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LOS ANGELES — The man behind one of mobile’s biggest hits never plays smartphone games.
Kazuki Morishita is the CEO of Gung Ho, the Japanese company best known for its mobile game Puzzle & Dragons. The international hit, which has made the company more than $1 billion in profits in the last two years, overshadows the company’s other console-focused brands and studios, including No More Heroes maker Grasshopper Manufacture, Grandia creator Game Arts, and Tenchu developer Acquire.
Intelligence firm Digi-capital says that mobile gaming will top $45 billion by 2018, overtaking console gaming revenues. It’s the same for Gung Ho — mobile games make up the majority of its revenues now. But Morishita doesn’t foresee a mobile-only future, and he admits to preferring console games over their mobile counterparts.
GamesBeat spoke with Morishita (through a translator) during the Electronic Entertainment Expo this week. We were joined by Jake Kazdal, CEO of indie studio 17-bit, which has just entered a product partnership with Gung Ho.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I don’t know how this will ever fit in E3, but it’s hard to imagine mobile games on the floor. It feels like there should be, given that they outclass a lot of the games here in terms of revenue. What do you think about this?
Kazuki Morishita: It’s definitely very different. Concept-wise, mobile games and console games just aren’t the same. I’d like to see the console side of the industry do better. As our main business model, we handle PC and mobile as well as console games. Whichever way it goes, we’ll have something ready for that platform. Even so, it would be great to see the console side of the business booming.
GamesBeat: Would you say that’s a personal interest? As an individual who plays games, would you personally rather play console or portable games than mobile?
Morishita: I definitely only play console games.
GamesBeat: That’s interesting given the popularity of your titles right now.
Morishita: From a creator’s point of view, it’s always better to have an equal amount of titles out on different platforms. It cultivates your creativity and helps you come up with new ideas. It’s good for the creative process. In terms of mobile, the people who play mobile titles, a lot of them I’m sure have never picked up a console controller. The mobile market is interesting that way. It’s reaching out to people who aren’t already gamers, per se.
GamesBeat: Your crossover with Puzzle & Dragons and Mario, is that an attempt to bridge that gap? In a more general sense, do you think it’s worthwhile to try to bridge the gap between console and mobile users?
Morishita: Back in 2011, we were coming up with a new concept for Puzzle & Dragons. I came to the conclusion that our target audience for the 3DS version—I wanted it to be kids, kids who don’t have smartphones. I’ve always wanted to release the game for 3DS and reach more of that audience. The target audience for PZD Mario is definitely much younger than the smartphone crowd. Going back to your question, Gung Ho’s goal with that title is to reach out to a broader audience with the core gameplay of the series.
GamesBeat: It’s notable to have such a successful mobile title push into the console/portable space. Do you feel like there are multiple avenues to bridge the gap between those markets? Rather than bringing casual games to core gaming platforms, do you think you could bring something more complex to the mobile space?
Morishita: Merging the two totally makes sense. But the core concept of how Gung Ho creates our games—the question is, is it fun or not? If it’s fun, whatever platform works, we’d like to release it there. It’s a lot more simple than you think.
GamesBeat: Gung Ho is uniquely positioned, with so many companies under your umbrella. Are you trying to create a synergy across all the platforms and franchises the company works with?
Morishita: The direction we try to take with our development process—as I say, with the core concept, is it fun or not? But at the same time we don’t really segment our teams. It’s not as if these guys are the console team and those guys are the mobile team. We mix and match a lot of times. Internally we have Grasshopper people, Game Arts people, and all our mobile studios all in one office.
Our best case scenario moving forward would be, it doesn’t matter if it’s a console or mobile title. With our current core team, we can make whatever title relates best to a given platform. Going back to your synergy point, that’s sort of what we’re trying to get to. Our console team people will talk to the mobile teams and try to bounce ideas off each other. That’s the closest we have to what you’re talking about right now. We don’t really have walls between teams.
GamesBeat: That’s a different answer than I’ve gotten from other people I’ve talked to in your position. Working with Jake, a typical answer might be—it could be that you’re seeking out a specific goal, something more complex and more catered toward the core gamer. But maybe not necessarily. Maybe you have a genuine partnership. I’d be interested in hearing how the 17-bit/Gung Ho thing came to be, and if there are any goals along those lines.
Jake Kazdal: I haven’t played a lot of mobile games, but there’s a couple of them that I’ve played, some simple shooters, that felt very cool. I realized that you could do something really good with this. So the game kind of started with the concept of something that could scale up to PS4 and stuff. We met these guys, went to dinner with them in Tokyo after PAX East last year. We talked quite a bit about games and stuff.
Morishita a very game-first creator. It’s not about monetization and stuff like that. We didn’t talk about that. Just core ideals of good gameplay. Both of us grew up in the Famicom generation, which shaped our beliefs about how games should function. We were both inspired by that, and I thought we could be a great team. The deal is with Gung Ho America, but I live in Japan, so—I meet with him every month in Tokyo. We’ve gone over the plans. We spend a lot of time talking through core priorities for a mobile game and how that’s different from console stuff. My experience is mostly in console games. My love and my passion is core gaming. We were looking for a partner who would help us bring core gaming to mobile, someone with a bunch of experience, someone with the same creative vision. This has been a great match.
GamesBeat:It’s interesting having the same core belief in what a game should be and partnering to go after that. It’s neat and fresh, especially in the mobile space.
Morishita: Touching a bit on Galak-Z, the core concept itself is very hardcore. Watching Jake play is a feast in itself. It’s definitely entertaining. I was very impressed by that when talking to Jake. We’re really looking forward to working with 17-BIT and creating something awesome together.
GamesBeat: Does that maybe hint at something we don’t know about in the collaboration, any future projects?
