How a Japanese mobile giant is looking west to pursue its ultimate ambition
How mobile-game giant Cygames is looking west to pursue its ultimate ambition
“WE PUT EVERYTHING WE HAD INTO MAKING A GOOD GAME SO WE WERE CONFIDENT IN IT DURING DEVELOPMENT”
There’s no better example of the astonishing rise of Japan’s mobile-game industry in recent years than Tokyo’s Cygames. Set up in 2011 by web services company CyberAgent, the developer originally had a team of just 30 staff. Its debut release, card-battle game
Rage Of Bahamut, was published by mobile giant DeNA (perhaps best-known in the west for its partnership with Nintendo) in early 2012. Today, a little more than five years on, Cygames boasts almost 60 times as many employees. Rage Of
Bahamut is still popular in Japan; likewise, 2014’s free-to-play RPG Granblue Fantasy, which has since spawned an anime series and a film, while last year’s Shadowverse took $100m in revenue in its first six months. It now sponsors a Street
Fighter team including the likes of Daigo Umehara and Eduardo ‘PR Balrog’ Perez, and is working on its first big-budget console game, codenamed
Project Awakening. By any criteria, that’s quite a start, and Cygames’ ambitions are still growing.
Some shrewd opportunism played a part in the company’s rapid ascent. If Rage Of Bahamut’s combination of immediacy and tactical nuance made it irresistible to Japanese players, its extraordinary success was aided by a boom in the free-to-play market that really began in the early 2000s. When Konami’s Dragon Collection launched in 2010 on social networking service Gree, it was considered a fairly modest project, but it quickly began making the kind of money that encouraged the publisher to shift its focus almost exclusively toward mobile – to the chagrin of many a Metal Gear Solid fan. But Dragon
Collection’s unexpected success suddenly meant every publisher wanted a slice of the same pie, while establishing a template for the card battle genre that most were keen to follow.
Rage Of Bahamut
stood out from the crowd of imitators, not least since it managed to translate some of that success overseas. Indeed, it enjoyed a Bryan Adams-like stay at number one in the Top Grossing charts on both Android and iOS, eventually attracting a player base around three million strong. Though the genre was hardly established in the west, Cygames was – rightly, as it turns out – bullish about its chances. “We actually weren’t that surprised by the success of
Rage Of Bahamut,” producer and executive director Yuito Kimura tells us. “We put everything we had into making a good game, so we were pretty confident in it during development. I think the reason people enjoyed it is that while the experience was quick and simple enough to be enjoyed on the move, that simplicity masked considerable depth in the overall game design. As a company we also take great pride in the quality of our artwork and of course the game was a great showcase for that too.” Some of that artwork was revisited in 2016’s
Shadowverse – in part, Kimura explains, to encourage brand recognition. It has, he says, helped western players in particular realise the connection between the two games. But in the meantime, Cygames had turned its attention to a different genre. Granblue Fantasy was conceived as an attempt to bring a traditional turn-based RPG to smartphones – and the developer chose two big names to give the game the prestige feel of a classic-era JRPG. Final Fantasy legend Nobuo Uematsu contributed more than half of the themes for the game’s soundtrack, while Hideo Minaba, art director for FFVI and XII, among others, was responsible for a wide range of character designs. Its gacha system, whereby players buy crystals for a random character drop, naturally attracted some controversy – Cygames was quick to head off complaints about one rare character’s drop rate by offering refunds – but it’s undoubtedly been a factor in its ongoing success. By its two-year anniversary, it had surpassed 10 million downloads; a further 18 months on, it’s still huge, with story and character updates keeping players hooked, and an anime series helping to widen its reach. “Obviously it was developed by some names associated with some of the very best Japanese RPGs, but we think we’ve done a pretty good job of adapting and adding to that experience so that it can be enjoyed on mobile phones,” Kimura says modestly.
With Rage Of Bahamut retaining a strong following, expectations were high for Cygames’ next release, and Shadowverse didn’t disappoint: within a month it was the most popular collectible card game on mobile platforms. “When we set out to make Shadowverse, the core concept behind it was evolution,” Kimura says. “We really wanted to take what we had done with Rage Of
Bahamut and evolve it for smartphones.” To which end, it recruited some of the world’s best Magic:
The Gathering and Hearthstone players to assist with the game design. This wasn’t simply about making a more western-friendly style of card game, but one with the kind of depth to keep an audience entertained for some time. The studio’s plans for Shadowverse are certainly ambitious. “We want to keep the community going for ten years or more, which is one of the reasons that we continue to add to it,” Kimura adds.
