Transmedia-To-Go: Licensed Mobile Gaming in Japan
Transmedia-To-Go: Licensed Mobile Gaming in Japan
Abstract and Keywords
Bryan Hikari Hartzheim examines how a growing number of top-grossing and popular mobile game titles are extensions of larger media franchises that also stem from other media properties. He posits the licensed mobile game as a flexible, promotional paratext within Japanese video game and anime transmedia franchises such as Dragon Ball and Final Fantasy. As such, his chapter considers the increasingly important role of ancillary, low-budget texts and how they can quickly adapt to changing market conditions to effectively monetize audience interests.
A growing number of top-grossing and popular mobile game titles are extensions of larger media franchises that also stem from other media properties. These mobile games are minor excursions for most fans of the original franchise, often either developed well after the conclusion of the media from which the franchise initially developed or as a supplementary experience to more traditional media experiences based in film or television. And yet, these same companies which traffic in traditional media are valuing the mobile game as a lucrative and flexible “paratext,” to borrow Jonathan Gray’s term to describe the increasingly important ancillary texts of multimedia franchises today that include licensed comic books, glossy websites, and various forms of digital games (2010: 6). While mobile games developed from these franchise licenses initially began as recycled derivative products, the highest-grossing mobile games now have bolder production values from development studios, increasing input and involvement from the parent franchises, and, most importantly, the ability to adapt to accommodate changing fan interests and trends over time.
This chapter will look at the mobile game as a key paratext within the transmedia franchise. Licensed video games have a long history of critical and fan disfavor, and largely for good reason: they are often rushed products that have little bearing on the larger franchise itself (Elkington, 2009). Mobile games are similarly ancillary to the core texts, operating on development budgets that are a fraction of those in console gaming. This chapter will argue, however, that, despite their more limited interfaces and simpler gameplay compared with (p.234) console-based licensed games, these mobile licensed games ironically offer deeper, more sustainable experiences that more closely integrate with their host franchise. While ostensibly superfluous to experiencing the franchise’s narrative, franchise mobile games have become adept at repackaging the core assets of the franchise—its characters and scenarios—and presenting them in increasingly clever and nefarious ways.
As objects of critical analysis, mobile games were initially compared with other social/casual games for their exploitative psychological effects (Evans, 2016), coercive monetization tactics (Shokrizade, 2013), and repetitive or unbalanced gameplay (Alexander, 2013; Margalit, 2015). Such analyses tended to focus on the first waves of mobile games to appear on cell phones and smartphones in 2009. Ian Bogost’s game Cow Clicker, and the resulting discussion of the game’s deliberately shameless grinding gameplay, exemplify the discourse from this period (Tanz, 2011). In recent years, more varied analyses have emerged that interrogate mobile games for their formal, theoretical, and sociocultural properties as games rather than as exploitative services (Wilson and Leaver, 2016). This chapter adds to this expanding range of analyses, calling particular attention to licensed mobile games that extend or renew the life of the franchise through game mechanics that “affectively amplify” (Ash, 2012) core elements of the larger franchise itself. The analysis focuses particularly on licensed mobile games from Japan because Japan has not only the largest mobile games market in the world, but also far more licensed titles coming from its comics and animation industries than any other country. Japan’s mobile games act as the ideal ancillary products to the bottom line of larger media franchises, and their aims for media convergence, in that they not only advertise the franchise’s core texts to various audiences, but also actively prod continuous player consumption in both the game and the larger franchise’s core texts.
A Case for the Paratext
The practice of creating video games connected to franchises in other media formats, such as film and television, has a long and varied history. Synergy strategies, where games use licenses from other media, has the effect of reducing risk by accounting for a given number of ensured sales from a preestablished consumer base of fans, be they followers of a sports league (NBA 2K, Madden), film series (Star Wars, The Matrix), or television show (The Simpsons, LOST). As Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Rutherford, and Greig de Peuter put it, “By capitalizing on narratives drawn from popular culture, marketing costs are drastically reduced because the expensive marketing work—building awareness—is already done” (2003: 226). Initially, licensors and developers favored such deals because they helped them get publishing contracts and increased the (p.235) chance of the game turning a profit in a crowded market through name recognition among more casual players (Kerr, 2005: 72).
As such games have increased in prominence in popular culture, so has the study of such games as prominent examples of ancillary media within the larger media franchise. Ancillary licensed media typically were regarded as little more than tools to generate revenue based on other media texts. Such strategies could involve, for example, merchandise using visual references from a “high concept” film, (Wyatt, 1994) such as Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993), or television series, such as the Sunbow–Marvel–Hasbro collaboratively produced My Little Pony (1986–87) or the various animated television specials created to hawk Kenner toys for Strawberry Shortcake (1980–85) (Englehardt, 1986). In Japan, as well, television shows were subjected to scrutiny for combining compelling and violent narratives for the purposes of selling an annually changing lineup of toy merchandise (Hori, 1996: 122–4). Video games which relied on such interdependence of media industries were likewise viewed critically in no small part because they could “lead to a reduction in the overall diversity of texts and the scope for radical innovation to emerge” (Kerr, 2005: 72).
