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How to scale up your UA in Japan and Korea?

Step-by-step guide and lessons learned from TrainStation 2's journey to new markets.

Evelyn Rigova

December 15, 2023

6 Min Read

It is nothing new that the post-corona era brought severe changes to mobile games and their marketing. Growth is slowing down for most, and profitably scaling UA has become a serious challenge.

Now is the time to shake off old habits and start to look around for new playgrounds where to hunt new players. And my advice is to not only look “west” at the usual suspects. Try to set your eyes firmly on the East and get comfortable with adapting your UA for Japan and South Korea as well.

Why are most of us struggling with taking our UA to the next level in these markets? Yes, there are differences from the western part of tier one and several concerns and questions come to mind. Can only RPGs succeed in Japan and South Korea? What are the obstacles, how to overcome them, and how to start a profitable UA in the third and fourth biggest mobile markets in the world? Let’s take it step by step.

Can only RPGs succeed in APAC?

The dominance of RPG games is obvious, but the answer is a definite NO. On Sensor Tower’s list of the top 100 highest-grossing games in both Japan and South Korea, you can also find “the usual suspects”, like Clash Royal, Clash of Clans, Homescapes, Gardenscapes, Roblox, et cetera. The influence of non-Japanese games on the Japanese market is growing year by year according to most industry reports.

However, the non-RPG games’ revenue from these markets is generally lower than what they can achieve in the US. My point is that, even though you can be very successful, do not enter these markets with the expectation that they would become your primary source of revenue, especially not right away.

First of all, invest in translating your game

English proficiency in Japan is quite low. According to the 2022 English Proficiency Index, they are in the 80th position out of 111 countries. I strongly recommend investing in translating your game to Japanese and Korean, especially if it relies on story or explanations.

At Pixel Federation, after we translated our game TrainStation 2 for the Japanese and, more recently, the Korean market, we have seen an immense boost in retention. After a month of gameplay, we were able to retain more than a staggering 75% more of our Japanese players than we used to.

TrainStation 2 is a casual simulation transport tycoon mobile game, where you complete various tasks to build a train empire. We have made no changes in actual gameplay and the same user experience awaits players from Japan, the US, or Brazil. One thing that may work in its favor is gacha, which has always been a part of the game. Plus, we have added a Japanese train region in the game for diversity, but it is reachable only after weeks (or even months) of avidly sending trains on errands.

picture_1_-_Retention.PNG

The impact in Korea is a little less impressive, but it gave us additional motivation to experiment more with our user acquisition, and we ended up with a considerable increase in revenues.

 

Our activities and attention have brought changes to our user acquisition strategy and long-term budgets as well. Since translation, Japan has become our third highest spending country, and in 2023 so far we have invested more into UA in Korea as well. Actually, a lot more.

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Moreover, our revenues from these geos reflect our efforts, and we have been successful in scaling up. As you can see through, it did not happen overnight.

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Unfathomable marketing?

The day-to-day reality of doing marketing in Japan and South Korea is a common concern that discourages a lot of people. This should be on your mind. Based on our experience these countries bring to the table high retention and solid return on investment, but at a high cost.

Once you decide to test the waters though, the following tips should get you off the ground nicely:

  • Start with your existing creatives, and localize only the message or call to action that is already there. No one knows your players and creative insights better than you, trust that the same USPs can attract people, who would enjoy your game in Japan and South Korea as well. This is something that most games do daily (Gardenscapes, Royal Match, Merge Mansion, etc.), and not just at the start. You can easily find examples on data.ai

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One of TrainStation 2's most successful creatives, no special localization applied

  • Iterate the successful creatives, look at what your competition is doing differently, and start with localized experiments designed in-house based on what you think may work better based on your results.

  • Experiment with app store optimization - these countries are known for appreciating localized store experiences

picture_5_-_TS2_Korea.PNG

  • Once you see success and proof that these markets indeed do work for your game, and you are ready to scale up, consider cooperation with a local agency. They can help you reach new, country-specific networks (there are a number of them), and create more localized creatives to achieve even better results.

With TrainStation 2 we started with a strong focus on ASO, and we keep experimenting with creatives. We have also recently reached out to an external agency, to help scale our user acquisition.

The marketing team has even tested creatives with a special character designed just for the Japanese market, as it popped up as a recommended practice as well. The “furthest” we have gone down the rabbit hole so far are probably creatives like the following video. Kawaii, desu ne?

An example of TrainStation 2's heavily localized creatives

We would like to stress though, that we do use a wide range of creatives, and our general ones are able to take the cake.

What else to pay attention to?

  • Think of customer service. Your players from Japan and Korea have high standards and are used to receiving help in their native language. Even if these conversations take place in your case in English instead, make sure to be polite, patient, and very helpful.

  • When you see potential and good results from your UA, try creating special in-game content that your players would appreciate.

  • Be mindful of the culture and try to react to their holidays - with live OPS or at least special offers.

To sum it up though, not only RPGs can succeed in Japan and South Korea, but language is definitely an issue. Marketing does look intimidating, but it is not unfathomable when it comes to gaming, and you are good to start with your existing creatives.

Get down to scaling your UA in Japan and Korea as soon as possible. As our example shows, it is well worth the effort. Experiment with your app store optimization as much as you can, and more importantly, listen to your players, try to get to know them, and think a lot about their feedback. If you are not on the right track, they will let you know.

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