From Marvel to Star Wars: Behind Netmarble's Mobile Gaming Empire

Courtesy of Netmarble
'Marvel Future Fight'; Inset: Simon Sim, president of Netmarble U.S.

In 2018, the company, which just reached 100 million players on its 'Marvel Future Fight' title, topped $1.8 billion in sales.

Nearly 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean from its Seoul, South Korea headquarters, the North American offices of mobile gaming company Netmarble overlook Downtown Los Angeles through tall windows surrounding an open-floored suite floating amid the city's skyline.

It's an impressive space, as one would expect to find housing one of the world's most profitable mobile game developers. In 2018, Netmarble topped $1.8 billion in sales with an operating profit of $219 million. The company went public in 2017, raising $2.3 billion in its initial offering.

Originally founded in 2000 in South Korea as a PC game developer, the company didn't fully embrace mobile gaming until 2012. After a promising response from Asian markets, Netmarble set its sights on North American audiences in 2015 when it launched a Disney-Marvel tie-in with the game Marvel Future Fight.

The game celebrated its fourth anniversary last week and has been downloaded more than 100 million times since its initial release. The fighting action game has generated over $400 million in revenue as of February. 

As revenue from mobile gaming continues to soar, competition in the space has grown. In Los Angeles alone there are roughly a dozen different mobile game developers, such as League of Legends studio Riot Games and Culver City-based Scopely which has Walking Dead and Star Trek games. There's also Jam City, makers of the puzzle game Cookie Jam and the Harry Potter title Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, launched last year. Netmarble acquired Jam City, based in Culver, in 2015.

Simon Sim, president of Netmarble U.S., sees the company's new Los Angeles locale as a big advantage in securing and courting major IP holders like Marvel, Disney and Lucasfilm. 

"Since we’re dealing with big IP holders globally, we think the communication with IP holders and also understanding the fanbase is very important. That’s one of the other reasons we located in Downtown L.A.," Sim tells The Hollywood Reporter.

After a short stint in San Francisco, Netmarble first moved south to Buena Park in Orange County, Calif. before relocating to Downtown L.A. last year. While the U.S. office is a fraction the size of its Korean base (the Seoul offices house more than 4,000 employees), the space is a sprawling open floor plan on the 11th floor of a high rise with bathed in natural light pouring through floor-to-ceiling windows. 

As Sim moves through the space, he greets each member of his team that he passes by name and with a bright grin. "The U.S. is the mecca of mobile gaming, and even amid the U.S., California has the most talented people. All the technology is innovated from California," he says.

In addition to its Marvel title, Netmarble also has partnerships with Lucasfilm (2017's Star Wars: Force Arena) and the popular fighting game franchise King of Fighters (The King of Fighters: All-Star, which will be coming to American devices soon), an upcoming game centered around K-pop band BTS (which opened for pre-registration on Thursday), and a roster of original games such as the massively multiplayer online RPG game Lineage 2 Revolution, which has grossed over $1 billion since its release in 2016.

"Our approach is three ways. One, we want to embrace our own IP. Two, we keep looking for global IP. Three, popular IP in bigger markets, even if it’s not globally-known, is something we are very interested in," says Sim.

"We keep watching player trends and devise improvements," Sim says of staying competitive. "Observing those trends we can forecast one or two years ahead. It should be innovative. It’s very challenging, but we believe that’s the way we can keep being successful."

One such major innovation in the gaming space has dominated much of the conversation in 2019: game streaming services. Tech giants like Google, Apple and Amazon have shown interest in the space, but Sim sees the advent of game streaming as a positive for the entire industry.

"In the future, players may be playing on mobile and PC together as cross-platform play gets bigger and bigger," he says. "My perspective is that this trend is giving more opportunity to make better quality games and to make the player pool get bigger and bigger."