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The Free Zone: Importing The Korean Portal

Columns By Richard Aihoshi on August 31, 2009

Importing The Korean Portal

While looking at Korean market over the dozen or so years, one of the consistent and interesting differences I've seen is the greater significance of the major game portals, which sit far higher in that country's overall internet traffic rankings. The "big five" group of publishers holds the lion's share. Of these, the most familiar in the west are NCsoft and Nexon, while the others are Neowiz, NHN and CJ Internet.

According to Jinseop So, Head of Global Service for CJ Internet, this elevated degree of popularity isn't due to Koreans playing more games, but because the portals are designed cater to a broader audience. Unlike their North American counterparts such as Pogo and Miniclip, they aim to attract users of all ages and both genders, including the full range from casual to hardcore. So, when his company announced it was launching a global version of its site, Netmarble, I was curious to see what direction it will take.


For starters, I wondered why CJ Internet had decided to operate a portal itself rather than licensing its titles to a regional operator. So explained that a key reason is greater growth potential. He said Netmarble's compound annual growth rate since it opened in 2000 is more than 50 percent, and while such a rate will be difficult to maintain, the company is looking to keep it as high as possible. One strategy it has adopted is expanding beyond the confines of its domestic market into regions like China, Japan, North America and Europe. "In the end," he stated, "the target is not just North America, but the global market as a whole."

Regarding the target audience here, he noted that Netmarble Korea has an extensive portfolio including numerous flash and downloadable games plus more than 50 MMOs. At the moment, the global version lists only six, all from the latter category. The launch title will be Mini Fighter, an advanced casual 2D side-scroller featuring battles with up to 200 combatants. Among the others are two of not that I've discussed before, YS Online: The Call of Solum and Prius Online, as well as Koongya Adventure, OZ Chronicle and Wego.

While I didn't ask directly, So gave no indication as to whether CJ Internet plans to offer at least some of its many completely casual offerings. He did say the company's first goal is to get an in-depth understanding of user attitudes and preferences here, a task he admits won't be easy. Perhaps one of the reasons for not introducing the entire range right away is that doing so would make it more difficult to collect and analyze data.

As for the decision to bring out Mini Fighter first, he said it has been more popular than expected in Korea, becoming one of the top successes in the online fighting category, which he sees as having considerable potential here as well. While I agree with this assessment, I still wonder if it wouldn't have been better to go with YS or Prius. Given that both are among the top handful of most anticipated free to play MMOGs, I have to think either one would have made it less difficult to generate at least some level of media exposure. On the other hand, maybe the company wanted to do a trial run before launching its more significant titles.

So is definitely aware of the entire F2P category's low visibility. "Currently, major game publications in North America don't pay much attention to free to play online games," he stated, "but I'm positive that they'll get more attention down the road." Once again, I agree, but with the caveat that it will only happen gradually. Although CJ Internet could probably afford to spend tens of millions of dollars on a campaign to build awareness of Netmarble, it isn't planning to. I wouldn't either, which leaves viral marketing as the primary approach.

The potential problem with this area is that it's not well understood, even by some who position themselves as experts. Consequently, it's rife with me-tooism. You have to use do certain things and use particular tools because everyone else does. This isn't completely wrong, but it can and too often does lead to a lack of distinctiveness where the medium becomes the message. How well Netmarble will manage to avoid this remains to be seen.

The same can be said about how well the Korean game portal approach will work here. That's why I'm especially interested to see what CJ Internet has planned for the global version of Netmarble. Sites of its kind may never be as popular as their domestic counterparts, but I do think our market has room for them to be successful. My best guess is that it will happen largely under the radar, just like the growth of F2P.

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Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on every Monday.
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