Meet Startup @TW

An interview with Monster Strike producer Koki Kimura, the godfather of Japanese mobile games

吳晴中

In terms of revenue, mobile games have recently eclipsed PC games for this first time, with Monster Strike leading the field. Koki Kimura, producer of the game, recently sat down for an interview at the Taipei Game Show to discuss his career, the success behind Monster Strike, as well as the lessons derived from past failures.

For Monster Strike producer Koki Kimura, “as a game producer, the most important thing is to have a clear idea of what you are doing. It’s like riding a bicycle; no matter how quickly you are moving, if you go in the wrong direction, you will arrive at the wrong destination!”

According to research from SuperData released earlier this year, Mixi, the Japanese company behind smash hit Monster Strike, seems to be going in the right direction, and very fast at that. With a total revenue of more than US$1.3 billion (NT$40.76 billion), it leads the field of top earners in the global mobile game market, even
eclipsing heavy hitters like Pokémon Go or Clash Royale.

The Mastermind behind Monster Strike: Koki Kimura

A key figure behind this success is Mixi’s Koki Kimura, who recently sat down with BNext Media to discuss his career, the success behind Monster Strike, as well as the lessons derived from past failures. Invited as special guest for the 2017 Taipei Game Show, Kimura’s visit to Taiwan was almost derailed by a serious case of gastroenteritis requiring hospitalization just one day before his flight.

Thanks to a near miraculous recovery, however, Kimura made the trip and soon found himself
sharing a stage with three fellow Monster Strike cracks in Taipei.

For Kimura, Monster Strike has become much more than a mobile game since its debut in 2013. The game has not only been Japan’s top-grossing game for the past four years, but it has also been featured on YouTube heavily.

More recently, even a
film based on the game was released to an enthusiastic reception in Japan, with the opening weekend’s box office earning more than 430 million yen (NT$110 million) and garnering the first spot.

"I don’t think of myself as a game producer, but an entertainment producer," says Koki Kimura.

As Monster Strike’s main producer, Kimura leads all aspects of development, ranging from game animation, and peripheral products, to promotional events and live broadcasts. Reflecting on this experience, Kimura sees the producer’s task as “not only discovering the product’s niche in the market, but also exploring its value that has been left untapped so far.”

Exploring the essence of entertainment

Kimura said he has been interested in gaming since middle school, when him and four or five friends pulled all-nighters playing the popular Japanese gaming console PC Engine. “Later on, I learned that we all just liked to get together. It’s much like eating, one person alone may simply eat instant noodles, which aren’t that tasty, but work just fine. If a whole group comes together, however, one can have a much better meal. The same is true when it comes to gaming.”

“A sense of excitement gives way to relaxation, thus allowing the brain
to experience pleasure. This is the essence of all entertainment.”

Out of Kimura’s love for gaming grew a serious conviction to make a career in this industry. Unfortunately, due to his father’s ill health he had to interrupt his studies and return to his home town, where he helped run the family business. Two years later, after his uncle decided to join the company, he finally obtained the opportunity to pursue his dream again. After two different jobs, he joined Mixi in 2008.

Although his specialty is science and engineering, he says one of his main interests is cognitive psychology, which helps him to analyze what is interesting or captivating about a game.

"I am a very active person, and while in university, I often played video games with friends, shared meals, engaged in sports, sang karaoke, and did everything that I thought was fun. But at the same time, I couldn’t help wonder what all these things had in common – why did I consider them fun? What was truly fun about playing a game, for instance?

After some exploration, Kimura thinks he found an answer. "The common thing about entertainment is that it is both stimulating at the beginning and later allows you to feel relaxed.” To him, the same principles also apply to love. “You may not know what the other person is thinking and you don’t know what to do in case you are rejected. But this is what makes love interesting in the first place!”

Getting friends to play: the rationale behind Monster Strike’s design

To illustrate Monster Strike’s success, Kimura draws two different growth graphs: the first one has a straight 45-degree angle and ascends at a constant rate. The second one, on the other hand, which Kimura sees as reflecting Monster Strike’s phenomenal success, resembles an exponential curve, starting slowly but ascending rapidly subsequently.

And indeed, the game initially was off to a rather slow start. Yet due to its multi- person design, which sees up to four players battling it out, early adapters soon began recruiting friends to join, leading to a chain-reaction that persist until today. Moreover, with so many players sharing personal networks and creating new ones, users are prone to keep on playing together for a long period of time, leading to an extraordinary retention rate.

Thanks to these personal networks, players also feel more at ease when playing. Says Kimura, "they will feel that even spending money on the game is not a problem.”

He believes that this peer effect is a major reason behind the popularity of the game. "If you gain a new role but your friends don’t participate in this, then it doesn’t mean anything, since no one knows why you are happy. But if you and your friends all play the same game, then everyone is invested and you are happy for each other.”

Kimura points out that most games are usually rolled out with lots of advertising, with the goal of attracting a certain number of users, yet at the same time neglecting the social aspect of user interaction.

Monster Strike, on the other hand, takes a different approach, stressing not only the interaction between gamers, but also pursuing a more subdued approach to promotion, with TV ads only appearing five
months after the initial release.

The company’s plan was that this tactic would allow them to grow more organically. Although this approach involves more risk, it quickly proved successful and leading to explosive growth in users.

In 2016, Monster Strike reached the highest number of daily active users in history on its home turf in Japan.

Accepting failure as foundation of success

“Failure is sometimes just bad luck, but if you don’t try, you won’t get any chances at all. Even if you do fail, as long as you learn from your mistakes you will be just fine.”

Although Kimura always seems to be very confident, he does admit to a number of mistakes. One of these mistakes was undertaking too much localization when the game debuted in Taiwan.

When Monster Strike entered the Taiwanese market two years ago, Mixi initially sought to accommodate local players by adjusting certain aspects of the game, only to spark outrage about an inauthentic playing experience. As Kimura points out, Taiwanese gamers would view the Japanese version of the game on the internet, yet due to localization, they were unable to play it.

Kimura assumes the reason behind that failed strategy to have been a lack of confidence, resulting in an attempt to do too much to appeal to local gamers. "As a
consequence, the game released in Taiwan was only a Japanese-style edition of Monster Strike rather than the real deal.” Kimura vows, however, that this year’s version 8.0 will finally be as close to the Japanese version as possible, and future revisions will strive to unify Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao with Japan.

Although he admits to failing in some areas, Kimura believes that as a game producer, he has always known the true direction of his games and has never hesitated to pursue his goals adamantly.

“Failure is sometimes just bad luck, but if you don’t try, you won’t get any chances at all. Even if you do fail, as long as you learn from your mistakes you’ll be just fine.”