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With A Cherry On Top: Namco Networks On Mobile Strategies


December 30, 2005
 

Introduction

On September 29, 2005, two Japanese entertainment giants – both founded in the 1950s and both major forces in the video game industry – merged into one singular global entity; Namco Bandai Holdings. As part of the ensuing corporate restructuring, Namco America's mobile division will re-launch on January 1, under new management and with the new moniker of Namco Networks America, Inc. In this exclusive interview with Gamasutra, Namco Networks Vice President of Sales and Marketing Scott Rubin discusses the division's products, sales trends, and what the future holds.

Namco's Wireless Content Division has had a very successful year in the United States, placing second behind the now EA-acquired Jamdat in both revenue and download percentages, based on a third quarter report from mobile industry tracker Telephia. "It was weird timing," said Rubin of the report. "It was like, 'Hey everybody, Jamdat has the most market share in the industry, as expected, and Namco's number two!' And it's kind of funny because the actual news was that Namco was number two." Rubin is maintaining his role as Vice President of Sales and Marketing through the corporate change. "I guess what has changed, and it's more of a metaphor," he said, "is before we were a division, and now becoming a separate company. Think of it as moving from a home with roommates to having our own house to ourselves so we have our own room to grow."


Namco's mobile Pac-Mania

Japanese Thumbs

Rubin comments of the cultural differences he is seeing in the market: "For the longest time, the phones in Japan have been ahead of America, so they were capable of doing more. I believe that Pac-Man on the phones in Japan actually has the dot-eating sounds, the 'waka-waka,' and the phones here don't have dual-sound output, so we had to choose: 'Do we take away the "waka-waka" to have other sounds?' We still have limitations, but we're getting better."

"We just attended and exhibited at Digital Life in New York a couple months ago, and it was really interesting to watch something like 22,000 people in two days pick up our phones and play the games. People would be like, 'Wait, I can get a game like this on my phone?' That goes with a statistic I've read, somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of people in America know they can download a game to their phones." And not only is consumer awareness growing, says Rubin, but so has appendage usage. "So many people [at Digital Life] were playing Pac-Man with their index finger, and not their thumb! When I told the guys this in Japan, they said, 'That's funny, because we remember at Tokyo Game Show one year, everyone was playing games with their index finger, and a year later everyone just knew to play with their thumbs. So another point I think, is that next year people will play with thumbs."

So what's selling to Namco mobile users in Japan? "Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, these are going to be the games people buy in the next year or two, because we're still so early. Yes, we're putting out Time Crisis and Ridge Racer in 3D, and some people will buy them, but the mass market's still going to be buying the arcade classics, because they're perfect brands for a phone. One of our carriers tells me they love promoting these games because there's no false advertising. Pac-Man is exactly what they expect it to look like. A new football game, for instance, probably won't look like a consumer is expecting, and they'll be disappointed."

"I think the most popular game in Japan was Taiko Drum Master," he continued, "which is huge in the arcades and huge on console and huge on mobile, whereas it's not even close to being our most popular PS2 game in the U.S. It's a totally different market."

Another difference between the American and Japanese mobile markets, says Rubin, is Japan's ability to download new content and updates via a subscription service. "We do sell [Taiko Drum Master] here on Verizon, but one thing they do in Japan is that it's a subscription, and people can download new songs to play in the game, so it stays fresh, and we just can't do that here. There's no way to technically offer people updates of content, so it comes with about 15 songs and that's it. But the popularity difference is less about that, it's more about the difference in consumers and what people know and like."


Original Namco IP Pool Pro Online

 

Namco Network's Four-Part Strategy

Rubin says that Namco Network's strategy for the near future can be divided into four parts, the first of which being the continued growth of their arcade classics line. "We're going to continue rolling those out," said Rubin. "We do try to enhance them from time to time, too. Sprint, for example, has a high scores table. And one day, we will put the 'waka waka' sounds in Pac-Man. Arcade classics are without a question the first part of our strategy, it's probably where the business is over the next year or two."

