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I interviewed Kazuki Morishita, the president of GungHo Entertainment, during the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2018 in Los Angeles. That seems like ages ago, and GungHo was getting ready to launch its bubblegum fighting game Ninjala.
It was a lighthearted title that was aimed at a broad audience, where you could play as a kid with funny weapons that you could use to whack other kids. It’s a bit like Nintendo’s Splatoon, but instead of shooting with paint, you hit each other with bats and craft new weapons from bubble gum.
But the project had some delays, and GungHo had to postpone its original launch during the start of the pandemic. It managed to launch Ninjala in June 2020 on the Nintendo Switch. A year later, the game has more than 7 million downloads, and GungHo is now kicking its marketing into higher gear as it tries to reach that broader audience in markets such as the U.S. So far, the North American market has been growing faster than any other region, and GungHo has some partnerships that will help bring more attention to the game.
Morishita has had big hits like Puzzle & Dragons in Japan, but he’s hoping GungHo will become better known in places like the U.S. thanks to games like Ninjala. I talked to Morishita about his plans for Ninjala and how it feels to launch a game that makes people feel happy in the midst of a pandemic.
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Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How much progress have you made with Ninjala?
Kazuki Morishita: When we last talked in 2018, we were planning to release the game much earlier, but because of COVID the situation changed, especially due to developing remotely. It was like a whole new development. But we were able to release the game in June 2020. We just reached our one-year anniversary last month.
GamesBeat: How has Ninjala met your expectations? What progress do you still want to make?
Morishita: The download numbers grew much faster than we expected. That’s one thing we were surprised and happy about. It’s a progressing title, so the work is ongoing. We’re looking to meet the expectations of our users and keep the game growing as much as possible. In June of this year, we reached 7 million downloads, and the North American side has been growing the fastest of any region.
GamesBeat: What do you think the basic appeal of the game is? Why do players come back to it?
Morishita: One of the biggest things is that it’s a close combat action game. There are a lot of shooter-type games out there, PvP games, and there are some close combat experiences, but Ninjala has a kind of close combat experience that you can’t experience in shooting games. Another big point is that the game isn’t a win or lose experience. Win or lose, you’ll grow as a player. It makes you want to play more and more, gaining more experience and getting better at the game.
GamesBeat: Who did you want to target with the art style for the game? Was there a particular kind of player you had in mind when you were designing the characters and environments?
Morishita: The art style was aimed at a worldwide, global audience. We didn’t want to make it seem just Japanese. We had something like Pixar or Disney in mind, but with our own originality. It wasn’t really targeted to a specific country. We wanted everyone to be able to accept the art style.
GamesBeat: You mentioned North America receiving the majority of downloads. Has it proven to be popular in any particular countries?
Morishita: If we were to put it in order, the United States would be the first, then Japan, then France, then Spain. Actually, Spain was surprising to us, that it was taken so well there.
GamesBeat: How did you approach making the game into a larger franchise? It’s challenging to create a new IP. How did you try to build more attention around it as you launched?
Morishita: The game is free to play, so it’s easy for anyone to install and play. But even so, when we were building the story and the background of the characters, we thought that it would be better to tell the story outside of the game, through animation, so it would be easier for people to reach. We thought that animation would be a great promotional tool to reach out and build awareness since anyone can watch it on YouTube.
GamesBeat: Do you view this as a transmedia property, something that can become more than just a game?
Morishita: We had that in mind from the beginning, yes, when we started building the game.
GamesBeat: Were there any examples you followed, other properties where you wanted to do something similar?
Morishita: There wasn’t any specific strategy like that when it comes to the transmedia approach. There’s a lot of backend story to the game. It’s a very long story, in my mind, which is why we’re interested in doing more across different media. A lot of that situation has changed because of COVID. If you compare before and after, more people are watching streaming video on things like Netflix or Amazon Prime. That larger environment has changed. Our future work in animation will probably be influenced by those changes.
GamesBeat: What has changed about the game as you’ve updated and improved it over the past year?
Morishita: It’s hard to go into exact details as far as how much it’s changed, but compared to the start, I’d say it might be at least 1.5 times as much fun as it was when we started. We’ve put in a lot of new modes like Ninja Striker, which is still 4-on-4 battle, but you’re playing soccer against each other. We’re continuing to add more new content like that. We’ve already put in as much new content as we would with a new game.
GamesBeat: For this kind of game, how do you grow the audience at this point, a year after launch? How do you get more people interested in playing for a longer time?
