Asia a major player in gaming market

Accounts for 54% of global online share

Asia accounts for 54% of global online gaming and growth rates of 26% could make online a $20 billion global industry by 2012. But infrastructure problems are holding back mobile games from reaching their potential in Asia — and that in a region where several territories boast mobile penetration in excess of 100% of their populations.

Those were the dueling details to come out of the second edition of Games Convention Asia in Singapore, which ran Sept. 18-20.

Speakers included Joonmo Kwon, a psychology major turned entrepreneur whose Nexon Corp. dominates the world’s online gaming, and MIT professor Henry Jenkins, author of seminal “Convergence Culture” and who convincingly described contempo games as “transmedia entertainment.”

Government regulation and local tastes help tip the market in favor of local companies, which claim 60% share. But Mi also pointed to numerous examples of entrepreneurial innovation that in future could make Chinese games companies significant forces overseas.

In a market where most games are played in Internet cafes and most players do not have credit cards, thus leading to the dominance of free-to-play models, he detailed finely tuned teaser strategies that hook users and tip them toward making micro-payments or subscriptions. These include allowing gamers to buy elements that change the game balance — something generally considered anathema in the West — quasi-gambling elements and strategies that allow gamers to make real money.

Mi and Kwon agreed that free to play is not a tweak that needs to be done to make a localized Chinese version of a pre-existing game. Rather they both made case for “free to play as a business model.”

Claas Grimm of designer/publisher 8 Elements explained that worldwide mobile would be a $3.5 billion market this year, but said that Asia Pacific would be marginal to most developers’ plans. Problems include payment systems, lack of free data, market fragmentation and short product life-cycles. In particular he noted that Asia’s games market is not growing as fast as the mobile phone population — the millions of new subscribers per week from India and China are largely opting for low-price handsets and seek basic phone functionality ahead of entertainment options.

Show itself was an inevitably uneven mix of dressed-down-but-earnest conventioneers and louder, flashier types on the floor of the trade show. There, babes dressed like their avatar idols vied with karaoke singers thrilled to get their hands on pre-release version of EA’s “Rock Band.”

Bizarrely, there was also a booth operated by recently rescued insurance giant AIG. Stand came complete with sales folk uttering “all is well’ messages to anyone willing to tear themselves away from the bright lights and electronica around them and plunge back into what is, despite what Kwon and Jenkins imagine, still the real world.

Confab wrapped with a students day open to the public.

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