korea


OnNet USA is the American subsidiary of OnNet Korea a developer of multiple free to play online games. The American branch of the company acts solely as a publisher through their portal site Games Campus.

Today, OnNet releases their newest game, a free to play third person shooter titled Manga Fighter. We spoke to YJ, Manga Fighter’s Producer, about the project and the free to play model in general.

What is the relationship between OnNet Korea and OnNet USA?

OnNet Korea is an software developer creating search engines and other similar products. OnNet USA is an online publisher of free to play games. They’re two different ideas with two distinct identities.

OnNet USA opened it’s doors three years ago with the launch of our golf game Shot Online.

What did you learn from that experience and what has been carried over to Manga Fighter?

We weren’t very well organized which was a big challenge so this time out we made sure to have the proper management in place. That’s the real risk area with a project like this you need excellent management.

The other important lesson concerning constant content updating. With a free to play game and a virtual goods revenue model you have to make sure that there is always new content for the players. We found that to be the key to player retention.

It’s hard to discuss MMOs without mentioning secondary markets for virtual goods and currency. What are your thoughts?

We’re very aware of the secondary markets and the emerging issues associated with them. At this point we’re taking a neutral stance and kind of waiting to see what the industry trend as a whole is.

Why have the global launch of a manga style game with the virtual goods model in America. Why not use the Korean market where both of those things are more mainstream?

Well in a lot of ways this is a new game for any market. It’s a fast-paced third person shooter aimed at a younger audience and there’s not much out there like that. We believe the US is a great testing ground for our new content.

Just three years ago, some declared the free to play model wouldn’t work. Today it’s beginning to get big. It’s not quite mainstream yet but we’re heading in that direction and America is a huge potential market. There are a lot of gamers in America.

What about the release cycle. OnNet ran two beta tests and a boot camp? What was that?

The Boot Camp was just a term for our third beta. In fact even now that we’ve opened the game up we still haven’t implemented all the commerce aspects of the game. This is more like an open beta and then we’ll see how the market responds before launching the money aspect.

What kind of marketing has gone into the launch of the game?

We haven’t done any big budget marketing campaigns but viral marketing has worked well for us. We’re also mailing collectible cards to players with a code on them. The code unlocks premium content in Manga Fighter and down the road we’re looking at getting these cards into retail outlets.

The other thing we’re excited about is the possibility of getting some famous faces from the rest of the manga universe in game. I can’t release any details yet but we’re in discussion with some major publishers.

Thanks for your time YJ and good luck with the launch of Manga Fighter.

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NCSoft the MMO giant has credits that include the massively popular Lineage, Lineage II, Guild Wars, City of Villains/Heroes and the upcoming Tabula Rasa. But Dungeon Runners, one of only two free-to-play games from NCsoft, is unlike most of their other products. DR is based on a tiered subscription model, where users can play for free, or opt to pay a monthly subscription ($4.95) to access upper level content.

Free To Play spent an hour with Dallas Snell, NCsoft’s Director of Business Development, discussing Dungeon Runners, the free to play model and the future of NCsoft. Dallas has been a prominent figure in the games industry since 1983 having to contributed to over 20 titles during his time at Origin and EA. After a short sabbatical from gaming, Dallas returned to the industry in his current role based in Austin, Texas.

The earliest version of Dungeon Runners began as a different project entirely back in 2001, before being put on the back burner, where it remained until 2002 when it was dusted off to be a game titled Exarch. That too was eventually put to rest until Dungeon Runners was resurrected in its current incarnation about 18 months ago. Today the team consists of over a dozen internal employees with a heavy contingent of art outsourcing.

The decision to resurrect Dungeon Runners and make it a free to play game (versus a full retail MMO) came from NCsoft CEO Robert Garriott and Chris Chung, the former ArenaNet General Manager, who operated out of Korea at the time and therefore had early exposure to the free to play model. Chris is back in Austin now and looking to push NCSoft further into casual MMO development, replicating the success of Korean companies like Nexon.

There’s been speculation that NCsoft chose subscriptions as the primary revenue model in Dungeon Runners due to a belief that North American players preferred that model to microtransactions. However, that was not the rationale for the subscription decision. Instead, Dungeon Runners’ optional subscription fee was chosen simply because a microtransactional model wasn’t yet set up in the Dungeon Runners code base. To remedy that, the team is currently working on getting microtransactions running within Dungeon Runners before the game is launched in Korea.

