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What Mobile Game Developers Need to Know About Japan

Japan's mobile gaming industry is expected to exceed $8 billion by 2016. Here are some tips for indie game developers looking to break into this exciting market.

This post originally appeared on Playbook, Chartboost's blog dedicated to the business of mobile gaming.

While we read the news in the U.S., Japan plays games.

The typical American commuter spends bus or train time scrolling social media feeds for the latest from our friends, family and community. But in Japan, the train ride to and from work is game time.

So many people are gaming on the go, in fact, that Japan Rail East, the largest railway in the Tokyo region, launched a public service campaign with 1,000 posters stating, “no mobile phones and games while walking.”

This time dedicated to mobile games pays off for advertisers and publishers, though. Free-to-play games, especially, have been massively successful in Japan as worldwide mobile game revenues are set to hit $100 billion by 2016. For instance, GungHo Online’s Puzzle & Dragons was the third highest-grossing iOS game in 2014 — with 30 million downloads in Japan.

While Japan has always been a leader when it comes to games — after all, it’s home to titans like Nintendo and Sega — a shift into mobile is picking up incredible speed, expecting to exceed $8 billion (823.8 billion yen) by 2016. What’s more, old-school console leaders like Nintendo and Bandai Namco have added mobile to their host of offerings in order to tap into the country’s booming smartphone market.

To introduce mobile game developers to this dynamic, mobile games-obsessed country, here's a beginner's guide to monetization in Japan.

Tip 1: Know your audience and connect with local publishers

Success in the Japanese mobile gaming market means knowing your players … well. This could be said for all markets, but because Japan possesses a smaller pool of players by population — not knowing them can be especially detrimental to your game there.

One of the best ways to get into the Japanese market is to explore options outside self-publishing and connect with existing local networks. Using a local Japanese publisher (or distributor) is a great idea, as it will bring you a powerful network of players and also help you tailor your game to the Japanese market.

Puzzle and Role Playing Games (RPG), for example, have become the most dominant categories in terms of size, driving up the CPI in each category. These higher CPI categories will be the most competitive genres.

The trick in marketing to a Japanese audience goes beyond strict language localization. You have to think like your Japanese audience, something that can’t be outsourced. When deciding to enter the Japanese market, you’ll want to include a production team that lives and breathes Japan in order to make core changes to your games. Even hugely successful Clash of Clans had to change its marketing messaging to fit the culture.

Clash of Clans

Clash of Clans Billboard in Shibuya, Japan. Courtesy of ultrasupernew.

Tip 2: Build cross-platform and expect high iOS performance

japan slide

Surprisingly, given the country’s close proximity to Samsung-dominant South Korea, iOS is the leading mobile platform in Japan right now. Three years ago, Google Play was the most commonly used platform, but at the end of 2013, Apple closed a deal with NTT DoCoMo, the largest cell phone operator in Japan, and started distributing iPhones across the country. This deal helped drive iPhone penetration, which has increased from 55 percent of the market in January of 2014 to 65 percent of the market in the same month this year.

Another factor contributing to iOS dominance is the amount of fragmentation across the Android device landscape. Japan is a country of gamers who prefer seamless experiences when they play — like the ability to toggle between devices a la Puzzle & Dragons or Candy Crush — something iOS does well with its offering of devices. For instance, popular iOS games feature high quality experiences on all Apple devices, from iPhones to iPads.

Tip 3: Data should drive all decisions

OS slide

Ultimately, indie developers looking to sell their mobile games — and publishers looking to advertise — in the Japanese market need to look at the data to decide if the higher cost of install makes sense, especially if the game is in one of the more competitive genres.

The most useful application of the data — so far — is how to find more users. Distributing your mobile game in Japan makes more sense if your game is already in one of the popular categories, like Puzzle or RPG. Even with a higher CPI, there are more chances with these categories to pull in a larger audience in Japan.

Whatever you do, be sure to use the data wisely. Jumping into a growing mobile game market like Japan only makes business sense if you can afford the high CPI for your particular category, and if you’re able to market to Japanese consumers on iOS or Google Play in ways that are culturally relevant to the players.

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