Netmarble Games has grown to nearly $1 billion in sales, but it hasn’t been well known as a game publisher in the West. That changed in the past year as the Seoul-based company invested $130 million into casual game publisher SGN and launched the mobile role-playing game Marvel: Future Fight.
Today, Netmarble is adding a fan superhero, Totally Awesome Hulk, also known as Amadeus Cho, to the lineup of Marvel: Future Fight, which has nearly 70 playable characters from Marvel’s superhero universe. This may not matter much to you or me, but the fans of this game around the world may very well get excited about this announcement.
Seungwon Lee, president of overseas at Netmarble Games, said in an interview that Marvel: Future Fight has launched in 149 countries and has hit the top charts in 118 regions. It has surpassed more than 30 million downloads in its first two months. The game has put the company on the global map of the game industry, and I talked with Lee to learn more about it.
Here’s an edited transcript of our story.
GamesBeat: Please tell us some history about Netmarble.
Seungwon Lee: I’m one of the senior management members at Netmarble. My role is handling business in territories outside Korea. I’m leading global marketing and corporate development as well. Netmarble is based in Seoul. We have 3,000 people worldwide. We started our business as a PC online game developer in 2001. We’re almost 15 years old now.
We were quite successful with online PC games in Korea and the rest of the Asian market, but after a time we transformed to become a very mobile-driven company. We started investing in the mobile space in 2012, with our first visible outcomes in 2013. Our first games debuted in Korea, but afterward we expanded our success to other Asian markets. Last year was our first year in the U.S. market with Marvel: Future Fight.
GamesBeat: That’s a long history. Other companies that I’ve followed in South Korea, like Nexon, I learned about much earlier. I know a lot less about Netmarble. Did you grow up alongside companies like that, or a bit behind them?
Lee: We’re a private company, not a listed company, but we used to be part of CJ E&M, which is one of the biggest entertainment companies in Korea. To give a sense of our size, it’s widely predicted that we’ll achieve $1 billion annual revenue in 2015. You can compare that to some of the bigger public companies in Korea. We’ve been almost doubling each year over the last several years.
Our growth has been based on our strength in Korea and our ability to expand into other Asian markets. In Korea, normally we have five or six games in the top 10 grossing charts for both Android and iOS. In other major Asian countries, especially southeast Asia, we have two or three games in the top 10 consistently.
In the second half of last year we launched a turn-based RPG, Seven Knights, in the U.S. as well as Asian markets. We’re very excited to have a plan to grow this game in the U.S. as well as everywhere else. We have a very positive outlook based on our metrics, the retention rate and so on. So long as we can find an audience who can enjoy it in the U.S., Seven Knights should be a highly successful product as well.
I’m sure you know Nexon quite well. They’re bigger than us, but when it comes to mobile, Netmarble is a bigger player in the mobile space.
GamesBeat: You invested in SGN. Do you have a large number of employees overseas, outside Korea?
Lee: We have about 400 full-time employees overseas. That excludes SGN employees. They’re spread across a number of studios.
GamesBeat: Why did you do the SGN deal?
Lee: Netmarble’s vision is around building a great game culture company. We’re working on a mission where we entertain world users with fun games. Netmarble doesn’t want to focus on one specific segment or specific challenge. We want to have a lot of variety in the audience we target. Wherever we can find users who’ll enjoy our games, we’re committed to providing them with great gaming experience.
When it comes to different genres, we believe that casual is one of the biggest genres driving the growth of the industry. We felt that partnering with a capable player with a proven presence and influence the market, especially the western market, would be the best way to build our presence in the match-three, casual game area. SGN was an ideal player. King and SGN are the two companies in that area that were actually sustaining growth, and SGN’s pace was faster. We appreciate the management team, the people, the quality of their games. That’s why we wanted to partner with them.
We don’t want to just focus on RPGs or just focus on casual games. We strongly believe we need to build a capability in every major genre that’s driving the growth of the industry. When you look at the key genres in the global market, in Asia RPGs are driving growth. In the U.S. it’s casual, social casino, and strategy. Last year we had a very strong penetration into the U.S. market with RPGs as well. All of those genres should be considered very seriously.
