When Pattera Apithanakoon was 14, she once heard her father, who was in the business of importing arcade game machines from Japan to Thailand, talk about how people will soon start playing games at home. Cut to 21 years later, Pattera is the Managing Director of Ini3 Digital Public, an online gaming subsidiary of the family’s Galaxy Group business.
The family business was first established in 1969 by Pattera’s father Amorn Apithanakoon, who founded a restaurant group and later went on to create Galaxy Entertainment in 1995, and Ini3 in 2003. According to the younger Apithanakoon, Ini3 references the Chinese and Japanese language: “yi (pronouned as ee in English)” means one in Chinese, and “ni” means two in Japanese; 3, of course, refers to the number three.
From consoles to smartphones Just as how millennials will no longer know what it was like without a telephone, some day a newer generation might never understand what it was like crouching in front of the TV with a controller in your hands. Take a ride on a bus or the BTS in Thailand — men and women alike have their noses in smartphones of all shapes and sizes. While some may be watching the latest tearjerker TV series, others are often playing casual and midcore games.
Is there something missing in the timeline? Right, personal computers (PCs). Pattera does not believe that the popularity of smartphone games will necessarily translate into revenue. She cites that based on market research and internal numbers, PC gamers are still generating the largest share of the revenue pie.
“PC games offer deeper involvement and more entertainment value, which in turn makes gamers spend more to play. Plus the very elements of social play are, and have been, the hallmarks of PC gaming, where you play online in communities or groups and compete against each other,” says Pattera.
She adds that while Ini3 was not the first online game operator, it was the first to launch free-to-play games in Thailand. This was in a time where competitors put their money on time-based charging or subscription models.
In 2004, Ini3 published Pangya in Thailand, a Korean fantasy golf game, from which it generated revenue for seven good years. Last year, it rolled out seven new PC games, bringing its portfolio to 17 current titles. At the moment, the firm offers both, casual and hardcore or traditional massively multi-player online (MMO) games.
She says, “We took the challenge of offering free-to-play item selling model. … When you enter any territory, there’s always a local preference and the perception of the people about how expensive or cheap each item is, you need local expertise for that.”
According to her, keeping up with the times does not mean the company should be the first all the time. She explains, “It’s also about doing things at the right time. We keep our eyes peeled and our ears opened all the time. One of the most important channels, of course, is that of our own users; we talk to them, get their input and learn of their expectations.”
Pay-to-play or free-to-play?
In the last 10 over years, many trends have come and gone. The first thing that comes to Pattera’s mind is the subscription or pay-to-play model, which debatedly died out. She says, “Gamers are now used to free-to-play, where they can experience a game first-hand and decide if they want to continue playing by buying items in the game. We see this model also extended to mobile games, where in-app purchase games generate more revenue than paid games.”
She also reminisces about the popularity of console games, which has since shifted to desktops, laptops and smartphones. “This is especially true for Thailand where income levels may not be so high to enable one to have multiple devices,” says Pattera. “Obviously the smartphone trend is something that every gaming company is watching closely. And we hear of many success stories from Japan and Korea on how developers make millions a day on mobile games. The advent of more powerful phones, better networks allows those smartphones to act like “mini-computers” and users can take their games while on the move,” she adds.
She believes that the opposite is also true — smartphones are able to open up a world of distractions, which means that consumers will have even less time to play games.
She says, “But it’s not all bad though, with more smartphones out there, our potential customer-base is also widened, and opens up a new group of potential gamers since they now have devices with the ability to play games. … At that time, people were afraid that if you open the game industry to free, then nobody will pay for it, so we took a chance.”
“These casual games also attract a new market segment; for instance, we find that many casual gamers are females as compared to more males on hardcore games,” shares Pattera.
Publishing, distribution and payments As a game operator and publisher, Ini3 also works with developers to localise games for Thailand. She sheds light on the process taken for localisation, and says, “When our team finds a good game, we will work with these developers to localise it for Thailand– it’s more than just language translation, sometimes it involves changes in graphics or even gameplay. These adjustments help make a game more acceptable to local market.”
Online and offline marketing campaigns are also organised to promote such games, with call centers operated in the background to provide phone support to gamers. The firm then has a revenue sharing arrangement with its game developers, with a third-party system that tracks real-time revenue.
In addition, Ini3 also manages a payment system, Cookie Card, which sees gamers buy physical and electronic top-up cards via internet banking and at the ATM. She explains, “Usage of credit cards online is pretty low in Thailand and given that many of our gamers are young, they might not even have access to credit cards, so alternative and easy payment channels are critical. To make it even easier, we work with other payment channels like MOL which allows the use of pre-paid top-up cards from leading telcos. This works well since it’s widely distributed.”
Outside Bangkok Everyone knows Thailand’s capital Bangkok is the hub. But what’s really happening outside of the country’s most populated city? Pattera says that the other cities are indeed beaming with potential. However, such opportunities come with a need to build proper infrastructure for the other cities. She adds, “I can see some of the companies that are building (such infrastructure). … From this day onward, you will only see growth in that area. The market is just starting.”
The parent business also owns Galaxy Ventures, a closely held company with investments in four Thai startups: Level Up Plus, Arcade Plus, Page 365, and 1 2 Play.
Galaxy Ventures is an early-stage corporate investment firm based in Bangkok.