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Nexon: We need to focus on heart first and money second

The powerful philosphy of free-to-play CEO Owen Mahoney

It would be easy for Owen Mahoney to be complacent about the state of the industry. As the CEO of money-spinning free-to-play company Nexon he's managed to sidestep many of the pitfalls of the last few years whilst happily bringing cash and new business to the table, but sit down with him and you find a man who thinks it's greed, not art, leading the industry and that that needs to change.

"I don't want to criticise the industry too much, but I think all of us who are executives, who are responsible for spending money and investing capital in the games industry have done a disservice to the industry by focusing on money first and hearts second," he told GamesIndustry.biz

"I think what we need to do is focus on heart first and money second. By the way, that's a good business strategy. And when you do that a lot of things start to fall away as very unimportant and it makes for a much better industry."

One of the areas where Mahoney sees issues is that of free-to-play and the west's attempts at it so far. The first issue is the rise of cloning in the games industry, the success of one free-to-play title spawning an embarrassing number of copies all looking for same dollars.

"You the game developer are not any smarter than the next guy. In fact those were the exact words that were used among a lot of these development organisations. You are not any smarter than the guy that made this game that you are copying, stop trying to do something original, just do exactly the same thing. You'll get the time to market much faster. "

That attitude accounts for the lack of innovation in the market and the proliferation of the same tired out mechanics. In Japan the biggest free-to-play games are RPGs and MOBAs, over here they're titles where your only input is tapping, waiting, tapping, waiting and paying.

"I had a lot of conversations with executives in the industry who really had only been to Korea or China once, literally, and they said to me things like 'oh yeah I know what free-to-play is, that's that thing where you trick people into playing your game and then you trick them into buying a lot more than they would have spent before.'

"And so what they had was these rocketing up user numbers and then these user numbers crashed to the ground, in individual games and then of course overall in the company. The reason why they crashed to the ground is because the customers aren't stupid after all. You can trick them once but you can't trick them a second time. And fundamentally in a creative business if you're a cynic you get burned."

Mahoney doesn't plead total innocence, admits that in the past Nexon has over-monetised a few of its titles and then had to go through the process of readjusting the games. He totally understands the temptation, but says getting it right is the difference between keeping a player engaged for years and decades.

"I don't think the western developers are guilty or are just evil or anything like that, it's just early in the learning curve and it takes years," he says with a smile.

"The customers aren't stupid, after all. You can trick them once but you can't trick them a second time"

"So the companies that we've been partnering with want to accelerate their learning on that and learn how to do live game operations and how to build a live game operations team who knows how to do that and get that learning from us and hopefully we're able to be helpful to them in doing that."

And Nexon is doing that and with an impressive list of partners - one of Mahoney's tactics for building Nexon's presence in Western territories.

"More and more people are hearing about us because some of the companies that we've partnered with, Cliff Bleszinski, John Schappert, Brian Reynolds and the folks at Valve and some of the folks at EA, they've been very vocal about us because they've had, hopefully, they seem to have had good experience so far working with us.

"You can try to push this ahead of time but our view is really you have to earn it first and so if they have a good experience with us they'll say nice things about us."

One of the biggest challenges is introducing the idea that the development doesn't stop with the game's release, in fact in Nexon's case that's often where the real work starts.

"A lot of the western companies that we talk to have no concept that they need a live game development team, they'll sort of figure it out in the back end but what you really need to do is think about that starting off and you need to move backwards into the new development game phase. "

He praises League Of Legends and Dota 2 as examples of games that are getting it right, and says other developers will follow, it's really just a matter of experience. And the pay off is worth it. The percentage of players that pay Nexon actual money? 10 to 11 per cent, depending on the quarter, says Mahoney.

"Our average revenue per paying user, so those 10 per cent that pay in our case it's usually between $20 and $30 US depending on quarter which is very very high versus casual games."

As yet the gaming public might not be familiar with Nexon's portfolio, titles like Mabinogi, Vindictus and even MapleStory might not ring any bells, but between its philosophy and partnerships Nexon seems to be shaping up to be a major force in the Western market. And Mahoney seems damn dedicated to the cause.

"I don't think the western developers are guilty or are just evil or anything like that, it's just early in the learning curve"

"As a personal philosophy I think your time, working certainly, but your time on the planet is actually very very limited, it feels like hundreds of years when you're in the beginning but it actually feels like hours later. So you've got hours left, what am I going to do with my life and my career and my time that's really cool?

"And although it sounds like almost a morbid way to think about things it's actually a very liberating way to think about things because it allows you to filter out all the extraneous things very quickly. "

For more on Nexon, check out last week's interview with Min Kim, CEO of Nexon America.

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Rachel Weber

Senior Editor

Rachel Weber has been with GamesIndustry since 2011 and specialises in news-writing and investigative journalism. She has more than five years of consumer experience, having previously worked for Future Publishing in the UK.

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