Comment & Opinion

Paid for reviews and no soft launch strategy: the challenges of launching in Japan

David McCarthy on cultural differences

Paid for reviews and no soft launch strategy: the challenges of launching in Japan

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.

Wherever you are in the world, one of the key things that counts when trying to launch a successful smartphone game is securing great review scores on the app stores.

Apart from the obvious benefit of letting people know that your app is great, good review scores offer a couple of other benefits:

  • they decrease the cost of certain types of paid advertising; and
  • they increase the likelihood of getting featured on the app store.

Indeed good review scores are pretty much a prerequisite for getting featured these days, and getting featured on the app stores remains a crucially important way of getting your game in front of people who might want to play it.

Who reviews?

Obviously the key to getting great review scores is creating a great game in the first place.

But - unfortunately - it's not as simple as just that.

Unfortunately, even if you make a great game, there are all sorts of reasons that people might be more inclined to leave poor reviews than positive ones.

In Japan, the main way of dealing with good review scores has simply been to pay for review scores.
David McCarthy

They might have encountered a bug and can't find (or can't be bothered to find) your feedback form. They might be out for revenge because you've just banned them for cheating, or because they didn't get the item they wanted from a random drop or gacha.

Or maybe they just don't like your game even though it is a great game.

Indeed for niche, "marmite" (aka love/hate), titles this can be especially problematic: a middle of the road review score is unlikely to indicate to someone that they might love (but also might hate) your game; and someone who hates your game is possibly more likely to leave a review than someone who loves it.

Pay for success

So even if you make a great game, you might not manage to achieve great review scores.

That much is true all over the world.

The dichotomy of the app store review

What might be slightly different in Japan, and Asia, is the way in which developers typically deal with this.

Historically, in Japan and Asia, the main way of dealing with it has simply been to pay for review scores.

Fake review scores. (Japan even has a slang word for these fake reviews, 'sakura', dating back to the days when real-life con-artist stallholders would pay fake customers to praise their goods.)

While western developers might also have once paid for fake reviews, I get the sense that the practice isn't so frowned upon in Asia as it is in the west, and it certainly seems to have persisted longer here than in the west (although given recent reports of Steam review scores for sale on Fiverr maybe I'm wrong).

The existence of services like Helpshift, Apptentive and Swrve was news to many of my colleagues.
David McCarthy

I'm not sure that there are even companies who still provide those sorts of services in the west, but I'm certain that they still exist across Asia.

For that reason, I think a lot of Japanese developers might be behind the curve compared to western developers, who have adopted a wide variety of sophisticated techniques to ensure that their review scores were a fair reflection of their app's quality.

Certainly the existence of services like Helpshift, Apptentive and Swrve was news to many of my colleagues.

So I feel like the use of these analytics-based in-app messaging services might provide western developers with an advantage in the Japanese app store.

It's certainly something worth exploring.

No soft launch equivalent for Japan

Another strategy that western developers use to secure good review scores is the soft launch.

These have become such a de facto part of app development in the west that they need no explanation here, except to point out that one of the benefits of a successful soft launch is a certain level of confidence that your game will resonate with gamers, who are therefore more likely to leave good review scores.

Unfortunately, soft launches are unlikely to help in Japan.

Japanese users seem to have such distinctive tastes that it is hard to think of a region outside the country that could work as a viable proxy (although Google's suite of soft launch tools could be useful in running a soft launch in Japan itself before launching your app there).

And for that reason one of my major challenges at the moment is trying to communicate the real benefits of running a soft launch in Europe before we launch BFB Football there.

Some Japanese developers are still so unfamiliar with the concept of soft launches that it is a challenge to get them to see a soft launch as anything more than a few weeks on the schedule before launch.

It is a challenge to put the analytical framework in place that is needed for a successful soft launch.

Against the grain

Nevertheless, we [Cybird] will be doing our best to implement both a soft launch and an in-game feedback system that encourages users to resolve any issues with us before they take it to an app store review.

As ever, it will be a compromise between what we would like to achieve and what we can achieve with our resources.

But I hope it will stand us in good stead when we launch BFB Football in Europe later this year.

Hopefully I will be able to let you know how we get on.

And if you need any advice about soft launches or review scores in Japan, as ever, please don't hesitate to get in touch! regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.