West-looking Nexon CEO says “free-to-play does not mean ‘trick your customers'”

March 24, 2014
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Nexon CEO-elect Owen Mahoney told Re/code at the Game Developers Conference last week that "free-to-play does not mean 'trick your customers into paying you money' or 'give them something that is potentially free or supposedly free but, in fact, in order to really enjoy yourself, you have to pay money.'"

"That is not free-to-play," he said, though he also acknowledged that what works in Asia will not necessarily work elsewhere, usually because of fundamental cultural differences.

"Our objective is to bring really good, immersive, synchronous online gameplay to the West," he said. "We have to have an infrastructure, an operating team that can execute that as well as we do in Korea, China and Japan, and also we have to have the types of IP that really resonate with Western users."

Nexon's many games are more popular in Asian countries, but the company is investing in Western developers to try to change that. "The question for my studio is, 'This game that you just showed me—do you want to play this more or less than Starcraft?'" Mahoney said. "If the answer is less, then the question is, 'How are we going to make it so you want to play it more than Starcraft?' If the answer is, 'I can’t do it,' then let’s cut it off and move on to something else.

He added that all the Flappy Bird clones that popped up in the last month were nothing short of "embarassing."

Mahoney continued, "I think free-to-play is the best value proposition for customers. I can play a game for years without ever buying an item. If I want to get from point A to point B in the game world on a horse instead of walking, I can buy the horse, and I’m okay with paying a couple bucks for the horse. But I can also really enjoy the game without paying." He described a more gradual business strategy where a user base is built up over multiple years, which he says can be hard for Western game companies to understand.

There's been a lot of backlash over free-to-play games lately, particularly in the wake of EA's Dungeon Keeper debacle. But does free-to-play really equal ripping customers off? Popular games like League of Legends seem to have earned gamers' love and their money while remaining free. What's the secret to that balance? It seems like more and more game developers are trying to find out.

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