Last week we spoke to Min Kim who has held many titles at Nexon. Nexon remains one of the most popular game companies across Asia and North America. With games like Maple Story and Vindictus they have broken open the free to play market and have had major success. Min is the perfect person to talk about virtual items at GDC. The program this year focuses on all of the mutations in the free to play model that we are seeing in the industry. As a player it is important to know what is happening when your favorite MMO goes free to play just as it is also important to know what pricing trends are coming over the next few years.
Min started off by discussing how Nexon has gotten over one third of the Korean population to play Maple Story by offering it as a free to play game. The barrier to entry of buying a game is suddenly taken away and players are able to enter and play immediately. This has brought them a huge success and continues to be helpful to this day. Tacking this method to Western audiences has been tricky because we are so used to buying games and paying for subscriptions. Min explained that it has been a journey of trial and error and more guess work than people might think. Trying to balance the pricing with what players want out of a game and what players would be willing to pay for. This balancing act continues for many companies to this day. Part of the track at GDC Online is to put together a series of best practices that could be used by all developers.
The area of social games came up with Facebook games being the largest area of concern. Min explained that while the hardcore audience was slow to adapt to paying for virtual items in the Western market, the social gamers on Facebook took to it very quickly. This led to more and more companies trying the virtual item pricing model. Min explained that at GDC Online five years ago no one would have thought that this topic would have its own talks, let alone its own summit. However, as the market has changed it now must take on a lot of mutations into the mold. Free to play is not just a simple answer to all games. There are a lot of ways to try different pricing models for virtual items to help games fund their development. The main goal of the tracks is to bring together the ideas for different models and discuss which ones work and which ones may not deliver for developers. The biggest concern is that you want to remain loyal to the players more than anything else.
The business models you are seeing are becoming more creative in how they are evolving. It is all about finding the price point for players. Also, many companies started out by simply selling customizable items. Now companies are looking towards finding the right item mix. Min explained that more than anything you have to think of the game first. Think of what players will be doing in the game and how items factor into their game play. Then find the right balance. This is critical so that you do not over price your players. Also you want to avoid the pay to play traps that can come up in any virtual item pricing model. More than anything Min expressed that the game has to come first.
We spoke about auction houses and how with Diablo 3 soon bringing in a real money auction house model there is a lot of controversy on the subject. Min explained that there have always been auction houses in different forms. More than anything game companies are trying to now police their own auctions and keep them away from third party vendors who can exploit players for money. When they designed the auction house for Maple Story Min explained that there was no way to “cash out.” In other words, players cannot use the system in order to make real money. The system used Nexon Cash only. This was critical because it tapped into the under 21 market. Players who did not have access to credit cards and cash could still buy and trade through the system without having to spend real money. This way the money they made on auctions could be used to buy whatever they wanted in the game without ever tapping into real money. This model has been very successful and cuts down on the fraud that runs rampant in the industry.
In closing the largest thing we learned from Min was that this economic journey is not over. Players will find more and more options in how they pay for their games coming in the next few years with all types of system being used. The games will continue to try different things until ones that work really rise to the surface. The mutations to all of these pricing models will benefit players more than anyone because they will get the best of both worlds. This is a very tricky topic and continues to be at the forefront of MMO debates all over the market. It is great to hear some clarity from Min and see how much is changing every day with pricing models and virtual items. In the end we both agreed that the players will benefit from these models as more games will try different systems until players decide on the one that works best for them.