Aiming for the Top in Mobile Gaming: A Talk with COLOPL’s Naruatsu Baba
Social Game Report is a website covering mobile social gaming run by Mynet Inc. It posts news and research on the market through Social Game Report and Twitter (@SocialGameRepo). The following contribution is from its chief editor, Wataru Tanaka.
Reader’s may recall some of our past articles about an up-and-coming player in the mobile gaming space, COLOPL from Japan. COLOPL is a platform that uses GPS location data to provide services to mobile devices. It currently has over three million users. In 2008, COLOPL, Inc. was formed as a company around the service. The company stepped into the smartphone game space a year ago, and is now one of the leading players in Japan. As its global launch of Dino Dominion this month suggests, COLOPL is speeding up its worldwide expansion, and recently announced a planned IPO in Japan for December 13. We sat down with CEO Naruatsu Baba (pictured above) and asked him about the company’s ongoing strategies.
Since its founding, COLOPL has been known for location-based games. What inspired you to move into casual games for smartphones?
When COLOPL was founded in 2008, there were mostly only feature phones on the Japanese market. We used our COLOPL platform and its use of location data to target feature phones, offering a range of services, which included games. But at some point – and I think most people in the midst of this change noticed it – smartphones started to gain serious momentum, and it was soon very clear that smartphones would be the main player in the global market.
What aspects in particular caused you to notice that shift?
Well, we noticed that more and more users were moving to smartphones through our site. At the time, smartphones were only ten or twenty percent of total mobile devices, but active users were increasingly moving to them – seeing the numbers, we could tell it was a sizeable chunk of users. That trend for smartphones was getting stronger every day – we felt a sense of risk that the feature phone market might dry up at a point, so we wanted to branch out. It’s been a bit over a year since we started getting fully involved with smartphones.
What were your early efforts like?
When we first set out, we analyzed existing games and saw that the most popular were light, action-based titles that didn’t involve much data transfer while playing. We agreed that we should try following this formula and gave it a try.
I heard that the first title was made by you specifically.
I had heard that games made with Unity were getting hot, so I just played with the engine a bit as an experiment. After a bit of fiddling, I had a finished result I liked and we used that as the first title.
What was the reaction like when you released the first title?
There were way more downloads than I expected. We also made an English version and released it, and that, too, was downloaded much more than we thought it would be. Generating a similar volume of downloads with a feature phone title requires substantial advertising expense, so we were frankly astonished at how we just put the game on the market and it started being downloaded [on its own power].
What do you think are the reasons behind those downloads?
I think a big reason is that there weren’t many apps in general, especially not many made by Japanese developers for the Japanese market. That and the fact that Coin Dozer was a sort of hit motif as far as smartphone games go, so the game meshed well with the platform.
After that first title, you’ve come out with everything from puzzle games to target shooters using the phone’s gyroscope. Is this a deliberate attempt to spread out across genres?
Exactly. There were a lot of areas where we needed to experiment to learn things first-hand, so we attempted lots of different games. Back then, our skills weren’t so polished, so we wanted to create various games to see how they were put together, and to gauge user response.
One of the things that stands out about COLOPL’s developing is that you choose to roll out on Android first, while most companies tend to focus on iOS. What was your thinking behind this strategy?
One of the main benefits of developing for Android is that we can release and launch updates based on our own timing. You need reviews for iOS apps, which means that if we gauge user response to the game and improve it, it still takes some time for the update to clear and go live. That’s why we first roll out our games on Android, check user response and iteratively improve the game, then finally launch on iPhone. But lately our Android releases have been more or less perfect out of the gate, so the only time lag you see between the Android and iPhone stores is from the inspection step.
How are iOS and Android users different?
These days I don’t perceive any difference between Android and iOS users. There used to be. My impression then was that iPhone users are picky — games they like, they love, and games they don’t, they hate. On Android there’s more of a balance. But lately that difference seems to have gone away.
How are your user acquisition strategies? Any differences between Android and iOS?
I think a common difference that’s pointed out is that on iOS, using an ad network to reach a higher ranking is effective, but the same strategy doesn’t work so well on Android. We find that to be the case, so for Android releases we put particular emphasis not on ads but on cross-promotions for our own apps, bringing in users laterally.
You also offer your casual games overseas in English, Chinese, and Korean. How did you arrive at that selection of languages?
When choosing languages, our main focus is considering whether there are lots of users. For English, the US market is of course huge, and releasing in English lets us reach wider to other countries too. Korea has a population under 50 million, but smartphones are very widespread, so they have a large market for mobile apps. Then with China, the sheer size of the population makes it a fertile market, plus the fact that there are many fans of mobile devices there.
I heard that you once said the markets with a climate most suitable to apps are Japan, the US, and Korea. What about China?
When it comes to Android in China, the first thing to consider is that there are lots of unauthorized devices and many users of pirated apps. This means that in some cases players can’t use the official store, making in-app purchases a challenge. So although there are many users, the reality is that deriving profit is a steep challenge.
