Comment & Opinion

Learn how to break into the Japanese market via lessons in the other direction

Learn how to break into the Japanese market via lessons in the other direction

David McCarthy has been employed by Metaps, GREE, Rockstar Games and Edge magazine. He currently works for Japanese developer Cybird Inc.

Japan remains one of mobile gaming's most coveted prizes.

It's easy to see why. It's the spiritual home of gaming, after all, and according to just about any reputable research outfit, Japanese mobile games make a ton of money.

But a quick look at Japan's app store charts demonstrates the depth of the problem for any western developers aiming to give it a crack.

At the time of writing, aside from a handful of games from the usual suspects - Supercell, King, Machine Zone, Zynga - the Japanese top grossing charts are notable mostly for the almost complete absence of games by western developers.

Somewhere special

No wonder, then, that resident western experts in Japan claim that it is practically impossible for western developers to breach the defences of Japan's famously galapagosized mobile markets.

What that quartet of mega-developers demonstrate is that it is only exceptional apps that are capable of climbing to the top of the charts in Japan these days.

Experts claim that it is practically impossible for western developers to breach the defences of Japan's famously galapagosized mobile markets.
David McCarthy

But surely that is now true the world over. If there is one easily identifiable trend in app markets that is truly global, it is this ossification of the top of the charts in every major market; the hegemony of a handful of globally successful publishers.

Which is as much a problem for me as it is for western developers taking aim at Japan - because in my current role I am responsible for promoting a soccer game and series called BFB 2015, which is reasonably big in Japan but yet to make a splash in Europe.

Indeed, many of the problems facing western developers trying to break Japan are remarkably similar to the ones that am currently facing, but in reverse, so I thought it might be instructive to discuss some of them.

Everything is different

Perhaps surprisingly, localising the game itself - the act of translating lines of text from one language into another, and/or changing visual designs or user interfaces etc - is actually probably one of the simplest problems among the many that confront would-be global game publishers.

Which isn't to say that getting it right is easy. But there are many other problems that need to be solved for a game to achieve global success.

Many of them are simple logistics:

  • How and where to set up servers and which technology partners to choose?
  • How to structure multiplayer modes and set up their infrastructure for global audiences?
  • How to address customer support in different time zones and languages - increasingly crucial when user reviews and feedback can have a dramatic impact on the long-term outlook of your app.

One of the key challenges when releasing an app in a foreign market is simply understanding how players will play it.

  • What's the network environment like?
  • Where and how do people download new apps?
  • When and where do they play them?
  • On what devices?

On my commute home the other day (in Japan) literally - literally! - everybody I walked past on the elevator at the train station was playing a game on their phone.

A week later, taking a research tour to London, seeing someone playing a mobile game on the Tube was so rare that my colleagues took to filming and photographing it. Playing games on tablets (maybe even while watching the telly) seems pretty normal in the west; in Japan it feels pretty rare.

Greasing the gears

And then there's the question of what type of games people want to play.

It feels like a long time since the Card Battle genre dominated the Japanese charts, but it still casts a long shadow over the design of the many mobile RPGs that currently dominate the charts, and it still shapes the way they are monetized.

Monster Strike - huge in Japan. Tiny in the US

Japan has its own love affair with simple puzzle games, especially on LINE, but the super simple likes of Flappy Bird and Crossy Road that have been storming western charts lately have yet to make a major impact.

Maybe that is because core gamers still make up a substantial part of the audience in Japan - certainly game-specialist websites and wikis seem to have a much more significant affect on app downloads over here, a fact which requires a very different marketing approach from those used in the west.

Pre-registration campaigns still seem to be a non-starter in the west; in Japan they continue to be essential, and managed largely through this network of games websites.

Marketing matters

Another major difference that dictates Japan-specific marketing strategies is the lie of the social landscape. Not only are different social networks and messaging apps popular over here (like LINE), but also the way they are used seems to be slightly different, with Facebook still likely to be used more like LinkedIn is in the west, as a career-centred social network.

The entire paid-marketing ecosystem is different in Japan.
David McCarthy

For that reason, one of my latest tasks at the office has been to start a discussion about how best to include social functions and features in our game for a global audience.

But it's not just social marketing strategies that need to be adjusted.

The entire paid-marketing ecosystem is different over here, from the pricing and availability of different ad products and channels to the types of tracking and analytics tools required.

These things are no different to the challenges that any developer faces, in any territory, but compounded by one final complicating feature: getting the entire team to prioritize global success and understand the above obstacles and how to overcome them.

In the coming months I hope to address some of these issues in greater detail, both from the perspective of importing games into Japan and exporting them out of it.

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David McCarthy Game Development Headquarters, BFB Studio
Thanks Shin - and yep, totally agree about the viability even for lower ranked apps in Japan!
James Woodmansey
Hi David. What type of games specialist websites and wikis are you referring to? Which sites would you recommend for western games to help gain visibility in JP?

JP-targeted Facebook MAI ads have worked well for us but the volumes are very low. The video reward ecosystem that we have so much success with in western markets seems to be non-existent in JP. I'd be interested to know how other western games studios gain visibility for their titles in this lucrative territory.
Shintaro Kanaoya CEO
Great stuff, David. Japan continues to be tough for Western developers, but the goal doesn't have to be "Top 10 or nothing." It can and is a perfectly viable market for Western games and should be part of any global strategy.