Nexon America co-founder and longtime free-to-play evangelist Min Kim is stepping up as the company's head of Live Games, and the move is part of a number of initiatives.
It's a new, integrated team focused on better overall management of marketing, production and communications within the team -- and a sign of continued evolution as the free to play space starts to mature in the West.
When flagship title MapleStory launched eight years ago, its business model was something of an outlier; the action-RPG title from Nexon America's Korean parent was one of the few prominent examples of a free-to-play game that transitioned successfully to other markets.
But what scores once viewed as an oddity can now be viewed as having been at the vanguard of a movement that guided the business model to its current popularity in the West.
That early leadership role has brought the company massive success -- for example, MapleStory and another Nexon Game, Dungeon Fighter, have 100 million subscribers and 300 million registered users, respectively.
"As the company's grown, we've hired a lot of people to take different points for different aspects of our business," Kim tells Gamasutra. Having been with Nexon America long enough to learn all of the company's ins and outs, he's the ideal leader for such an integrated team.
"Live Games is a division that didn't exist before," he explains." We've had the operations group and the marketing group and the communications groups, and we've consolidated them under my responsibility."
Much has changed since Nexon America's early initiatives. Although Nexon began to explore U.S. markets remotely in 2005, in 2006 it opened an office in the U.S., long before gaming companies had begun to view free to play as a viable model. Instead of launching into a competitive environment, Nexon America found itself trying to advocate the merits of its approach to other developers, to foster an industry all could share.
"We were banging on doors making sure we could grow the industry, because it's very hard to create one all by yourself," laughs Kim. "A lot of people laughed at the business model, and now a lot of companies are starting to try to understand it or experiment with it. We've been calling it 'The Free2pocalypse.' Every company is looking at it; the market is just way larger."
Kim says in recent years there's been a change in perception: A slow but sure-spreading realization that free-to-play games are more than their business model. Rather than minimizing it to buying items in games, companies are learning that players buy things "because the games are good," says Kim. And even more importantly, live services are essential, he says.
"We have more than 200 people [at Nexon America], and we actually don't make games -- we service games," he emphasizes.
"People are coming to realize just like there are awesome paid games and really poor paid games, there are awesome, great free-to-play games and really bad ones." Service makes the difference, says Kim: "You can trick somebody to spend money once -- a console game can have a really awesome marketing campaign, and then it's like, 'aw, this sucks.' You can't trick anybody to spend money for three years."
Another area in which Nexon was a pioneer was launching prepaid game cards at retailers. Now, says Kim, the card business has exploded. There are so many game cards that Nexon made the determination to remove its brand name from the cards in favor of Karma Koin, a new initiative that will unite Nexon and its publishing partner titles under a universal currency.
"Partners can basically utilize our retail network; we're in 60,000 stores," Kim explains. "Karma Koin works like an iTunes card; our volumes and our history makes the logistics for our card really good."
Further, Karma Koin has a charity program in place: It will donate 1 percent of any purchase made through Karma Koin to causes, the first of which is Charity: Water, an organization which provides clean water to developing nations.
The decision to remove the thriving Nexon label from the card was somewhat complex; while publishing partners might be wary of offering virtual currency under Nexon's banner, is it so simple to render the label's strength a negative? But Kim says the decision was made because "90 percent of the people that go to buy a card already have that decision made by the time they walk into the store. It's not like walking by the chips section and deciding to grab some chips."
Kim feels of these new initiatives place the company where it likes to be: ahead of the curve, and now in the midst of a thriving free to play transition. "It's going to take time, but over the next quarter to six months, people will start realizing we're doing a lot of stuff here," he says.