Asia's Growing Influence on the US Games Industry

Will free-to-play models take over in the US?

One interesting panel at Games Beat today was about Asian influence growing in the US. Many gamers know there are a lot of free-to-play games out there. They also know that most of them have come from Asia. Google free-to-play MMO and you will find a ton of them out there. Some come from US companies, but not many, and usually not the same model as Asia.

Free-to-Play versus Pay-to-Play

The free to play model has been prevalent in eastern countries for far longer than in the west. The eastern and western business models for games were polar opposites for a time. Some places in Asia may have only seen free-to-play models and practically no hard copies of games, and some places in the US were only familiar with hard copies, with no exposure to free-to-play.

The influence of Asian games business models is growing the in the US now. Many MMOs, including Star Wars: The Old Republic, have started doing free-to-play models for their games. There is usually a certain negativity that comes along with free-to-play in the US that doesn't exist in Asia. Most of that is the quality of free-to-play games created in the US.

F2P does not have to mean low quality

Many F2P mobile and computer games in the US suffer from low quality, copying, hidden fees, or sometimes all of the above. Not every F2P Asian game is high quality and they suffer from the same problems, but they offset that with many quality games, as well.

Free-to-play is about creating a great experience and keeping players there. - Owen Mahoney

The speaker for this panel was Nexon's Chief Financial Officer, Owen Mahoney. Nexon is a well established company in Asia for over 15 years, but has little influence in the US. A very popular game they created, that many western players are familiar with, is MapleStory.

In 2012, Nexon generated more than $1.3 billion in revenue and over 40 percent of operating margins. They are clearly doing something right and 90% of their customers never even pay anything. F2P is different in Asia, which is why they make so much money.

When is F2P actually free?

If you cannot realistically progress in the game without paying, then it is not free to play. - Owen Mahoney

Many US free-to-play games are not truly free. They require you to get others to play so you can progress, limited access unless you pay, or absurd wait times if you don't. MapleStory, for example, is a free-to-play MMO. They have what is called a cash shop, which has things players can buy with real money.

Nearly all of it is cosmetic or convenience, but you won't have any less of an experience if you don't use it. Even though the game is free and nothing is needed from the cash shop, many players spend a lot of money in it. Some players end up paying hundreds or even thousands just in the cash shop in only a couple of years.

This makes up for it being free-to-play by getting more people to play it, getting more money from some people than if they just bought the game. There is also no pressure to do it because it isn't necessary, so the quality doesn't drop.

Owen Mahoney also talked about the hope that more US game developers adopt the free to play model, but with quality and not copying another game already out there. He thinks that if we combine "eastern free-to-play models, with western sensibility" the games industry as a whole will improve. I would have to agree with him.

What do you think about the free-to-play model? Should it be the norm in gaming, or should the US stick with its current business models? Discuss in the comments.

Guide Editor

After gaming for 25 years, Synzer leveraged his vast knowledge of RPGs and MMOs into a job as a games journalist, covering the games he loves. Five years later, he's still writing about Kingdom Hearts, Pokemon, and Knights of the Old Republic. Synzer has a bachelor's degree in English and creative writing. You can see him in action on his YouTube channel ( and Twitch (

Published Oct. 29th 2013
  • Ryan Chizmar
    Featured Correspondent
    Well, with MapleStory it's practically a necessity to use the cash shop these days. In game you can get what are called potential scrolls that have the ability to add %stat modifiers to your equipment. Most of them are junk (20% chance to smile when you take damage - I know nobody who wants that kind of potential on their item) and the only way to change them is to buy miracle cubes in the cash shop. The miracle cubes give you a random set of potential each time and there are different tiers of potential with better possible stats.

    If you don't cube your equips, then you won't be able to do a lot of end-game content and many other things will be much harder for you. This leads to some people spending hundreds of dollars on just one equipment piece, for example their weapon, and a lot of the time they still don't get the potential they want.

    I talk more about it in one of the first articles I ever wrote on here, but that's the basics of it. People do spend a lot of money on cosmetics, but cubing is the big source of revenue for Nexon.
  • Synzer
    Guide Editor
    Yeah I noticed that. It is definitely hard to get the best equipment, but at least most people can experience everything in the game without it. The good thing is there really isn't PvP.

    It isn't perfect though, but I think if someone chooses to, they can still fully enjoy the game without paying. The main thing is, for me at least, I don't feel obligated to buy anything, I do it just because.

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