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How to get big in Japan

Five steps to making the transition to a very lucrative mobile market

Japan. 127m people. 42 per cent using smartphones in 2013, expected to rise to 62 per cent in 2014, accelerating past the US's 50 per cent. $5.5bn spent so far on mobile gaming, expected to rise to $6.6bn this year. Puzzle and Dragons, GungHo's breakout hit, enjoys an ARPU of nearly $12, almost 10x that of Clash of Clans.

Big numbers indeed.

We've seen a lot of these kinds of headline figures, providing invaluable data about the explosion of mobile gaming in Japan, and consequently we all get a sense that there's something big happening 'over there'. But what exactly does it all mean? Is there any possible way that Western developers can participate in that market? What follows are a few tips which, while they won't guarantee that you're sitting pretty at the top of the highest grossing charts overnight, will certainly give you a better chance of attracting the attention of gamers in the biggest mobile gaming market in the world.


Stay with me, this could get a little academic. Don't worry, it'll be over soon.

GungHo's partial acquisition of Supercell has lead to some tremendous cross marketing opportunities for Clash of Clans and Puzzle and Dragons

Japan is a largely homogenous culture, with very little large-scale immigration during its recent history. The census records that 98.5 per cent of inhabitants are Japanese which, while not telling the whole story, still gives a good indication of how little diversity there is in the country. Coming from the UK and other Western European countries, or even looking at it from a North American perspective, this is startling. The key point about this data is less about the population, but more about the culture that it has created.

Japanese culture - be it the traditional aspects or more modern Japan - is a relatively fixed and internally consistent environment. Imagine most people there wearing cultural filters that let in only those things that come from somewhere familiar, rooted in a cultural touchpoint. In the same way that every Brit knows that you order a pint of beer, and not a glass, mug or bowl, that 1966 was a somewhat important year for the English, and that you don't put mayonnaise on chips (I'm looking at you, Belgium), Japan's internal cultural rules and mores are just as strong, and apply over almost all aspects of the culture. Things that don't fit can tend to get unconsciously filtered out, often without comment (that would be impolite), like Douglas Adams' description of SEPs - Some Else's Problem. Anything that doesn't quite "fit" can get ignored, leaving the creator scratching their head and wondering why.

But there is hope, and a few simple things that you can keep in mind while developing your game can make the difference between being filtered out at first glance, or being accepted in, and at least standing a chance. Of course, whether it can then stand up to the home-grown competition is a different matter, but at least you'll have managed to get your foot in the door.

A Book of Five Things (to remember when thinking about Japan)

1. Localization

The first thing that everyone thinks to do, and rightly so, is localization. English proficiency in Japan is one of the worst across Asia, so if you're not even bothering to do this for your game, you may as well give up straight away.

Localization starts with the writing of the original script. Language, especially when using humour, is so much about the culture that even with an excellent grasp of the technicalities of the language, a translator may not necessarily pick up on the joke that you've placed in there.

"always use a translator or translation service where the final writer is a native speaker"

For example, maybe you have a tower defence game and you want to call one of the levels "Faulty Towers." While that makes sense to almost every Brit and a lot of people in the West, a translator may come across that line and translate it as "Broken Towers". That may be absolutely fine, but what made that title relevant and impactful in the original will have lost a its punch when translated, and worse, might be confusing - especially if the player is now worried that their towers are going to break at some point. Movie and music references also often fall down in translation, unless you have a very on-the-ball translator. While the reference might be known in Japan, it might have had a different name when it came out locally. The go-to example is the movie "Being John Malkovich", which came out in Japan as "Malkovich's Hole"... Try referencing that in your next game!

Second, always use a translator or translation service where the final writer is a native speaker.

When thinking about the translation process, remember that it's very difficult to find translators that are 100 per cent fluent in both the -to and -from languages. One way to get around this is to think about a two-step translation process. Have someone that is native in the first language translate it to their weaker language, have them write notes ("Faulty Towers is a reference to an old UK TV show called Fawlty Towers - do not translate literally") and then have that translated into the target language by a native speaker. While this adds a step,and cost, it can ironically reduce the Chinese Whispers effect and ensure a better flow through of the original script's meaning and intent. You can also include thorough localization notes yourself, but often we're blind to the references, especially as English is a language that has a lot of embedded idioms. Do you really want "don't lose your head" translated literally?

A company mascot, like Unity-chan here, can help to establish your brand in the minds of Japanese consumers.

2. Art

This is usually the single biggest tripping point for Western devs hoping to reach Japan. Even putting aside all the manga, anime, and games, Japanese culture is very visually driven, and especially character driven. Almost every business, brand, and product has a mascot character - Japanese audiences are used to seeing them everywhere. For example, Resona Bank commissioned Studio Ghibli to create the Resona Family, and put them on their cash cards. Pizza Hut had the Cheese Family. Tokyo Gas uses a character on their posters to encourage energy conservation. Closer to home, Unity has their heroine character for Japanese indies, "Unity-chan", as they saw this as a key part of gaining recognition in the market.

In short, Japanese culture is heavily character driven, and ensuring that your game characters "fit" within established styles is important. Japanese character art operates as a visual language, and while there are a multitude of different styles, think of these as dialects with a common underlying set of words and phrases. Artwork that comes from overseas is often using a different language, and therefore fails to resonate with Japanese audiences.