Dallas made frequent mention of NCSoft’s embrace of “Web 2.0” development philosophies. In particular, NCsoft’s use of the free to play model, Dungeon Runners as a testing ground for future products and the company’s strong commitment to reducing barriers to entry for all NCsoft products were all offered as proof of the company’s Web 2.0-ness.

Dallas often referred to Dungeon Runners as an experiment, saying that although Dungeon Runners currently utilizes subscriptions, within a couple of months in-game advertising will become a part of DR. In fact, the ads are already in the world, but visible only to testers, NCsoft and Double Fusion (the in-game ad provider). F2P.biz was asked not to reveal how the ads will be implemented, but expect an announcement from NCsoft soon. If all goes well with the ad experiment, Dallas says NCSoft will consider the possibility of scrapping Dungeon Runners’ subscription fee all together.

On the other hand, by their own account NCSoft is seeing higher than normal conversion rates with their current subscription set up, so perhaps Dallas won’t be so quick to abandon it.

What are those great numbers?

Among active users (online within the last month), Dungeon Runners has a high free:paid ratio – i.e. there’s a larger proportion of paid to free users than among most f2p games. Dallas cites Runescape with a 5:1 ratio (free to paid, online at any given time), and says that DR is hitting 3:1, or after content updates, as high as 2:1.

Additionally, NCsoft expected a monetization rate of 1-3%, but their numbers are reportedly “significantly higher” [Dallas declined to give a specific number]. Dallas claimed not to know the cause of the higher monetization rate, but one contributing factor may be that the large majority of in-game activities or items are available only to paid users. Dallas acknowledged this and went on to say that the dev team is strongly considering raising the ceiling for free users as currently only 1-2 hours of free play will result in players hitting the ceiling with respect to what they can get for free.

Further to NCSoft’s recently announced plans to release free to play content on the Sony network, Dallas talked about his company’s goal of becoming “device agnostic” in order to break down the segregation of gamers between platforms. NCsoft plans to build their own cross-platform community service, with friends lists, inter-game messaging, and other features similar to Xbox Live. NCsoft also intends to release desktop, facebook and mobile widgets to extend gamers’ experience.

According to Dallas, NCSoft thinks of Dungeon Runners as a “MMO light” or a game that straddles the gap between casual and core gamers. In Dallas’ opinion, the success of products like Runescape makes it likely NCSoft will develop even more accessible games – perhaps even browser-based – to further minimize the barriers to entry.

With 40+ data probes plugged into Dungeon Runners, NCsoft approaches the product as a testing ground for ideas to be built into other games. The probes measure everything from time played, rewards frequency, item usage, leveling curves and dozens of other useful metrics. Outside of the game, account-level metrics are tracked in a publisher module that will allow NCsoft to track and analyze a single player’s activities across all their products.

In Dallas’ eyes, retail may soon become “extinct” with digitally delivered gaming ruling the day. He spoke candidly about the struggles facing music and film and how games are uniquely structured to develop their own delivery solutions. To that end, products like Guild Wars and Dungeon Runners are blazing trails for NCsoft.

Finally, as already mentioned, a recurring theme from Dallas was his commitment to lowering the barrier to entry in all NCsoft products. As evidenced by their free to play experiment, NCSoft strategy is to grow their customer base as widely as possible, then monetize the largest possible proportion. Most flatteringly, Dallas said his officemates all had printouts of F2P’s article, Top 10 Ways to Reduce Barriers to Entry, and were treating it as a white paper of sorts.

Thanks to Dallas Snell for his time and to Opal Lertutai, NCsoft PR, for setting us up.

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Start your engines!

Finally, the game that captivated Korea – where a third of the populace have played it, allegedly – comes to North America.

From Pimp My Wii:

KartRider’s open beta will be open to anyone with an internet connection and the need for speed. With several distinct characters to choose from, open beta racers will compete on a multitude of elaborate race courses ranging from the smooth asphalt of Zoomtown to the scorching sands of Desert Drift. The open beta will additionally provide testers with two different karts, numerous paint and license plate modifications, a scenario/story mode, and a useful ‘My Garage’ feature. The ‘My Garage’ feature included in open beta allows users to hang out with friends, modify and show off karts, and try out new items if racers are in need of a pit stop.

