The Asian Beat #3: 5 Best Practices for Cracking the Japanese Mobile Games Market

By Hayley Pearce | August 5th, 2014

On paper at least, Japan looks as though it should be the world’s most lucrative mobile games market. A Distimo report called Asia: The Leading App Market in the World, published in January of this year, indicates that Asia is the world leader in terms of mobile app revenue with 41 percent originating from here, with Japan being the biggest Asian market. While the console games in Japan market fell 15.7 percent in 2013, the mobile gaming market is getting bigger. According to CyberAgent, a Tokyo-based internet media and advertising company, the domestic smartphone gaming market in Japan reached an overall annual revenue of $5.4 billion in 2013, half of the total Japanese gaming industry. This represents a 178 percent increase from 2012’s $3.07 billion.Smartphone penetration is catching up, too, despite the Japanese clinging to their classic feature phones, which were already advanced enough to browse the mobile web and send emails, for longer than the rest of the world. As smartphones and apps become more appealing, more and more Japanese mobile users are jumping ship. Local data from Japan shows that from October 2013 to March 2014, 83.7 percent of all mobile phones sold were smartphones.The Japanese mobile games market is however a tough cookie to crack in terms of player expectations and localization challenges. Despite this, many developers are trying to capitalize on the enormous potential of the Japanese mobile games market. What are the best ways to do so?

1. Appeal to the masses by combining genres

RPG games such as the high-grossing Dragon Quest Monsters Super Light and Monster Strike are big hits with Japanese gamers. Regardless of their primary genre, games that follow suit and include RPG elements are very successful, according to the Top Charts.

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The main gameplay of the global hit Puzzle & Dragons (pictured above) involves the simple matching of 3 colors, which appeals to the casual gamer, but what retains users is the ability to collect monsters and developing them into more powerful creatures. The real fun for the more serious, experienced gamers is garnered from defeating enemies and making your legion more formidable. It mixes the social card game element with the action genre, which has been a winning formula for publisher GungHo.

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Similarly, Quiz RPG: The World of Mystic Wiz by COLOPL (above), the second highest grossing mobile game in Japan as of February 2014, is based around solving trivia questions, but the game’s core entertainment comes from the leveling up of characters.

2. Heed the importance of localization

If you want to get Japanese users onboard, localization is essential. Japan’s English proficiency is one of the lowest of all Asian countries, so Japanese language localization really is essential.

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For example, Infinity Blade 3 (above) and Plague Inc. (below) are two gaming apps that originated in the West and eventually came to top the charts in Japan - but only after finding localization experts to help translate and customize their app for the Japanese market.

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A good example of other, non-linguistic localization efforts is Supercell and GungHo’s collaborative effort, pictured below. The barbarian soldier from Clash of Clans appeared as a character in Puzzle & Dragons in order to market Clash of Clans to the Japanese gaming masses.

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3. Get your graphics right

Image is everything when it comes to appealing to Japanese users. The Japanese graphic style is totally unique - unlike in the rest of the world, the anime- and manga-style character designs are seen in the majority of games. Cute kawaii characters and graphics are also very popular with Japanese players, much more so than western style cute graphics.

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This doesn’t necessarily mean that anime, manga and kawaii graphics are a total must, more of an easy win in the Japanese market. Western styles for fantasy games, for example, have also become popular in Asia, like those featured in World of Warcraft. The key is in the quality, whether you follow the local trends or not.

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4. Select the platforms that are best for your game

Most games in Japan tend to be self-published on the iOS or Android platforms, and to a much lesser extent, social platforms such as LINE, the instant messaging and calling app. LINE is not an open platform, but rather is very selective over which games they allow on their platform, their preference being for casual games as they appeal to the vast majority of users.

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Naver's Puzzle game LINE Pokopang is one of the highest grossing apps in Japan, which is testament to the reach that LINE provides access to, but because they bear the risk of taking care of customer service, community management, server maintenance and marketing, they are careful when choosing which games to publish.

As usage of native mobile app games is increasing rapidly, social platforms like Mobage or GREE, which primarily support mobile browser games, are losing their popularity. For most games publishers, then, publishing on iOS and Android is our best practice strategy. The two platforms show a 50:50 split, with iOS offering the highest revenues due to user spending habits.

5. Engage and retain users with live in-game events

Data from our Seoul office indicates that, Japanese players, similarly to Korean players, react well to live in-game events. Games that feature in-game events show increased user engagement and retention rates when compared to games that do not. Examples include:

  • Monster Strike’s graphic showing that new characters are available in Gatcha. Gatcha is a popular business model in Japan, in players use in-game coins or premium coins that they have purchased to enter a ‘lucky dip’ or wheel of fortune for a new character or other virtual item.Evet2
  • Log-in events such as (in the Monster Strike example below) a player being offered a premium orb for logging in which can be collected once a day, to incentivize the user to visit the game every day.Event1
  • Puzzle & Dragons’ notice which alerts the user that new guerilla dungeons are ready for them to use, with the aim of increasing the time they spend in their current session.Event3
At GDC 2013, there was a talk about in-game events and how crucial they are to monetization. This article (written in Japanese) describes how publisher DeNa’s game ‘Blood Brothers’ inclusion of in-game events resulted in their ARPU doubling.Japan is a lucrative opportunity for mobile games publishers and advertisers, when approached in the right way. In short, localize to meet Japanese user expectations and preferences; language, graphics, in-game events and RPG elements should all be food for thought.

Hayley Pearce

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