Is Japan’s social gaming boom an explosion or an implosion?

By Justin Potts

It’s remarkable that some of the most ubiquitous names associated with the Japanese video game industry today – GREE, Yahoo! Mobage, DeNA, – were more or less non-existent, at least as household names, only a few short years ago. The rulers of on-the-go gaming have seemingly usurped the public eye occupied by the major developers and publishers who have sustained the Japanese games industry for the last several decades almost overnight. Long-time powerhouses are now seeking new markets and exploring new revenue models under the watchful eyes of the new kids on the block.

And it’s developers both large and small hopping on board. In the midst of a period widely considered to be representative of Japan’s fall from grace within the world of game development, the country which once set industry standards for both quality and innovation is resetting its gaze upon the burgeoning social gaming marketplace permeating Japan’s pockets and handbags, promising an opportunity to rebuild and stake claim in gaming’s new wild west.

However, developers jumping in seem to fall into two general categories:

  1. Those energetically and proactively chasing new outlets for creativity and revenue.

  2. Those thrust into the new market in order to pay the rent.

It’s those in the second category, already suffering the brunt of Japan’s game-industry struggles, who may end up further contributing to industry problems due to circumstances well outside of their control.

This particular group is highly skilled in making use of specialized tools and technology utilized in order to produce very particular kinds of gaming experiences. At a time when Japan is already considered to be “playing catch-up” in terms of being able to produce internationally recognized games of larger scale and with higher production values, shuffling those available with the greatest number of resources to compete into positions where they are further separated from the tools needed to experiment and grow in this arena may result in a continually widening gap.

The transition in and of itself isn’t problematic, as there is also great opportunity to be had by poising these creators to work on projects of various scale, learning how to utilize and further develop different tools and skill sets. The pursuit of new creative endeavors of varying scale can offer a fresh perspective to veteran developers, resulting in new products and ideas, as these “smaller” games ought to be viewed as “different” as opposed to “inferior.”

The issue lies in the rather distinct nature of Japan’s mobile marketplace. Aside from the unique balance of population density, economic affluence, and degree of mobile phone penetration, the nation also boasts a unique mobile infrastructure. Again, not a problem in itself, as it’s remarkable on many levels, however games well-designed to take advantage of the nation’s mobile ecology aren’t necessarily products well-suited to succeed in international markets, which could result in the nation, not necessarily falling behind, but instead “missing the mark” in an area where it has the greatest opportunity to succeed throughout the global games market – in players’ pockets.

What we may then wind up with is a massive talent pool whose creations fail to reach a new world of gamers on multiple platforms. Should such a future come to pass, the real loser wouldn’t necessarily be the Japanese game industry, as it could certainly sustain itself to a reasonable degree given the nation’s economy. The one’s who really get left behind may be the most important group of all – the players.

The author serves as project manager, translator, and content director at of Active Gaming Media Co's MediaCenter. AGM, based in Osaka, was founded in 2008 as a localization specialty firm focusing on video games and related media, having since branched out into offering voice recording, game debugging, and marketing and promotion services.

© Japan Today

©2023 GPlusMedia Inc.

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I hate keitai games, absolutely no fun, plus always encounter people playing their games while walking which annoys the hell out of me. Also they dont make anymore decent games in Japan. The only game that impressed me is Mario Galaxy for the WII. AGM hiring btw? :P

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"a period widely considered to be representative of Japan’s fall from grace within the world of game development," "Japan’s fall from grace within the world of game development,"

Hmmm. I would like to hear the opinion of the JT readers on this statement. How widely considered is this?

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GREE is just terrible. Badly made and annoying.

I have no idea why it's so popular.

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What...? There were plenty of decent games this year, and I have a feeling the next year will be pretty awesome too. I can't speak much for the social games though. My students are pretty crazy about them, but they do look a bit pointless to me. Then again, I only use my cellphone for texting/talking, not playing games (that's what my DS is for), so of course I wouldn't understand.

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Gran Turismo 5 is like the hottest game right now, and made by a Japanese company. Fall from grace? Really?