Within the last dozen years, scholars have increasingly questioned this critical approach by examining ancillary media as additive texts that contribute their own unique narratives and experiences to the franchise. These media “paratexts,” as Gray has observed, not only add to texts; rather, they “create texts, they manage them, and they fill them with many of the meanings we associate with them” (2010: 6). The paratexts of a franchise often serve vital functions for the film or television shows from which they derive, whether filling in narrative gaps or creatively building upon the franchise’s world. In western discourse, this multimedia and platform storytelling is often characterized as “transmedia,” a phrase that Henry Jenkins popularized (2006: 97), whereas in Japan such media convergence has typically been referred to as the “media mix,” a term that emerged through the marketing strategies of Kadokawa Entertainment (Kawasaki and Iikura, 2009: 18). As Marc Steinberg notes, the term “media mix” has been the most widely used industrial term since the 1980s to describe “the phenomenon of transmedia communication, specifically, the development of a particular media franchise across multiple media types, over a particular period of time” (2012: 135).1 Media-mix franchises revolving around transforming superheroes, mechanical robots, and magical girls have been dissected for their abilities to use multiple media—films, television shows, special effects, animation, toys, figures—to involve audiences in large transmedia experiences (Allison, 2006; Yokohama, 2006; Hartzheim, 2016).
Increasingly, video games have become an integral aspect of this multimedia experience. In describing the narrative strategy of “transmedia storytelling” in The Matrix franchise (The Wachowskis, 1999–2003), Jenkins describes the video game Enter the Matrix (Atari, 2003) as a key component in more heavily investing audiences in the film franchise: “The consumer who has played the game or watched the [animated] shorts will get a different experience of the movies than one who has simply had the theatrical film experience. The whole is worth more than the sum of the parts” (2006: 104). Hollywood films have perhaps the most conspicuous imprint on licensed games, from the notoriously poorly designed E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Atari, 1982) to the more recent high-profile offerings of fantasy and sci-fi franchises adapted from best-selling novels and comic books such as Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014) and LEGO Marvel’s Avengers (2016), based respectively on the Lord of the Rings and Marvel franchises. Such games simultaneously allow players interactively to explore the worlds and characters of the films while aping the audiovisual design of the films themselves. As Robert Alan Brookey argues, games that strongly attempt to connect the player to the films are “designed rhetorically to extend the experience of a film and augment the practices of the film franchise” (2010, 28). Brookey’s examples of Tolkien fantasyscapes and Marvel superhero side-stories suggest that the most successful of these licensed games fluidly connect the content in the games to the films through synergistic intertextual strategies such as opening credits, cutscenes, trailers and making-of videos, character designs and voices, and other bonuses appealing to fans of the original franchises. Thus, video games can be key paratexts in shaping how we ultimately view and consume licensed franchises. In Gray’s words, “a videogame adaptation—or at least a good one—is not merely an attempt to rehash or to copy; it moves the story, its world, and its audience to a different narrative mode, wherein the audience can step into (parts of) the storyworld” (2014: 192).
Gray also notes that such games are constrained in the scope of the storyworld they can construct precisely because of licensing obstacles, such as limited access to scripts or filmmakers, or release schedules forced to meet the timing of the film or television series’ release. In his discursive analysis on the compiling site Metacritic of reviews of games licensed from television shows, Gray says that, while short development periods might sabotage these games, critics have attacked their lack of immersion and their “limits of temporality, most notably endless repetition” (2014: 64). In this estimation, the games failed to capture the pace, timing, and viewing schedule associated with the television shows on which they were based. Trevor Elkington echoes these conclusions in his own analysis of reviews of games based on film (p.237) and television licenses, finding that licensed games routinely scored lower on Metacritic, with critics lambasting the games for shallow gameplay, mediocre graphics, limited emergent or creative gameplay options, and an overreliance on cutscenes (2009: 217–19). Such gripes are echoed in studies of games based on popular television series such as the LOST and 24 franchises. M. J. Clarke observes that “tentpole TV” games contain complex scripts cowritten by screenwriters from the shows, as well as a “sheer amount of visual fidelity between the television series and the games themselves” (2012: 108). But these games must also operate under severe constraints, from rushed development cycles to “dead-end continuity” (where games have little narrative bearing on the television series) that limit the narrative and gameplay elements to side-missions and minigames. These critical comments on the impotence of game narratives with respect to their licensed tentpoles is evident in the perception of prestigious film franchises as well, from the continuity issues that plagued the James Bond-based 007 Legends (Activision, 2012) (Fleury, 2014) to the marginal stories and characters presented in the series of games based around the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Video games are, in many ways, a more involved paratext within Japanese media franchises. Japan’s arguably most popular intellectual property (IP), Pokémon (1996–present), derived from a video game to become an international transmedia juggernaut, and many of the country’s most popular franchises are media mixes that involve video games, either as their “mothership” or as an ancillary experience that frequently supplements anime and manga texts. According to Tsugata Nobuyuki, the English-language term “anime business” began to appear in media discourse in the 1990s to describe the convergence between the anime, manga, and gaming industries (2004: 198). English-language scholars have also pointed out that Japan’s gaming industry benefits from, and is inextricably tied to, its anime and manga industries (Kohler, 2004; Allison, 2006). As Jennifer deWinter puts it, “In its simplest form, this means that properties are being adapted from one medium to another. In other cases, they are used in a type of serial narrative that ends in one medium and picks up in another” (2015: 320). This means that games occupy a position within Japan’s cultural industries—and within its transmedia franchises—that has grown increasingly as important as older and more prominent visual media industries, such as film, television, animation, and comics, and their specific importance within such franchises often depends on the context of the franchise itself. Thus, some games, such as Pokémon or the Square Enix-produced role-playing game series Final Fantasy (1987–present), can spawn mainstream media-mix franchises for a broad audience range, while visual novel games, such as Type-Moon’s Fate: Stay Night (2004–present) or 07th Expansion’s Higurashi When They Cry (2002–14), explore complex multimedia narratives for older niche fans. Within franchises from which games (p.238) are adapted, spin-offs can explore segments of a manga or anime franchise in greater detail, such as the various games based around the adventure series One Piece (Toei Animation, 1997–present), while still others can be derivative games that depict alternative realities or dimensions of the original property and its characters, such as the visual novel series Kanon (Key, 1999–2007). The financial importance of gaming content has led to increased involvement of video-game developers and publishers among the committees that handle media-mix projects; by 1998, Tokyo TV ratings reported that 60 percent of their sixty anime broadcasts were sponsored in part by games companies and audiovisual manufacturers (Clements, 2013: 194).
