Back in 2011 the Tokyo Game Show was GREE’s coming out party, with the company planting a very big footprint in the gaming world – quite literally too, occupying about 10% of the entire floorspace. That exhibition was interpreted by some to be more political than practical, a show of power from a company poised to take over the world via smartphones.
Skip to 2013 and we find that GREE, while still a mobile powerhouse, has had to scale things back. GREE’s offices in China and the UK have been shut down, and in the US and Canada the platform division has been shrunk, with staff being integrated back to Japan. Sony and Microsoft are the biggest exhibitors this year, spotlighting new consoles, and for mobile, the new kid on the block is GungHo Online Entertainment, showcasing Puzzle & Dragons in a coming out party reminiscent of GREE two years back.
Tokyo Game Show is a very important opportunity for us to interact with our players.
Nevertheless, GREE was still out in full force at the Tokyo Game Show this year, with the same humongous booth that they’ve had for the past three years. I wondered, after what was a rough year for GREE, why it was necessary for GREE to have such a huge display. I suppose once you make a booth of that magnitude, you may as well keep using it. It’s hardly something you can sell on eBay or Craigslist, is it? But I spoke to GREE senior vice president of social gaming, Eiji Araki, about this, asking why the company still comes to TGS in full force:
The Tokyo Game Show is a very important opportunity for us to interact with our players. In the mobile internet industry it is very difficult to interact with real players to see how they play our games, to see how they are enjoying the games. There are lots of staff here, game producers standing besides the titles they created.
This last point took me by surprise, as I had thought that perhaps the staff at the booth were just temporary part-timers. Like most companies at TGS, GREE had its share of models manning their floor space, but it’s encouraging to see that their game producers are on site to speak and interact with consumers.
Araki points out that the focus of their booth is primarily on existing titles rather than new ones. But one fresh change for the GREE booth this year was a dedicated section for Pokelabo, the Japan-based studio which GREE acquired back in October of 2012 for 13.8 billion yen.
Almost a year after that acquisition, Araki tells me that the Pokelabo studio still operates separately for the most part, but that there is a mixed team where Pokelabo and GREE work on collaborative titles. But letting Pokelabo do what they do best is somewhat indicative of GREE’s new focus going forward, distilling their business to do what they collectively do best. Araki explains:
That’s why we downsized some studios, and these studios are still doing really well, focusing on what they are good at. So we are creating lots of new games in US studio for US market, and in the Japan studio for Japan market. At this moment, we are not creating games from Japan for abroad, or from US to Japan, It would be better for our studios to focus on what they are good at, focus on the markets they know.
This applies to San Francisco-based Funzio as well, the other big GREE purchase in 2012, as Araki notes that their US studio is not only stable but actually growing. The Funzio-developed title Knights & Dragons has been doing pretty well of late in the US market, which has been ranking well on the iOS top grossing charts in the US thanks to continued in-game events. Crime City is another Funzio title that has fared well in many markets.
However, Araki admits that they will
stop cut back on developing card battle games for the US market however, as that genre is “not huge,” and already pretty saturated. Of course, the card battle genre is still a massive market in Japan, and GREE will continue to develop such titles at home .
GREE’s refocus in the coming year will be largely about increasing their hit-ratio, says Araki in true gamer lingo. The company has yet to produce the big runaway hit recently that we might have expected from them.
And now, with more competition at home and abroad, GREE still has a significant challenge ahead if it wants to win the attention of the world’s mobile gamers.
A little more on this point. GREE’s NFL Elite card battle game (which I’ve been a big fan of, as I wrote in my review here) is now doing well, now that the 2013 NFL season has kicked off. Since it was rebranded from NFL Shuffle back on September 3rd, the game has been ranked in or near the top ten for the iOS US market. The other sports card battle game, MLB Full Deck, has not been as fortunate, Araki noting that we have “almost stopped” it. ↩