Swimming Against the Free-to-Play Current: An exercise in futility

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It has been said that the people swimming against the stream are the ones that know the strength of it. Which is why it never fails to surprise me when, at least once a week, I read another tirade against the Free-to-play “plague” that is wiping out all that is good in the industry. 
 
The first shots fired this week came from Chris Pruett, the mind behind Wind-up Knight. He suggested banning in-app purchases from Smart-TV apps for the first year or two in order to establish pricing norms and give premium a chance. 
 
A few weeks ago, Peter Molyneux made his vow to change the industry as well, saying that current free-to-play games “abuse and confuse” customers. Even the folks at Dorkly had something to say about the birth of every awful video game thing.
 
But the naysayers seem to be failing to realize one thing: this plague has no vaccination, at least not one that is coming any time soon. Moreover, the criticisms are coming largely from western developers and publishers who are only looking at the issue through a single lens. 
 

All Free-to-Play is not equal  

The way users approach free games in different markets is as varied as the platforms they choose to play them on. Just as Android rules in China and Korea, and Apple is dominant in the US, so too are there differences in attitudes about in-app purchases and free games. 
 
Korea and China are particularly relevant because they are the patient zero of the free play models. Nexon’s Maple Story, although not the first, was the game that made micro-transactions so popular. The model spread from Korea’s online MMO gaming models into China. Free games are now an expectation in the gaming culture.
 
This is perhaps best demonstrated by statistics from Google’s  Our Mobile Planet, showing that although Koreans have an average of 40 apps on their phones, only 2.7 are paid. China seems to have similar inclinations with an average of 26 apps and only 2.1 of them paid. This is a significant difference from both the US and UK markets, where users have an average of 8 and 7 paid apps on their phones respectively. 
 
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This is very likely due to the fact that Korea and China were both relatively late bloomers to the gaming industry, both coming of age in the era of online PC games, where free-to-play has been around since nearly the very beginning. This early exposure helped form consumer expectations. 
 
One manifestation of this was in Korea’s MMO culture, which had a history of gray and black market item trading. Virtual goods have always tended to be viewed much differently than in the west. Namely, in-game items seem to be more ‘real’  to Korean and Chinese gamers than they are by western gamers.
 
Virtual goods and currency trading came to legal battles in both countries. At one point, the use of virtual game currencies to purchase real-world items became so ubiquitous in China that the country had to outlaw the practice. Korea was not immune to these legal battles either. Suffice it to say, not everyone has the same view of free-to-play games and in-app item purchases.   
 

Free content is ubiquitous 

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While people, particularly gamers, have been pointing the finger at companies like EA for their over aggressive payment schemes (rightfully so), the bigger picture is being ignored. Free-to-play, or rather free-to-use,  is not unique to the game industry. News content, music, and film have all been free, legally or otherwise, since the days of Napster. As opportunities on the internet have grown, so have the expectations of consumers for the way their content will be delivered. 
 
The fact is, the majority of content is free now, and that mindset is not going to die any time soon. Rather than fighting the tide with a broken oar, the free-to-play naysayers might want to start building a better boat to weather the rapids. 

Mobile Game News: Dark Souls Copy Infringement Case

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The line between infringement and inspiration is often a blurry one, but especially so where the mobile games industry is concerned. Mechanics are borrowed, art styles mimicked, and the pressure of a “fast follow” culture is bound to encourage more than a little unhealthy borrowing.

China’s mobile gaming market is perhaps the most notorious for this, with heavy fragmentation and very little means of going after copyright infringers, piracy is frequently cited as one of the greatest fears for western developers entering the market.

But in truth, the problem is industry-wide, so when Korean developer 4:33 came under fire this week for some not-so-minor advertising infringement,  it prompted us to look at the copy-catting and Korean culture. [Thanks to Kotaku]

Dark Souls Copyright Infringement

It was a netizen on the Korean forum, Today’s Humor, that first noticed the striking resemblances between the mobile blockbuster Blade and the popular console/PC franchise Dark Souls. First, the trailers seemed to have some extremely similar scenes:

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And their subway advertising felt a little borrowed as well:

 

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4:33 blamed the mishap on the advertising agency hired to run the promotions, telling Gamemeca in an interview that “There is a clause in our contract with them saying the agency will fully be responsible if there is any third party copyright violation. We’ve sent the agency a legal note saying they’ve damaged our image.”

Still, some netizens are commenting that it’s the advertising and trailer that are a problem, but that 4:33 tried to ride the coat-tails of Dark Souls with their whole game. But how grievous is their copy catting really?

