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Making games that appeal to non-gamers - Jun Otsuka talks about the success of LINE as a global phenomenon

Jun Otsuka from LINE talks about creating something positive out of a crisis, putting service first above monetisation, ethics and integrity, deeply social gaming, and reaching to the other demographic: games for non-gamers

“LINE games was a surprise success.  We could not have predicted this”, Jun stated matter-of-factly, in front of a packed audience at the Slush 2013 conference in Helsinki, Finland.


His company had forecasted that maybe 10% of LINE users would try LINE games, a service added humbly to the side of their popular messaging application, LINE.  To the company’s surprise, there were 220 million downloads within a single year, from November 2012 to November 2013, ending up with 60% of total company revenue coming from LINE games.  


So how did LINE games happen?


Jun Otsuka talks at Slush 2013

Jun takes us back in time to when the company was first founded.  LINE was created out of a time of crisis, as an instinctive reaction to a very human need.  It was March 2011. A record breaking, 9.0 richter-scale earthquake had just hit Japan, four-hundred kilometers from Tokyo. Phone lines and sms messaging service systems were jammed.  People all around Japan were desperate to check if their family and loved ones were okay, but the current communication system made it almost impossible.  Within the palpable tension and tragedy, Jun and the co-founders of LINE had realised that there must be a better and faster way to communicate, and they set about creating just that:  A multiplatform communication tool that was instantaneous, and can work on a computer or any mobile device.


“The LINE network is a closed SNS system. Basically it is a network designed for friends to message friends and family and acquaintances.” Jun explains.


For those unfamilar with the LINE smartphone and computer application, the easiest way to describe it, is that it is a super-powered cross between Whatsapp and Skype, with a built-in portal that offers free unique content, such as games and apps, all released under the LINE brand.


On the back of this simple premise, Jun explains why they chose to do monetisation the way they do: Where free means free, and there are no ads.


“Line users are not gamers.  We didn’t want to monetise the users in the way [most companies do], we want to be reliable and trustworthy: we want to make it clear whether the game is free or not.”


LINE currently has a selection of thirty-nine games.


“When you look at that number, it is actually not a lot of games, but when you think we have released three games a month since November 2012… it’s quite a lot for us.  We were given business advice to increase the output and make more games, but at LINE, we care more about four qualities: First service, then games, then social, and then monetize.  The most important thing is the service.  It means no disturbance.  When someone wants to make a message, they should not have all these things distracting them. That’s why we add LINE services on the side, as a bonus.  It is totally optional, and does not interfere with the actual communication.  There are no banners, no ads.  It’s more like a gateway.  We provide access to services like shopping, cooking, travel, and games, but it is all optional”.


He stresses the importance of reaching the ‘everyone’ demographic and getting non-gamers to play:


“If you open the way for people to play, they will play. LINE is a strong channelOur games are not only for those interested in games, but for kids, women, parents... anyone.  For example, Pokopang, one of our most popular puzzle games... It’s so addictive! My wife, sister and mother plays.  My mother is 60 years old: She has never played any other game before. She has a higher score than me!”


He also emphasises on fun and social as the key elements to success:


“It has to be fun in five seconds for anybody to play, no matter their experience in gaming.  We are here to entertain people and spread the service.  All the games must be most fun when played with friends, otherwise we don’t do business.” Jun then continues to explain his concept of deep socialisation in games, “Users pay for the social experience. When people think of social, they usually think of it as a leaderboard, but that’s just one part of social.  In LINE games, you can write a message to your friend directly onto the leaderboard we have communication inside the game.  That is the kind of social our users enjoy."  LINE games also feature gameplay bonuses for socialising with other players: “There are lots of secrets on how to enjoy this game with friends.”


If the top grossing app lists in japan are anything to go by, users are enjoying LINE's social games very much. Jun believes part of the wide appeal of LINE and LINE games is due to its likeable designs and ease of use.  Instead of a Japan-only phenomenon, LINE users are worldwide, with only 18% of the users from Japan.  The largest segments of the other users are mostly in Spanish speaking countries, with 15 million users from Spain, and users from Latin America, Russia, and India.  The Indian market came as a surprise to LINE, with over 10 million users registered “without much promotion” by LINE. The service has definitely proven its worldwide and cross cultural appeal, in terms of concept and design.


In coming back to the place of the seminar he is speaking at, Jun notes that Finnish designs also boast this worldwide, cross-cultural appeal, noting the popularity of the Angry Birds characters.


“Everyone likes Finnish character designs, they have worldwide appeal.” Jun chirps enthusiastically.  Jun is a big fan of cute characters:  He carries the large, plushy mascots of LINE on his backpack wherever he goes.  He admits he gushes proudly when fans recognise the characters and stop him on the street for a chat and a photo. “Sometimes American character designs we don’t like in Japan, and sometimes Japanese designs aren’t popular outside Japan.  But everyone loves Finnish characters”.


His love for finnish character and game design ended up with cross-cultural deal to bring Noble Nutlings, a game made by a team of ex-Rovio developers, to the LINE platform.  "I just met and talked with these guys, and they were great guys, so I thought, 'Yes, we should work with them'.  Noble Nutlings has good character design with worldwide appeal.  It was an easy decision.” Jun also sends an open message to other aspiring developers and indie teams looking for a platform to release on, that LINE is interested: “We are always looking for good content. We don’t care if you are a small company.  We want great characters, great games, great design.  We will do the monetisation, don’t worry about it.”


In closing, Jun emphasises the global goals of LINE: “We are not aiming for Japan or Asia, we are aiming for everyone.  We want LINE to be so popular, that when you talk about LINE, everyone knows what you are talking about.  For example, football is a common topic.  People can mention football, and everyone knows what they are talking about.  We hope LINE will be like that too.”  

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