Stu­dio Pro­file

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


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.


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

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