The Charticle

After another big year the old guard still dominate Japan's mobile games market

Revenues up 35 per cent but what's driving them?

After another big year the old guard still dominate Japan's mobile games market

App Annie has reported a 35% growth in Japanese mobile game revenues for the year ending June 2017.

This marks a third consecutive year of out-grossing the significantly larger USA market, but what's been powering such a massively successful period for the Japanese mobile games sector?

In truth, as you might expect, it's chiefly a story of a few leading titles; the top 10 grossing games for the year accounted for 40% of all mobile game revenues across Japan.

And among these were some familiar names. Monster Strike still ruled the roost as the top-grossing RPG, while Disney Tsum Tsum continued to dominate in the casual games category.

Old guard

With titles like Monster Strike and Puzzle & Dragons firmly established in the all-time mobile game hall of fame, the Japanese mobile games space has a strong association with the RPG genre.

But one of the more interesting conclusions from App Annie's report was that the genre's grip on the grossing charts is loosening in the face of newer successes in other genres, such as Pokemon GO and White Cat Tennis, both launched in 2016.

An explanation for this could be a stagnation in the RPG market, with the old guard still dominating. Indeed, of the 10 top-grossing Japanese mobile RPGs for the year ending June 2017, one was launched in 2012, three in 2013, three in 2014 and three in 2015.

While RPGs are obviously titles with a longer lifespan than most, especially in Japan where mobile gamers are playing twice as much than those in the US, it's a legitimate concern for the genre's longer-term future that no game in the past two years has managed to break in.

Stick or twist

For instance, take White Cat Project (known in the West as Rune Story). An incredibly successful game for its developer Colopl, it's been in marked decline for the past year.

This is of course natural for a game that's over three years old, and it's impressive that it continues to spike into the top 10. But with things now becoming more sporadic, the game hitting an all-time trough of 78th in the Japanese iPhone grossing charts in June 2017, what's lined up to replace it?

It's the same story for the majority of Japan's top grossing RPGs: still undoubtedly very successful, but their best years are behind them.

This leaves their developers in a tricky situation, perhaps with more to lose than to gain from bringing another RPG to market. And with some of Japan's biggest game companies already represented in the top 10 RPG grossing charts, it's tough for anyone else to break in.

Colopl's approach has instead been to expand its universe in a new genre with the aforementioned White Cat Tennis, which merits special mention in App Annie's report for its “exceptional success”.

It was the second most downloaded and seventh top grossing among all categories other than RPG and casual in the year ending June 2017.

And the game did indeed have a strong first year, spending the majority of 2016 in the top 20 on the Japanese iPhone grossing charts and peaking in second spot. It's not on track to be a White Cat Project-level success, but it's a sure sign that Colopl is looking to more than one genre for its future success.

Going places?

App Annie also gives special mention to Pokemon GO for bagging the most Japanese downloads in the year ending June 2017, eating into the RPG genre's download share in the process.

However, this does not mean that location-based games are set to dethrone RPGs any time soon. Pokemon GO may have been downloaded heavily, and even briefly topped the Japanese grossing charts, but it's not reached the same heights as it did in the US.

Another game that performed better in download charts than grossing ones is Nintendo's Fire Emblem Heroes, which might have injected some youth into the year's top grossing mobile RPGs if not for the fact it only launched in February 2017.

However, these four months were enough for the game to rank as the third top most downloaded RPG in Japan for the year ending June 2017.

In fact, considering App Annie's highly questionable classification of Super Mario Run as an RPG, it was really second only to Monster Strike - the longevity of which is simply staggering.

But in grossing terms, the outlook for Nintendo's title has been less rosy. Peaking at second but sinking on its worst day to 81st in the Japanese iPhone grossing charts, Fire Emblem Heroes has struggled with the same inconsistency that's also plagued it in the US.

To never leave the top 100 is not to be sniffed at, but the consistency of its competitors is shown by the age of Japan's top-grossing RPGs. If Fire Emblem Heroes cannot hold its position at the top after less than one year, it's unlikely to be doing so in three.

And so it's another year of growth for the Japanese market, but also a year of little change - perhaps surprisingly so given the overall market's growth.

But based on this evidence, the same names could well be continuing to dominate another year from now.

A number of Japanese mobile games companies were named in PocketGamer.Biz's Top 50 Developer list for 2017.

Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.