Is Japan’s Social Gaming Boom an Explosion or an Implosion?

December 14th, 2010By Category: Work Tips

It’s remarkable that some of the most ubiquitous names associated with the Japanese video game industry today – GREE, Yahoo! Mobage, DeNA, – were more or less non-existent, at least as household names, only a few short years ago. The rulers of on-the-go gaming have seemingly usurped the public eye occupied by the major developers and publishers who have sustained the Japanese games industry for the last several decades almost overnight. Long-time powerhouses are now seeking new markets and exploring new revenue models under the watchful eyes of the new kids on the block.

And it’s developers both large and small hopping on board. In the midst of a period widely considered to be representative of Japan’s fall from grace within the world of game development, the country which once set industry standards for both quality and innovation is resetting its gaze upon the burgeoning social gaming marketplace permeating Japan’s pockets and handbags, promising an opportunity to rebuild and stake claim in gaming’s new wild west.

However developers jumping in seem to fall into two general categories:

1. Those energetically and proactively chasing new outlets for creativity and revenue.

2. Those thrust into the new market in order to pay the rent.

It’s those in the second category, already suffering the brunt of Japan’s game-industry struggles, who may end up further contributing to industry problems due to circumstances well outside of their control.

This particular group is highly skilled in making use of specialized tools and technology utilized in order to produce very particular kinds of gaming experiences. At a time when Japan is already considered to be “playing catch-up” in terms of being able to produce internationally recognized games of larger scale and with higher production values, shuffling those available with the greatest number of resources to compete into positions where they are further separated from the tools needed to experiment and grow in this arena may result in a continually widening gap.

The transition in and of itself isn’t problematic, as there is also great opportunity to be had by poising these creators to work on projects of various scale, learning how to utilize and further develop different tools and skill sets. The pursuit of new creative endeavors of varying scale can offer a fresh perspective to veteran developers, resulting in new products and ideas, as these “smaller” games ought to be viewed as “different” as opposed to “inferior”.

The issue lies in the rather distinct nature of Japan’s mobile marketplace. Aside from the unique balance of population density, economic affluence, and degree of mobile phone penetration, the nation also boasts a unique mobile infrastructure. Again, not a problem in itself, as it’s remarkable on many levels, however games well-designed to take advantage of the nation’s mobile ecology aren’t necessarily products well-suited to succeed in international markets, which could result in the nation, not necessarily falling behind, but instead “missing the mark” in an area where it has the greatest opportunity to succeed throughout the global games market – in players’ pockets.

What we may then wind up with is a massive talent pool whose creations fail to reach a new world of gamers on multiple platforms. Should such a future come to pass, the real loser wouldn’t necessarily be the Japanese game industry, as it could certainly sustain itself to a reasonable degree given the nation’s economy. The one’s who really get left behind may be the most important group of all – the players.


Active Gaming Media Co., Ltd. (AGM), based in Osaka, was founded in 2008 as a localization specialty firm focusing on video games and related media, having since branched out into offering voice recording, game debugging, and marketing and promotion services.  The author, Justin Potts, serves as project manager, translator, and content director of AGM’s MediaCenter. He asserts that games are an indispensable art form, just as play is an essential human activity.  Video games are important.

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