In a lecture originally given at this year's GDC Mobile conference, David Collier, the president of Tokyo-based content provider Pikkle KK presented "the next big thing from Japan" for mobile: new mobile sits that mix mini-games, avatars, and virtual money into million-user game services, most off-deck and advertising supported.
Casual gamers are brought in by their friends and easy-to-play Flash Lite games. Collier explained, and then they stick around for the community. Using Mobile Game Town as an example, he revealed that the site had over 4 million subscribers, and 40% of all male teenagers in Japan. "I think the growth has slowed now because they've basically run out of teenagers," he joked.
Explaining the appeal, he showed how the Flash Lite games on offer aren't "super hardcore, complex RPGS," but instead "fun, simple little 30 second games."
Using his handset, he showed us a one button title which asked the player to grab the right foods from a buffet for their "honey" before she becomes impatient, then a similarly simplistic one button shooting game, before showing us the games as they appear on the site - as Flash Lite applets that load within the browser, accompanied by incentives for playing, such as downloadable avatars.
The avatars are used in the larger community features, which allow the user to use their own avatars as their "face" online, along with create their own "home" to show off their prizes and personality.
Collier showed a short video from Wireless Watch Japan which served as an introduction to the concepts, including another social gaming site, Disney's Wonder Town, which allows people to explore other characters' rooms and talk to them.
One of the core reasons these sites are successful in Japan, Collier argues, is the availability of Flash Lite. "Something like 96-97% of phones are flash enabled," he explained. "On many of these phones you can't play in depth, 3D games, but you can run any Flash Lite games. You can basically reach the entire market."
He went on to explain the negative aspect of using Flash Lite in comparison to Java: a low initial effort for customers to begin playing (simply open their browser, visit the site, download the game and play it.)
Whereas Java games tend to have a high initial "hurdle" for play: visit the carrier's deck, select the game, pay for it, wait for it to download, return to the phone's UI, select the game, etc. Of course, Flash Lite games remain "slightly inconvenient: every time you want to play your favourite game, you still have to visit the site and may have to download it again."
But for development there were some concrete bonuses -- while with Java and Brew, you might have to port to hundreds of phones, Flash Lite should, in theory, work on all phones, and Collier remembered testing entire game services using "only about 20 phones," and "as it's all off deck you have a rapid turnover. When you launch games you can have immediate feedback, very different from when you work with a carrier and wait perhaps months to maybe get a royalty report. The services launch 1,2 games a week."
Let's move on to the business model: how are they actually paying for it? "It's a very brutal cost per acquisition service," Collier explained: "when I get paid I'll pay you."
"When people sign up for services that are advertised on the site they pay you," Collier said, but warned that those services that pay the most might not make the most -- for example getting a user to sign up to a bank might make a lot of money, but it would happen very rarely compared to users signing up for video rental.
However, the services are also very attractive to larger advertisers for running promotions. Mobile Game Town ran a Coke promotion that was a "big success" in which they created a character, Cokesuki. In an carrier-based ecosystem, Coke would pay the service who would then pay the carrier, but with off-deck the money doesn't have to change hands several times.
Of course, as a result, the carriers are trying to become involved, creating their own Flash Lite games services to take advantage of the system - and where that hasn't worked, they've asked the government to step in to regulate popularity, asking for legislation against children using the services.
In discussion of Square Enix's mobile service, Minna De Quest, Collier said "one of the other things that is important in Japan is the complete lack of friction between the browser and the messaging component. Basically how Minna De Quest works is every day in my [mobile] e-mail I'll get my character status and if I click the links in the e-mail I can advance my character."
There are also many ways in which the social mechanics are integrated with the game mechanics. For example, in Kunitori from Mapion, as players move around the country they can launch the map application to get points for going to certain places, or finding items, and can even fight other people at the location.
Another title, Bitpets (pictured), is a location based virtual pet that "wanders about and grabs bits of local people's blogs and bring them back to you. You can read them and get in touch with the writers."
The previously mentioned Disney Wonder Town allows a seamless integration where players can meet other players in the same way they meet NPC characters. Avatar goods, purchased in shops, increase their powers a la an RPG, with, for example, Mickey Ears increasing their "cute power" for use in "fashion challenges" with people they meet in the street.
Similarly, a sticker collection mini-game results in stickers that players can use in their photoalbum or on their blog.
Such abilities are "a revolution in social gaming and mobile gaming," according to Collier, and these services will "kick mobile gaming into the next stage."