Open beta testers can also enjoy different single and team race modes including item mode, an anything-goes mode featuring the use of creative items used to gain an edge, and speed mode, a test of driving skill focusing solely on speed and drift. While item mode racing often results in humorous exchanges and unpredictable outcomes, speed mode rewards drivers for their drift technique. By combining the elements and weapons of a fantasy racer with the precision of drift, KartRider blends an optimal balance between racers who prefer either the spontaneity of item use or the driving skill required by drifting.

Head over to Kart.Nexon.net to see what the hype is about.

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Virtual Goods Summit 2007 – Conference Videos

As has already been reported on several sites, the videos from June’s inaugural Virtual Goods Summit at Stanford are now online. Thanks to the organizers for making the videos freely available – I wish more conferences did this.

I took a heap of notes at the Summit, so why not share them now as well, both in “Top 10” and raw format.

My Top 10 Notes from the Virtual Goods Summit:

1. James Hong of HotorNot.com
On HotorNot, users can purchase a $10 rose to send to other users. The rose dies 2 weeks later. HotorNot figured there were three value propositions inherent to a real life rose: the flower itself, the gesture of giving it, and the trophy effect of having received it. HotorNot figured that for virtual roses, 2 out of 3 of those values weren’t bad – and they were right. The $10 rose is HotorNot’s highest priced item, but it is still their best seller. James Hong said re: price elasticity, “It’s not impossible that if we raised the price of the rose, we’d sell even more.”

2. Paul Thind of Habbo Hotel
Habbo puts spending caps on every payment method to control economy & keep parents happy – so users can spend money only on 2-3 set days of the week.

3. Craig Sherman of Gaia Online
Gaia has three full time people on staff whose job it is to open envelopes filled with dollar bills and coins because people are desperate to get money into their accounts but can’t find a suitable payment method.

4. Min Kim of Nexon
Average user lifetime in a Nexon game is 2-4 years; Audition, Nexon’s newest game, is 50% female; Maple Story and Kart Rider are 20-30% female.

5. Tim Stevens of Doppelganger
The typical console game would not benefit from virtual item sales because of its lack of a continuing connection with its audience. I.e. the game launches, everyone buys and plays it, then most if not all of them leave very quickly for the next game. The community doesn’t grow and care about their presence in the game long-term.

6. Daniel James of Three Rings
The average Puzzle Pirates user spends 2.5 hours per day in the game. Some drop in and leave, but others spend up to 9 hours a day in-game.

7. Raph Koster of Areae
Regarding preventing and tracing fraud: “You need to serialize everything – so you can trace the path of a virtual coin right back through to its minting.”

8. Kyra Reppen of Neopets
Neopets builds their item packages and costs around a template metric of $10-15 per complete outfit.

9. Kevin Efrusy of Accel Partners – Facebook’s VC
The Facebook gifting service was just an experiment. A third party will use the newly-launched Facebook Application Platform to deliver a far more successful gifting solution. He said if he were an independent developer, he’d be working on that right now as he believes it is a huge opportunity.

10. Eric Bethke of GoPets
GoPets users are 80% female, one third of whom are in North America. Users are spread throughout the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s age groups. Interestingly, GoPets highest ARPU is from the low 30s age group.

All of my raw, totally unedited notes from the Virtual Goods Summit, after the jump.

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(more…)

The following 10 revenue models allow some or all of their associated game or virtual world to be played for free. The ordering is quite unscientific and I’m sure I’ve missed something obvious or messed up a detail. I leave it to the internet to correct me.

1. Virtual Item Sales
A well familiar revenue model first established in Korea and now the dominant model in Asia. Nexon – makers of KartRider, MapleStory, Audition and more – are widely seen as the leaders in this area, doing $230M of gross revenue in 2005 (the most recent year for which they’ve released figures), with 85% of that revenue coming from virtual item sales.

Virtual item sales is the practice of allowing users to purchase functional, decorative, or functional & decorative in-game items for use in and out of gameplay. A virtual item system usually uses two currencies – an attention currency (users earn virtual money via in-game activities) and a real money-based currency (users buy virtual money using real money). Typically, 5-15% of users opt for the latter currency and the influx of real world money is what provides the virtual item sales revenue stream.

