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GDC 2011: Nexon goes kart riding on the iPhone

Nexon is a South Korea-based publisher that's basically helped create and define the idea of free-to-play, microtransaction-based MMOs around the world. While microtransactions have become popular in all kinds of game genres in the last few years (including in quite a few apps on the iPhone), Nexon pioneered the business model with popular MMO games like MapleStory and Combat Arms. The company's been saying for a while that it plans to move more into the social and mobile game spaces in the West (it already has quite a stable of mobile games in Korea). At GDC 2011 this past week, I got to see the company's first entry on the iPhone in America, a game called KartRider Rush.

KartRider Rush is based on an MMO called Kart Rider that has never been brought to the West before (except for a short run in beta on the PC), but is well established in Korea. It's a cartoony kart racing game in the vein of Mario Kart, with customizable characters racing around a set of tracks. I enjoyed the game, though it is fun and simple. KartRider Rush accelerates for you, so you can either drive with a set of on-screen buttons or change the option to tilt the device. There are power-ups, like speed boosts and attacks, and races can be chaotic, with players quickly switching positions over the ride.

Nexon's model is all based on microtransactions, and KartRider Rush includes those as well. For in-app purchases from 99 cents up to $1.99, players can buy more customizations for their characters, better karts and new tracks to play on. The game's free to play, though I found the experience to be a little limited without at least unlocking tracks. This microtransaction model is Nexon's bread and butter, so while you can definitely download the game for free, you'll probably want to pony up a few dollars, which is completely reasonable.

KartRider Rush offers a speed mode (basically a time trial) or an item mode, which is a full race with all of the power-ups. There isn't online multiplayer, unfortunately (so it's not really an MMO), but your character is persistent, and up to four players at a time can race each other on local Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The game does have Facebook integration, but strangely it doesn't have Game Center; Nexon's representatives waffled a bit on that one, including the word "yet" in their answer, so we might see it added later on.

KartRider Rush doesn't seem like it's destined to be a hit out of the gate, but as a platform test balloon for Nexon, it should do just fine. The company has also released a version of its popular MapleStory RPG on the iPhone already, and I was told Nexon is also working hard on translating some of its popular Korean featurephone games over to the smartphone platform. A number of developers have taken Nexon's model and found hits for themselves on Apple's App Store, and now it will be interesting to see if the Korean original can do the same.

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