I can’t say that we’re planning in any particular area at the moment. Conceptually, however, we’re very interested in expanding ourselves by partnering with companies that have capabilities in areas where we aren’t as strong.
GamesBeat: It’s an interesting world market now. If you look at the economy in China, the stock market’s in turmoil. The outlook is starting to change. Do you predict some changes that might happen to the game industry because of those changes in the overall global climate?
Lee: I don’t think any industry isn’t impacted by the macro picture in economics. Gaming has seen very little impact, though. I hope we don’t see much more. The mobile industry is entering a very early phase of maturity. We don’t believe it’s in a rapid growth phase anymore. We see a lot of changes coming.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like you should slow your expansion into the West because of that or go even faster?
Lee: Every industry has a case where just a handful of companies enjoy sustainable growth. Stronger players become more profitable. Others suffer from weak profitability or even losses. That’s reality. King was acquired by Activision Blizzard, but we don’t see that as the end of the game. Similar transactions will be happening in the near future. Netmarble’s strategy will be in line with that change in the industry. We want to be a very active investor in the western market as well as Asia.
We plan to launch Evilbane soon. It’s in soft launch in Canada right now. We’re planning on a worldwide launch within the first half of this year. You might also be familiar with Everybody’s Marble, which was very successful in Asia. We had a close relationship with Kakao and Line for that title. In Korea, Taiwan, nearly every market it was number one on the grossing charts. For the U.S. market, we’re working with another Disney IP to adapt it and familiarize players with the game mechanics. We’re providing some tweaks in gameplay to draw a broader range of users in the U.S.
We’ll keep growing Seven Knights. The metrics we’re seeing from the U.S. market are very strong. We plan to work further on the game to better attract an audience in the U.S.
GamesBeat: It’s a bit of a mystery to me as to what kind of content will work in the west or in Asia or on a global basis. How do you look at that? If I look at something like Disney Tsum-Tsum, it’s turned out to be very appealing in both Asia and the U.S. It’s rare for that kind of property to succeed in both regions. A lot of companies are taking properties back and forth, but I don’t see a pattern in what’s successful.
Lee: We won’t know until we release more games. We’re big on the belief, however, that users enjoy being opened to new game, new mechanics and new systems. East and west have been exploring a lot of different collaborations. Mobile gaming is becoming a totally global industry. Users are naturally exposed to the top-performing games from other countries and becoming familiar with new gaming experiences.
When we launched Marvel: Future Fight last April, we deployed a function we called “autoplay.” We’d used that feature in some other RPG games before as well. We consulted a lot of U.S. users and industry professionals when the game was in development and they gave us a lot of feedback on that feature to the effect that it wouldn’t work for U.S. users, that it was purely something for Korean and other Asian players.
It turned out, though, that when Marvel: Future Fight debuted in the U.S., many players told us how much they loved the autoplay feature, that they hadn’t expected to see something so cool. Future Fight ended up drawing 30 million downloads just two months from launch. It was quite a sensational success as far as an Asian player launching something that was appreciated by the American market.
People are becoming open to more and more new types of features and new genres of games. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more games doing well in both east and west at the same time. With Everybody’s Marble, so long as we can familiarize players upon its introduction to the market, we strongly believe in that game’s potential.
GamesBeat: Are you going to set up more permanent offices in the U.S.? Do you possibly plan to open a larger subsidiary here, or studios to make games in the west?
Lee: We have a San Francisco office now for our global publishing team. They’re working with our headquarters and teams in other countries. We’re developing in Korea and outside Korea at the moment. As far as studios, we’re open to doing things both ways. We want to hire talented teams over here to potentially produce games, and we’ll keep investing in our proven and very capable studios here. Most of our studios will be in the U.S. and Europe. SGN has studios in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Developing U.S. studios is an area we’re interested in.