Nearly all licensed games around the world have historically been adapted to PC, console, or handheld devices that were mostly dedicated gaming hardware. Mobile social video games have a much shorter commercial lifespan of around a decade, though they really began to see exponential growth, particularly in Japan, in 2009 (CESA, 2012). This year also coincided with the iOS introduction of Rovio’s Angry Birds, which went on to generate over one billion downloads in its first three years (Dredge, 2012). Angry Birds also fits firmly in the developing market of the “casual game,” or what Jesper Juul has described as games made for a broad audience. Signaling a wider social shift of gamers towards the mobile device and away from PC and consoles like Nintendo Wii, Angry Birds was the prototypical casual mobile game for smartphone users: set in a pleasant fictional world; easy to understand, intuitive game design; frequently interruptible gameplay sessions; lenient punishments and loud/colorful rewards (Juul, 2009: 50). Such games are ideal for the between moments—waiting in a line or while riding a train—of an active lifestyle. Indeed, scholars have indicated in survey studies that players of casual mobile games frequently did so out of boredom, even during domestic tasks such as cooking (Hjorth and Richardson, 2014). This type of play is especially familiar to Japanese keitai cell phone use, which Kenichi Fujimoto has described as “nagara mobilism,” where “nagara (while-doing-something-else) refers to the state of multitasking separately, in parallel, and asynchronously while walking, moving, or playing” (80). As these scholars would argue, casual games like Angry Birds are ideal for mobile devices and the type of players who play them.
Angry Birds, like Tetris and Snake before it, was heavily responsible for introducing gaming on a new mobile device, in this case Apple’s iPhone and its App Store as a platform for cheap and simple games. A large part of Angry Birds’s appeal was its hub of media and social networking convergence; Apple connected players via its Game Center social network, getting players interested in each other’s in-game achievements in ways similar to status updates (p.239) on Facebook or photo updates on Instagram. Moreover, the game’s lack of a complex narrative, appealing character designs, and relative simplicity allowed it to be “easily adapted, remixed, and inhabited by others” (Leaver, 2016: 219). Because of this convergence across multiple social networks and contexts, Angry Birds became a viral transmedia franchise in its own right, spawning multiplatform sequels, licensed tie-ins with film franchises, political internet memes, cartoon fan remixes, and even its own blockbuster CG-animated feature film.
Though Angry Birds has come to signify mobile gaming in popular culture, however, there are few other examples of such large transmedia successes. More importantly, it represents a mode of mobile gaming—the single-transaction download—far less common among the top downloaded and grossing mobile games today. Most games in the App Store or Google Play platforms now operate on a free-to-play (F2P) model where the game is free to download and play, but requires players to purchase in-game currency depending on a variety of factors that can extend or augment the playing experience. As Elizabeth Evans diagrams, early F2P mobile games exhibit several similar characteristics: they are often some form of strategy-based simulation; contain a never-ending game world; have short, frequent playing times; and incorporate aspects of sociability as core experiential aspects (2015: 4–7).