Aesthetics and Mechanics

When we talk about plagiarism in games, there are really two separate, but related,problems. The first is the copying of art and design, the second is copying the core game mechanics themselves.

The problem in the game industry is that the majority of games all do this to some extent. Even if we agree to not discuss the rampant cloning of Flappy Bird, there are plenty of other examples. Candy Crush, when it comes down to it, is just slightly different version of Bejewelled. Hay Day is Supercell eating Zynga’s lunch. Korean companies have not been shy about doing this either.

Gamevil’s Epic Raiders was a near mechanical clone of Mika Mobile’s Battleheart.

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Mika Mobile’s Battleheart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gamevil’s Epic Raiders

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A skim through the Korean Google Play store and you will see it populated with similar match 3s, runners, and sim games that all feel a little similar in one way or another.

But this points to a problem in the industry as a whole, not just with one developer. It’s a symptom of a fast-follow culture where games are created with a “what works” mentality, producing only a narrow band of originality and creativity.

Which is why when artistic styles are copied, it feels like a much more grievous trespassing. The mechanics are already going to be similar by the nature of the industry, so when the aesthetic looks just a little too similar, it seems as though the line is being crossed too far.

So did Blade rip off Dark Souls artistically?

In terms of the game itself, I think not. Skeletons shooting arrows, and knights fighting the undead is a horse carcass this industry has been kicking around since its inception. But there is no denying that the trailer and advertising were copied.

**Update** Below are a couple of game play videos to compare Blade against Dark Souls. As you can see, Blade is a much brighter game, and one that is based primarily on wave clear, with little narrative.  Dark Souls on the other hand, has a darker atmosphere and is much more in depth than Blade.

 

 

I think we might be able to shed a little light on why the advertising campaigns look so similar, and the answer is probably not one you are expecting: movie posters.

A Culture of Copy-Catting

Not too long ago, it was reported that around 30% of Korean film posters may be ripping off from foreign film posters and album covers. Creative agencies site advertisers who become fixated on design concepts inspired by other foreign posters as a major source of the problem, but the problem truly runs a bit deeper than that.

For decades Korea has enjoyed a perfect environment for copying intellectual property. With a relative lack of popularity compared to China and Japan, Korean companies have been able to copy others while staying off the radar. This is partly because there exists a mindset that copying successful companies is, not only normal, but part of what it takes to become successful yourself. Even if a product from the west was being plagiarized, the chances of anyone noticing were pretty small, and the chances of them caring all that much equally so.

But, particularly recently, that is becoming less true. The constant political tensions, influx of foreigners teaching in Korea, the hallyu wave, and efforts by the Korean government to export Korean cultural content have all helped to shine more light on the country.Some people couldn’t help but notice that a lot of things looked… similar. Korean companies have been accused of copying everything from underwear, to electronics, and even restaurants. The similarities are often far too glaring and the problem is one that is going to need to be addressed.

Bad for Mobile Game Industry

Thankfully, 4:33 is taking action in this case and has already sent legal notice to the advertising agency they used to run the campaign.

The extent to which we allow any game to borrow concepts from another, whether its mechanics or aesthetics, may be up for debate, but cases like this have to be acted upon swiftly, particularly in Asia. China has already created a bad reputation for piracy that has caused western developers and publishers to be wary of the markets in Asia in general (though less so with Japan). If Korean companies allow this kind of plagiarism of foreign content to go unpunished, there is a risk in pushing potential investment away.

 

Tell us what you think

Do you think Blade borrowed too much from Dark Souls as a game? Was it just their advertising and trailer that crosses the line? Where do you think the line is on inspiration and infringement? How do we deal with these problems in a fast-follow industry? Leave your comments below and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn!

Kakao Talk Odds & Ends: Why CJ E&M Dominates the Charts

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In today’s fast paced environment, Korean gamers are consuming new gaming related content at a rapid pace. Keeping players engaged and also having a title that can remain profitable is one of the biggest challenges that publisher can face. For any publisher, to have any of their games featured among the top selling games in Korea is a sign of success in both marketing and the actual game itself.

So what do you say about a publisher that has not one, but five titles sitting in the top twenty highest grossing games in Korea?

CJ E&M Corp. is currently responsible for five titles sitting in the top twenty. Some of their titles, such as Everymarble, have gone on to surpass some of the biggest games on Kakao, including Anipang and Cookie Run. So how is t CJ E&M able to achieve what very few others can?

