Mobile Heroes

Robert Garfinkle by Robert Garfinkle | November 26, 2018

Robert Garfinkle is the Sr. User Acquisition Manager at Nexon M, the San Francisco based mobile division of the South Korean gaming giant Nexon, the company responsible for MapleStory, Dungeon and Fighter and the free-to-play business model. He’s responsible for day-to-day management of a portfolio of User Acquisition campaigns across SDK Networks and DSPs along with his team in Emeryville, California.

Learn more from his Mobile Hero profile.


I’ve got vast experience working in free-to-play games developed in APAC. I’d like to share some recent developments in this region, especially related to changes in Chinese licensing laws. Though it’s getting tougher to make it in the Chinese market, the opportunities there and across Asia are too good to miss.

Capitalizing on the China Opportunity

The China domestic opportunity for apps can be quite difficult to capitalize on. It’s best understood as a practice of Applied Guanxi (关系 Mandarin for “relationships”). Guanxi is the theory of how business and personal relationships between individuals shape a market economy. Even discounting the current moratorium on license approvals, the Chinese domestic market is a minefield of private app stores and massive monolithic publishers such as Tencent and Netease.

The market is increasingly dominated by domestic games with home-field advantage in localizing gameplay, user experience and monetization techniques. Long gone are the days where simply publishing in this market gives you a large number of installs and potential revenue. Now, to participate, you’ll need an extensive list of adaptations to the Chinese market, which includes both legal regulatory compliance as well as gameplay user experience changes that can be extremely expensive.

To me, the most fascinating aspect of the Chinese market is the deep pool of talent that currently has no major outlet for their work. Chinese game developers are some of the world’s best, and as major Chinese universities produce more of them, this talent pool is growing rapidly. This, combined with the phenomenon of 海归 Haigui (Chinese expats returning to the domestic market for work), means many people who’ve worked on major western titles are taking those skills back to train younger developers.

With the licensing issues all companies in China face, more of these talented teams will be reaching out into the rest of the world. I think the real story of the Chinese licensing laws is that soon the Western markets will be flooded with high-quality games produced in China.

Korean App Market Requires a Hybrid Approach

I’ve also worked with Korean companies, Nexon and Netmarble, and have a unique take on the Korean Market. South Korea is an insular “Hollywood” style gaming market with a massive fan base on mid-core users. It’s a gamer’s paradise in a certain perspective. Users are highly competitive, extremely driven, and they will always engage with the newest blockbuster title without hesitation.

For this reason, the audience is somewhat flighty, and long-term successes are few and far between. Gamers tend to try to burn through content as quickly as possible and rise in the leaderboard. To have a strong strategy in Korea, it helps to have Korean presence. Korean gamers are brand-loyal — the big N gaming companies (Nexon, Netmarble, NCsoft, NHN, ect) often dominate the top slots for revenue in the country.

Success in this market requires a hybrid approach of local out-of-home (OOH) marketing as well as TV and social media (Line, Kakao) marketing. The traditional UA networks in the market are marred by higher-than-average ad fraud, making them difficult to scale.

Emerging Markets Will Soon Set the Trend in Mobile

At a broader, global level, I see some interesting markets emerging. India is an awakening giant – a mobile-first market with low literacy but high potential. For me, the most interesting aspect of users in this market is their reliance on foreign titles, and how this trend will change over the next several years. We are already seeing this with the YouTube channel T-Series which is set to overtake PewdiePie in subscribership due to its popularity in its home market of India.

This market had a major boom in the last 12 months, and I think we are seeing just the beginning of a major trend-setter in the early 2020s.