A variation of Evans’s format applies to one of the highest-grossing mobile games in Japan, Puzzle and Dragons (Gung Ho, 2012). The game revolves around puzzles, rather than strategy simulation, where the play of tile-matching determines the player’s strength when attacking various monsters. The game’s continuous addition of puzzles, monsters, and stages, however, means that play is ostensibly never ending. Each round of play can be as short as a couple of minutes, though this can last longer on more advanced stages. Initially, there was not much sociality involved in single-player mode, though Gung Ho introduced a multiplayer mode in 2015 to increase its social aspect. In-game currency, however, has a large role within the game. Where most mobile games at the time scattered purchases around the game, Puzzle and Dragons was unique in that it required players to acquire “Magic Stones” for all transactions (Suzuya, 2014: 20–1). Thus, players had to purchase Magic Stones if they wanted to replenish their health or stamina without enduring a waiting period. By simplifying the transaction system, players knew that, if they wanted a premium experience of more opportunities for longer play and better rewards, they would have to pay for a single in-game currency. Like Angry Birds, Puzzle and Dragons’s popularity led to its own multimedia experience with adaptations on the Nintendo DS, an arcade version developed by Square Enix, merchandise based on licensed characters, and multiple collaborative cross-promotional tie-ins with other media franchises, including Angry Birds (Grubb, 2013). These efforts resulted in over sixty million downloads at the (p.240) time of writing, more than any other Japanese mobile game, and over $60 million in revenue per month.2
The popularity of the franchise—and mobile gaming in general—has inspired many other IP holders to enter the industry in search of similar revenuegenerating hits that can prolong or renew the life of transmedia brands. Evans calls such IP-based freemium games “brand components” that amplify and support the value of the IP’s brand (2016: 8). The mobile games Snoopy Street Fair (Beeline Interactive, 2011) and The Simpsons: Tapped Out (Electronic Arts, 2012), for example, remediate the visual and auditory pleasures of the animated franchises on which they are based, incorporating the design and even sense of humor of the original shows into the world of the game. The games also tap back into the series’ intermediality, getting players interested in the franchise’s characters, animation, and comics. Snoopy Street Fair includes a mission where players find pieces of Peanuts comic strips, with in-game links to purchase the Charles M. Schulz-authored comic collections, while The Simpsons: Tapped Out encourages players to watch specific episodes of The Simpsons television series. The games are limited in their incorporation of their respective franchise’s other transmedia aspects, such as narrative and worldbuilding, largely because those franchises are episodic in nature and are either no longer serialized (Peanuts) or have become so entrenched in society that they have little flexibility with their narratives and worlds (The Simpsons).
The Role of Mobile Gaming in Japanese Transmedia
Despite the limitations of the above licensed mobile games, developers have become aware of the potential for mobile games to fit into larger transmedia narratives and worlds. Large game studios moved away from licensed console video games in the late 2000s in response to decreasing return on their significant investment, largely because of audiences becoming aware of the insufficient quality behind these games, as well as the rise and name recognition behind genuine game-based franchises such as Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar Games, 1997–present) and Call of Duty (Activision, 2003–present). But, in recent years, developers have returned to the movie-game business largely through adapting licensed social and mobile games. Here, the smaller budgets and shortened development time do not work against game design in the same detrimental ways as the console business (Kohler, 2013).
Building on Evans’s initial observations of licensed mobile games, this chapter looks at the role that Japanese mobile licensed games play within their transmedia franchises, particularly with regard to the type of experiences that these games provide for players. Japan’s development of arcade and console gaming has given way, in terms of sheer labor and revenue, to the mobile sector. While the country has had a long history of developing for on-the-go (p.241) platforms—particularly within the Nintendo chronology of Game & Watch, Game Boy, the 3DS, and the console/handheld hybrid Switch—most of these platforms used business and gameplay models based on their console brethren.3 The mobile social gaming arena, itself a development of browser-based gaming that became popular on desktops and Japanese keitai cell-phone culture, has grown with the widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets. From 2009, mobile gaming has experienced massive annual growth to the point that, in 2013, more developers had worked on mobile social games than on consoles for the first time in the history of the Japanese games industry (CESA, 2014). In the same year, there were more smartphone mobile gamers (28.61 million) than console gamers (27.83 million) in Japan, with revenues more than triple that of console games (Shin, 2015). With every smartphone sold to a first-time user, the player pool increases exponentially, and this increase in user base also means an increase in games developed for the App Store and Google Play. By 2018, the App Store alone featured over 800,000 game apps (Anonymous, 2018a). The vast majority of these games never find a player, but a few singlehandedly have accumulated fortunes for their companies, such as Colopl’s White Cat Project (2013) and mixi’s Monster Strike (2013), the latter of which brought in over $1.3 billion in sales in 2017 to rank as the third highest-grossing game in the world (Cowley, 2018). All of these titles are original IP controlled by the studios that developed them. They have cultivated user bases using deep and clever game engines while also incorporating many different monetization strategies.
As developers in Japan seek to hedge their bets in an increasingly saturated mobile games market, however, many have sought partnerships with other studios in an industry primed for consolidation (Toto, 2016). This has also led to many developers partnering with publishers to make games based on well-known franchises to attract an established user base of players. A growing number of these games, which make their way to the App Store’s top-grossing titles, are spun off from licensed properties. A survey of the top 100 grossing games conducted on June 1, 2018 shows that forty-nine were based on licensed properties, with the majority of them derived from IP based on anime, manga, or video-game franchises (App Annie Intelligence, 2018). Most of these titles are oriented toward male players in their twenties and thirties because of financial incentives. Free-to-play games tend to rely on high-spending players to support the vast numbers of players who tend not to spend anything on the game (Shaul, 2016). Male social/mobile games players still outnumber female players (though this gap is shrinking) but, more importantly, male spending on these games greatly outpaces female spending, in a similar way to other creative industries in Japan (CESA, 2018: 137, 144). The job-recruitment site Rikunabi Next found that working men spend, on average, more than three times as much on in-game transactions as women (Tanimoto, 2016), (p.242) particularly in the important “whale” categories of big spenders who shell out over $100 to $500 ARPPU (average revenue per paying user). Very few women spend this amount, let alone exceed it, which dedicated (see: obsessive) male players often do (Anonymous 2018b).4
This means that the licensed mobile games market is saturated with creative content geared primarily toward male working-age players, with games based on properties ranging from classic superhero sagas (such as Kinnikuman, Saint Seiya), modern shônen adventure manga (such as One Piece, Naruto), military robot series (such as Mobile Suit Gundam, Kantai Collection), late-night otaku anime (such as Fate/Stay Night, Sword Art Online), and mobile iterations/spin-offs of console-based game franchises (such as Monster Hunter, Dragon Quest). These licensed games also exhibit a range of genres, often within the same game, à la Puzzle and Dragons; common mobile game genres such as puzzle, role-playing, battle, strategy, rhythm action, and monster hunting are the most popular genres of licensed games, with many games featuring a hybrid of two or more genres.