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A brand name and a massive bank account is the easy answer, but their secret to success runs far deeper than that.  In order to discover what makes CJ E&M such a dominant force, we need to look at a variety of factors, ranging from the titles they produce to the way each title is distributed to players.

The Things in Common

The five titles currently on the charts hold a sequential position at number three, four and five. The two remaining titles sit towards the end at number eleven and number fifteen respectively. All five of these titles feature different styles of play; however each of these titles has two factors in common:

1. All five games were created by developer Netmarble.

2. Each of the titles is available through KakaoTalk.

With these two factors in mind, we can take a look at where’s CJ E&M’s focus lies and begin to form some understanding behind their secrets of success.

KakaoTalk Distribution

With over a 100 million users worldwide (a number that continues to grow) and a 95% user base in Korea, Kakao is a dominant and ever present factor when it comes to mobile devices. Available on both Android and iOS systems, KakaoTalk has been the primary way for Koreans of all ages to communicate through text. By using KakaoTalk, users can amass a list of friends and family who are instantly available to message at the simple swipe of a finger. With an already massive user base, it should come as no surprise that once KakaoTalk started becoming a game distribution platform, it ended up becoming hugely successful with titles such as Anipang and Dragonflight.

Three Tiers of Gaming

Fast forward to 2014, and the Korean mobile gaming market, and more specifically the Kakao gaming market is overflowing with casual titles. Although some runners and puzzle titles have proven to be hugely successful, the over-saturation has created a wave of  “Me too” titles. This has compounded the, already difficult, issue of discovery, and its easy for good games to become lost in the fray.

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It is with this in mind that the focus comes to the final two tiers of mobile gaming: mid core and hard core titles. While nowhere near as popular as casual titles, these two areas have begun to show signs of increased popularity and a stronger embrace from gamers. When you consider that gaming in Korea isn’t a niche hobby, but rather a national pastime, it is only natural that the gaming market would mature as their users move away from casual content and begin exploring more core based games.

If we look at the five games published by CJ E&M in the top twenty grossing games in Korea, with the exception of one title, we can see a common theme among them:

#3: Monster Taming: A dungeon crawling hack n’ slash RPG

#4: Seven Knights: A side scrolling hack n’ slash title with RPG elements.

#5: Everybody’s Marble:  A board game where players take their characters around the different boards and participate in board game situations.

#11: Dragon Guard: A PvP hack n slash action MMORPG

#15: Chagu Chagu:  An arcade soccer title

Each of the titles, with the exception of Chagu Chagu, are the mid and hard core titles mentioned earlier. All of the titles feature RPG gameplay, arguably the most popular genre of gaming in Korea and combines it with an in depth and robust gaming experience usually found with PC and console titles. Developer Netmarble has successfully called upon the nostalgia and similarity of gameplay to other popular titles such as Diablo II and III while tapping into an area of handheld gaming that is ripe with potential for growth. However, knowing your audience and giving them what they want is only half of what makes these games a huge success. There is one more essential element that CJ E&M has successfully embraced.

Gaming on a social platform

While KakaoTalk began as a way to chat and communicate with friends and family, its this simple design philosophy that is the biggest asset to CJ E&M’s games and one of the most significant reasons behind its successes.

With KakaoTalk, the games you play are integrated with your existing friend’s list, giving each player a more enhanced experience in which their interactions come from, not in-game characters or NPCs, but rather real world people. Your friends, girlfriend/boyfriend, mother, etc. are now part of your gaming experience. Gaming in Korea is primarily a social experience, and by having a active friend’s list where people can play and compete together, it provides all of the social bells and whistles that PC and console gamers have experienced for years, now in a mobile format. There’s no need to download additional software and no need to re-add your friends on yet another social platform. Everyone you have ever communicated with through Kakao is now available to play with you.

A high user network like KakaoTalk also comes with a critical component to the success of any mobile title and the creation of a solid positive feedback cycle: positive word of mouth.

If a player likes a game on KakaoTalk, they can instantly send a game invite to their friends. Nearly all of the games in CJ E&M’s catalog offer the option to share games and invite other players off your Kakao list. They also offer in game rewards and incentives for bringing in other people to play with you. By including options like this CJ E&M have grown their numbers organically and increased their active users, contributing to an overall increase in their ranking and popularity as a brand.

It’s easy to see why CJ E&M has become such a dominant force on the mobile gaming marketplace. Through having foresight to give players options outside the crowded casual tier and allowing them to engage on the largest mobile social platform in Korea, CJ creates a cycle of demand, promotion and sharing that continues to fuel itself and achieve a large market presence that most publisher can only dream of achieving.