What’s so compelling about virtual item sales is the unlimited ARPU (average revenue per user). According to Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings, some hardcore Puzzle Pirates users have poured more than $10,000 apiece into the game via virtual item purchases. To reach that contribution level via a World of Warcraft-style $15/month subscription would take a user 55 years.

While extremely shaky sources peg the overall size of the virtual item sales market at $1.5-2B this year, without an NPD-esque measurement organization there’s no way to verify that number.

2. Subscription Tiers
Runescape, the Java MMO from Jagex, is one of the leaders in the tiered subscription space. A tiered subscription model allows users to play the core game for free, but those that desire access to elite weapons or other game content, must pay a small ($5/month) subscription fee. Over 1 million of Runescape‘s 6+ million users have opted into the tiered subscription program, grossing $60M annually for Jagex.

Dungeon Runners, an NCsoft free to play MMO, offers a similar $5/month subscription package that affords players access to the elite items, a bank and the ability to stack potions. It also gives subscribers server queue priority.

3. Advertising
Several different forms of game-related advertising revenue streams have popped up in recent years. Firms such as Massive, IGA and Double Fusion do big business in in-game advertising for clients such as EA, Activision, THQ and Microsoft. Game ad agencies typically serve up static ads (ads that ship with a product and never change) or dynamic (ads that are updated in real time via the net) within game products that are contextually appropriate for advertising (i.e. sports, racing, or contemporary shooters).

The size of this conventional in-game advertising market is currently pegged at $100-200M, according to well-placed industry sources. However, the number and quality of games with dynamic advertising enabled is escalating dramatically. So much so that Yankee Group predicts the in-game ad market will reach $732M by 2010.

But other, more emergent forms of in-game advertising have been at the forefront of enabling free to play. Examples include:

4. Real Estate or “Land Use Fees
Second Life is the biggest legitimate player utilizing this revenue model whereby virtual land is sold leased to individuals. Monthly lease fees range from $5 to $195, depending on the size of land in question. Users may also purchase their own island for a one time fee of $1,675 in addition to a monthly fee of $295.

Approximately 70% of Second Life’s revenue comes from land sales and maintenance fees. Of course the virtual land ownership revenue model doesn’t come without headache, as the Bragg vs Linden suit has proven.

Entropia Universe uses land auctions as a revenue stream, but a recent headline-making $100,000 land sale has been called into question as the successful bidder is an employee of Entropia‘s developer, MindArk.

5. Merchandise
In what’s become a phenomenon of Furby proportions, Webkinz plush toys and their associated Webkinz World have taken the pre-teen set by storm. Users purchase a $15 Webkinz plush toy at retail and enter a secret code to activate the associated virtual character in Webkinz World. Beyond the retail plush toy purchase, there are no additional fees for playing in Webkinz World.

Two million Webkinz toys have been sold since April 2005, with more than 1 million of those users registering their pet online. That’s more than US$20M in retail sales in just 24 months. Products such as Bratz/Be-Bratz are quickly jumping on this bandwagon.

Another successful merchandise-based revenue model is collectible card games, or CCGs. Neopets launched a CCG in 2003 and just this week MapleStory became the latest free to play game to go this route, announcing a partnership with Wizards of the Coast. Consumers purchase real-world MapleStory collectible cards that come with codes redeemable for exclusive in-game content in the MapleStory MMORPG.

6. Auctions & Player Trades
In June 2005, Sony set up Station Exchange on select Everquest II servers. Station Exchange facilitates player to player trade of in-game items – including the provision of an escrow service – in return for a 10% closing fee as well as listing fees ranging from $1 (items and coins) to $10 (characters).

While Station Exchange recorded only $274K in net revenue in its first year of limited release, it was enough for Sony Online President John Smedley to declare it the future of RMT. Read the SOE Station Exchange whitepaper for more.

Entropia Universe – a world in which virtual items actually decay with use and require real money to repair or replace – utilizes first party auctions as their primary revenue stream. This means that instead of merely facilitating player to player auctions and taking a cut (a la Station Exchange’s eBay model), Entropia auctions items directly to their players.

Entropia items sell for ludicrous sums, with rare weapons auctions closing at $26,000, land auctions for (allegedly) $100,000. The May 2007 auction of five in-game banking licenses brought in $404,000, total. Ironically, Entropia takes no fees for player-to-player auctions.