Morishita: One thing is regular updates, new ways of playing the game and giving players a new experience with the world of Ninjala. We’re also collaborating with other IP, which we think will help expand the audience.
GamesBeat: One game that I’ve seen do very well beyond its initial launch period was Dauntless, the monster-fighting game. They expanded to new platforms and enabled cross-play and things like that. Is that a strategy you’d like to follow? Do you want to go beyond the Switch to other platforms and enable cross-communication between those platforms?
Morishita: We don’t want to restrict the game to one platform, but to be honest, Ninjala goes really well with the Nintendo Switch. I don’t think that expanding to other platforms is a bad idea, but currently Ninjala has a lot of drive from Nintendo behind it, and we think the Switch is the most suitable platform at the moment.
GamesBeat: Do you think the new Switch that’s on the way will help build the game’s audience?
Morishita: One of the biggest things that I think will help is the bigger screen. Ninjala is a very colorful game, and with the new screen I think it’ll be closer to what we were hoping to show when we were originally conceiving the game.
GamesBeat: As far as monetizing the game, do you feel that’s working well, or do you plan to try anything new as far as monetization?
Morishita: We didn’t want to make this a pay-to-win game, which is why we wanted to focus on things like avatars, skins, and the season pass for monetization. That’s still our main focus. But in future updates, we don’t necessarily want to just do the same thing over and over. We’re planning to implement some new ideas so players can try something new.
GamesBeat: I wonder if collectibles can be an interesting path for monetization. Are you interested in things like NFTs, blockchain-based collectibles?
Morishita: I’d like to focus more on the game itself. Merchandising will be a separate theme for the game. But I do think there are opportunities around merchandising and other spinoffs like manga. We don’t have any plans around NFTs at the moment. I don’t know if now is the time, given that it’s hard to standardize that kind of thing right now. But in the future we might look into it.
GamesBeat: When you focus on what gamers are saying as far as feedback, what do your players want more of as far as changes or updates to the game?
Morishita: The biggest thing we hear from users is they want voice chat, more ways to communicate with other people playing the game. Currently, we don’t have in-game chat, but that’s one of the biggest pieces of feedback from the community. They’re also asking for more different kinds of character costumes.
GamesBeat: What do you plan to do in the future with the Demon Slayer collaboration?
Morishita: The collaboration will start on July 20 in Japan. A lot of people are very excited. It’s not just in Japan and America, but a lot of other countries as well. We’re also seeing a lot of returning players thanks to the collaboration with Demon Slayer.
GamesBeat: What do you try to do to make sure this kind of IP tie-in has the most impact and draws the most players?
Morishita: One of the biggest things is implementing it very closely to the original IP, the original animation. That was one thing we were very careful about. We were able to make the costumes, the emotes, and the skills as much like the original material as possible.
GamesBeat: How many employees does GungHo have, and how many work on Ninjala?
Morishita: GungHo altogether, with all of our groups, is around 1,300 people. For Ninjala itself, there are a lot of ways different people interact with the game, but if you add everyone involved in promotions and things like that it would be around 100 people.
GamesBeat: What else is GungHo planning to do for fans in the coming year?
Morishita: We’ll continue working on new projects and challenge making new games that aren’t like everything else on the market.
GamesBeat: Are you thinking about sequels to Ninjala yet, or other directions the franchise could go?
Morishita: That’s a tough question. In the future there will be a lot of changes with the arrival of new platforms and new generations of hardware. But we’re thinking about doing more spinoffs of Ninjala in the future.
GamesBeat: How did the team adapt to remote work and working during the pandemic?
Morishita: Our company chose to shift to remote work and moved all our work meetings online before the State of Emergency was declared in Tokyo. There were some developmental delays that occurred due to this change in environment, but we’ve made positive changes in our work style and our systems to solve these problems. We believe that our experiences in this never-before-seen game development environment, such as running the beta test from home, will help us find solutions to unprecedented crises in the future.
GamesBeat: Is the team able to meet in person yet?
Morishita: Our staff continues to work remotely, as we are still under a State of Emergency, as we don’t want to move our equipment around. We are also running a workplace vaccination program and offering vaccines to applicants.
GamesBeat: Was it satisfying to provide people with a fun game during a time when they could not go out?
Morishita: Generally, we want to provide a fun game for players regardless of the situation. During these times, being able to provide entertainment that can be enjoyed while staying home was great, as it felt like we were fulfilling our duty. However, there are things we are disappointed about, such as not being able to host in-person events for our players and interact with them as well. We hope the COVID-19 situation improves as soon as possible, as we want to meet our players from all over the world.
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