 

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 

 

 

No Girls Allowed: Should women have their own e-sports league?

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The South Korean based International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) stirred up controversy over gender-equality earlier this week with their announcement that an upcoming Hearthstone competition would be a male-only event.

In a recent announcement on their official facebook page, they have since reversed the statement, saying:

Our reason for maintaining events for women only is that we acknowledge the importance of providing women with ample opportunities to compete in e-Sports,
a currently male-dominated industry. Without efforts to improve female representation in e-Sports events, we can’t achieve true gender equality.

However, we realize that hosting a “male-only” competition is not the right way to go – as we stated, the industry is already male-dominated.
The fact that a female-only competition is being held for the reason stated above doesn’t mean that there is need to define the main competitions as “male-only”.

Therefore, we have decided to remove “male-only” competitions. This means the upcoming IeSF World Championship will host tournaments in 2 sections:
an “open-for-all” section which is open for all genders (replacing men-only competitions), and a female-only tournaments as stated previously.

Though it appears that they have made a 180, some netizens are still unhappy with set-up:

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But amidst the anger at IsEF for their Little Rascals-like thinking, there are some unpopular facts that support may lend support to their decision. Although Jason Schreier over at Kotaku may say,  “there is nothing about games like Hearthstone that would indicate that men and women play at different levels”, that is not entirely true. South Korea has a history of e-sports showing that women have not performed as well in mixed-gender tournaments going all the way back to the early days of Starcraft.

ToSsGirL is an excellent example of this. Until 2012, she was the only active female pro-gamer in the Starcraft scene, and her performance in the mixed gender scene rarely saw her pass the preliminary rounds. On the other hand, she dominated the female competitive scene, never losing a competition that she entered. So what does this mean for girls in e-sports?

Causal conclusions can’t really be drawn from the data. It’s just as likely that a lack of acceptance by the broader community affected her performance as it is that she was truly less skilled than her male counter parts. But whatever the reason, the pro-gaming scene in general has shown this pattern. And the truth is, ToSsGirL was much less likely to get noticed for her skill if there hadn’t been a females-only scene that she was dominating.

Even though women make up roughly 50% of gamers, they represent less than 10% of the professional competitive scene. Though the reasons for this are likely to include the sexist nature of competitive scene among other things, the point remains that until a stronger female scene is fostered, partitioning the competition in genders may very well be the best way to ensure that girl gamers get some of the spotlight.

 Tell us what you think!

Do you agree with having a separate league for female gamers? Why or why not? Leave a comment and let us know what you think. Remember to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for more gaming news out of South Korea!

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

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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

HAY DAY

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

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EVERYTOWN

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

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Gameplay Analysis

HAY DAY

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.

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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+.

Monetization

HAY DAY

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.

Everytown

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.

Conclusions

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.

Kakao Talk Odds & Ends: Hitting a mid-core, free-to-play home run

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Having skipped much of the console generation, Korea’s gaming culture has always been known for its love of RPGs and MMOs. With games like Lineage, Aion, and League of Legends dominating the scene, it comes as no surprise that surveys have shown even mobile gamers in Korea rank RPG/Adventure games as their favorite.

That might be why Blade, the new action- RPG from 4:33, has been dominating the charts at #1 since its release at the end of April. The game has held tight to that #1 slot for just over a month, making money hand over fist and showing no signs of slowing. But designing successful mid-core games for mobile has been a nagging frustration for the industry over the past year, so it begs the question: what makes for a good mobile RPG?

Korean developers may just have the answer (at least for their respective market). Today we’ll be looking at two games: Blade a huge success, and Mu: The Genesis, a game that barely made it, to figure out what makes a mid-core hit. Before we do that, however, let’s take a look at some key facts about player behavior.

Player Behavior in Korea

Designing for a mid-core hit arguably takes a bit more fine-tuning than puzzlers, which seem to dominate the landscape at the moment. So here are some key points from one particular inMobi survey, I want to lay down before we move on:

  • Korean gamers report preferring easy game play than they do challenging game play
  • Korean gamers are more likely to pay to make a level easier than to unlock something new
  • Korean gamers typically play while waiting for something or while at home, with an average session between 15 and 20 minutes.

Keep these points in mind as we move forward.

