David McCarthy has been employed by Metaps, GREE, Rockstar Games and Edge magazine.
He currently works for Japanese developer Cybird Inc, and writes regularly about the differences and similarities between the Japanese and western mobile game markets.
As I write this, Japan is in the full throes of Halloween. Special pumpkin-flavoured puddings adorn the convenience store shelves.
Jack O'Lanterns sit in every storefront. Restaurants and cafes are all running special menus.
Even the checkout clerks at my local supermarket are wearing witches' hats. And it feels like this has been going on for a good couple of months now.
But here's the thing. Over in the plaza that I walk through every morning on my way to the office, right in front of the station, they are already putting up their Christmas decorations.
I mean, they already have a huge Christmas horse-drawn cart set up, surrounded by Christmas trees, and a sign over one of the buildings saying Christmas is coming. Which is pretty nuts, right?
But what has that got to do with mobile games? Well if you are thinking about global success, as they say, you have to act local.
Creating in-game events and offers themed around local seasons and holidays can give you a leg up on acting local.
What's more, understanding how those seasons and holidays are celebrated in your target region can also provide a valuable insight into the likely behaviour of your users - and your partners.
The most obvious way to avail of local holidays and special dates is to add value for the people playing your game by running in-game events and marketing campaigns themed around those holidays.
This is especially important in Japan.
Perhaps more than any other market, success in Japan seems to be incumbent upon providing a steady stream of new content.
Perhaps more than any other market, success in Japan seems to be incumbent upon providing a steady stream of new content.David McCarthy
Special characters, special costumes, special items, can all be themed around the relevant holiday and added to your game to create time-limited content that your users will love.
It also gives your players and the press something to talk about - like the time we introduced an in-game character based on the (slightly eccentric) manga character Hentai Kamen to tie in with April Fool's Day.
Not only did we get some column inches out of our announcement that we were adding a new position behind the goalkeeper, loyal players got a new defender who wears panties on his head to add to their team rosters.
Know your players
With our game BFB Football, we also recently celebrated 3 million downloads with a longer-running Summer Festival event, featuring a whole host of login bonuses, rewards, and limited-edition content tied in to the many summer festivals that take place in Japan.
In fact, although this event was aimed mostly at existing or lapsed users, it even proved reasonably successful at attracting new ones. Indeed, seasonal tie-ins provide an opportunity for you to reach different user segments, or even activate new ones.
But to do that effectively, you need to understand the nature of the holiday you are tying in to.
Key holidays are different in Japan, or celebrated in a different way, and there might be holidays that you aren't aware of - so I thought it might be useful to list some of them.
One thing to note is that, even more so than in the west, the natural seasons are celebrated in Japan.
Spring is the season of cherry plossoms and plum wine picnics; as the leaves change in autumn people squeeze in a last few barbecues before retreating inside to enjoy hotpots and stews; winter gets seriously cold and snowy; and summer is sizzlingly hot.
Another thing: while Valentine's Day might be equal opportunity where you live, in Japan it is just for girls, who are obliged to give chocolates to all the men they know (who return the favour on White Day, in March).
Similarly, while Halloween is broadly celebrated as it is in the west (ie. by dressing up in costume and getting drunk in the street), a survey on telly just this morning indicates that only about 20% of the people randomly chosen by a roving reporter with a mic knew what it means to go trick or treating, so maybe don't hang your witch's hat on that particular hook.
Apart from differences like those, the main Japanese holidays revolve around the New Year holiday and Golden Week - a succession of bank holidays at the start of May - (and occasionally a similar succession of holidays in September, called Silver Week).
Then there are a succession of other significant dates:
- Tsukimi, or the harvest moon festival in Autumn, celebrated with special dumplings and decorative displays of susuki grass (and, in McDonald's - the experts in thinking locally - with a special Tsukimi burger);
- Setsubun, in spring, sees small children chasing demons from their homes by flinging soybeans outside;
- Hinamatsuri, or Girls' Day is celebrated with special displays of dolls (my daughter's comes from that other master of going global, Disney, with spaces for Mickey, Minnie and all the rest);
- Kodomo no Hi, in May, is a festival for kids, celebrated with the carp streamers that you might have seen in photos:
- Obon and Higan, celebrated at different parts of the year, are dedicated to dead ancestors;
- Tanabata is the quintessential summer festival; and
- Seijin no Hi is when Japan's young people dress up in kimonos and mark their transition to adulthood.
Any one of these holidays could provide a hook for new and engaging content that you could add to your game.
They also provide Japanese players with some spare time to play your game.
Christmas, for example is not a national holiday, and although the streets are already starting to fill with Christmas lights, in Japan Christmas ends just as quickly as Wham's yuletide romance did, the very next day.
It doesn't stretch out over Boxing Day with mince pies and boardgames.
Everyone goes to work on Christmas Day and Boxing Day is just another day at the office. It's not till the New Year holiday that everyone sits around lounging at home, when the kids get their pocket money and everyone has hours of leisure time to fill with your game, or a new handset to fill with new apps.
But these long breaks can also throw a spanner in the works.
Don't expect to get anything done in Japan during the New Year break, or during Golden Week.
And if you are planning an app store submission, or a press event, or a meeting with your partners during these key Japanese holidays, think again, because in general it is unlikely to happen.
Likewise, if you have any questions about seasons or special holidays in Japan feel free to get in touch. Just don't expect me to answer - I will be too busy listening to Christmas songs.