Temperament Theory & Online Play Models
Universal Disclaimer

Korean Online Cashcow

Good old Korea... Their market is so different than the West, that it is a breeding ground for innovative business models - particularly for online play. Consider Kart Rider, which you can learn about here or from Wonderland which was what first caught my attention. Some extracts for context:

Kart Rider is free, phenomenally popular and makes Nexon millions of dollars every month!

I know what you're asking: If it's free, where's the revenue stream coming from?

What a great and obvious question! The answer is that Nexon has figured out how to apply the Razor Blade theory of marketing to online gaming, in a spectacular way. The Razor Blade theory, you might recall, is that you should give away the razor so you can sell the blades.

In this context, Nexon allows Koreans -- and remember that about 75% of the Korean population have broadband connectivity -- to play the multi-player cartoon racing game for free.

The money comes from selling virtual upgrades. From fancier looking cars to rockets you can fire at other racers, to balloons and other cute things, these $0.50-$2 items add up fast.

What this immediately makes me want is some survey data about the players or Kart Rider, because if they're having fun and the related social problems are minimal, then I have no problem and hats off to Nexon for such a great idea.

But I have my suspicions that players (especially younger players) may feel obligated to buy the upgrades, in which case they are being socially pressured into parting with their money, in the same way that when trading card games have hit the national consciousness in the West (as happened with the Pokemon collectible card game) it created unstable addictive behaviour.

I suppose the other question is about the upper limit of expenditure. Is it unlimited and ongoing, as with the trading card games, which is in a morally ambiguous place for anyone for whom capitalism is not above reproach, or does it have a limit? For instance, if the maximum reasonable expenditure is equivalent to the cost of purchasing a game, then Nexon have created a different business model which invites more play and in the worst case exacts reasonable maximum costs from its players.

I have discovered I have deep moral questions about the way Wizards of the Coast slash Hasbro operate the Magic: The Gathering franchise, even though I do greatly admire the original play design of the game which was innovative, fun and (most importantly) delivered a quick and variable play experience. But by creating a throughput of new cards that obligated players to invest more and more money with each passing year, the game tipped into something approaching exploitation.

It's the same problem I had with Marvel Comics in the early 1990s, when I parted company with comics, perhaps forever. They tried to crossover every comic with dozens of other comics in an effort to force the readers to buy more and more product. I quickly discovered that what was happening was a decrease in the quality of the comic literature, as commercial interests ran all other considerations underfoot. The situation was not sustainable, thankfully, and it hurt Marvel quite considerably.

Philosophically, the problem is that capitalism offers no exit condition... Make as much money as possible, don't worry about environmental or psychological effects of what you are doing. We are desperately in need of a new model which has the self-regulating sustainability of capitalism, but which takes into account the moral implications of money-making activities. This will probably only come from a fundamental shift in our personal philosophical stances, since as consumers we actually have the collective power to decide what we will allow, and what we refuse to support. In this regard, I encourage everyone to set limits to what they are willing to support with their money, and having done this, to stand their ground, but be open to debate.

From the looks of things, even the most expensive cars in Kart Rider only cost about ten bucks, and so it would be hard to rack up more than forty dollars worth of cost in the world. I wonder if this is because the Korean market will only support this much expenditure, or whether Nexon has made a decision as to how much it is reasonable to farm out of an individual consumer...

Comments

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It always bugs me slightly to hear various Asian game companies praised for innovation simply because an analagous situation (in this case, a business model) doesn't exist in the west. The 'Kart Rider' style business model of selling cosmetic character upgrades seems to be a requisite feature in Korean online games - GunBound has it, I think Raycrash has it, etc.

In terms of CCGs, I hardly think they are more amoral than tradtional monthly-fee MMOs. They do encourage a culture of spending for tournament play (ie playing the sets that are currently in Type 2 rotation), but there are plenty of alternate formats like draft/sealed which are much less expensive, or regular casual play, which is traditionally less focused on purchashing booster boxes or individual high-power cards.

Now, these Korean online games seem to offer primarily cosmetic upgrades for purchase, though I believe Gunbound does have gameplay-power-based upgrades. From a gameplay point of view, I'm not certain it would be wise to further encourage an environment where player power is a linear function of disposable income, rather than play skill (or in MMOs, time sinks.) I think one of the attractions of most games is that players are put on a level socio-economic ground where Joe middle-class can beat Pierre upper-class on a basis of individual merit. If that's taken away, so is the concept of equal competition, and that would cause players of that interest (such as myself, natch) to flee to greener pastures.

Fair comment, James. I'm no expert on the Korean MOG market, so I just report on what I hear. :)

But it must be said, the fact that other Korean games are equally innovative doesn't change the fact that the West is pretty damn unimaginative when it builds most of its MMORPGs (A Tale in the Desert and Puzzle Pirates not withstanding).

I can see where you're coming from by suggesting that CCGs are no less amoral than monthly fee MMORPGs. It might be worth me saying that I have never subscribed to an MMORPG because as a child of the MUDs and MUSEs of the 1990s, I refuse to pay. :)

But there is a clear distinction here: the fee you pay to the MMORPG operator not only pays their substantial upkeep costs, it's fixed: you know how much it's going to cost you at all times.

My complaints are not with CCGs absolutely - I used to be a CCG tournament player many moons ago, when the Earth was young - but rather (as I state above) that I have deep moral *questions* about the business model that they are built upon.

It is possible that I also feel some residual resentment for the way in which the CCGs all but totally devastated the tabletop role-playing game industry, of course. I'm certainly not claiming impartiality. :)

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