March 28, 2017
Casey Moore, Host
There’s been an interesting trend with the video game market in the United States in recent years: namely, the burgeoning market for casual mobile games. What began with Angry Birds evolved into Candy Crush and has extended so far as to include even big name companies like Bethesda and Nintendo releasing Fallout Shelter and Super Mario Run on mobile platforms respectively.
This isn’t surprising when we compare how the trend began to Japan’s market, where many of America’s video games originate. Video game consoles, such as the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Wii U, are on the decline regarding sales, and are quickly losing out to the more popular pop-and-stop style mobile games, be they on phones or on dedicated portable consoles like the Nintendo 3DS.
This trend can be traced back to the invention of the Nintendo Game Boy in 1989. Developer Gunpei Yokoi, previously of Game and Watch portable LED games fame, created the platform for kids, yes, but also with the traditional Japanese salaryman in mind. He firmly believed that games are not a hobby only for children, but that adults could enjoy the portability of video games on their commutes each day, so that they wouldn’t have to miss out on video games – Japanese work culture allows for little time at home, especially for Japanese men, so for many portable games are the only means of play.
Fast forward to the early 2000’s, and we see the trend that’s now in full swing in the United States begin to blossom in Japan, with popular video game developers creating their products for cell phones. Such games included spinoffs of other franchises, such as Kingdom Hearts X and Final Fantasy VII: Before Crisis. A few years later and the Nintendo DS would be released, sporting infrared and Wi-Fi functions, a remarkable device for video game players to carry around the high population areas like Shibuya and Ikebukuro to take advantage of those wireless functions in their games.
Former USGamer editor in chief Jeremy Parish once said, “You can tell what platform will be successful in Japan by which ones the Dragon Quest games are published on.” Dragon Quest is a franchise currently published by Square Enix, and is by an incredible margin the most popular role-playing game franchise in the East, lending its success in no short part to the artistic talent of Akira Toriyama (of Dragon Ball fame) and the programming skill of Yuji Horii, who for all intents and purposes invented the console role-playing game genre that our Skyrims and our Witchers are based on today. Sure enough, Dragon Quest IX released for the DS in 2009, selling 2.3 million copies in the first two days and being the best-selling game of its year, and among the highest of all time. At this time, every single Dragon Quest game is available on the Nintendo 3DS in some form, including the upcoming Dragon Quest XI and a multitude of spinoffs.
What we see here is a trend toward the simplicity and ease of access of playing portable games that Japan found more than enough function in a decade ago to justify the market overtaking the home console counterparts. The ability to shut off your phone or close your game console to preserve your position in the game without interruption when your attention is needed elsewhere, as well as the ability to carry your games wherever you need to, made portable video games the optimal market in 2009 and the trend shows no signs of dying down. It would appear that the United States is beginning to reflect this as well.
February 2nd, 2017 marked the release of Fire Emblem Heroes worldwide, as Nintendo, after a few lukewarm passes at the mobile phone market, finally finds their place on smartphones. Fire Emblem Heroes features characters from the 27-year-old Fire Emblem franchise in a kind of lite version of the expansive strategy series, from 1990’s Fire Emblem: Ankokuryuu to Hikari no Ken to 2016’s Fire Emblem Fates. Instead of a vast army, you command only four characters at a time in a turn-based format on a grid, and use them to overtake your opponent’s team. Featuring art from a myriad of sources and the voice talents that range from Matthew Mercer (roles including Jotaro Kujo from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil) to DC Douglas (Albert Wesker from Resident Evil and Odin from Shin Megami Tensei), it released to accolades from fans and critics alike.
Before it’s a strategy game, however, Fire Emblem Heroes is what’s known in Japan as a Gacha game. This is derived from the word Gachapon, which is easiest described as those machines in restaurants and grocery stores that pop out little plastic containers of small, simple toys for pocket change. There are other varieties of this, such as more expensive and larger Gachapon with nicer toys and figurines, but they’re far more prominent in Japan and feature a wider range of products and price points.
Gachapon video games are very popular in Japan – games like Granblue Fantasy and Final Fantasy: Brave Exivus follow a very similar format. What these games entail is giving the player some resource or another (in Fire Emblem, it’s simply Orbs) which the player can spend on what roughly amounts to randomly drawing from a pool of characters. Events and certain other factors will skew the likelihoods in various ways, often for promotional purposes, but the percent will almost never vary more than 2% from one character to another, and there are various levels of power a character can have. For example, you may draw a 4 Star Roy, but you may also draw a 5 Star Roy who is much more powerful. These resources are limited and often very difficult or time consuming to obtain, but they’re available for purchase with real money as well, and that’s where the producers get their money.
Someone seasoned with video games might wonder, “Why would somebody play that? If you don’t get to use the characters you like, why bother?” This is what Japanese developers thought about the Western market as well, but after the rising trends of microtransactions and digital-add on expansions since 2006, Nintendo decided to test the market (after a modestly successful first attempt by Square Enix with 2016’s aforementioned Brave Exivus) and found far greater success than expected. Since its release, Fire Emblem Heroes has produced over $5 million in revenue, a baffling number compared to Super Mario Run’s meager $2 million at the time of writing.
Despite a vocal amount of player feedback opposing the pay-as-you-go model of Gacha, in which players invest in Orbs for a shot at drawing the characters they want, the game continues to install over 10,000 times a day and produce nearly $40,000 in revenue a day.
In Japan, the reason for Gacha’s popularity is obvious. It evokes a childlike thrill that adults rarely get to experience due to Japan’s work culture, and it acts as somewhat of a substitute to gambling, which is outlawed in Japan. The same reasoning is used to explain why Pachinko (or Plinko as its known in the US) is so popular, in that it serves as a legal replacement of sorts for the gambling vice due to, in the most technical possible terms, being a game for entertainment and not gambling per a court case from the 1980’s.
However, there’s no such analogue to this law in the US, so why have players latched on to Fire Emblem Heroes’ pseudo-gambling payment model? Remember at the start of this presentation when I discussed how the American mobile gaming market is beginning to reflect the trend that started in early 2000’s Japan – perhaps Americans are finding enough convenience in the mobility of their games to prefer them to consoles. Sales haven’t begun to reflect this, but the trend didn’t become quite so clear in Japan until about 2008, when the DS’s sales overshadowed the PlayStation 3’s. It’s possible the US is heading in a similar direction with its mobile market, with some gamers who don’t easily have access to their home devices moving to portables as replacements.
The biggest difference comes in the population density. We have our Las Vegas and New York City to answer Japan’s Shibuya and Ikebukuro, but we have far more land to our country for our population to spread. The benefits of infrared aren’t quite so potent, so portable consoles aren’t going to be as much of a hit (though they certainly don’t struggle), and without virtually infinite Wi-Fi access mobile games aren’t going to be quite as popular either. Bar those facts, the similarities are fairly apparent – Americans are interested in casual, mobile gaming experiences, and sales are reflecting it crystal clear. My guess would be that in five years, we’ll see a boom in the quality of games available on our smartphones, and we’ll see a clear split of the US gaming market between that casual audience and the players who want the home experience.