanding and creating new services. such as Knowledge iN, a question-and-answer service similar to Yahoo Answers and Quora.
In 2006, co-executives Kim Bum-Soo and Lee Hae-Jin came to differences over several areas including revenue and the future direction of NHN. This would turn a once thriving partnership into an epic rivalry that continues to this day, as Kim Bum-Soo would leave NHN to form his own company, Kakao Corporation. Through the eponymous KakaoTalk, Kakao Corporation would dominate the mobile platform landscape in Korea for years to come, leaving NHN struggling for a response.
Competing against Kakao: Line, Band and Naver Apps
One year after the release of KakaoTalk in 2010, Naver introduced Line, a messaging app similar to Kakao and developed for multiple operating systems.
Line was developed by NHN Japan, a division of NHN. At the time, NHN’s team in Japan realized the importance of alternate communication in times when mobile service would not be as reliable and wished to create an app that would allow this kind of communication. After pitching the idea to NHN Korea and getting the idea approved, they quickly went to work on developing the Line app. Launching in June 2011, Line quickly caught on in popularity in Japan, gaining over 50 million users within a year, a number that took Facebook three years to achieve.
While popular in Japan, Line could not shake off the incumbent KakaoTalk’s popularity in Korea. Nor was Line able to create a similar game platform like KakaoGame, a huge moneymaker in Korea, or KakaoStory, an enormously sticky SNS app . This led Line to pursue a more global approach to their business, and with stunning success. Line quickly overtook KakaoTalk in terms of total global users, boasting over 450 million users worldwide. This was twice the number of KakaoTalk’s users, and in battlezone countries where both companies competed for users, Line would consistently emerge victorious over Kakao.
To counter KakaoStory, NHN went with Band, an SNS platform developed by the Naver subsidiary Camp Mobile. If KakaoStory is the Korean mobile version of Facebook, Band is the Google Plus equivalent. Band heavily emphasized exclusivity, similar to the “circles” of Google Plus, and was thus great for creating vibrant, close-knit communities. Band would take off as a way for amateur sports teams, music bands, club organizations and the like to enhance productivity and engagement within their groups.
But this still left a gaping hole in the NHN strategy: the lack of a gaming platform similar to KakaoGame. In 2014, NHN announced two complementary gaming platforms that would both take effect around April, 2014. The first is Band Games, a messenger-based gaming platform similar to KakaoGame. The second was the Naver App Store, an independent, Android-based store that would promote and share games with through a desktop/mobile hybrid approach, dubbed the “Naver mobile game channeling service”.
Publishing games through Band or Naver AppStore is a different experience than going through Kakao. These two services distinguish themselves through the tools and flexible options they offer to both publishers and designers in terms of marketing and revenue models.
Band of Brothers
Band Games is based on the concept that close-knit communities make for better gaming buddies. Sending game invites over Band involves a higher level, as Band friends enjoy a more intimate relationship due to the exclusive nature of the app. This differs a bit from the somewhat “spammy” nature of KakaoGame, which encourages users to send invites to acquaintances and lesser-known friends.
For Band, launching a game does not come with the evaluation process that comes with Kakao. Camp Mobile came to this decision by wanting to give choice to the users and not the platform holder, putting faith in the users to decide what is worth downloading and what is worth avoiding. Band also offers a competitive rate for developers and publishers, taking as little as 14% compared to KakaoTalk’s 21% commission. Combined with Google’s 30% commission, developers using KakaoTalk end up taking just 49% of their revenue. With Band, developers can expect to take at least 56%, and as much as 64% if they use the Naver App Store.
Along with this, according to the Appasia August 2014 report, the demographic for Band tends to be older people between the ages of 30 to 40. While the number of users is much lower, the older market tends to have much stronger purchasing power than a younger audience.
Though released with much fanfare in April 2014, developers have not received great returns for their involvement with Band Games so far. It is difficult to find more than one Band game that ranks within the top 100 grossing in Korea, with no significant success in the Downloads ranks as well.
Naver Appstore: Enter the Search Giant
The first thing to realize about the Naver AppStore is that because it’s Android-based, it does not require developers to make both a Android and iOS version of a game. This differs from Kakaotalk, which has a policy of only accepting games that are available on both platforms. Naver is also in the process of gaining the support of larger publishers who have already found success in other marketplaces such as Google Play and T-Store. This is also a move that aims to strengthen the reputation of the platform and provide a more reputable place to develop and publish when standing next to the competition. Naver plans on supporting games on the app store by using their own search engine to run advertisements and promotions with a goal of attracting at least 30,000 new users.
The Naver AppStore is also lenient to publishers when it comes to making a profit. Developers and publishers keep up to 73% of their share of revenue of profit with Naver only taking a 10% marketing fee, 10% user mileage fee and a 7% channeling fee with the channeling fee even going back to help out the developers and publishers.
Naver App Store also provides a service called Naver Beta Zone, an application which allows developers to post their games still in development and have users beta test them. Users are rewarded in-game items or other pseudo-monetary prizes for their participation. This works both as a strong marketing tool and an effective form of QA, as games can generate buzz at the pre-launch stage, and bugs can be caught by dedicated and passionate users.
Naver AppStore stresses the cross-platform benefits between desktop and mobile. This really shines from a marketing perspective in several ways. First, mobile games on the Naver App Store appear in Naver search results, allowing them to receive SEO-related boosts to discoverability. Second, Naver coupons and other forms of e-currency that were previously limited to the Naver website are now being ported over for mobile use, allowing for appealing marketing campaigns. Naver also takes a hands-on approach to promotion, often providing perks and discounts at no cost to the developer. Finally, the Naver App Store provides alternative payment methods that are more conducive to younger users. Naver provides “top-off” methods of payment in addition to the traditional credit card and carrier based billing methods of other app stores. This allows for younger users to “top off” their cards with cash and use it for in-game purchases.
After 5 months of operations for both services, it looks like the Naver App Store is the early winner, with developers privately sharing glowing reviews of the Naver App Store’s services and profits. (Unfortunately, Naver App Store profits can not be tracked on sites like Appannie, as they are an independent service.) Still, it remains to be seen if either platform, in unison or independently, can become a true contender to Kakao Games.
In recent years, NHN’s search results have fallen over 4%, while their mobile searches have experienced a 53% increase. While services like Line may not have found the explosive success in Korea that Kakao has, their hold on the overseas market continues to grow with profits of over $513 million and over $12 million in mobile gaming revenue. It is expected to almost double its profits by 2015. While it may have not beaten Kakao, NHN remains one of its strongest competitors, both in Korea and abroad. By expanding overseas, there is hope that by offering mobile messaging services that offer everything from games to media, they can catch on to a foreign market whose main use of messaging apps such as WhatsApp is strictly for messaging only.
On the surface however, it seems that their success may seem contradictory to their current business strategy. Line, Band and Naver AppStore seem to be competing against one another, each service fragmented and lacking a central roof to unite them under. NHN does not see this as a weakness, but rather as a strength that sets them apart from the competition and allows each individual platform to to perform to their own strengths. NHN has said that they believe in “strengthening the core competitiveness of each business”, meaning that each individual platform can operate more nimbly and in the end, respond to the competition quickly and without the additional weight of other platforms and their individual needs weighing them down. While Line, Band and the app store may all distribute games, their audiences are different with each platform functioning differently enough that the concern of each platform competing against one another doesn’t really matter in the end.
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