Investing in Anipang and the Mobile Social Game Industry

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Anipang has earned the title of the “national game of Korea” and has made mobile gaming history. Currently the game has racked up 20 million downloads, 10 million users, up to 3 million users connecting at the same time and a lot of revenue. It has brought non gamers into the gaming world and much has been said about the game.

I’ve received many questions from a variety of people including reporters, VCs and financial analysts about the substantial investment I made in SundayToz when I discovered the company early on in 2010 and there were only 5-6 employees. The main questions were the following.

– When you invested, was it because you knew that the company would do this well?
– Does Anipang owe its success to Kakao? If so, have they just been lucky?
– Will Anipang be sustainable? If not, what should SundayToz do?

After receiving the same questions so many times, I thought it might be good to answer them and share them for others to see.

When you invested, was it because you knew that the company would do this well?

Basically, I didn’t know that SundayToz (or to put it more accurately, SundayToz’s game Anipang) would do this well. However, I was certain that if investing in a social game developer in Korea it obviously had to be SundayToz and I trusted that the social game market would open up. At the time, there was a Nate AppStore platform and I believed that it would grow from there and that later mobile would become more important.

Does Anipang owe its success to Kakao? If so, have they just been lucky?

One thing is for sure. If it wasn’t for Kakao then the “national game” Anipang as we know it wouldn’t have existed. Then were they simply lucky? Sure, they were clearly lucky, and some would say that luck is a skill as well, but I objectively think that skill definitely played a great part in it. Many other games were launched at the same time but if I look at why Anipang was the most successful, I think it’s because they were ready as a team.

If we turn back time to 2010 when I was searching out social game companies, at the time there was so other company that knew as much about the “social” arena as the team behind CEO Lee Jeong-woong’s SundayToz. While other game companies were talking about ‘developing skill’ and ‘graphics and quality’, Lee was saying that the most important thing was insight into the social arena.

In that case, what is understanding the “social arena”? It’s hard to explain in one sentence, but at the time one member of the SundayToz team would present an analysis of a successful major social game on Facebook every week at meetings. The team became more experienced and held discussions about various social features, and which new features were good or bad. Additionally, while operating PC-based games Anipang, Yutnori and Aqua Story, the company tracked and analyzed users’ reactions every time a new feature or item was added. Through this, SundayToz gained insight into social gaming including: how to simulate competition, which demands cause users to feel animosity and what users like.

CEO Lee recently mentioned in an article that he proposed the idea of a Kakao gaming platform and I remember that time. While I was considering investment, Lee told me that he had said, “The fact is that your address book is your true social network, and if you attached a game to this it would do great. It would be great if Kakao could add games.” He even discussed it with Lee Jae-beom, the CEO of Kakao but at the time the company assessed that quickly gaining more users was more important than adding games. (And in the end they were right, if they had added games then it would have been too early.)

In any case, I invested in SundayToz in 2010, and in 2011 something that I never expected happened. Nate fell victim to hackers and one of Korea’s only social gaming platforms at the time, Nate AppStore began to fall. As the gaming market ran into trouble, top social game developer SundayToz couldn’t grow like it had before. The company reacted to the market situation by creating mobile social games as quickly as possible.

Following this, around the beginning of April when I had just started K Cube Ventures, CEO Lee visited my office and said he was going “all in” for the Kakao Game Center. I had been keeping in contact with Kakao’s game team, frequently talking about social games, and I remember I told him that he had made a good decision as I knew the power of Kakao and the social capacity of SundayToz ,

Though you might think going all in for Kakao’s game platform is an obvious decision, game companies at the time weren’t fond of Kakao. Everyone was hesitant and there were even many game companies who had said straight up that it wouldn’t work. For SundayToz to put everything on the line in the unproven market that was Kakao’s gaming platform, was definitely the result of SundayToz’s insight and skill.

In the end, Kakao’s influence was very important, but because SundayToz was prepared they were able to grab the opportunity. This opportunity was offered to many companies but SundayToz seized the chance and pulled it off the best.

Will Anipang be sustainable? If not, what should SundayToz do?

Many people ask if the mobile game life cycle isn’t shorter compared to online games. While that might be correct to a certain extent, I don’t think SundayToz need worry. Even when Anipang was showing signs of great success and surpassing millions of downloads, Lee told his founders that he couldn’t feel triumphant about it. The company had already been considering their next stop and are already working on the development of it. Thanks to Anipang, the company’s brand and capital have grown, and while I can’t name people specifically, have been able to recruit top-tier talent. Basically the company raised its level. This is just the beginning of the mobile social game market and because SundayToz has expanded its brand, capital and talent, I think the company will be reasonably successful.  (And because Anipang has reached the level of becoming Korea’s “national game” I think it won’t just suddenly drop off the radar but slowly fade out.)

Finally, many people ask about the mobile social game market, and of course I don’t think that in the future only these “pang” type games will be popular but that hit games will come out for each game genre. Gradually hardcore games will come out and for those games the ARPU(average revenue per user) will be high. Nevertheless, I think there is clearly a large market for “light” gaming on mobile devices.

Looking back at the history of online gaming and the Nintendo DS games on relatively small screens, I think that if social aspects are applied correctly to mobile games, hit games will continue to be released.

This piece has been translated from the original post by Jimmy Rim, CEO of K Cube Ventures and VentureSquare contributor.

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