Three such licensed mobile games—Love Live! School Idol Festival (Bushimo/KLab, 2013–present), Final Fantasy Record Keeper (Square-Enix/DeNA, 2013–present), and Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle (Banda–Namco/Akatsuki, 2015–present)—were played for over a year and analyzed for their role as game paratexts in their respective transmedia franchises. Dragon Ball is a popular action and adventure manga series revolving around fighting warriors and was eventually adapted into multiple animated television series, feature films, console video games, and collectible card games. Dokkan Battle is a puzzle–action hybrid where players connect tiles to perform powerful attacks against their opponents. Final Fantasy is an internationally recognized role-playing game franchise, spanning multiple console games, spin-offs, animated series, and even two extravagant CGI feature films. Record Keeper is a role-playing game in the same mode as Final Fantasy games for the Super Nintendo, eliminating the rogue exploration and dungeon-crawling aspects to focus almost entirely on quick-moving, turn-based battles. Love Live!, the newest of the three, is an animated idol girl group that originated as a series of magazine profiles and music videos but gained popularity through a latenight anime television series, several music concerts, and a surprise animated feature-film hit. School Idol Festival is the least recognized or attractive mobile game outside its home country, though its game is available in the App Store in several different languages. The game itself is in the genre of musical rhythm where players must time their finger taps on the screen to targets that move to the beat of one of several dozen different pop songs.
All three licensed games were selected based on several important factors. First, all the games come from Japanese transmedia franchises that have brand recognition and a built-in audience. Second, all the games originate in different (p.243) media (for example, manga, video games, animated music videos) providing a good sampling of the range of Japan’s content industries as represented in mobile game form. Third, though the audiences for these games are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they do represent different periods and ages of fandom, from the broad generational reach of mainstream titles, such as Dragon Ball and Final Fantasy, to the more niche, fan-driven idol market of Love Live! Fourth, the studios which develop these games are similarly protean in their backgrounds and approaches to game development; both Bandai–Namco and Square Enix have a long history in console-game development, with the former specializing in adapting licensed IP and the latter successfully developing its own series of original IP, while mobile game developer KLab started in web development before applying a shotgun approach to several original and licensed mobile-game titles and striking the jackpot with Love Live! Finally, all three games were among the top fifty grossing games in the App Store for over a year, with millions of downloads, showing that the audience was significant and spending enough to keep these games operating at a consistent pace. Thus, this trio of licensed mobile games provides a good cross-section for licensed mobile game paratexts in Japan over the last five years.
The three games are analyzed here as paratexts that shape, or are shaped by, the transmedia franchises from which they are derived. Because of this, my analysis focuses less on their specific game design mechanics or narratives and more on how such franchise elements, such as plots, characters, designs, sound samples, and musical tracks, act as conduits that amplify the affective values of their respective transmedia franchises. Jason Ash uses the term “affective amplification” to refer to how games can “generate and modulate between affective states” (Ash, 2012: 12); this means both the ability of games to shift affective states within players (such as the negative feelings associated with death and the positive feelings associated with avoiding it) and the ability of games to maintain such affective states for a long period. In the context of licensed games, however, I exclusively refer to this second ability of “affective amplification” to the games’ ability to construct a constant state of positive feedback that players derive from accessing or possessing digital assets of the franchise (for example, collectable characters, playable songs, or even “story sequences”). In contrast to an original game, which must provide reasons for players to value assets such as characters or items through their relationship to the game’s story or mechanics, licensed mobile games contain assets whose desirability derives from their associations with their franchise’s narratives and worlds. The games are not “additive” to franchises in the sense of providing any new information to those who have experienced it; rather, they are designed around advertising and augmenting the most pleasurable affective aspects of the franchise to those both new and old to it. This is transmedia (p.244) designed for those on the move: a loop of constant “juicy” fan assets, generating what can be called affective franchise amplification.
Unlike console-based games with a defined limit of assets, mobile games can quickly add more juicy assets to their game worlds owing to the presence of operations staff actively managing the game. Mobile games frequently update, with each update incorporating new assets to collect or experience. Thus, licensed mobile games possess a continuously updating supply of assets with predetermined affective value, with no physical limit to the digital assets the dedicated fan/player can possess or experience. All three games examined here amplify the affective values of their franchises in at least five important ways that advertise the franchise to new players, augment key moments in the franchise for its fans, and connect new players and established fans in the same game space. In short, these mobile games turn prior positive memories of the franchise into game rewards that must be consumed and managed endlessly.