As for iPhone – and this is not just limited to China but many Asian countries – there are lots of jailbroken devices out there. This makes our approach through the official market channels much harder. So although there are lots of users out there, strategically it’s not so easy.
Do you think this is likely to change?
I think it’ll change at some point in the future. From a user’s point of view, using unsanctioned apps means you can’t receive updates or official support – there are lots of downsides. Now, if you ask me when the situation is likely to change, I don’t think it’s going to be anytime soon.
Following up on your light casual games, this year you’ve released some mobile social games. What led you to try this?
Our mobile social games run as native apps, but they run on a web-based HTML5 framework. Our old area of expertise on feature phones was browser games. Although browser-based games can’t deliver as much rich content as native apps, they’re extremely easy to maintain. This area has traditionally been one of our strengths. Even so, we figured just porting over feature phone games to smartphone format wouldn’t work, so we’ve tried to make web games that are true to the medium.
Now that you’ve successfully launched these sorts of games, how does this differ from your days doing casual games?
The biggest difference is that the game has to be maintained and operated after its launch, something casual games don’t have. I think this maintenance prevents user flight from the game and helps increase their lifetime value. Making the commitment to take time and maintain the game can increase user engagement. With casual games, once the game is out, it’s up to users to decide whether they like it or not.
Your first social game, Treasure Detective, reached the top sales ranking just one week after its release. What do you think made this launch successful?
First of all, it has a distinctive look. I think this resonated with users and brought in a lot of downloads based on looks alone. We also had lateral inflow from our existing casual games — quite a number of users came from those channels. Also, we implemented the best elements of social games while making sure to incorporate elements for monetizing, which ensured a solid revenue stream.
Dino Dominion started its overseas launch this month. Was this game designed from the beginning with overseas markets in mind?
Indeed it was. During the planning stage, we chose dinosaurs as a globally-recognizable motif. As dinosaur museums and movies like Jurassic Park attest, dinosaurs enjoy worldwide popularity. The game system itself was also built with overseas simulation games in mind.
We also made the game interface more simple than previous offerings. In Japan, users are more accustomed to these kinds of games so, for example, if their points run out they know right away that they need to buy more. That common language isn’t as established overseas, so we took care to guide the player and remind them. We’re also running discount campaigns and other promotions, something we don’t do in Japan, to lower the initial hurdle with regard to in-app-purchases. This is our first social game launched overseas, so we’re still adjusting a range of variables.
Going forward, do you plan to develop all of your games for global release?
We’re going to keep making both games for Japan and games [for] overseas. If we focus solely on global releases, we’ll end up neglecting Japan, which is a big market in its own. In order to maintain our efficiency and future potential, we want to keep it about half-and-half.
Looking back on when you first started with smartphone games a year ago, I’m sure you can see a lot of changes. What’s your take on these?
What we see today is fairly close to what I visualized a year ago when we started with mobile games. The only thing that’s different from what I expected is that in this last year, major console game developers and IT ventures haven’t really joined the field. There are still lots of firms focusing on feature phones as their main outlet. What strikes me as more surprising is that rather than major firms, previously unheard-of startups are the ones making waves. There are several outfits that have made a name for themselves just through releasing smartphone games.
Now, if you ask me what I expect for the next year, the fact is there are a lot of ambiguous areas that could go either way. Will this trend with startups continue, or will traditional gaming houses come back with full force?
How will COLOPL survive amidst that renewed competition?
We’re building a solid position at the moment, but this market moves fast – if you let down your guard, you’ll be left in the dust. We intend to strengthen our existing assets and team, and keep making lots of new games. We’re drafting a plan to release 30 new games a year. Compared to other developers, one of our strengths is that we have expertise in equal parts casual and social games. We’d like to keep refining this strength going forward.
30 titles a year is a serious number! Are there any points you’re emphasizing in your hiring and talent training?
When it comes down to it, the key indicator of results is how often that person has had a crack at the bat – real experiences. Similarly, I think that maturing and developing comes down to how many successful experiences you’ve had. And putting those under your belt means you should swing that bat as much as possible. That’s why we think that releasing lots of games helps our staff mature – having that as an ongoing target and being able to experience it first-hand as part of the culture.
We’ve already released several dozen casual games, so we’ve built up expertise in that area. This means that our ratio of successful game releases is primed to increase further with each release. I’d like to expand our team structure and launch lots of games, promoting an environment that helps our staff keep growing, creating a positive feedback loop.
What aspects do you think are key to launching a hit title in the future?
In Japan, mobile games grew out of browser games on feature phones. Since the graphics and controls were limited, these games demanded seriously on gameplay elements to make a rewarding gaming experience. On smartphones, that same core gameplay demand is there, but the format also brings richer features to the table – so users want a good blend of the two. Whoever hits on clever combinations of gameplay and presentation is sure to have staying power.
Tell us about COLOPL’s future goals.
Well, we want to become number one in both Japan and the world. I think we’re in a position to aim for that, but there are still some things we need to work on. We’d like to reach a point where anyone, anywhere, will associate COLOPL as number one.