"Japanese culture is heavily character driven, and ensuring that your game characters "fit" within established styles is important"

One significant difference is that Japanese character art tries to steer as far away as possible from the uncanny valley - the phenomenon where a viewer's affinity for a character plummets as it gets very close to, but not quite at, reality. This is seen as particularly creepy, but can be used to great effect. The manga and anime series, Attack on Titan, uses this creepiness when drawing the attacking giants. As always, it's about knowing the rules so you can break them.

While there's no easy way to get around this, there are plenty of online tutorials like this and this that provide good guidelines. But beware of ones that aren't created by Japanese artists. Just as an uncanny valley exists for illustrated to real, so one exists for Japanese audiences, for characters that come close to hitting real manga/anime, but don't quite make it. More and more, there are freelance Japanese concept artists and art directors who can work as visual localizers, ensuring that someone who understands "the language" will have translated it for the audience you want.

3. Features

Whether it's Japan or any other territory, try and get a better sense of what your competitors in that market are doing, and which features are becoming de facto standard features. A fairly obvious one, and something that is essential in mobile, is auto-saving progress. It only takes one time for the game to lose the last hour of the player's progress for that player never to play it again. But what about things like the ability to leave combat/a race/a level whenever the player wants, without having to fail or complete it, before you can get back to the main menu. If competitors in the same genre have all started adding the ability to easily quit back to the main menu whenever the player wants, your game could stand out negatively by its absence.

Menu layout and menu flows are also worth looking at to see if these are significantly different to what you have in place. Especially if you're developing an F2P title, is the Store where the user expects it to be? Are the purchase options obvious? Is the user going to understand what they're paying for, and why they need it?

"Even if you don't have an overseas iTunes or Google Play account, you can check out the Top 10 in any country via sites like Distimo"

There's really no substitute for doing your research, and it's free and easy to see what similar titles are doing in the target country. Even if you don't have an overseas iTunes or Google Play account, you can check out the Top 10 in any country via sites like Distimo, and if the title isn't available to download in your country, a simple copy and paste into YouTube will usually give you a good idea of what the game is like and how their features stack up. Spending a few hours doing this at the beginning of development can reap rewards further down the line, and give you an edge over other developers that aren't putting in this effort.

4. Monetization

Just as in the West, most paid apps struggle to break through in Japan (and broadly across Asia too) vs. their free-to-play counterparts. If anything, users' rejection of paying for games before trying is even more pronounced than in the West. Japanese mega-hits such as Puzzle and Dragons, Monster Strike, and Disney's TsumTsum have been so successful at providing hours of high-quality gaming, that users are more reluctant than ever to put money down based on information, reviews, and trailers alone. A new game needs a significant point of differentiation and appeal to make a player dig deep for the ¥200-¥400 (£1-£2) that a paid game might ask for before revealing its secrets.

Mistranslations may become iconic memes, but they'll frustrate players first.

While this might prove distasteful to many developers, the flip-side is that users are comfortable paying for items that enhance the experience, or be advertised to in return for a free experience. It also doesn't mean you need to change your vision for the game, but you may need to think creatively about how you can monetize it in order to keep the lights on and work on your next game. Is there a way to integrate advertising without compromising the aesthetic and flow? Could players pay for the in-game currency, as well as earn it? Could you surface a paid-offer to a player if they're stuck on a particularly hard level or puzzle? Like anything, try to think about your own game from the player's perspective, confronted with thousands of other free download choices, all a free click away.

If after all this, you're still determined to release a paid app, you'd better have a great plan for...

5. Marketing & PR

Cutting through the noise in your own market is hard enough, but doing it in Japan from the West is even harder. But there are a few very basic things you can do to make sure you're at least communicating with your audience in a way that they can understand.

"Cutting through the noise in your own market is hard enough, but doing it in Japan from the West is even harder"

Localize your app store page! This is such a basic thing, but time again, developers forget to put this effort in. Would you download a game if all the app description text were written in hieroglyphics? If all the screenshots had great looking sell text that you couldn't understand? If you're going to put even the smallest amount of money into marketing, make sure it's this. As with localizing the game, make sure you find a native language translator. Find a Japanese-speaking friend, hire a cheap localization outfit or contract translator. Translating 500 words into Japanese should cost you anywhere between £30-£60, and will make the difference between a potential user understanding your game, or navigating away to the next game that they can understand. It shouldn't hurt your chances of a platform-holder taking note either, the next time they're looking for something to feature...


The 5 points covered here should help you improve your chances in Japan, and are good guidelines for whichever market you want to target. The advent of free global distribution on massive-scale mobile platforms has been a paradigm shift for the industry, enabling anyone with a laptop and a copy of Unity to reach billions of users. But getting those users to take notice requires you to not just make a great game, but to communicate with them in a way they understand - in the game, and in your marketing. However, the investment you put in will open your game up to countless more users in Japan, and around the world.

Shintaro Kanaoya is Founder and CEO of Chorus Worldwide, publisher of Western-developed games in Japan and across Asia. Shin started his career in the games industry in the '80s as a writer for UK games magazines, before joining Bullfrog Productions, working on classic titles such as Dungeon Keeper 1 & 2, and Syndicate Wars. Most recently, he was Director of Business Strategy at Microsoft Studios, before forming Chorus Worldwide in early 2014. For more information about Chorus, please visit the website.

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