The single most important amplification (and monetization) device for Japanese mobile games is the lottery known as the gacha.5 Originating in vending machines called gashapon, which dispense randomly selected toys and other items for a small cost, gacha lottery mechanics have a long history of being incorporated into video games as bonus stages and levels. Mobile games have put this lottery mechanic front and center, tempting players to make low-cost purchases through gacha charges which typically range from $3 to $5. Players attempt to acquire limited-time sets of digital characters, weapons, or premium items in each gacha which is rotated out after a few days or weeks for a new set of collectables. As Kiyoshi Shin notes, Japanese players have also been conditioned to such random-chance mechanics primarily through NTT Docomo’s i-mode mobile Internet service and pachinko slot machines, and thus rack up three times as much in-game charges as those in the United States (Shin, 2015). Japanese players are also particularly enthusiastic about collecting characters through the success of franchises such as Pokémon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Monster Hunter, and avid players fork out huge sums of money every month to collect their favorites. One player spent over $6,000 in a single evening attempting to acquire a character in the Cygames-produced Granblue Fantasy (Nakamura, 2016).
For licensed mobile games, the hard work of building value in attractive characters has already been done for them. Thus, these games use the gacha to pump out characters and items that fans will desire immediately. The games often make these characters difficult to acquire to encourage increased spending, but almost every game will include multiple versions of the character and/or item. This character-centric model allows newer characters constantly to (p.245) have value over older characters (for example, newer characters have higher statistical parameters than older characters), but the model also continually encourages players to return to the game to acquire alternative versions of their favorite characters. In practice, this kind of character customization speaks to how fans of Japanese franchises tend to treat their favorite characters: as customizable elements that do not necessarily need a reference point in the narrative. School Idol Festival’s main idol protagonists appear in the game in multiple colors and rarity values, and each high-quality iteration of the character is drawn with a different style or theme and provided with a different pose, hairstyle, and wardrobe. While characters are used for attaining ever-higher scores in the game’s musical challenges, they function in the same way as bromide postcards for movie or musical stars, donning different forms and outfits that feed into fan desire for a never-ending template of alternative personalities.
Dokkan Battle plays with character collectability as well, with valuable or popular characters in iconic poses from the manga and anime, and in both normal and “superpowered” forms. The game goes a step further, creating “fusions” of characters as if they were combined with one another (a superpower from the series). The game provides original characters that are, nevertheless, based on the mythology of the franchise world. Record Keeper characters are not drawn with the same skill and quality as those in the other two games here, opting for digital sprite models that hark back to the 8- and 16-bit generation of many of its earlier titles. The game, however, uses weapons in addition to characters, enabling players to upgrade characters with tools pulled from various games in the franchise. By allowing players to customize characters and weapons across games, Record Keeper allows players
As Trevor Elkington has stated, licensed games will often take two approaches to narratives on which their games are based: either a direct adaptation, or a side-story-like chapter in a transmedia story. Licensed mobile games often take the former path but, while they will stick fairly closely to the original story of the franchise, they will also often take a pared-down approach because of limitations with the hardware. Owing to the limited playtime habits of mobile players, licensed mobile games will often selectively choose key moments or scenes from the franchise and spin limited-time “events” around them rather than attempt direct adaptations of lengthy source material. This is, in many respects, similar to strategies that early “pre crash” games, such as Superman (Atari, 1978) and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Parker Brothers, 1982), employed, visualizing isolated scenes and “well-known, iconographic characters” from their original sources because of hardware limitations (Aldred, 2012). For franchises that have been in existence for several years or decades, this means that there is an ample amount of material for developers to mine. In Dokkan Battle, entire story arcs are boiled down to nostalgic core elements such as iconic manga panels, character poses, and lines of dialogue. With Dragon Ball, these scenes are especially recognizable for fans because much of the original manga’s panels provided layouts for the anime. Record Keeper takes a detailed approach to this style of piecemeal narrative. Based on a memorable scene or dungeon from one of the franchise’s games, events even use the background art and music from the games to provide additional affective pleasure. Both games, moreover, market these audiovisual references to appeal to previous viewers or gamers of the original franchises by telling their players to access famous scenes. Record Keeper is especially sly because not only does its advertising tell players to “relive your favorite Final Fantasy moments,” but the game narrative itself is built on retrieving “memories” of the Final Fantasy franchise that have been spirited away by mysterious villains.
In other cases, some mobile games will not completely repurpose famous scenes or art but will, instead, create original stories that mirror or complement a dominant narrative in the franchise. School Idol Festival does this well, creating side stories of the established idol characters that occur between episodes of the dominant anime narrative from which the characters derive. Fans consume such small narratives less to understand or experience a specific scene or event, but rather to enjoy their memories of the characters’ relationships and the general atmosphere during which the scene took place. Such narratives might reveal or enhance some overlooked aspect of the character’s (p.247)
personality or simply provide an opportunity for fans to hear the original voice actress speak new lines of original dialogue.
Serial media coordination
Ideally, licensed mobile games drive sales of other media within the media mix, in ways similar to that in which Snoopy’s Street Fair promotes Peanuts comics within the game. Licensed mobile games usually have the added benefit of running alongside a concurrently broadcasting animated television series. Dokkan Battle, for instance, was developed and released to coincide with the release of Dragon Ball Super (Toei Animation, 2015–18), the first Dragon Ball original animated television series in eighteen years. Produced by Toei Animation, the show featured new characters and settings that were immediately advertised as collectables in the game. With tight coordination between the animation studio and game studio, characters introduced in the television program also soon became available in events for the game. Record Keeper created a similar flow of events for the release of Final Fantasy XV in 2016 as assets from the AAA game were smoothly incorporated by its own studio into the mobile game as events and rewards. This is a fairly predictable model for media coordination, but School Idol Festival took a more ambitious path as players who downloaded the game following the release of the television series were presented with a different version of the game that more closely matched the experience of the show. Musical songs from the television series were immediately made available as playable, as opposed to unlockable, stages while subsequent seasons of the show saw the implementation not only of special new characters in the game, but entire new sets of songs and a redesigned interface to mimic more closely the audiovisual aesthetic of the new television seasons.
