As part of my job with PopCap Games in Asia I spend a significant amount of time in Japan, and even after a few years of regular visits to the Land of the Rising Sun, I’m still regularly surprised by this most fascinating country. As everyone knows Japan has long been considered the Mecca of gaming and technology, but at the same time it can be an insular space, dominated by local (and often, for an outsider, weird) gaming genres, and resistant to outside trends.

So if in the West social games are changing the way people play and dramatically broadening the audience, and in China the same phenomenon is happening on homegrown social networks, as we saw in last month’s column, what about Japan? Are the Japanese getting on the social gaming craze? And how do their different gaming habits influence the way the space has developed?

Far from being left behind, Japanese gamers are avid consumers of social games and, as such have embraced it as one of the most popular ways to kill time and entertain themselves during their commutes. That is, social gaming in Japan is booming, but you should not look for it on PCs; most of the action happens on mobile phones!

In fact, it can be said that in Japan any form of entertainment, to be really considered mass market, has to be consumed on mobile phones, because that’s where the majority of users, from teenagers to office-bound “salarymen,” are to be found. If you have ever been to Japan and used public transportation, you will have noticed how a sizeable number of travelers spend the journey absorbed in the screen of their mobile phone, while at the same time no one seems to be talking into it. If indeed gabbing away in your phone in public is frowned upon, no limitations are set on more private, but still entertaining, uses of the device. Since the average commute in Japan features at least an hour of train ride each way, it’s indeed easy to picture Japanese commuters reading books and comics, surfing the web and playing games while travelling to and from the office, and Japanese phones have been used for that purpose since NTT DoCoMo came up with the i-Mode standard in the late ’90s.

In the last couple of years, social networks have entered the space and, expanding from their traditional blogging and communication services, have centered part or most of their offering around games, using the mobile platform to reach a wide audience. Of the three main Japanese social networks (Mixi, Mobage Town and Gree), the first sees 80% of its usage happening on mobile, while the other two as of now don’t even offer a PC version. And as users in the West familiarize themselves with the concept of virtual goods and start spending money on the development of their virtual farm, island or aquarium, last year in Japan more than 40M users have spent about $500m buying virtual items on their mobile phones.

From the perspective of a game developer looking to enter the market, it can be said that the mobile social gaming space in Japan has already proven its potential as one of the hottest opportunities in the country, and it’s surely attractive to foreign developers due to the relative openness of the market and the adoption of the Open Social standard by all three social networks. That said, the widespread usage of technologies such as Flash Lite, i-Mode and DoJa (the first widely used only in Japan, the latter two unique to the Japanese market), as well as the necessity of having a local team and operations to manage the services, will probably drive all but the largest game companies to strike deals with local publishers or to engage Japanese development companies to address the opportunity.


Dance Unit, a dancing game on the Mixi platform featuring pictures of players as avatars

And as a player, is there anything in the market that is radically different from what we experience on other social networks and that which we should look forward to, once someone decides to adapt it for Western consumption? Unfortunately, at least for now it looks like the market is dominated by games in a very similar mold to the ones played on Facebook by tens of millions of people: Mafia Wars-style games, farming games (in fact, the most popular farming game in Japan is Sunshine Ranch, developed by Rekoo, a Chinese company), fishing games and the like, apart from culturally specific games such as Mahjong and the odd role-playing game. Most of the creative juices seem to be devoted to the metagame instead, with very elaborate avatar systems on the customization of which large sums can be spent, and mechanics that aim to engage users through viral loops and leveraging their social graph. Not very different from Facebook, then, except that people in Japan use social networks as much to meet new friends as to play and socialize with their existing ones.


Sunshine Ranch, a farm game from Chinese developer Rekoo

Luckily, not every successful game on Japanese social networks is so familiar to foreign players, and by looking at the most-played games rankings one can’t avoid being captivated by such titles as “office lady volleyball”, “classroom musical chairs”, “make up queen”, “keep your friends awake” and, last but not least, “the wig game”. This simple but addictive game puts the player in the role of a company employee attending a long meeting: due to sheer boredom, or maybe as a consequence of an excess of sake consumed the night before, the boss falls asleep. The helpful player will then need to run around the room switching on and off strategically placed fans, to prevent his toupe from falling off. Achieving this feat for as long as possible and by keeping the wig in the optimal position grants a high score and, one imagines, an improvement in long term career prospects. Pure genius, at least by bored salaryman standards!

Giordano Bruno Contestabile is PopCap Games’ senior director of business development – Asia Pacific, a position he’s held for the last two and a half years. In that role he oversees business development, marketing and sales in the APAC region and is responsible for revenues in all channels: Online, Social, Mobile, Retail, Console, Advertising and New Platforms.

He is also involved in shaping the company’s strategy in Asia Pacific, with particular regard to the development and licensing of online and multiplayer products built in our Shanghai studio, and to the development and operations of social games.

Contestabile has more than 10 years of experience in management, business development and strategy, having worked in the Internet, media, mobile and games industries. Follow Giordano Bruno Contestabile on Twitter.