In the wake of this success, watch for third party virtual item auction houses such as Dan Kelly’s Sparter.com to offer developers and publishers a cut to ensure the (exclusive?) cooperation of their products.

7. Expansion Packs

The best known example of expansion packs as a primary revenue model is the Arenanet product, Guild Wars. Likened by Richard Garriott to a series of fantasy novels, Guild Wars relies not on monthly subscription fees for its revenue, but on the sale of successive expansion packs for $29.99.

The game’s creators argue that the thin-pipe origins of their technology allow their game to be run far more economically than competing titles, enabling this no-subscription free model.

Over 3 million people have purchased the previous three Guild Wars products (Guild Wars, Guild Wars: Factions and Guild Wars: Nightfall) with those numbers set to surge again with the release of Guild Wars: Eye of the North on August 31, 2007.

8. Event or Tournament Fees
Netamin’s free to play, ad-supported Ulimate Baseball Online uses event fees as an additional revenue stream. UBO‘s Pay to Play tournaments cost $5 per player to enter and offer cash prizes up to $4,500.

Shot Online, a free to play/virtual item sales golf MMO, also charges users to enter tournaments.

Third parties such as Valve’s Tournament.com and Groove Game’s Skillground.com are getting into the pay to play tournament scene as well. These sites charge charging entry fees for game tournaments for games such as Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike.

9. TrialPay
At the recent Virtual Goods Summit and again at the Seattle Casual Games Conference, I bumped into representatives from TrialPay. TrialPay is a third party facility that allows customers to pay for products (i.e. games) by trying or buying from advertisers.

What this means is that when you go to pay for a casual game or purchase virtual currency, you can instead select from a demographically targeted list of special offers. Trying or buying one of these offers – from merchants such as Avis, Geico, Vonage, etc – allows you to get your game purchase for free, as the offer merchant has paid the game provider for acquiring a new customer on their behalf.

TrialPay claims that this allows game developers to earn more per user, as some offers pay game developers upwards of $50 per user (as opposed to the $20 a casual game might normally charge).

Someone from TrialPay can jump in and give me a more relevant example of their system’s use in the game space, but all I could find was a casual games company called Dreamquest Games.

10. Donations
Clocking in at last on the list is of alternate revenue streams is player donations. Raph Koster recently blogged about meeting up with the Kingdom of Loathing guys at ComicCon in San Diego. Raph reported that while KoL‘s revenue is “definitely indie,” their primary revenue stream of player donations is a sustainable one.

According to Wired, the donation revenue has allowed creator Zack Johnson to quit his day job and hire six employees to help improve and maintain the product.

That’s what Maid Marian founder Gene Endrody would call a “lifestyle business,” but I suspect most of us wouldn’t scoff at it or any of the above revenue models.

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Worlds In Motion – Nexon Teams With Wizards of the Coast to Release MapleStory Card Game

File this one under “Nexon Taking Over the World”. Great partnership and it sounds like MapleStory’s CCG>Online integration is well thought out. So everyone who buys a pack of cards gets a virtual item or experience of some sort.

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Play No Evil offers up a good article breaking down why Free To Play is a superior engagement model to subscription or retail. Matt Mihaly from Iron Realms jumps in to offer a counterpoint on MapleStory’s user base (i.e. 57M is a gross number, not representative of active users) and offer up Habbo Hotel as another North American virtual item sales success story.

In regard to Maple Story’s user base, all 57M of them may not be active, but most of them are probably unique due to the fact that in China and South Korea, Maple Story requires users to enter their Social Security Number to sign up. So there likely aren’t very many duplicates, world-wide.

Regarding Habbo’s numbers, Paul Thind (Habbo’s GM) reported their active uniques at 7.5M world-wide (1.7M uniques/month) at last month’s Virtual Goods Summit. Habbo’s annual revenues sit north of $65M.

From the article on Play No Evil, I especially like this passage:

The choice of prices are important. Buying blocks of currency or subscriptions for less than $10 means that it is an impulse buy. $50, or even $20, to buy a game is above the “whine factor” for parents. Nexon’s ability to get payment cards into Target (see previous article) was critical – online game play becomes an impulse purchase at the checkout line. I think this is an area where many casual game companies “don’t get it”. Their prices are above the impulse purchase level.

In a related story, Fox News – that bastion of sound journalism – just did a piece on MapleStory and game addiction.

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