Already it’s introducing new expansions every three months, with regular updates for story content, and, where necessary, balance adjustments to maintain the equilibrium of the metagame. In such a competitive market, regular updates make sense as a way to retain an audience, but Kimura says there’s more to it than that. “Updates are also necessary to maintain the strategic depth of the game. Every new card expansion introduces new deck types, new artwork, new story elements and we also run new tournaments around each expansion.” It is, he concedes, a challenge to keep pace with users’ hunger for fresh content. “But we’re proud of
our success in doing so: as mentioned earlier, many of our games have been around for several years now, but on top of that we’re also busy developing new titles, and expanding our game worlds across manga, anime, and so on.”
While Shadowverse shares some similarities with Hearthstone, it’s a game where random elements noticeably feature less heavily. Is that a cultural consideration, we wonder – would Japanese players be less accepting of such factors than westerners? “We do make an effort to keep RNG low in Shadowverse, but I don’t think that is a cultural difference,” Kimura says. “It’s more that by keeping RNG low and aiming for a very skillbased game we hope to sustain the Shadowverse community in the long term.
“There is always luck involved in any card game, and it is impossible to eliminate it completely,” he continues. “But we are very proactive about looking at data to keep the game balanced. And it is not just in terms of the matches themselves – we also hope to give players the deck-building tools that they need to minimise RNG in the metagame too – skilful players can build decks that minimise the impact of luck, or they might even decide to gamble by, for example, building a fast-paced aggro deck and taking a calculated bet that their opponent won’t be playing a control deck built to counter it.”
In a territory
that has been relatively slow to embrace esports, this attention to fine detail is just one factor in Shadowverse’s exceptional success in the field. For Cygames, it was a natural next step from “the concept of evolution that inspired the game”, as Kimura puts it, and it’s clear esports is central to the studio’s ten-year plan. “In Japan we already have an ecosystem that supports everything from small-scale tournaments to large-scale offline tournaments, and while we are still building that in the west we recently announced prizing support for community tournaments.” He hopes this year’s World Grand Prix, in which the best Shadowverse players will compete for a prize pool of $120,000, will attract a global audience to help broaden its appeal overseas. Its popularity at home can be summed up by this year’s Shadowverse Festival, which occupied half the floor space that the entire Tokyo Game Show used at the same venue.
By comparison, Cygames’ attempts to match its home-grown success overseas have had mixed results. Despite Rage Of Bahamut’s encouraging early sales, DeNA turned off the servers for the international version in early 2016. “It’s always a difficult decision to shut down a game, especially one that has such loyal fans as Rage Of
Bahamut,” Kimura says. “But we hope that we can keep providing great content for those fans, whether it is through other media like manga and anime, or new games like Shadowverse.” Regardless, it’s clear it isn’t about to give up on the western market anytime soon: Shadowverse keeps popping up at major events, including E3 and PAX West, and its sponsorship of three of the world’s best-known fighting game players, forming a team called Cygames Beast, is not only demonstrating its commitment to esports, but helping raise its global profile. That the company’s logo will appear on the shirts of Serie A champions Juventus certainly won’t do any harm in that regard, either.
On the development front, Cygames has plenty more irons in the fire. The most immediately exciting of these is Project Awakening, its first large-format console game. Having achieved considerable success in the mobile space, it makes sense for Cygames to look to replicate that elsewhere, though given the predominance of smartphones in Japan – and the expense of making console games – its timing could be seen as unusual. Not as far as Kimura’s concerned. “We want to create great content for people on whatever platform makes sense for that content,” he says, “Whether that be consoles, manga, anime, or mobile phones. Obviously consoles allow us to create a very different type of experience.” It’s not the only console project in the offing, either: VR game Zone Of The Enders:
The 2nd Runner MARS earned a predictably enthusiastic reaction during its showcase at this year’s Tokyo Games Show.
Though hardly the first Japanese studio to seek to recreate its strong domestic performance abroad, Cygames seems better equipped than most to do so. Whether it’s via expansions into esports, sponsorship deals, a more aggressive western push for Shadowverse, or its upcoming console releases, it seems this enterprising developer will soon be a name on everyone’s lips. “It’s not so much that we are inspired by the success of other Japanese companies overseas,” Kimura says. “It is more that we are inspired by the desire for as many people as possible to experience our content and to enjoy it.” The company vision, he says, is to make ‘the best in entertainment’. It seems Cygames is well on its way to achieving that goal.
“THERE IS ALWAYS LUCK INVOLVED IN ANY CARD GAME, AND IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO ELIMINATE THAT COMPLETELY”
Producer Yuito Kimura is the man behind Cygames’ three big hits: RageOfBahamut, GranblueFantasy and Shadowverse
Rage Of Bahamut’s early success – it topped the US Google Play revenue charts for 16 weeks – convinced DeNA to purchase a 24 per cent stake in Cygames worth more than $90m. Now it has several subsidiaries of its own, including art and animation studios