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Japanese giant COLOPL on its struggle to grow a US mobile business, but its expectations for big VR success

Catching up with new CEO Jikhan Jung at GDC 2016
Japanese giant COLOPL on its struggle to grow a US mobile business, but its expectations for big VR success
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Since opening its doors in April 2015, COLOPL NI - the US arm of leading Japanese developer COLOPL - has moved quickly.

By October it had launched Rune Story, a localised version of the Japanese hit White Cat Project and the firm's first western release. Downtown Showdown followed soon after in January 2016.

More recently, however, COLOPL has stated its commitment to virtual reality projects - in both the US and Japan - and the San Mateo-based US office has promoted former COO Jikhan Jung to CEO.

And so, with plenty to chat about, caught up with Jung in San Francisco for his first GDC in the new role.

First encounter

Jung's first encounter with COLOPL came during his time at Kabam, he explains, where he served as Executive Producer from 2013 to 2015.

There was talk of a deal between the two companies to bring COLOPL's games to western markets, but in the end it fell through. Jung jumped ship soon after, and it was decided that the Japanese firm would tackle Western publishing itself.

“When you have a good game [in Asia], a lot of companies approach you and ask if they can publish it in the west,” he considers.

“If you have lots of offers, that's a good sign. That's why we chose White Cat [Project to localise] first.”


Downtown Showdown, Japanese-developed but “from the beginning aiming for the worldwide market,” went on to become the second release in four months.

Slowing the pace

COLOPL NI was quick out of the gate, then but the 60-strong US office is significantly smaller than the Japanese headquarters.

“The other day when I looked at App Annie, I was surprised to see that COLOPL was ranked 9th top publisher,” says Jung, reflecting the parent company's profile.

“It's hard to gather players in a very competitive market with very expensive marketing costs. We are not sure whether we can scale up right now.”
Jikhan Jung

“But when you look at a company like Supercell, they have only four games. Our company has 493,” he laughs.

COLOPL NI obviously has neither the resources nor the desire to maintain such a release schedule, with Jung revealing that the plan for 2016 is to either release “one or zero” more games to the western market.

“There are two strategies. The first, like Glu and Kabam are doing, is that you work with popular IP, make a lot of money, and hire a lot of talent,” he says.

Indeed, while not exactly the same, COLOPL has benefited from celebrity recognition in Asia with White Cat Project's high-profile voice actors, who are well-known from anime and the like.

“The other way to go is to be very creative, to create something that nobody's seen yet,” continues Jung, and this appears to be the direction in which COLOPL NI is increasingly moving.

Fighting for recognition

However, blaming market saturation, Jung admits that establishing the company in the US - even off the back of enormous success in Asia - has proven a difficult task thus far.

“The players like [our games], but at the same time it's hard to gather players in a very competitive market with very expensive marketing costs,” he explains.

“We are not sure whether we can scale up right now. We try to maintain our fanbase by adding events and so on, but we are not looking at a high rate of growth right now.”

A dragon attack in <em>Downtown Showdown</em>
A dragon attack in Downtown Showdown

In terms of “creating something that nobody's seen yet,” Downtown Showdown is a great example.

A city builder at its core, but with a real-time PvP mode that sees players facing off in timed battles, it was praised by this site for its thoughtful and well-executed hybridisation.

“We're thinking of hosting a Downtown Showdown tournament.”
Jikhan Jung

But while, like Rune Story, Downtown Showdown has enjoyed good retention, it's struggled to find a western community of the size COLOPL NI would like - after two months, it sits at a respectable but relatively modest 400,000 downloads.

However, true to his word, Jung's strategy for improving this involves focusing on what makes the game unique: its competitive element.

“We are thinking of promoting [Downtown Showdown's real-time PvP] is with a tournament,” he reveals.

However, describing it as “an experiment” in mobile eSports, Jung isn't convinced that mobile connectivity and streaming services are set up to accommodate a fully-fledged eSports revolution on the platform just yet.

Long-term vision

Another big GDC talking point that Jung is evidently more convinced by, however, is virtual reality.

Indeed, COLOPL has been working with the technology for a long time, and has shown its faith in the platform with a $50 million fund for worldwide VR developers.

<em>Shironeko VR Project</em> for Oculus Rift
Shironeko VR Project for Oculus Rift

“Our Japan office has been working on VR games for two years, and as far as I know there are no other companies that have been working with VR for as long as we have,” says Jung.

“We have a good understanding of what works and what doesn't.”

“All COLOPL VR games will have some kind of social aspect.”
Jikhan Jung

What do work on VR, according to COLOPL, are social experiences - a rebuttal to those who claim virtual reality is antisocial technology.

“All COLOPL VR games will have some kind of social aspect, where you either play or compete with other players,” explains Jung.

“On any platform, I think social is very critical.”

Headsets aplenty

Hardware-wise, Jung explains that COLOPL has been examining all possibilities - but is currently looking more at the PC and console-based hardware than mobile units such as Samsung's Gear VR.

As such, the firm's first VR game is set to debut on the HTC Vive, with a PlayStation VR port to follow.

Currently, COLOPL is using the Gear VR primarily to develop 360 video experiences - but Jung adds that it is “experimenting” with games on the mobile headsets.

The Samsung Gear VR
The Samsung Gear VR

“We might try some story-driven game, or a kind of social game for Gear VR,” Jung hints.

Right now, it's a period of experimentation. In a healthy financial situation thanks to its mobile games in Japan - notably White Cat Project and Quiz RPG - Jung clarifies that the firm is “not necessarily looking for revenue [from VR] right now.”

However, having invested so much in an unproven territory, it is of course a long-term concern.

“All in all, I think our company is very bullish that VR is coming,” asserts Jung. “So whether it's going to be three years, five years, one year - it's a matter of time.”

Ready for F2P?

Furthermore, COLOPL's belief is that the market will develop fast.

While its first handful of VR titles will experiment with a premium model - at $40 and $10 price-points - Jung confirms that the firm will return to a F2P model “as soon as [the players] get ready.”

“We can expect good revenue from VR this year.”
Jikhan Jung

“But we can expect pretty good revenue [from VR] this year,” he's quick to add.

As for the recently revealed publishing scheme for VR games from other studios, signing of which is to be headed up by Jung's well-placed Silicon Valley US team, COLOPL NI is largely holding fire until the first wave of titles from the Japanese studio are released.

The only exception is Korea, Jung adds, on which COLOPL NI will be keeping a close eye thanks to its wealth of talent in the virtual reality space and the significant government funding available to developers.

Best of both

To have been focused on VR for such a long time was an incredibly bold move for a company as big as COLOPL, but the firm's early VR focus may be about to pay off as others move into the space and adoption of hardware increases.

And with Jikhan Jung at the helm of COLOPL NI, it's well-positioned to strike early not just in Asia, but in the west as well.

Furthermore, while US and Europe are unlikely to see 493 COLOPL games like Japan has, we'll see the cream of the Japanese-grown crop - selectively hand-picked for the western market - continue to appear on these shores.

For COLOPL, then, this is not a choice between mobile and virtual reality - it is proving that you can do both.