In January, Finnish studio Boomlagoon launched its first iOS game, Noble Nutlings, and saw promising early traction, surpassing 600,000 downloads in the first week. But within the coming weeks, the five-man studio – started by two men who were behind Rovio’s smash-hit Angry Birds – will effectively re-launch the game with a different approach tailored to a new platform. This time the game will go out on a messaging app that has more than 200 million users, most of whom are in Asia.
Noble Nutlings will be one of a select group of games to be added to Line’s burgeoning gaming platform, which recently surpassed 150 million downloads spread across just 33 games. Noble Nutlings is set to be the first game on the platform to come from a Western game studio. The messaging app, which is most popular in Japan, has itself seen more than 200 million downloads, and Boomlagoon sees it as an effective to enter the Asian gaming market.
But to do that, Boomlagoon had to change a lot about the cartoon racing game, which had proven popular with users but apparently wasn’t making much money. After consulting with Line, the studio deided to modify the game so it was much more casual and more like an arcade-style game.
More importantly, the studio also changed its free-to-play business model so it could accommodate more social competition, including a weekly tournament that Line users can participate in with their friends. As well as the usual methods of paying to enhance their characters’ performance and power, players will also have to adhere to a ticket system that dictates that they can play the game five times in a row before having to take a break – unless they’re willing to pay.
“Basically we changed everything except for the graphics,” says Antti Stén, Boomlagoon co-founder and CEO. Rather than feeling the company had to make concessions to fit the Line model, Stén believes the modifcations have been beneficial. The game had lackluster retention and monetization, and now it has more potential. “We think all the changes we made makes the game much much better,” he says.
Like Tango, Kik, and South Korea’s KakaoTalk, Line is getting serious about its games platform. The platform works by tying its messaging system and social graph into partner games, and then helping their distribution by letting friends challenge each other to play through the messenger.
By taking a cut of payments made through its connected games, the company has added another serious profit line alongside its popular “stickers,” which are essentially glorified emojis and emoticons. Last month, Line announced that it brought in $132 million in revenue in Q2, a 45.3 percent increase on the previous quarter, and a 348.9 percent year-on-year increase. In-game purchases account for 53 percent of all revenues.
KakaoTalk, meanwhile, is also seeing blockbuster success with its gaming push. Its platform generated $311 million in revenue in the first half of 2013. Canada-based Kik, which claims 80 million users, is taking a slightly different approach, with an all-HTML5 platform, which recently saw the launch of the first game Zynga has made for a chat app. At the same time, US-based Tango is not only acting as a platform, but it also developing its own games, starting with Road Riot. It’s no wonder that Facebook is so eager to get into mobile game distribution too.
All these apps have traditionally been known as mobile chat apps, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that they’re much more than that: they’re entertainment portals and social networks, too. In fact, Line has gone so far to call itself a “social entertainment platform.”
For Boomlagoon’s Stén, Line represents a low-risk and low-cost way to enter the Asian market. “They have this huge userbase and with a relatively low effort we can get another game launched,” he says. Because Line also hand-selects the games it promotes and distributes, it also provides a strong advantage for reaching customers, Stén says.
“They are one of the ways to solve the discovery problem, because instead of everybody being in the same store, they create a substore with their own customers and they can filter out the games they put out there.”
In other words, Line is an example of how messaging apps are not just a threat to email, but how they are becoming compelling alternatives to other social networks and game distributors. Given that Line is only two years old, that gives a lot of Internet companies plenty to think about.