“Japan is one of the world’s great video game markets …
The standard for interactive entertainment is very high”

The next level

European video game makers aim to crack the Japanese market


Text by Tim Hornyak

Once the Tokyo Game Show 2019 opened its doors at Makuhari Messe last month, it drew more than 260,000 people. And, last year, Japan’s mobile games market — the world’s oldest — ballooned to $13.3 billion, up from $9.3 billion in 2015. Clearly, the domestic video game industry is booming.

So, it’s no wonder that European game makers are trying to carve out a slice of Japan’s pie for themselves. At Makuhari Messe, gamers flocked to check out French gaming giant Ubisoft’s newest offerings: the latest in its Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon series of military shooters, and Watch Dogs: Legion, the third installment in the action-adventure Watch Dogs series. Ubisoft has been in Japan since 1994, eight years after it was established, and has over 30 employees here. While it doesn’t do game development in Tokyo, and only a limited amount in Osaka, one of the company’s most important roles is game localisation. It also actively works to build relationships with gamers.

“Japan is one of the world’s great video game markets, so we have to be present in this market, and we have to do well,” says Steve Miller, managing director at Ubisoft Japan. “The standard for interactive entertainment is very high, so coming up with consistently high levels of games, online services and customer support is a huge challenge.”

The firm’s approach is to reduce the distance between itself and the Japanese gaming community by being present at events like the Tokyo Game Show, holding its annual Ubiday festival in Akihabara and, of course, selling games with Japanese voices and text. That’s a big investment because Japanese localisation is more time-consuming, more expensive and requires more significant rewriting than localising into another Romance language, for instance.    



Esports is another important part of community-building. Competitive gaming in Japan grew to $43.2 million in 2018, 13 times its size the previous year. Sponsored by Austria-based energy drink giant Red Bull, the Red Bull Gaming Sphere Tokyo in Nakano hosted 304 gaming events in its first year and it’s drawing more and more industry players. Bandai Namco, known for titles like Tekken, Soulcalibur and Dragon Ball FighterZ, now supports an event called Fighting Tuesday that brings together over 150 gamers every week.

“We found that the most important thing for the scene in Japan was community around each game title and [players] favourite game genres,” says Yu Matsui, founder of Tokyo-based gaming marketing  agency Groovesync, which looks after the day-to-day operation of the Gaming Sphere. “They needed both tournaments and community. We couldn’t just do one or the other.”

Finding ways to build community isn’t everything, of course. European companies face other challenges in Japan. Since the country has long been a successful originator of games, Japanese gamers tend to have very high expectations, as well as their own particular tastes.

“It’s very, very difficult to get in right now, as the industry is so mature,” says Serkan Toto, CEO of Tokyo gaming consultancy Kantan Games. “I think on mobile, the local, the Chinese and the Korean game companies will share the market between themselves. Korea and China have multiple multi-billion-dollar mobile gaming studios; they win just via their scale.”

Alexander O. Smith, a Japan-based writer for Austrian video game developer Moon Studios, known for its award-winning adventure title Ori and the Blind Forest, says games made in Europe tend to be fundamentally different from those made in Japan.

“Japanese games favour linear, closed worlds while European games often feature open, sandbox-style worlds,” says Smith. “Global competition and mobile games have brought a lot of developers much closer together, however, irrespective of region.”

Toto notes that the local market proved too competitive, too expensive or too different for companies such as Malta-based King.com (known for the colossal hit Candy Crush), Germany’s Goodgame Studios and Wooga, and Finland’s Rovio Entertainment, which produced the cultural phenomenon Angry Birds. They have all exited Japan, but that hasn’t stopped others from making a go of it here.

Wargaming.net was founded in 1998 in Minsk, Belarus, and is now based in Cyprus. It’s known for World of Tanks, a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) featuring highly realistic armoured vehicles from the mid-20th century. It was one of the first free-to-play MMOs of its kind and its success allowed Wargaming to grow beyond the Commonwealth of Independent States to operate globally. It recently announced Caliber, a third-person military tactical shooter developed with Russia’s 1C Company. Like World of Tanks, it’s free to play with optional in-game weapons and gear for sale. 

The firm has been in Japan for seven years. It recently expanded its publishing office and moved from Shibuya to the Yotsuya district. Some of its roughly 50 staff members here — part of 4,600 around the world — work on game localisation, sales and marketing.

“Our unique selling proposition is military accuracy,” says spokesperson Eileen Lorenzo. “We are known as being committed to World War I and World War II history to the point where we employ historians who work with museums around the world to find the blueprints to create the tanks and ships in our games.”

It takes about three months to build the detailed armoured vehicles in the games, and if Wargaming doesn’t get a detail right, players — who include former tank drivers — will notice. These high expectations have helped make the company the dominant force in competitive military games.

Kaz Izumi, Wargaming Japan country manager, says there’s a great advantage to being in Japan with its legacy of companies that founded the concept of gaming as entertainment. Being here also allows Wargaming to really understand its players’ lifestyles.

“We want to renew our focus on what players want,” says Izumi. “The challenge is balancing what players in Japan want in contrast to players overseas, and they all have to play together on an MMO. We want to do more local product fit and keep global access and efficiency, in terms of technology, as clean and fast as possible.”  

The challenge is balancing what players in Japan want in contrast to players overseas”