Overview of Games:

Blade
Release April 20, 2014
Last Update May 28, 2014
Developer 4:33
Google Play Installs 1,000,000 – 5,000,000
Top Grossing Rank (Google Play) #1

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Mu: The Genesis
Release December 19, 2013
Last Update April 23, 2014
Developer Webzen
Google Play Installs 500,000 – 1,000,000
Top Grossing Rank (Google Play) #21

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Gameplay Analysis

Blade

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Graphically, Blade is probably one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever seen on the mobile platform. Powered by the Unreal engine, everything from the cut-scenes to the in-game graphics are at the cutting edge for mobile. This does have one downside: the battery drain is also unprecedented.The core game involves a campaign mode where players slash their way through short stages, each culminating in a boss fight (sometimes multiple boss fights). There are also two PVP modes to challenge other users, and an arena mode where players have to fight wave after wave of enemies as they compete for the best clear times.

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Players fight their way through stages by chaining together skill combos to destroy skeleton minions in Blade.

The average session is roughly two minutes for the campaign and PVP modes, right on par with the amount of time it takes to get from one station to the next on subway.

Retention is encouraged in multiple ways. Gear and loot is dropped at the end of each stage, which can be sold for gold, or combined with other weapons using the upgrade system to make improvements to your character. There is a bit of randomization thrown into the loot drops as players have to choose one of three chests at the end to see what they get (usually either a small amount of gold, a weapon, or some armor).

If a player is unhappy with the selection they end up with, for the price of a few jewels they can make another choice. This kind of randomization is fantastic for monetization, and ultimately doesn’t have to cost the player anything.

The charts in the PVP and arena modes keep the retention game high as players want to return to either keep their place or beat the current high scores. Additionally, as is typical for mobile games anymore, there is a daily log in bonus with items, gold, and jewels, to encourage daily play.

Lastly, the UI design is incredibly well-done for a Korean RPG game, which historically have obtuse, needlessly complex UI. Blade succeeds in using its tutorials to guide you through enough of the relatively simple UI to figure it out.

All of these design features fall into line with the general preferences of Korean gamers. Given the short sessions, players can actually make significant advancements in a 20 minute play session and the game is designed balanced enough that it doesn’t feel too difficult.

 Mu: The Genesis

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Like Blade, Mu is a beautiful game graphics wise. In the core game, players also run through short stages, clearing them of enemies and collecting loot along the way. Only here, they have minions that join them for support.

Unlike Blade, skills must be managed more carefully due to the introduction of mana. There is a handy “auto” function that can be set so that characters run through the dungeon and auto-attack on their own while the player only has to interact by hitting the skill buttons.

There are multiple game modes that include the main campaign, a mission mode, a dungeon mode, and ranked play.

뮤-GameplayRetention is encouraged with loot drops of items that can be used to optimize either the main character or helper minions, and with the ranking system that encourages repeated play so that players can compete for the top position. Like Blade, there are also daily deals offered and log-in bonuses.

Where Mu mostly fails is in simplicity. The title is an extension of the popular MMO, and it retains too many of those MMO elements. Even though the auto function helps make game play simpler, the mana management system is almost too complex and difficult.

The UI is needlessly complicated, and the upgrade system is more difficult to understand. Upgrading helper minions is almost as complex as upgrading the main character, which makes the whole game more time consuming. While spell points are easy enough to come by, the in game currency is not and it feels much more like a traditional grinder. This might attract a certain audience, but it doesn’t appeal to the average player.

Monetization

Blade

As mentioned before, one of the most important parts of designing for monetization in Korea is ease of play. Blade has done a great job at monetizing with this in mind. Gems are the main currency, and though they can be earned in-game, they are easily burnable in lives, upgrades, and item purchases.

블레이드-Monetization-PromptThere are purchasable boosts for each level that include earning increased experience, making your skills hit harder, and increasing your HP. Gems can also be used to bring a character back to life after dying (only  once per level).

Players are prompted if they use their one life and still fail and are brought to the item cube screen and encouraged to buy better items. The item cubes, which can be purchased with gems, give players premium accessories, armor, and weapons. Premium weapon cubes, for example, cost 40 gems, with the lowest purchasable amount of gems being 30.

My only criticism being that they are earned in a lottery-type system, so you can never be sure which weapon, accessory, or armor you will get. While this is good for monetization, it’s frustrating as a player.