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Market fragmentation of the gaming market is happening everywhere, not just in Japan (eg, Facebook's Farmville and Zynga and Apple's apps store). The challenge is also not new, finding ways to port games from one platform to the next (and also localization).

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mrdog, maybe because it's free?

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I don't know if Japan's game quality has gotten any worse - I can't think of a way to say it's so, everything has only grown in sophistication - but that's true of the competition too. American game producers are far better than they used to be, and very much hold their own against Japanese producers. Japan, in its usual inward manner, has continued to make great games, but only a fraction of these ever make it to import for other countries. There are so many Japanese games that are just too culturally focused on Japan to translate effectively. So Japan has slipped relatively, but not because of being 'bad'; just not being cutting edge outside of a few overachievers.

Gaming in America and the west in general has made a shift too, to being more mainstream, whilst gaming in Japan is solely focused on consoles and still has that otaku tinge to it. Japan's gamer culture is slipping behind the American model, even if that model is full of stoners and abusive teenagers behaving awfully online. It's still becoming a wider market and more mainstream, and that includes Social Gaming with the new models of micropayments (where you generally get a game for free but pay for extra goodies in-game).

Nobody is quite sure where social gaming will wind up. But if Japan can get on board with things like Android and other widespread use handheld device OS, it might take off there too.

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It's true; like cellphones, the Japanese game industry is on its own little island. Games don't need Japan's sales to become successful anymore. Many Japanese games only sell in Japan, thus missing out on worldwide sales and revenues. More importantly, many new innovations don't originate from Japan.

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All these Japanese keitai games are absolute trash, nothing amazing, graphics are from the 90's, and none of it is "forward thinking", especially when you compare it to just about ANY game available on the Android Market or iphones iTunes market.

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@tomatoflight - I dont believe Gran Turismo 5 is the hottest game out now, Call of Duty:Black Ops is the hottest game right now (not a JP made game). All my Japanese PSN friends are playing Black Ops religiously not Gran Turismo 5.

I cant think of any good Japanese games that have come out recently. They just dont make game like they used to anymore. Im a fan of Final Fantasy since back in the 8bit era but FF XIII was boring, i did not finish it and I sold it and got "God of War 3" instead (awesome awesome game also not JP made)"Castlevania: Lords of Shadow" for PS3 was also boring but I alrdy started and am halfway so eventually I will finish it. "Lost Planet" is another horrible game, it really has no story, no real characters, when you play online its mostly Japanese players which I have no issues with since I can speak Japanese but they seem to be very shy about using a mic. All they seem to want to do is grind which I hate with a passion. BTW the bulk of PS3 trophies for that game involves a massive amount of grinding! game failure. Needless to say I traded it and put the credit towards "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" very hot game. Other games that I play that I believe are excelent are "Red Dead Redemption" and "Assassin's Creed 2" and "AC brotherhood" (i think those are French made)I also still play "Warhawk" a lot even tho its about 4 yrs old. I'm also a fan of "Yakuza / Ryo ga Gotoku" series but honestly its a crappy game but I like its Japan feel so I play it. It will never be at the same level as any of the GTA games though

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Between this and the Herbivore phenomenon, Japan is doomed.

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I'm absolutely loving the comments about how all these keitai games are crap. It's too bad Gree can't hear you over all that money they're currently rolling around in. The 'fall from grace', as it were, is that Japan used to be the undisputed king of games, world-wide. Now we have legendary publishers like Square-Enix and Capcom apparently struggling to put out games with the same global appeal. To be fair, most US games don't do that well here; however if you consider that the domestic market is only going to continue to get smaller, Japanese developers and publishers need to make a choice: who to serve, and how? For publicly traded companies, focusing on only the Japanese market may not be an option because your shareholders expect a certain (and likely unrealistic) level of annual growth. It would follow then, that Japanese game makers need to get a grip on what audiences outside of Japan want. For Gree however, well from what I can tell they are looking abroad, but the devs making games for them are likely going to run into similar problems -in terms of both western tastes and platforms.

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