GDC09: Building and Sustaining Successful Free to Play MMOs

Don Choi, OGPlanet


Very little of interest in this talk. I think there is a *lot* more you could say, and it would be a lot valuable and interesting, on the topics covered. I have no idea why the talk was so content-light (mis-guessed the audience? speaker having to give someone else’s talk? lawyers insisted on removing info? nervous speaker?), the speaker seemed fine, it’s just that the content was … absent.

All errors and mistakes my fault, [my comments in square brackets]

The start of F2P / Free to Play

F2P started 10 years ago in Asia, one of the most exciting and talked-about business models in that industry, but only just coming to the USA.

Because it’s still quite new in USA, no-one is quite sure how to reach out to the users here. There’s still quite a few different approaches between us and Nexon and NHN etc while we still explore this particular market.

[an overview of MMO industry from 1998 onwards and Korea thinking there would be a new era in 2001 with big budget new launches, but it failed, then 2fortress broke through as a complete surprise and heralded the switch to F2P. Then 2005 more big disappointments, but the FPS shooters went on the rise, and that’s where Korean market still is now]

[ADAM: it was interesting to see how his re-telling of that period subtly differed from the ones I might have used. e.g. I don’t think of 2fortress as a pivotal moment – which is big blaring warning that I should go look into that more, because I probably totally missed something important there (I thought the changes around that time were catalysed by other events. Hmm). I’d love to hear from more thoughts from people who were in Korea at the time – any volunteers?]

Operational Differences between running games in Korea vs USA

Korea vs USA
user verification? SSID vs none
payment? CC + PP + mobile vs CC + PP + PayPal
Fraud? slanted pro-business vs slanted pro-consumer
Network infrastructure? fiber everythwere vs DSL everywhere

One of our biggest single problems coming to the USA is the difficulty of having ways for children (under 18) to pay for our games – specifically how this limits our available paying customer base. Also, we’re not used to the pro-consumer fraud and the ways we normally do business we’re now exposed to lots of fraud and loss we never had to deal with before in our home market.

[ADAM: interesting – Korean games aren’t usually thought of as being a sub-18 market, like the USA/EU games market of 15 years ago – more usually Korea is thought of as a 20-30 market. Is under 18 payment as “a big problem” still a relatively new phenomena?]

Choosing the right game

Only one cross-cultural success: WoW.

Target audience: Korean games tend to target younger players [ADAM: c.f. previous comment]. Most of the time we target elementary school kids. e.g. KartRider has 40-50% penetration in elementary school in Korea.

[ADAM: from the info presented here, that could just as easily be for other, very different reasons. I’d be interested to see a more detailed examination of this issue, with some more justification for the conclusion. Personally, I really don’t know – I’m not disagreeing, just saying it requires a bit more explanation than was given, I wouldn’t take that statement as truth otherwise]

P2P technology we use in Korea doesn’t work in USA because the network isn’t high quality enough.

[ADAM: I would have said: quite a few Korean companies made games with terrible technology/programming, very lazy net code, relying on the quality of the infrastructure. This is wise in a business sense initally (throw hardware at the problem whenever you can), even though technically it sounds like a dumb and naive decision to make up front (even in Korea, I would never have bothered starting off P2P – it just has too many downsides)]


[ADAM: this was all just the same old things about localization != translation, things that can go wrong, etc – nothing new here. It’s fine, but it’s been covered lots of times, in much more detail, with more concrete examples, in conferences the past 5 years. Thomas’s talk later today was many many many times more interesting version of this part of this talk, despite being purely Europe/USA focussed]


Korean developers use OBT (Open Beta Test) as a marketing method more than in USA. It’s a “building momentum” thing. But in USA perhaps you cant really do that because you can’t afford the big cost of doing that.

[ADAM: well … actually … the USA/EU did that a *lot*, but here it increasingly meant crap quality and people hated that, and it caused lots of high profile failures. I think that Korean games are often sufficiently simple that the lack of quality isn’t such a glaring problem]

Longer betas make players start to think that the game is badly written. Shorter betas take away your chance to fix problems.

[ADAM: in this day and age, IMHO if either of those is an issue for you, you’re doing your betas wrong. Really, don’t do that. Don’t get into those traps. Find yourself some experienced MMO people who can make sure you sidestep them. I’ve got some interesting blog posts on that topic I’m slowly working on]

Growth trend differences: in Korea, there’s exponential user growth during beta, but in the USA we see slow but steady growth.

[ADAM: this perhaps explains a lot about the trend for Korean publishers to aggressively cancel USA games *just* as people here would be saying “oh, it’s looking like it will become a success” – in their experience, that slow an uptick == guaranteed fail (because in the home market, in Korea, it *would* be the harbinger of an impending fail)]

[ADAM: OTOH … maybe it just means “Korean companies haven’t been hiring the right people as USA / EU Marketing directors – people who know how to market in the particular local territory” – because a lot of these growth differences, a lot of these use-of-beta differences could be explained easily as “weak / poor / inexperienced / uninformed marketing departments”, and marketing is one of those things that often seems to be hugely dependent on cultural understanding]

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