Mu: The Genesis

As with the gameplay, Mu suffers from the same problems with monetization: it is more complex. There are less obvious monetization prompts, and none at the beginning of each level, which would be the most ideal. Like Blade, items are purchased in a lottery system, and they are more expensive, with the lowest possible amount you can buy at 5,500 won (~$5 USD)

Conclusions

Both of these games are excellent in this writer’s opinion, and both of them push the envelope of what is possible on the mobile platform. Blade improves on what Mu: The Genesis tried to do, but failed at. Mu was simply too complex and tried to do too much to appeal to a general audience. It feels like something that passionate developers made without much consideration for monetization, and lacks the essential pushes that players need to make a game financially successful. The retention game just doesn’t feel as well developed or thought out for a wider audience, making it feel less accessible.

Blade, on the other hand, is a perfect balance of RPG elements and simple game play. The levels are short and relatively easy, while still providing enough of a challenge to push players to pay for boosts. Players can earn enough free gems and gold that they don’t have to make any purchases, but the notifications and prompts are there to help subtly push them.

Tell us what you think

Have you played any great mid-core games? What elements do you think make the best mid-core games?

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Weekly News Round-Up: May 31st

Merger-Kakao-Daum

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

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.

business-funnel

 

 

 

 

 

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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Weekly News Round-Up: May 24th

maple-story-2-closed-beta

1. Rumor: Daum and Kakao to Merge

daum-kakao-merge

The Korean web portal, Daum, is rumored to be talking about a merge with Kakao Talk, the well-known OTT messaging service. Daum, like Naver, offers a number of internet services including a free web-based e-mail and messaging service, forums, shopping, and news. Daum is considered the underdog by some, particularly now as Google and Naver are emerging to dominate the market. The rumors say that no money will change hands in the deal between Kakao and Daum, but will all be done through stock.

 

2. Band Games Launches with 30 Million Users

band-games-30-million

Line’s new gaming platform, Band Games, launched with 30 million users last week. It stepped into the gaming platform business earlier than its legacy competitor, Kakao Games, which launched when the Kakao platform had 50 million users.

Band takes the typical chat experience and turns it on its head by focusing on creating small communities. Band takes the chat-room and turns it into a club with a section for announcements and scheduling for events and updates.

 

3. First Glance at Maple Story 2

The sequel to Nexon’s hit, Maple Story, is slated to go into closed beta later this year. The company released their first sneak peak trailer earlier this week.

Weekly News Round Up: May 17th

line-band-debuts

The weekly news round up is another new weekly feature here on the Latis Games blog. We’ll be summing up the top 5 news stories in Korea’s mobile sphere to keep you up to date on what’s happening on the peninsula.

 

#1 Line Opens Band Game 

Naver is stepping up competition with Kakao games with their debut of Band Game, a platform that runs on their Line Band service. Line Ban is similar to Facebook and Kakao Story. Users can create “bands” (groups) and share photos, videos, and messages with people in their band. Band Game will open with 10 games, and though everything at this point is speculation, there are great expectations that this will be the next platform to really compete with Kakao.

 

#2 Kakao Releases Bank Wallet Feature

kakao-talk-2Kakao will be releasing a new money transfer service this June. Users of the platform will be able to send up to 100,000 KRW to friends on their list, or use it to buy items for KakaoTalk or the operator’s other services including Kakao Style and Kakao Music. The company will will partner with 15 different banks and the Korea Financial Telecommunications and Clearings Institute (KFTC) to release the service. The Financial Services Commission and The Financial Supervisory Service are currently investigating whether the service has enough data protection and security. Both authorities will have to give their approval before the service can be officially released.

 

#3 Google Held a ‘Play Day’ for Korean Developers

google-play-dayGoogle held the first ‘Play Day’ event for Korean developers earlier this week, the first ever since the Play Store launched in 2012. The company said it expects the Korean market to continue to grow as an important revenue source, with Google’s VP of Digital Content stating that they plan on continuing to support local developers. Last year, Google Korea increased their size dramatically, and it will continue to be a market they focus on as it ranks in the top 5 markets for revenue.

 

 

#4 Has Offers Opens Korea Branch

has-offers-korea-officeHas Offers, the Seattle-based, online advertising attribution software, opened its first Asia-Pacific office this week in Seoul. This is their 3rd international office, and to celebrate they held an opening party with Latis Global on Thursday May, 15th.

 

 

#5 Afreeca TV is holding a pre-release registration event for 통통용병단 (Ton Ton Mercenary Clan)

tontonmercenaryclan-prereleaseThe highly anticipated dungeon/puzzle mix game, Ton Ton Mercenary Clan, is having a pre-release regristration event hosted by Afreeca TV. The game will be released on Kakao and has a familiar card collecting system.