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Netmarble IPO: What it says about the future of mobile gaming

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Netmarble‘s $2.3 billion initial public offering is happening, and it values the company at $11 billion. It has made a billionaire out of founder Jun-hyuk Bang, and it could have big implications for the $46.2 billion a year global mobile games business.

The value is higher than the market capitalization of LG Electronics, one of South Korea’s chaebol companies, or big conglomerates. And it gives Netmarble the capital to go on an investment and acquisition binge around the world.

Mobile has been a fiercely competitive business, with many good games getting buried among millions in the app stores. To stand out, many companies in the free-to-play sector have to spend their funds on user acquisition (such as advertising on TV), which is an inefficient process, according to companies such as AppOnboard and Adjust. Paul Muller of Adjust talked at our recent GamesBeat Summit event about how this has led to a big problem with ad fraud in mobile game advertising.

In any case, the need for spending on user acquisition makes these companies hungry for cash. Some companies, like Jam City (which raised $130 million from Netmarble), have turned to licensed games. Others have dropped out of the business, and some are pursuing other markets such as PC games or virtual reality.

But Netmarble stayed focused on mobile games, both in South Korea and the West. Bang founded the company in 2000 with $90,000 and eight people, focused on PC online games. The company started investing in smartphone games in 2012, with early successes in 2013. China’s Tencent and CJ Conglomerate invested $500 million in the company in 2014. In 2015, it had its first major success in the U.S. with Marvel: Future Fight. It grew to nearly $1 billion in revenues by 2016.

Nexon went public back in 2011, raising $1.2 billion at a valuation of about $9 billion. Besides user acquisition, Netmarble faces the same challenges many other mobile game companies face, such as the pressure to come up with hits and invest in brand new games at the same time. Rivals such as Japan’s Gung Ho Entertainment share the benefit of having great home markets where rabid players love their games, but they have had a harder time reaching out into the global market to become universally successful.

Above: Marvel Future Fight

Image Credit: Netmarble

Bang still owns 24.5 percent of Netmarble, which at the IPO price makes his shares worth $3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Netmarble’s CEO, Young-sig Kwon, said last month that the company could invest as much as $4 billion in acquisitions in the coming years. That means there is plenty of money to acquire mobile game companies around the world.

The IPO comes just after Netmarble had its biggest success to date with Lineage2: Revolution, a mobile game that made more than $176 million in revenues in its first month in the South Korean market alone. The company is preparing to launch the game in other markets.

Tencent still owns a big stake in Netmarble, as does CJ. That’s consistent with Tencent’s global strategy (as the world’s biggest game company) of taking stakes in successful game companies and letting them run themselves.

Netmarble has now grown to more than 3,000 employees. That’s going to be hard to manage, but it’s also going to be hard to compete with. Bang left the company in 2006, and he returned in 2011 to initiate the shift to mobile games.

Overall, Netmarble has dozens of games, ranging from hardcore games like Sudden Attack and Queen’s Blade to broader titles like Disney Magical Dice and Star Wars: Force Arena. Rivals include NCSoft and Nexon in Asia, as well as Western companies such as Supercell, Activision’s King, and MZ.

Netmarble has already driven some consolidation by buying the Vancouver division of Kabam, plus some other assets. That game Netmarble control of Marvel Contest of Champions, another top 50 grossing game.

VentureBeat’s PC Gaming channel is presented by the Intel® Game Dev program. 


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