GDC 2012: Yasunori Tonooka, the Japanese developer promoting cooperation, peace and local revitalisation via GPS games

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GDC 2012: Yasunori Tonooka, the Japanese developer promoting cooperation, peace and local revitalisation via GPS games
Founded in 2011 by Yasunori Tonooka, Supernova is a mobile game developer - consisting of Yasunori Tonooka - based in Kyoto, Japan.

Its Tokyo Dungeon Puzzle was a finalist for game design at CEDEC, which Tonooka called "the Japanese version of GDC".

Tonooka built collaborations with the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce, local computer programming companies, universities and film makers to rapidly create a trio of GPS-based scavenger-hunt type mobile games in 2011, and a fourth title currently in development.

Location, location

Tonooka said there are 113 million cell phones in use in Japan, and an overwhelming majority of them are equipped with GPS, making the country fertile territory for GPS-based mobile entertainment.

Rather than compete in the service, game, or general market sectors, he focused on the local market, collaborating with partners in Kyoto. His games work like scavenger hunts, giving players clues to locations.

When the players check in from the appropriate location, they are fed the next clue either as text, computer-generated images, or even short movie clips. Tonooka turns an 'ordinary' city into a theme park for his players.

Experience matters

Tonooka's background in Information Technology taught him six valuable lessons which he condensed into two mantras to guide development.

While employed at Mixi - which Tonooka cited as one of the first companies to operate social networking services in Japan - he saw the value in speed of production, but more importantly the value of keeping female users in mind and questioning stereotypes about players.

Tonooka also saw the value in working with younger employees: Most of the people working for Mixi were around 25 years old, and their young and energetic spirit was an important part of the company's identity.

Thinking local

Tonooka then worked with Baidu, the Chinese version of Google. His experience with Baidu reinforced the importance of speed in production cycles, and when he visited the headquarters in Beijing, Tonooka was impressed with the autonomy that project teams were given.

'Chinalization' was another important concept to Baidu.

Many of their employees had received degrees in the United States and returned home with knowledge of a bevy of technologies. Chinalization was the process of sifting through technologies to select those which best meshed with Chinese interests. Baidu employees were also very aggressive and excited about asking questions of each other, which did not happen often in Japanese companies, in Tonooka's experience.

Speed, autonomy and aggressiveness formed the basis for Tonooka's project management and decision-making style, and the lessons learned from keeping female users in mind, questioning stereotypes and gauging cultural appropriateness made Tonooka constantly looking for fresh and interesting ideas.

These two mantras fed into the rapid number of GPS entertainment games produced by Supernova in 2011.

Three projects

Tokyo Dungeon Puzzle was co-designed by the developer SCRAP, and produced in partnership with the Kyoto Manga Museum, Kyoto Transportation Bureau, and the ZEST Oike Multiplex Shopping Building.

Players used their cell phones and a one day pass of the Kyoto Subway to visit various spots in the city.

Supernova's next game, Dungeon Exam Dungeon Drill, was built with the assistance of Kyoto tourism companies and immediately followed up by a series of minigames that led players to various spiritual sites in Kyoto to promote the Uzumasa Sengoku Festival.

Cultural focus

Supernova's current project is named Kyoto Yokai Scroll. Tonooka has partnered with Ritsumeikan University's College of Image Arts and Science, the Kyoto Transportation Bureau, and Shochiku Movie Studio to develop the game.

In order to gain valuable experience working with professionals, Ritsumeikan University students provided focus groups for development and also collaborated with the film makers at Shochiku to design one of the main characters in the game.

Tonooka tapped into Kyoto's deep well of freelance film makers through Shochiku, who developed a trailer (which also serves a prologue establishing the game's story of a little girl on the run) and assisted with location hunting to find appropriate environments to serve as stopping points in the scavenger hunt.

By using a story as the setting for Kyoto Yokai Scroll, rather than using locations removed from any context, the game gives the intended tourist audience a different perspective on the locations they visit.

The game serves as a form of cultural education in the form of storytelling. This made the project attractive to the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce, which assisted by providing public relations support. Tonooka believes that GPS entertainment can play an important part in local revitalisation planning, urban development and tourism stimulation plans by driving traffic to areas of the city which see fewer visitors.

Saving the world

Indeed, he also believes that GPS-based games can help bring people together in the real world.

Individualism abounds in Japan, and Tonooka believes it has hurt the country's sense of community. His games are most often played by groups, thus he is serving to bring people back together by setting his games in reality versus providing the virtual adventure of a traditional mobile game.

Tonooka hopes that games like his, if brought to the rest of the world, can help bring people together in all countries, and promote cooperation and peace.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston. His weekly video game opinion column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at, and can be followed @DennisScimeca.