In a business increasingly dominated by entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the explosive mobile gaming market, GungHo Online Entertainment CEO Kazuki Morishita can't help but stand out.
He talks openly about his love of games, particularly action games like Assassin's Creed, and he dresses a bit like a rock star. At his interview, he wears torn jeans and a white t-shirt, and he periodically laughs and slaps his translator on the back.
Not surprisingly, Morishita takes an active hand in the development of GungHo's games, most notably the popular mobile title Puzzle and Dragons, a puzzle game that mixes elements of Bejeweled with first-person roleplaying and monster hunting. Released last year, Puzzle and Dragons has won acclaim from critics for being a well-designed puzzle game. Equally impressive. though. is its well-balanced monetization scheme, which refrains from resorting to paywalls and other tactics designed to get gamers to open their wallets. Morishita laughs off suggestions that a strong monetization scheme was a priority for GungHo though. Their focus was more on the creative.
"Obviously we had meetings and came up with the concept [of monetization], but that wasn't something we focused on," he says. "It's not that we're very good at monetization, I think. The whole concept of people playing the game and monetizing and us doing well as far as how much people are spending… I think it's a great thing, what we've created here. It means a lot of people are having fun and want to continue playing. But that's not really the focus we had. It's just how things naturally turned out. I guess it's mostly luck?"
He adds: "When we were coming up with the core concepts and creating the game, I didn't allow the word 'monetization' to come up in the conversation, because it really does change your way of thinking when you start thinking about monetization."
That's pretty much GungHo's philosophy in a nutshell. A little later, Morishita puts it even more bluntly: "Sales will always follow if the game's good enough."
But though virtual goods aren't necessarily a priority, they are still a big part of the Puzzle and Dragons experience. To wit, much of the roleplaying is built around acquiring better and better monsters. One way to accomplish this easily is by spending magic stones -- Puzzle and Dragons' currency -- on a rare monster slot machine. They are also handy for an instant revival in the midst of a failed dungeon run. Important as they might be though, it's not too hard to build up a stash of magic stones. In the early game especially, such stones are plentiful, able to be earned by clearing dungeons and simply logging in on a daily basis. GungHo also gives them away at events on a regular basis.
"Users are able to enjoy both sides of the game, the free-to-play part and the monetized part, without spending money," Morishita says. "If they're happy with that, they can play without paying at all. That's what we want them to experience in the game. We want them to play the puzzle and have fun with it. We want them to use their free magic stones. Sooner or later they may get a really good monster. That's how you're supposed to enjoy the game."
"When we were coming up with the core concepts and creating the game, I didn't allow the word 'monetization' to come up in the conversation, because it really does change your way of thinking."Kazuki Morishita
Thus far, this approach has worked brilliantly for GungHo. Since its release, it's been downloaded more than 13 million times across iOS and Android platforms in Japan, and enjoys an estimated revenue or between 2 and 3.75 million U.S. dollars. In his report on the game, Japanese analyst Dr. Serkan Toto wrote: "If there is one mobile game out there right now that people in Japan will remember in 10 years, it’s Puzzle and Dragons."
Morishita now hopes to successfully adapt some of that experience for the sequel Puzzle and Dragons Z on the Nintendo 3DS, which will be out in Japan later this year. Where the smartphone version was "kind of the bare minimum," Morishita feels that moving to a more traditional gaming platform is an opportunity to flesh out some of the game's concepts.
The 3DS version will put even more emphasis on Puzzle and Dragons' RPG elements: "The core concept of the puzzle is probably going to stay the same, but we're adding more RPG ideas into the battles. The game will have this thing called the Z Drop, a new feature for the 3DS version. The monsters themselves will also move in the game. I think we're adding a new layer onto whatever ideas we had with the smartphone game. We hope it'll be a completely new experience, although the core concept and idea will be the same."
He adds: "The basic principle of Puzzle and Dragons is that we wanted everyone from grownups to kids to play it and enjoy it. In terms of target audience, smartphones are going to reach an older crowd, while the 3DS is played by more children. The business model obviously has to change depending on the audience, but we wanted to create a game that was enjoyable for everybody. That's why we always had the idea of a 3DS game in our back pocket, so to speak."
But while Morishita believes that consoles are useful for enhancing smartphone games, he also feels the opposite is true. He describes mobile games as a "daily service," where there's potentially something different waiting every time a player logs in. By comparison, Morishita isn't sure that the PS4 and Xbox One will be able to keep up.
"We don't think the service that [Sony and Microsoft] provided recently on current-gen consoles is going to be fast enough in the next generation. Moving forward, smartphone titles and console titles are going to have to meet somewhere. Whether it's the service or the content, that's going to have to meet somewhere in the middle ground, so that they're providing services between each other," he says.
He's not necessarily referring to Smartglass either, though he says it's a "great service." In fact, it goes quite a bit deeper than that. Going forward, he envisions an almost symbiotic relationships between smartphones and games, with each covering up their relative weaknesses and enhancing their strengths.
"Console games are sort of like the main course, your fancy dinner. Smartphones are the snacks you have in between. They both have to be fun -- they have to taste good."Kazuki Morishita
"With touch control, sooner or later we'll hit a ceiling as far as what we can do with just that user interface," he says. "Depending on what kind of innovative ideas we can come up with as far as controls, that's when something new – whether it's a title or a service – is going to pop up. Personally, as a gamer, I really like console games. I want console games to still be successful moving forward. I'd like to see a sort of combined ecosystem between console games and smartphone titles, where it matches each person's lifestyle.
"This goes back to the way we make games as well, but we think console games are sort of like the main course, your fancy dinner. Smartphones are the snacks you have in between. They both have to be fun – they have to taste good. Smartphone titles, though, as you can imagine, it's like a snack because you're munching on it right until you're not. Then you can just close the bag and do something else, read a book or go outside or whatever, and then come back to it and open the bag and start eating it again. But for a main course, the console game, you actually have to make reservations and sit down and be ready to play it or eat it."
Morishita isn't prepared to favor one over another though. As a gamer, he sees the benefit in both approaches. But his feelings about the relationship between console games and smartphone games -- the yin and yang of gaming -- may say a lot about GungHo's direction going forward, especially with Puzzle and Dragons Z on the way.
"It's just a matter of what you prefer at a certain moment, which comes down to your daily lifestyle. There are times when you just want to eat a snack. There are times when you're ready to eat a full-on meal," Morishita says. "We want to be part of that lifestyle with our games."