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Interview: Outspark Hires Former NHN CEO, Talks 'Record' Growth

Former NHN USA CEO Philip Yun has joined free-to-play MMO firm Outspark, as the company reveals "record" growth -- we speak to CEO Susan Choe about the company's evolutions in the free-to-play space.
Former NHN USA CEO Philip Yun has joined free-to-play MMO company Outspark, as the company reveals "record" growth since Yun quietly began working with them as COO in November 2010. Outspark says it's seen 10 to 20 percent month-to-month revenue growth since then, continuing a trend that's seen its revenues double annually. CEO Susan Choe tells Gamasutra that Outspark, which began by localizing and distributing free-to-play Korean MMOs like Fiesta but went on to expand in a big way into platform development, had three objectives from the beginning: To create a platform, to develop publishing operations and to create a destination portal to cross-market its titles. The company currently operates five titles -- Choe says the platform build-out has been its primary focus until now -- "so now, this year in 2011, we intend to double our top-line revenue again and we're now speeding up the number of games we publish." The company sees some advertising revenue, but the focus has been microtransactions, says Choe. "We've been expanding our European presence, both in terms of marketing ability and userbase, especially with the new games" she says. "And we're also going into the web MMOs that do not require a major client download -- it's been Flash, and so those games are instantly cross-platform playable." Cross-Platform, Cross-Marketing Outspark also hopes to benefit from Apple's decision to allow developers to use Flash in game and app development: "A lot of these free-to-play games were not able to be played on iOS -- now you can," says Choe. "We're really excited to have that happen, with the cross-platform, without-download model we're starting." Truly cross-platform free-to-play games "are just at the beginning," says Choe. "Companies are out there starting to leverage beyond Facebook, if you will." And this digital platform growth has created a bigger base of consumers that are accustomed to paying for digital entertainment. "I don't see why the traditional casual gamers who've evolved to the Facebook platform would not evolve to the next step in the MMO gameplay," suggests Choe. "I'm unsure that they would ever go to the fantasy MMORPG per se in the next few years," she says, but if the games have a high entertainment value and ease of use is spot-on, they could make the transition. Ease of use is key, suggests Choe -- she's watched her parents learn to use the iPad, which she credits to the simple user interface and not to the desire for high fidelity or sophisticated features specifically. "As we improve how people can interact with MMO games... I think the fear of meeting strangers online is subsiding among the adult generation of internet users, and so the problem of lack of perceived value for digital items is also subsiding," Choe says. The Problem With Traditional Developer Backgrounds So in an environment the company sees as ideal for its continued growth, Choe says Yun's leadership will help direct development talent that is more accustomed to a different kind of market approach. "The traditional console game [companies] take a 'finish the product before you launch' type position, but in our world, it's the complete opposite," she explains. In Outspark's world, launching an unfinished game is simply expected, as the latter stages of development need to be closely tied to the feedback process and the data gathered from testing. "We've tried bringing on console-background folks and I think they're still great for the creative aspect of it, for refining game design and for project management -- but I think the realtime data-based experience of evolving a game that's still being refined is something that requires a different DNA." Yun has many years of such experience, making him an ideal fit for Outspark, she says. But he also began in the console industry: "I used to work for Sony, in charge of launching the PlayStation 2 in Korea," Yun tells us. "The shocking experience that I had when I joined NHN for six years... it was a different type of environment, but what interested me most is that NHN is actually the inventor of the micropayment model... NHN makes $50 million a month through micropayments," she says. Currently Outspark is seeing about $50 ARPU per month -- "lifetime values can be $200 to $400 per person," Choe says. Now, both she and Yun are excited to integrate "soup to nuts" producing games all the way to the point of sale, with a single ID across all products that supports cross-marketing efforts.

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