Dragon quest


When Kazuki Mor­ishita set up GungHo On­line En­ter­tain­ment, he had the fore­sight to sup­ple­ment his early for­ays into de­vel­op­ment by host­ing the Ja­panese servers for South Korean MMORPG Rag­narok On­line. It paid off: that game now has 40 mil­lion users world­wide, and GungHo ac­quired its de­vel­oper, Grav­ity, in 2008.

But GungHo would dwarf that suc­cess upon the re­lease of Puzzle & Drag­ons in Fe­bru­ary 2012. It’s been the top-gross­ing app in the Ja­panese App Store con­sis­tently since its re­lease, with peak rev­enue re­port­edly reach­ing around $3.75 mil­lion per day.

Now with al­most 1,000 staff and a mar­ket value in ex­cess of $10 bil­lion – higher than Ja­pan Air­lines – GungHo’s sub­sidiaries in­clude Grasshop­per Man­u­fac­ture ( Killer Is Dead), Ac­quire ( Rain) and Game Arts ( Dokuro). And yet, as Mor­ishita ex­plains dur­ing our visit to GungHo’s Tokyo HQ, the fo­cus is not on busi­ness but on evolv­ing Puzzle & Drag­ons and mak­ing new ti­tles.

GungHo pres­i­dent Kazuki Mor­ishita on Ja­pan’s big­gest game and the joys of de­vel­op­ment

GungHo has been around for years, but Puzzle & Drag­ons cat­a­pulted you into the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. How did you come up with the idea? At the time, so­cial games were be­com­ing pop­u­lar. The term ‘so­cial game’ means some­thing dif­fer­ent in Ja­pan; they’re games like card bat­tlers, where you buy ex­tra cards and the stronger ones give you a bet­ter chance of win­ning. Ev­ery­one was mak­ing games like that, and all they changed was the char­ac­ter im­ages on the cards. I thought that was not a good way to make games, and I wanted to make some­thing that re­quired some skill on the part of the player: a card game with ac­tion el­e­ments. Puzzle & Drag­ons has had 23 mil­lion down­loads in just two years. How do you ex­plain the game’s suc­cess? The puzzle el­e­ments ap­peal to ca­sual users, but the game has a deeper sys­tem that ap­peals to more ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers as well, like evolv­ing your mon­sters and so on. I knew that for a lot of people to play the game, it had to be pop­u­lar with women, and I had this idea that hold­ing the smart­phone hor­i­zon­tally would not ap­peal to them. Hold­ing it up­right with just one hand is more stylish. So we changed the game from its orig­i­nal hor­i­zon­tal ori­en­ta­tion to a ver­ti­cal lay­out that you can con­trol with just one thumb. That was the ma­jor turn­ing point.

“Mak­ing games is the ul­ti­mate hap­pi­ness… So I think I’d be OK even if I had to start from scratch”

Is that a for­mula you can ap­ply to fu­ture games? No. With hind­sight, I could come up with a mil­lion rea­sons for the suc­cess of Puzzle & Drag­ons, but I don’t think I could ap­ply them to a fu­ture project. For one thing, that game is al­ready in the past; it worked well at that par­tic­u­lar time, but if we’d re­leased it to­day, it might not have. Play­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions change so fast… As pres­i­dent and CEO, are you closely in­volved with the busi­ness side, or do you fo­cus mostly on de­vel­op­ment? I only work on de­vel­op­ment. Mak­ing games is much more fun than busi­ness. And be­sides, with­out good games, we’d have no busi­ness. It’s bet­ter to leave the busi­ness deal­ings to the pro­fes­sion­als, like our CFO. Why did you buy Grasshop­per Man­u­fac­ture last year? Well, the sim­ple an­swer is that I met Suda 51. That’s all. At first I had no in­ten­tion of buy­ing the com­pany; I thought they were bet­ter off be­ing in­de­pen­dent. But we would go out drink­ing to­gether, and we would talk about it, and some­how the idea rubbed off on me. Suda can do things that I can’t. When I make a game, I start off by think­ing about the me­chan­ics, but Suda starts by think­ing about the game world and the flavour of the game. We com­ple­ment each other. Why has GungHo been so ag­gres­sive about ex­pan­sion, par­tic­u­larly over­seas? Well, the wider the po­ten­tial au­di­ence the bet­ter, right? I want to find an au­di­ence wher­ever there are people. It’s less about find­ing suc­cess and more about find­ing people who en­joy the games we make. Of course, if the games are pop­u­lar, then that will gen­er­ate rev­enue we can put back into mak­ing more games. There are chal­lenges to do­ing busi­ness abroad: the rest of Asia in par­tic­u­lar does things very dif­fer­ently from Ja­pan – es­pe­cially South Korea – but ev­ery coun­try has its own quirks. What would you do if GungHo was closed to­mor­row and you had to start again from scratch? I’d have to start a game com­pany again. Mak­ing games is the ul­ti­mate hap­pi­ness – to me, any­way. So I think I’d be OK even if I had to start from scratch. Mind you, if the com­pany did go out of busi­ness, I’d cer­tainly be un­happy!

Kazuki Mor­ishita is pres­i­dent and CEO of GungHo On­line En­ter­tain­ment

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