The second part of their strategy, Rubin says, is to continue to extend and license Namco's extensive line of brands. "We do have a very deep catalogue," he said, "so we're fortunate enough to dig through it and go, 'Hmm, what's next? Oh, Pole Position 2, okay.' So we're expanding, and extending the brands. In Pac-Man Puzzle, for example, you control the pieces of the maze instead of Pac-Man himself."

Namco has also been licensing other brands as of late, including the recent announcement of a game based on Snoopy, from Charles Schulz's Peanuts. "Obviously, that's a very mass market property," said Rubin. "It doesn't matter how old you are, or if you're male or female, chances are you like and know Snoopy, and can associate yourself with him. And we will continue to license brands like that and tie them to mobile games. We're not just slapping a brand on a game that doesn't make sense at all, like Snoopy Golf or something. We're going to be true to the brand and let people feel like they're part of that world. The important part is that people feel that they're part of the world of Peanuts, and that we're not just slapping the brand on a game that doesn't make any sense."

Another of Namco Network's strategies heading into 2006 is to take advantage of the networking capabilities of the cell phone. One of Namco Network's few original properties, Pool Pro Online, is an example of this new direction. "People can play against anyone else in the country head to head," said Rubin. "And on the Sprint version, we added a feature where there's a rudimentary sort of message swapping. There's different lists of messages that you can send back and forth to each other."

And finally, according to Rubin, Namco Network's fourth strategy will be to head into the more advanced, 3D space. "We know it's a niche market today, mainly because the volumes are not there and the phones are so expensive. But even when there's more volumes, yes we think 3D will be okay," said Rubin. The official marketing stance of Namco Networks is that while the hardcore 3D market will grow, the real success is going to be in the continuation of simpler games, such as their classic arcade line. "The 90% or whatever of people who don't know they're capable of downloading a cell phone game won't necessarily be making Time Crisis their first game," he said.


Namco's Pac-Man Bowling

 

Beyond Gaming

Namco Networks, says Rubin, has also looked beyond cell phone games, and is utilizing the market for other cell phone media, such as ring tones and (eventually) wallpapers, but with a unique twist, in the form of an application called Pac-Man's Arcade Corner.

"What we basically said is, 'We're Namco. We're not the first to have a ring tone application, but we're definitely going to have the most fun,'" said Rubin. "So I can say that we definitely do have the most fun ringtone application. When you're previewing songs, the ghosts are on the bottom kind of dancing. And we added a little minigame called Game That Tone. Pac-Man is the host, and you pick a ghost to play as. Pac-Man plays a random ring tone with a list of choices, and you have to try to guess. The main point though is whether you get it right or wrong, it's going to say, 'Hey, do you want to buy this?' It's nothing but a fun way to preview ring tones, because the one thing we noticed when we did our research is, it's boring searching for ring tones!"

How to Pick Up Women

"I read somewhere that females play mobile games more than men in America, but men buy games more than women, which probably means that females are playing demos, and men are actually paying for games more," Rubin said. "And I think that's just an education thing, I think that's just a result of such a small percentage of users even being aware that they can download games. Maybe when the others know they can, without a question I think there will be more opportunity to appeal to that segment.

"With that said, we do have Ms. Pac-Man, which is the most popular game among the female demographic ever. So I think just keeping our focus on casual games and mass market properties isn't necessarily leaving out the female audience at all. So I guess what I'm indirectly telling you that yes, we're very aware of that market, and we want to appeal to everyone."


Time Crisis goes mobile

Five Minutes of Fun

"There's a lot to [the mobile version of] Time Crisis, it's long," said Rubin. "And that is appealing more to the hardcore audience anyway. We think for the next couple years, mobile phones will be a viable platform even for hardcore gamers, even if they're not necessarily playing 'hardcore' games on it. They're carrying their mobile around pretty much at all times, and when they're playing a game they're just looking for five minutes of fun. So, I guess officially, we feel the phone is still all about looking for five minutes of fun. If that changes, we don't see it happening for quite a while."

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