When Kazuki Morishita set up GungHo Online Entertainment, he had the foresight to supplement his early forays into development by hosting the Japanese servers for South Korean MMORPG Ragnarok Online. It paid off: that game now has 40 million users worldwide, and GungHo acquired its developer, Gravity, in 2008. But GungHo would dwarf that success upon the release of Puzzle & Dragons in February 2012. It’s been the top-grossing app in the Japanese App Store consistently since its release, with peak revenue reportedly reaching around $3.75 million per day.
Now with almost 1,000 staff and a market value in excess of $10 billion – higher than Japan Airlines – GungHo’s subsidiaries include Grasshopper Manufacture (Killer Is Dead), Acquire (Rain) and Game Arts (Dokuro). And yet, as Morishita explains during our visit to GungHo’s Tokyo HQ, the focus is not on business but on evolving Puzzle & Dragons and making new titles.
GungHo has been around for years, but Puzzle & Dragons catapulted you into the collective consciousness. How did you come up with the idea? At the time, social games were becoming popular. The term ‘social game’ means something different in Japan; they’re games like card battlers, where you buy extra cards and the stronger ones give you a better chance of winning. Everyone was making games like that, and all they changed was the character images on the cards. I thought that was not a good way to make games, and I wanted to make something that required some skill on the part of the player: a card game with action elements.
Puzzle & Dragons has had 23 million downloads in just two years. How do you explain the game’s success? The puzzle elements appeal to casual users, but the game has a deeper system that appeals to more experienced players as well, like evolving your monsters and so on. I knew that for a lot of people to play the game, it had to be popular with women, and I had this idea that holding the smartphone horizontally would not appeal to them. Holding it upright with just one hand is more stylish. So we changed the game from its original horizontal orientation to a vertical layout that you can control with just one thumb. That was the major turning point.
Is that a formula you can apply to future games?
No. With hindsight, I could come up with a million reasons for the success of Puzzle & Dragons, but I don’t think I could apply them to a future project. For one thing, that game is already in the past; it worked well at that particular time, but if we’d released it today, it might not have. Players’ expectations change so fast…
We described GungHo’s smash as intelligently assembled, uncommonly generous and dangerously habit-forming in our Puzzle & Dragons review.
As president and CEO, are you closely involved with the business side, or do you focus mostly on development? I only work on development. Making games is much more fun than business. And besides, without good games, we’d have no business. It’s better to leave the business dealings to the professionals, like our CFO.
Why did you buy Grasshopper Manufacture last year?
Well, the simple answer is that I met Suda 51. That’s all. At first I had no intention of buying the company; I thought they were better off being independent. But we would go out drinking together, and we would talk about it, and somehow the idea rubbed off on me. Suda can do things that I can’t. When I make a game, I start off by thinking about the mechanics, but Suda starts by thinking about the game world and the flavour of the game. We complement each other.
Why has GungHo been so aggressive about expansion, particularly overseas?
Well, the wider the potential audience the better, right? I want to find an audience wherever there are people. It’s less about finding success and more about finding people who enjoy the games we make. Of course, if the games are popular, then that will generate revenue we can put back into making more games. There are challenges to doing business abroad: the rest of Asia in particular does things very differently from Japan – especially South Korea – but every country has its own quirks.
What would you do if GungHo was closed tomorrow and you had to start again from scratch?
I’d have to start a game company again. Making games is the ultimate happiness – to me, anyway. So I think I’d be OK even if I had to start from scratch. Mind you, if the company did go out of business, I’d certainly be unhappy!