Ordinarily when a publisher has a breakthrough blockbuster on the scale of Puzzle & Dragons, one might expect the company to begin focusing the business around that success, attempting to duplicate it possibly at the expense of other efforts with a less impressive return on investment.
That hasn't been the case with GungHo Online Entertainment, which has continued to produce console, PC, and even dedicated handheld games in the years since Puzzle & Dragons' unexpected success. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at E3 last week, CEO Kazuki Morishita explained the company's reluctance to center its business around mobile gaming.
"The market on smartphones is like a black ocean," Morishita said. "So if you take a pebble or a black stone and throw it in, as soon as it hits the water you don't know where it is. You can't see it. That's the smartphone market for mobile games. In regards to this extremely oversaturated and competitive market on the mobile front, it's not something that's easy to pursue. Our focus is bringing new things that haven't been seen before, new ways of playing games, and we don't want to limit ourselves to smartphones. So we'll continue to work on different platforms, be it smartphones or another platform that fits what we want to create."
"If everyone's going to make mobile games and focus on that, I'll do something else. I want to go the opposite direction"
That's the business case for it, but Morishita said there's also a creative angle on the decision as well.
"Personally, I don't like to do things other people have done already. So if everyone's going to make mobile games and focus on that, I'll do something else. I want to go the opposite direction. So when Ragnarok Online became a hit in Japan, there really wasn't a lot in the online space for games at the time. And when Puzzle & Dragons came out, it was still in the earlier stages of the smartphone game market. It's within our DNA at GungHo to get into the market early and build that market, or even create that market in general. If you look at Let it Die as well, there really wasn't a market for free-to-play games on console, especially on PlayStation 4."
Naturally, that leads to questions about what unsaturated markets GungHo has in mind for the future. Morishita acknowledged that the company has "been touching AR for quite a while now" and has a specific team working on VR, but added there's nothing official on those fronts yet. GungHo is also working on a new Nintendo Switch project based on an idea Morishita had several years ago that he dusted off once it became clear Nintendo's platform would be a unique fit.
"The approach I have is, 'This is the kind of game I want to make.' And then once I know the kind of game I want to make, we think of what platform works best for this idea," Morishita said.
But those are the obvious oceans most game developers would at least have considered at this point. GungHo is also exploring aspects of gaming a little further out, pointing to artificial intelligence as one field the company is particularly interested in.
"AI is usually programmed into a game," Morishita explained. "How players interact in a game, how their data is managed, and how it can be used in the game in the sense of AI--not just simply by programming it in--is something we're really [pursuing]. When players interact within the game, their data gets stored into a larger database in the cloud, where other AI systems in the game can learn from it to further how they will interact with other players. That may or may not impact other players' gameplay experiences, or might even change the story they are experiencing. Something like that would be interesting to look forward to in the future."
"The biggest thing looking back on what we could have done better is making [Puzzle & Dragons] a global launch"
But that's the future. In the present, the focus for GungHo is on making its games for a global audience.
"Until recently, we were usually in the mindset that because we're in Japan, we'll develop games for Japan," Morishita said. "And if it does well, then we'll bring it to the West. But moving forward, what we really want to do is make content for a global audience with worldwide releases at the same time."
GungHo has two big reference points when it comes to taking its big hits global: Ragnarok Online and Puzzle & Dragons. Neither has quite duplicated its domestic success internationally, but there are still lessons to be learned there. In the case of Ragnarok Online, one could point to its aesthetics and gameplay not being as popular in the West, but Morishita feels Puzzle & Dragons' gameplay design is more or less universally appealing. So why isn't it a phenomenon on the same scale internationally?
"The biggest thing looking back on what we could have done better is making it a global launch," Morishita said. "Due to the staggered release dates, the update schedules are also staggered. The P&D global game is slightly behind Japan in that sense... Then there's a gap between communication of what we have with our [Japanese] users and then users in other regions. And then our users start feeling somewhat negative, 'Oh, we're always going to be behind Japan.' And that might heavily affect our users' interest in our products when they see these differences."
Morishita pointed to Let It Die as a good example of the company's efforts move to a more global viewpoint. The game actually launched in North America and Europe first last December, and followed in Japan in February. Last month it passed 3 million cumulative downloads, with the largest chunk (one-third to one-half of users) in North America, and the next largest player base coming from Europe.