Kazuki Morishita: Yes, exactly. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: As a Game Arts fan, part of me wants to see that entire back catalog comes back. I know there’s been talk of doing that in some form, any of those games.
Morishita: We do get a lot of requests about Grandia and Lunar, especially from overseas. They’re great titles. Even now, if we did a remake, it’d probably do well. The stories are still relevant. They’re still fresh, great storylines. We’re interested in something like that. If we believe we’re able to create a new version, that’s something we can work on. But we have nothing concrete planned yet. We did announce, on the Gung Ho America side, the HD Grandia II. I hope that’s a step in the right direction for people like you.
GamesBeat: Was that move a way of gauging interest, perhaps?
Morishita: It’s something we need to contemplate internally a little further. Whether it’s a remake or a remaster or a while new title. Because we get so many inquiries about it, we feel some pressure. If we were to make a new one, it would have to really kick ass. It’s a lot of pressure on our side.
GamesBeat: Given that there are so many different types of games falling under the Gung Ho umbrella, I would think there’d be a lot of opportunities to put that back catalog out on mobile and digital platforms. Is that something that interests you?
Morishita: We released a few PS classic titles. They’re all in Japanese, not localized, but we’re definitely interested internally in releasing our back catalog digitally, whether it’s on PC or mobile or whatever. I don’t think we’ve released anything on mobile. Maybe Lunar was released on mobile by a different publisher? Yeah. But it’s always a possibility we’re interested in.
GamesBeat: I’d love your thoughts and general feeling about the indie scene. I know there are some ties in your organization to indie developers. What do you think about where indies are at and where they’re going?
Morishita: For me, mentally, I’ve always thought of myself as an indie at the core, as a creator. Just a really big one, as far as the company is concerned. Obviously working with Jake and his team, these guys have a lot of passion. That’s the foremost thing they bring to the table. It’s very fresh. It’s great to work with them. When we go into a creative discussion, it’s always a good conversation. That’s something I appreciate and want to continue supporting. We’d love to partner up with indies out there who are interested. Our relationship with 17-bit is going well.
GamesBeat: As a larger organization right now, it seems like there’s a couple of ways you can go. You can foster or partner in supportive ways. Or you can profit from, but not necessarily add to, what the partner’s doing. Or you can just roll over them. It definitely sounds like you’re in that first camp. Do you have any thoughts on some of the other options?
Morishita: Going back to that core concept of is it fun or not—every company has business decisions. I don’t really have an opinion of what others do. They’re probably doing what they have to do to survive or be relevant. But based on what we do, we don’t necessarily think it’s the right thing to do or a good thing to do. It’s just more fun that way. It’s more fun to partner up with these guys and work with them, so that’s what we do.
Kazdal: The indie scene is evolving now. You had a lot of these kind of closet indies. Now more and more teams are leaving places like EA, 10 or 15 at a time. Super talented, super experienced, doing games on the scale of 15 years ago or so. Things like the old classic Lucasarts games, made by maybe 10 people with a lot of experience and fairly high-level skill sets.
You’re starting to see a bigger spectrum in the indie spaces between places like Double Fine and 17-bit, all the way down to these smaller companies. You look at the Sony booth and there are these big, mega-budget titles, but then filling in the gaps are higher-end nice-looking indie titles. They’re getting signed to fill out that necessary part of the roster. There just aren’t enough of those big titles these days. So we have everything from these two-man micro-teams to 15-man large indies – which are still totally indie. It’s great time. We’re seeing way more originality.
For a time there you’d have years where it was all one thing, all first-person shooters or whatever. Every E3 had its theme. It’s starting to diversify in a way like the early PSX days. We’re seeing some weird new titles again. It’s crucial for the health of the industry to get off the big gravy trains and do more different-sized stuff.
GamesBeat: I love that line of thinking, getting away from serialized, yearly repeats.
Kazdal: But you need to spend less money when you make it so you can make less money when you sell it so you can take more risks.
GamesBeat: What do you say to those who feel – money people, for the most part — that there’s an all-mobile, all-casual future to the game industry?
Morishita: Hmmm. Obviously mobile is considered more casual while console is more hardcore. I get that there’s a separation there. But there are titles that cross over and do well. If a mobile game is more fun as a mobile game and doesn’t cross over, it should stay that way, though.
Whether our market is going in a more casual direction or not, fundamentally, if it’s fun, people will play it, casual or hardcore. We’re not necessarily thinking about a shift to casual or a shift to mobile or a shift to whatever. The games that sell are usually the ones that are fun. If you take a step further beyond casual gamers, there are people who just don’t play any games. Being able to reach out to the casual crowd, what you’re actually doing is reaching out to people who’ve never played games and getting them to play games.
That’s the first step. They start playing games and become a casual gamer. From there on out, our goal at Gung Ho–For example, with Puzzle & Dragons, we probably got a lot of players who never played an RPG before. Because of the gameplay, they’re able to go in and try the game and still enjoy it. Once they realize that games are fun for them, once they become a fan of Puzzle & Dragons, we’re able to reach out to them again with different titles. Next time it might be something mid-core. They might convert from casual gamers to mid-core gamers.
That’s a loop we’re trying to target. It’s not as if casual games are bad. They have a great purpose and we’d like to explore those areas as well. That’s always in our mindset. Whether we create a completely casual game in the future, it’s not even decided yet.
At our Gung Ho festival we had in Japan, we had 110,000 people. The crowd there, are they actually core gamers? Probably not. They’re mostly families. We had this huge float with a ball pit. It’s family-oriented. Parents bring their kids and enjoy the day with them. That’s not really a core gamer audience. But they’ve become our core fanbase, if you see what I mean.
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