Considering the fairly simple engines of most mobile games, developers employ a number of strategies to encourage continued play. One such strategy is the collaboration, a marketing and acquisition tool where two or more companies become partners to promote one another’s games. Characters from one game will appear in another for a limited time, and vice versa, exposing both sets of players to different games. As Serkan Toto points out, the strategy is used to market and acquire “new users for existing games—and are not to be confused with the simpler concept of cross promotion” (2013). This can take a lot of coordination and preparation, though collaborations with licensed mobile games can skip this intermediary step by appealing to characters of similar franchises within their own network. For Record Keeper, this means running collaboration events for characters and items for classic games under the Square–Enix umbrella such as Romancing Saga or Seiken Densetsu/Secret of Mana, as the RPGs have followings similar to those of Final Fantasy. The events can also function as focus groups for future mobile iterations of such games if players are enthusiastic for the events. Dragon Ball’s collaboration comes from the Akira Toriyama umbrella of authored manga but, even more broadly, under publisher Shueisha’s wing. This is why the game features collaborations with characters and stories from Dr. Slump, Toriyama’s first manga, and One Piece, Shueisha’s all-time best-selling manga. Moreover, as the developers have access to veteran artists at Toei Animation, the game features official artwork that mixes and matches the outfits of the different characters for unique collectable interpretations.
Outside social/promotional events
Licensed mobile games also promote, and are promoted by, events outside of the game world which, in turn, direct players back to the game. Magazines, such as Famitsu App, run monthly features that break down special codes for players to receive premiere items. Such codes are also available through in-game missions. Shueisha holds the annual Jump Festa, a convention for fans of Shonen Jump, the manga magazine in which Dragon Ball ran from 1984–95. The convention brings together manga artists and writers but also holds press conferences, demo sessions, and prize giveaways for new games. Love Live! has its own fan conventions and musical performances but these rarely make their way into the game directly. Instead, the game conducts special marketing deals with specific locations such as bookstores and cafés. The game told players, for instance, to visit a maid café to receive a code for a limited-time character if they ordered a similarly limited-time, themed item off the menu. Thus, both café and character were aligned to promote one another, (p.249)
providing fans with a fun (if pricey) side quest in the process. This sort of player activity is ideal for licensed franchises where the game directs players on a series of missions outside of the game world with rewards that inevitably prod players back into the game world in an insidious loop.
Gacha, media coordination/collaboration, and events both interior and exterior to licensed mobile game worlds thus create an endless stream of assets that feed off of player familiarity with the franchise. Able to update the asset database, redesign interfaces, and collaborate or coordinate with media across related industrial networks on a weekly or even daily basis, mobile games are the most flexible licensed media texts for franchises that exist today. While console games are similarly able to update their games through periodic downloadable content (DLC), mobile games in Japan operate according to an event-based design (rather than the loop-based design of most Western games) that requires constant updates. This makes them uniquely able to attune their games to changes in the franchise media, trends in related media, and player activity or interest towards specific characters or scenarios within the franchise.
Regarding this last point, Japanese mobile games amplify affective value for the franchise on two levels: at a premium for preexisting fans of the franchise; and at a free (but deep) sampling for casual players new to the franchise. Fans play the games to access and experience old memories of the franchise but are able to acquire high-quality or upgraded versions of specific elements of the franchise (such as characters, weapons, scenarios) to which they are particularly attached. That these elements are difficult to acquire makes players spend an inordinate amount of time or money on these games, though players may turn against the franchise if their favorite elements are too difficult to get. Casual players, on the other hand, are given what is basically a stripped-down version of the franchise for free. Players unfamiliar with the franchise are provided with portals into various attractive elements via the game’s interface. (p.250) The game serves as a miniature art gallery for the franchise’s character and background designs, as a sample playlist for the various songs and performances by voice actors, and as an abridged version of the narrative provided in story modes. Players who find any of these elements attractive will be encouraged to purchase more complete texts in the franchise itself, often directly through the game via banner links set up on the surface of the interface or in splash pages that appear when the game boots up. Casual players interested in experiencing a more coherent narrative, meaningful character development, or richer audiovisual pleasures of the franchise might do so outside of the game world, at a cost.
Japanese licensed mobile games have a varied set of methods in which they use collectable assets to their advantage, but this does not say much about the quality of the play in the games themselves. As mentioned earlier, many of these games are derivative of other popular mobile game genres and frequently have little to do with the experience of the franchise itself. The gameplay often simply serves as a way to facilitate or obstruct the collection of attractive assets; this can be seen, for example, in Dokkan Battle, where “battles” are little more than connecting tiles on a game board, with the results of the puzzle playing out in automated sequences of avatars fighting one another.6 The gameplay, as with most casual games, is meant to be quick and simple, with added depth coming in mastery of the game engine, more intense play during event periods, and a large amount of customization and upgrading available via the game’s character-building menus.
