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Cracking Japan: How Foreign Developers Can Enter the World’s Most Lucrative Mobile Games Market


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I gave this presentation during Casual Connect 2015 in August in San Francisco, USA.

The slides cover various aspects of the Japanese mobile gaming industry and how foreign developers can enter it.

Published in: Technology

Cracking Japan: How Foreign Developers Can Enter the World’s Most Lucrative Mobile Games Market

  1. 1. Cracking Japan: How Foreign Developers Can Enter the World’s Most Lucrative Mobile Games Market by Dr. Serkan Toto (
  2. 2. About Me • CEO of Tokyo-based consultancy “Kantan Games Inc.” • based in Japan since 2004 • MBA and PhD in economics • hardcore gamer for 30+ years • Japan contributor for from 2008-2012 • advisor to game makers in the US, Europe and Asia
  3. 3. My Website On Japan’s Gaming Industry (
  4. 4. Overview Of Japan’s Mobile Game Landscape
  5. 5. Japan‘s Mobile Game Landscape • ~500-700 mobile game providers in Japan • Japan only: roughly 40 are listed • ~20 game platform providers (all mobile) • three large companies double as platform and game provider hybrids: GREE, DeNA and LINE • Android fragmentation doesn’t exist • mobile games have been social and free-to-play since Japan pioneered the industry in 2006/2007 • extremely mature market with highly advanced supply and sophisticated demand side
  6. 6. Japan’s Mobile Game Scene (Supply Side)
  7. 7. Japan’s Relevance For Foreign Developers
  8. 8. Japan Is The World’s No. 1 Market For Mobile Gaming
  9. 9. Japan Is The World’s No. 1 Market For Mobile Gaming
  10. 10. Japan Is The World’s No. 1 Market For Mobile Gaming
  11. 11. The Market Is Poised To Grow Further
  12. 12. Mobile Is Bigger Than Console
  13. 13. Japanese Users Pay The Most Globally For Mobile Content
  14. 14. Ways To Enter Japan’s Mobile Gaming Market
  15. 15. Big Companies Just Muscle Their Way In
  16. 16. Best Case Study For This Company Size: Supercell In 2013
  17. 17. King Started Advertising Candy Crush On Japanese National TV In 2014 (Machine Zone Followed This Year)
  18. 18. Foreign Mobile Game Developers With Offices In Japan (Selection) • Supercell (Finland/Japan) • King (UK/Sweden) • Gameloft (France) • Gamevil/Com2uS (Korea) • Happy Elements (China) • Wooga (Germany) • Goodgame Studios (Germany) • Tencent (China) • EA/Playfish (USA) • Rovio (Finland) • Rekoo (China) • 6Waves (Hong Kong) • Playtika (Israel) • Wargaming (Belarus) • Netmarble (South Korea) • Kongzhong (China)
  19. 19. What Can Other Developers Do?
  20. 20. Option 1: Pray For A Miracle • in principle, “miracles” can always happen anywhere, including difficult markets like Japan • local developers going for such a scenario have an edge when it comes to understanding the Japanese taste for games, the mentality of users, or the domestic virality channels • note that in addition to the constant stream of foreign games flowing into Japan’s app market, the number of locally made titles targeting a local audience doesn’t show any signs of going down • the list of “global viral hits” that haven’t really reached Japan includes: • Angry Birds (in its early and later days) • Flappy Bird • Crossy Road • Draw Something • Song Pop etc.
  21. 21. Option 2: Do It Yourself • applying the same “cookbook” for launching games globally will not work in Japan • at launch, Japanese users cannot be reached with creating buzz “the Western Way” or doing PR in English • soft launching in smaller test markets to gauge interest is essentially impossible, as Japanese is spoken nowhere else • hiring a local PR or marketing firm is costly (at least as costly as in the US, not to mention language and other barriers) • for acquiring a test audience in Japan, global ad providers such as iAD or channels such as Youtube, Facebook, or Twitter are an option • some local ad networks and agencies also work with smaller foreign developers that are on a budget • note that along with the high LTV, the CPI prices in Japan are among the highest in the world
  22. 22. Alternative “Free” Options For Distribution • features by Apple or Google Japan (both companies have globally connected editorial teams) • “alternative” platforms (see slide above) such as DeNA’s Mobage, GREE, LINE or Viber • the telco app stores (even e-commerce giant Rakuten has an Android app store now) • app subscription plans by telcos such as: • KDDI’s Smart Pass (No. 1 with 13 million users) • NTT Docomo’s Sugotoku • Softbank’s App Pass
  23. 23. Option 3: Partnerships • in general, identifying and closing partners (i.e. investors, publishers or other, like-minded developers) in Japan is a business development function just like everywhere else • note that despite the big size of the market, the number of companies in Japan focusing on importing foreign games is still relatively small (see next slide) • several partnerships among bigger companies to co-develop or publish each other’s games haven’t worked well in the past, i.e. • Glu (with Colopl) • Crowdstar (with Drecom) • Kabam (with KLab) • a sizable number of Japanese developers have offices in the US that can serve as a much better entry point for initial discussions than their parent companies
  24. 24. Potential Partners Specifically Focusing On Foreign Small- To Mid-Sized Mobile Game Makers (Past And Present)
  25. 25. Localization • in general, the key question should be if (full) localization is really necessary • Japanese users do expect Japanese text inside games (including UI, menus, etc.), app descriptions or ads (i.e. in Facebook ads) • Clash Of Clans or Game Of War would have never worked in Japan using English text - very different from many other markets in Asia • adding “Japanese style” graphics or characters into existing games has never worked and never will • note that other than text, localization is also required “outside the content” (i.e. in customer support, marketing, community management) • one big deal breaker for Japanese users: lack of events in foreign games
  26. 26. Number Of Foreign-Made Mobile Games That Succeeded in Japan After Full Localization (Graphics, Etc.). 0
  27. 27. Additional Tips • Google Play should absolutely be considered in the case of Japan, a market where monetization on Android works very well and piracy is extremely low • for paid games, Japan is also among the biggest markets in the world (some apps are offered and actually get bought for US$20+) • some (niche) genres still offer chances for foreign game developers, i.e. • core games (RPGs, strategy) • games targeted at children • games targeted at female users • edutainment (especially around English as a language) • casino • etc.
  28. 28. Checklist Of Requirements For Success In Japan • a lot of yen in your budget • a great game • based on an innovative, ideally “defendable” core concept • and/or with high production value • and/or targeting a specific niche • and/or with exclusive IP • a local partner/publisher • monetization techniques generating reasonable sales even with low user numbers
  29. 29. Thank you for listening! • Twitter: @serkantoto • LinkedIn: • Email: serkan AT