Looking for the next big mobile trend? Look to Japan, says MAQL Europe's Harry Holmwood
East and west not so different after all
Harry Holmwood is CEO of MAQL Europe - a subsidiary of Marvelous AQL, a Japanese developer and publisher of mobile, social and console games.
Kyoto, 1996. My first visit to Japan, and I was sat across a boardroom table looking at some very stern looking Nintendo executives, who told me the game I pitched them was 'unacceptable' in Japan.
I bit my tongue as they showed me their new, weird, product, that was just one of those Japanese things that never catches on over there. It was obviously too weird for the west. Obviously.
Pokémon has now sold over 200 million copies worldwide. And I am eternally thankful that I didn't tell them what I thought.
It's taken me twenty years to accept it, but if there's one thing I've learned about the Japanese games industry it's that, if you're thinking 'This thing is just so weird and Japanese it will never catch on here', you're almost certainly wrong.
Older readers may remember the British obsession with the Japanese game show Endurance – how we laughed at those crazy people watching this kind of stuff on TV.
Only now, we have pretty much the exact same show - I'm a Celebrity, etc. - on prime time TV.
I stared at customers in a Pachinko parlour wondering how on earth people enjoyed a skill-free game watching balls fall down a chute, ten years before I got hooked on Peggle.
Even western staples like SingStar and Guitar Hero started life as obscure Japanese innovations, taking many years and a westernized look to suddenly become smash hits at home.
The free-to-play social game market evolved earlier in Japan – in part because people were using pretty advanced ‘feature phones' back in the early 2000s, for internet use, gaming and paying for goods and services.
Mobile social networks like GREE and DeNA sprung up, linking players with others who liked the same games, rather than the Facebook approach of focusing solely on playing against people they already knew.
As a result, the mechanics of a lot of the successful early social games – like Mafia Wars or even FarmVille can be seen, years earlier, in Japanese social mobile and web games.
Without console level graphics, but with social connectivity and easy micro-payments, Japanese developers became expert at creating the social ‘meta games' which now fuel so much of western free-to-play success.
Lessons to learn
But why should developers care about Japan?
Even if you never release a game there, Japan has all kinds of lessons to teach us about free-to-play game design, and also about how to engage, retain and, yes, cringe, monetise customers:
For a start, Japan generates around threee times more revenue per App Store download than the US. Japanese social games can have ARPPUs of $250 or more, an order of magnitude more than most western equivalents.
It's easy to think that's just the nature of the Japanese gamer, but it's also the nature of the games, and the approach to service that Japanese developers take.
Service Culture – Anyone who's been to Japan will have experienced incredible customer service – in shops, hotels, bars, everywhere - and not because anyone wants a tip.
There's an expectation that companies will provide a great service, and it's considered the right thing to do by customers and businesses alike.
As a result, a move to ‘games as a service' has been a natural progression – developers provide great games, that people love, with a huge focus on new content, in-game events and community.
Although, in the west, we're now paying lip service to the service mentality, it's easy to think ‘gold master… bit of DLC… couple of updates… move on to the next project'.
To succeed in F2P, you have to recognise that your team is likely to be working on the game for months, or hopefully years, after you launch.
Over time, the best games become more and more responsive to the community's needs – people only spend money on your game if they love playing it, so the developer's job is to keep improving it, giving players more reasons to come back day after day, week after week.
At most, launch is half way through your development cycle, and development spend.
Collection – At the heart of many successful Japanese games is collecting.
While trading card games are not as mainstream in western culture as in Japan, people around the world still love the idea of collecting – football stickers, stamps, train numbers, Beanie Babies and a thousand other real world examples.
At its heart, CSR Racing, one of the top-grossing western iOS games, is really a Japanese-style trading card and resource management game, not a racing game at all.
Gacha – 'Gacha' is a game of chance. The word comes from the sound made by the ‘prize every time' machines that give you a mystery gift in a little plastic ball. Japanese gamers love the frisson of excitement that comes from not knowing quite what you're going to win – some items being rarer than others.
Surprisingly few western games so far make much use of Gacha, although a ‘daily spin' mechanic can be seen on several games now.
In Japan, the now outlawed technique of ‘Kompu Gacha' (Complete Gacha) gave users valuable bonus items for collecting a whole set of related items via Gacha.
Team Battles – The data shows that many people are much more likely to pay to benefit not just themselves, but their friends and team mates.
Games which allow players to team up, permanently or just for one mission, typically monetise much better than single player, or simple player versus player ones.
Patience – Although seven day retention (how many people are still playing a week in) is a great first sign as to whether your game will be a success, it can take many months, even a year of improvements, feedback and tweaking your game before it's really got what it takes to be successful.
Developers aiming at F2P markets should make sure they've got enough money to keep going for a minimum of 4-6 months post-launch – or work with a partner, like us at Marvelous AQL, who can help with all the above, as well as marketing, user acquisition, and financing.
In short, take a look at some of the top grossing games from Japanese and Asian developers, see what lessons you can learn and, if you spot something that's just too weird, too Japanese ever to catch on here, you can bet it will be the next big thing. Eventually.
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