After a little bit of turbulence following its acquisition of mobile-social gaming network OpenFeint, Japan’s GREE is quickly re-stocking its higher ranks as it looks to bring its flavor of free-to-play gaming to North American markets.
The company’s hired Shanti Bergel, who most recently led business development and third-party publishing at Playfish, to be its senior vice president of business development. It follows on the company’s hire of former Glu Mobile and IUGO Sarah Thomson as OpenFeint’s director of developer relations and its installation of Naoki Aoyagi as chief executive of OpenFeint. OpenFeint’s original chief executive Jason Citron and its senior director of developer relations Tina Tran both left the company recently — about six months after the $104 million acquisition.
“I don’t really have much of a point of comparison between the old and new leadership because I’m new myself,” Bergel said. “But having worked with the team that Jason [Citron] put together, I was super impressed with the results that they produced.”
GREE, which is trying to expand beyond its lucrative and saturated home market of Japan, faces a more competitive landscape in the West with well-capitalized rival products including Facebook’s forthcoming HTML5 platform plus DeNA’s Mobage network. It also faces Mobage, Tencent, Sina Weibo and PapayaMobile back in China, another major potential growth market.
“Nobody’s approaching this problem quite the same way,” Bergel said. “We’re not requiring developers to make games in HTML5 and we’re not requiring people to go to another portal first before playing the game they want to play. These are strategic choices and our approach has been to create something developer-friendly as possible.”
GREE also faces issues around monetization on other company’s smartphone platforms with Apple controlling payments on iOS and Google pushing its own billing solution on Android. This is partially why Facebook has elected to go the HTML5 route with its platform.
OpenFeint may have been the most successful of any third-party mobile social gaming network on iOS, but figuring out how to monetize it will be a challenge. That said, Japan is the world’s most mature market for free-to-play gaming on mobile devices and GREE has years of experience there. The company just finished its fiscal year in June, pulling in 18.2 billion ($237 million) in annual net income on 64.2 billion yen ($833 million) in net sales.
“GREE has a long history with the free-to-play business model and understands how to pull different levers to make a profitable game and handle payments,” Bergel said. “Our history gives us the best-of-breed tactics that we can share with partners through APIs and other techniques.”