What this simple gameplay also means is that hurdles for asset accumulation are low in terms of player skill. If players have deep enough pockets, they can become “gamer” supporters of their favorite franchise. This unlimited access to the franchise’s most expensive digital goods is important for emerging franchises where fans are looking to consume licensed material but have few avenues for doing so. This was probably one of the main reasons for the success of the Love Live: School Idol Festival mobile game; it created a digital outlet for the anime and idol group that, like Kenner’s Star Wars toys between the Star Wars tentpole movies, allowed fans to continue the franchise’s experience between tentpole releases of the films and television seasons. School Idol Festival was even more lucrative than material products such as toys or dolls, however, as the game was not limited by supply lines and could provide a constant stream of “product” in different skins, side stories, and songs. Even the idea of the tentpole should be questioned in the case of Love Live!, because fans’ primary entertainment experience truly depended on the point at which they entered the franchise; if it was between seasonal broadcasts of the anime, (p.251) fans were more likely to experience the mobile game before any other media. Crafting a transmedia empire without a true mother ship is a win for Love Live! media rights holders ASCII Media Works/Kadokawa, but also for ancillary mobile game developers such as KLab who can now hope for tentpoles becoming affective amplification tools for their media.
As franchises begin to understand how mobile games can benefit their bottom line, there will probably be increased coordination between the games and franchise’s other media texts as they are serialized. This increased fidelity to the franchise makes licensed mobile games that much more “in tune” with the franchise, though in service of a business model that is more about pleasing the fan and hyping the franchise than with any original gameplay experience. Indeed, we are already seeing many of the same strategies employed in licensed mobile games find their way into licensed console movie games. Star Wars: Battlefront II (Electronic Arts, 2017) and Middle-earth: Shadow of War (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, 2017), for instance, riled fans of the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises through incorporating a large number of microtransactions into the core game in order for players to unlock all of the game’s content and remain competitive in the game’s online arenas (Fernandez, 2017). Even less controversial DLC, such as paying to drive a Batmobile from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016) or a branded jeep from Jurassic World: Fall Kingdom (J. A. Bayona, 2018) in Rocket League (Psyonix, 2015), shows how tie-in events, promotions, and a stream of additional content have become commonplace among even the biggest franchises. Licensed games are still coming along in terms of the quality of the gameplay but, with their endless variations on the same theme via the mobile platform, they are going down a path that might have been exactly what the franchise’s most dedicated fans wanted all along.
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(1.) Steinberg actually defines the media mix in marketing terms, that which he dubs the “marketing media mix,” and in the circulation of its narratives and characters or the “anime media mix.” These two definitions both refer to media synergy, but each is historically and conceptually distinct because the former revolves around using media with the end goal of selling a particular advertiser’s message or product, while the latter views synergy as a goal in and of itself. With the anime media mix, in other words, the consumption of any media helps sustain the entire media franchise. For the purposes of clarity, this chapter’s usage of “media mix” will refer to the definition of the “anime media mix,” as it translates most closely to conceptions of media convergence that scholars in other national and industrial contexts have analyzed.
(2.) These numbers actually reflect a decline in revenues for Puzzle and Dragons though it is still continually ranked in the top five grossing apps on a daily and weekly basis despite this fall. To address this calamity, Gung Ho fittingly marketed the game as a “national game brand,” with a multimedia marketing blitz of manga, anime, apps, and toy products to enhance the visibility of the core game. See Watanabe, 2018.
(p.252) (3.) While, at the time of writing, the Nintendo Switch is still early in its life-cycle, early signs indicate that Nintendo will treat the system in a similar way to previous consoles and portable devices in the emphasis on revenues being generated by game cartridge and download sales, rather than from recurring in-game micropayments and downloadable content charges.
(4.) Though industry professionals are quick to cite these numbers, at least a couple of additional caveats can explain this gap. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare’s 2018 Basic Survey on Wage Structure, in Japan women earn on average far less than men, resulting in lower average purchasing power. Also, because so few games actually cater to working-age women, few female players might feel justified in spending like whales on the male-oriented games that do exist. Finally, while men in their twenties and early thirties exhibit the highest spending rates (CESA, 2018: 144), women in their thirties and forties exhibit similar spending rates on games as men in the same age range. As more women enter the workforce and maintain careers later into their lives, the industry might attempt to acknowledge and capitalize on this growing field of consumers with licenses that fit their interests. We are already beginning to see this, with male idol group games such as Uta no Prince-sama: Shining Live (KLab, 2017) and Idolish7 (Bandai–Namco, 2015), or sports titles traditionally popular with female players, such as Captain Tsubasa: Dream Team (KLab, 2017) and Prince of Tennis: Rising Beat (Akatsuki, 2017) regularly appearing among the top 100 grossing games on the App Store.
(5.) Though gacha is associated with, and found in, most Japanese mobile games, the practice has found its way into popular mobile games developed in the United States. Hearthstone (Blizzard, 2014) and Dungeon Boss (Big Fish Games, 2015) both incorporate gacha mechanics, and various licensed games based on franchises such as Star Wars, South Park, and Marvel now feature gacha as ways in which to acquire popular and powerful characters. See Kanerva, 2016.
(6.) It should be mentioned that many previous Dragon Ball Z games also use these sorts of puzzle gimmicks, such as playing cards and dice, so one can consider Dokkan Battle a continuation of this tradition.