Explaining the Mobage Phenomenon

by Kim Morrissy,

Mobile games have been taking the world by storm, but it's not just games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds that have been stealing the hearts—and wallets—of so many players. Known as mobage in Japan, games like Granblue Fantasy and Love Live! School idol festival have received millions of downloads around the world. Many of these games have legions of dedicated fans overseas even before a global version is released.

To find out more about the mobile game phenomenon, I recently sat down with a few members of KLab's global marketing team. Of the Japanese mobile game developers with an international outreach, KLab should be one of the first names that come to mind. First established in 2000, KLab has released an extensive library of browser games and mobile games for their Japanese audience, but in the West they're primarily known for Love Live! School idol festival and Bleach: Brave Souls, with over 40 million and 25 million downloads worldwide respectively. What's the secret to their success?

The Ingredients of a Good Mobile Game

According to Matthieu Youna, the global marketing director at KLab, the main reason people play mobile games is because of their accessibility. “There's no price barrier. If you have a smartphone, you have instant access to a lot of games,” he says. Compared to console games, there's also less time commitment involved, making them easy to pick up and play in your spare time.

The convenience is what gets people into mobile games, but the trick lies in getting them to stay. Good mobile games are friendly to new players, giving them the freedom to play the game at their own pace, while also offering deep gameplay and rewards for those who choose to get more involved.

KLab attempts to achieve that balance by paying close attention to their community of players. Although the development team tries to keep up with the community themselves, the marketing team plays a significant role in relaying feedback from the players. The marketing team has even influenced the updates that KLab's games receive at times.

“At the end of the day, when you talk about marketing a game, it's not just about the release,” says Matthieu. “When you have games that stay on for two, three, four years, you have to follow the community and what they're thinking. It's a game, but it's also a service. The real job starts after the game comes out and people start playing.”

How does KLab measure the success of their games? “If you have a game that's growing, that people are playing, that have not just a core group of players but an active growing community, I think that's when you know you've got a good game,” says Mark Mowbray, the PR group leader. “It also needs to be a game that lasts. You see a lot of games that come out and there's a lot of hype but then after a few months, the players drop off. When you see these games that have been going strong for years, I think that's when you know that you've got something special.”

The Curse and Blessing of Micro-Transactions

It's no secret that micro-transactions have fueled the success of mobile games. In Japan, studies have shown that less than 10 percent of players account for more than 90 percent of revenue. You don't have to look far on the internet to come across stories of players who spend thousands of dollars per month on an in-game lottery system, called gacha.

Gacha has made Japan the most lucrative mobile gaming market per user in the world, but the practice is not without controversy. It does make Japanese mobile games a harder sell in the West, where some consumers have raised concerns that paying to receive randomized in-game rewards is akin to gambling, even if the ESRB has officially ruled otherwise.

Gacha have always been part of Japanese mobile games, even back in the browser games. The gacha culture is so strong in Japan,” claims Matthieu. By contrast, early social games in the West have relied more on timers; after the allotted time runs out, players must either wait for the cool-down period to end or pay to continue. Although Western games are beginning to incorporate more gacha-like systems into their gameplay, the cultural differences can still be startling for foreign players not used to Japanese-style mobile games.

The marketing team at KLab believes that gacha gameplay mechanics far from defeat the purpose of free-to-play games. 

“I think KLab strikes a really good balance with the free-to-play thing, in that we make it so that both people who are paying to play our games and the ones who are not paying both have a good chance at getting excellent in-game content,” claims Mark. “There's a lot more to the game itself than just the gacha. The gachas introduce you to new characters and content, but it's not the end all, be all of the game. There are other ways you can get content as well, not just in our games but in other games too.”

Marketing to Multiple Audiences

Another factor that KLab's global marketing team deals with is the inherent niche appeal of their games. Many KLab games are derived from existing anime and manga properties. This guarantees a core audience for the game, but the challenge for the marketing team is to expand the appeal of the game beyond that core audience.

The first step is making a game that lives up to the fandom's expectations. “It's great to get people interested, but the quality has to follow,” says Matthieu. Fans can quickly lose interest if the game is of low quality or unfaithful to the original source. Their loyalty should not be taken as a given.

KLab applies that same philosophy to the localization of their games. The translations are all processed in-house, and the marketing team has strong experience in game localization. The company works closely with the original IP holders to ensure that their translations are accurate and faithful to the source.

Beyond pleasing the fans, the marketing team keeps in mind the different kinds of consumers the games can appeal to. For example, the game Captain Tsubasa ~Tatakae Dream Team~, which is derived from the classic soccer manga of the same name, is getting an upcoming global release. Even if the manga and anime series isn't quite as popular in the English-speaking world as it was in Japan, the series is beloved in regions like Europe and Latin America. The global edition will be published in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Traditional Chinese.

In addition, the game offers a more complete version of the manga storyline than was shown in the anime, allowing players who are unfamiliar with the Captain Tsubasa story to enjoy it. The game also has general appeal to fans of soccer games. If the player don't know much about soccer, that's fine too—the game teaches you soccer strategy and has an auto-play option that can get you through most matches against the AI.

If all of this sounds like the onus is on the gameplay, that's because it is. If a game is well-received in Japan, chances are that it will also do well overseas. Instead of launching a simultaneous global release, KLab's approach is to perfect the game's balance before setting their sights abroad.

“We've also done the simultaneous worldwide release thing, and honestly, we've found our most success with games we've released in stages,” says Mark. “That's specifically KLab's way of thinking. I'm not saying that's what we want to do every time and that's what we're always going to do.”

Paving the Way for Female Consumers

KLab is also releasing a global version of UtanoPrincesama Shining Live, a game targeted primarily at women. In some ways, this represents a new step, not just for KLab's global endeavors but for gaming in the West. UtanoPrincesama Shining Live will be “basically the first otome game to be released in English that is not a visual novel.” It is also worth noting that this will be the first time an UtanoPrincesama game gets an official English release.

Otome games have traditionally had a smaller audience in the West compared to Japan, but that doesn't mean that the demand isn't there. Women already make up a large proportion of mobile game players, while dozens of otome visual novels have made their way to Western shores in recent years. UtanoPrincesama Shining Live offers something new for the burgeoning otome game market in the West: it's a rhythm game with deep gameplay options that uses a game engine similar to Love Live!, developed in-house at KLab.

KLab believes that “the release of the UtaPri game will be really great for the otome game market in the Western world,” as the first game of its type released in English. This may encourage other companies to localize similar types of games in the future.

Whether KLab's new offerings will be well-received by the community remains to be seen. It's tricky to make a mobile game with a long lifespan and a constantly growing community. Yet there's no doubt that Japanese mobile games have been becoming more global than ever; we're already seeing more variety in the gameplay and demographics of the English-localized titles. Mobile games are the future of gaming, and it looks as if the business model of Japanese games is here to stay.

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