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In Japan, the lead player in social games is DeNA, with its Mobage mobile network. One of the remarkable facts about the company is that it gets around $12 average revenue per user (ARPU), as compared to much, much smaller numbers in the West.
"I think that people who don't know much about the Japanese market just dismiss those users as crazy, but that's not the case. You really need to research thoroughly at what time monetization becomes the most fun for your users," says Kenji Kobayashi, DeNA's director, and the global executive producer for its social games business.
Gamasutra met with Kobayashi at the company's Tokyo headquarters last month to converse with him about his role overseeing game development for the company, which also includes San Francisco-based subsidiary Ngmoco.
We've heard good things about Kobayashi. Given the swagger in this interview -- and his professed mixed interest in both the fun and business of social games, it's not surprising that he leaves an impression.
A recovering Final Fantasy XI addict with a masters in Aesthetics and Art from the University of Tokyo -- Japan's most prestigious -- he doesn't quite fit the profile of your typical social games executive.
What is your role in the company?
Kenji Kobayashi: Currently, I link together the first and third parties globally -- that management role, on the game development side.
Why does DeNA make first party games?
KK: Well, part of it is that it can become a profitable venture, but more importantly, there's the fact that if we didn't make games on a first-party basis, we wouldn't have a good idea of what third parties would want from us.
For example, we have ngCore, our own game engine, and we make games on that platform partly to test out the functionality of the engine, and work on functions or sections we see as inefficient. I think that process of having the first party work on it first is really important. We then give feedback to the third parties, and have them use it.
Apart from the engine, there is also a lot of knowledge and experience we've learned from deploying this platform, and that's something we also provide to third parties as a form of feedback. It's a large part of the consulting work we do for them, to help them try to share in the proceeds as much as possible.
Is that available to all developers?
KK: Yes. It's not that we give an equivalent amount to each developer, since that wouldn't work from a cost perspective, but it's something that we provide in exchange for working with us.
Between small independent small developers and larger ones, which is more important?
KK: Both are important. It's a fact that the third parties that had the most success on feature phones weren't necessarily the large players.
The first real success stories were really very small, and while they didn't become enormous successes immediately from the start, they became that way through the consulting efforts we later provided, because they had good insight.
On the other hand, you have companies like Koei Tecmo who worked with us from the beginning, and managed to take franchises like Nobunaga's Ambition and turn them into very quick successes. So you can get good results from both sides of the picture.
How important are analytics and data?
KK: It plays the most important role in our competitive abilities. As for how... Well, social games are inherently doing pretty simple things gameplay-wise. You don't see the intense, intricate 3D graphics of Call of Duty or something similar. It's really simple, and in some respects it's more like performing a task.
So what part of that is fun for the gamer? That lies in the very delicate play balance that the games maintain.
One example that often gets brought up is Dragon Quest, a game that's intensely popular in Japan even though it hasn't duplicated that in the U.S. It's a game that everybody knows, and the play balance there is really great. If you changed even a single parameter, though, it'd turn into just this terrible thing, this kusoge. How do you say that in English?
Kusoge? "Shitty game."
KK: Dragon Quest is an RPG, and you run into enemies as you run around the world. If you changed the encounter rate... On the average, you run into an enemy once every seven or eight steps. Try to imagine it if it was once every three steps. It wouldn't be any good as a game -- you couldn't finish it, the tempo would be off, it'd take too much time. The whole balance would collapse, over a single parameter.
Social games share a lot of aspects with that; the balance of the in-game parameters dictates whether it's a comfortable game, or an exciting game, or how fun fighting the enemy is. If you mess this up, it becomes a very uncomfortable game.
Do you try to erase the user's stress with design?
KK: It's not that we erase it; we control and release it. When you think about what games are at the core, they are about delivering stress to the user. It wouldn't be fun if it's something that anyone could finish -- you put up obstacles for the user, and they feel a sense of achievement when they overcome them, which is fun.
That applies to any games -- the ability to do things that you couldn't before, or that other people can't. That feeling is very important, but, for example, if you have something like this -- if the capabilities of the user are here, and if the hurdle is here [not aligned] -- then you can't clear it. Get a bit stronger, though, and you can overcome it and get a sense of achievement. If it's like this [too far apart] though, then you would just give up.
On the other hand, if someone can do this -- if you were level 99 in Dragon Quest and killing slimes, that isn't interesting. The user is always changing, and this applies to the balance of social games. You have to retain a balance such that it's fun to overcome the hurdles that come your way.
That, and lots of users are playing at the same time -- in Kaito Royale [DeNA's Mafia Wars-style game] you can have users just starting alongside people at level 2000. It's extremely difficult to provide a play balance that can satisfy both extremes.
If you have this user and that user, then the solution seems to be to provide a difference balance; that seems to be the best idea. If you do that, though, then at what time do you switch out? You could change the difficulty with each level or each stage, but where do you make the final decision? So the important thing that needs to be spread across the entire game is that users are enjoying what they're doing.