It's hard to know if something has the potential to grow into a true and lasting genre unless you can understand its value. Gree's Araki once again articulates the collectible card game's potential -- both to players and to developers:
"With the added bonus of keeping hundreds of cards digitally (as opposed to physically carrying them around), the accessibility of asynchronous gameplay, and engaging socially with a committed community of other like-minded players, CCGs have the potential to be more than just a mobile game, but an extended hobby and experience for players," he says.
Meanwhile, when it comes to developers, "the development cycle of free-to-play mobile games allows us to constantly update the game with new events, themes and campaigns – like new cards, bosses, and fusion features – which help promote high engagement; and the casual element of mobile gaming helps to draw a more mass audience."
"Within Japan, card games are treated as their own established genre, similar to FPS and third person shooters," notes Cygames' Iino. "In Japan, the market is vibrant and varied."
Turning the physical card game into a video game genre was easy, he says, because "Users in both regions... have a vast knowledge of card games, giving them the mindset of card games as its own separate genre."
Horiuchi sees this as key to the genre's newfound success, but also the fact that "it was a kind of game that could provide acceptable operation and rules for mobile users who had not been gamers." Once you added social functionality to that, he says, "it grew up into a social mobile genre with communication between users of trading card games."
Still, what works in Japan doesn't always work in the West, as everyone well knows. Why did this genre translate? Rage of Bahamut's Japanese success had made the developer "very confident that it would find an audience in the West," says Iino, though the degree of this success was a surprise.
The genre has gotten so big in Japan that it forms the cornerstone of several companies' strategies. Konami's Dragon Collection is the premier game in the category in Japan, with more than 7 million registered users, according to Horiuchi.
"This title represents our company's social game development," he says. He's not exaggerating; a reliable source last year told Gamasutra, off the record, that Konami had bet its game business on Dragon Collection's continued success.
Konami is not alone. "We're focusing on simulation and card battle games globally," says Gree co-founder and executive vice president Kotaro Yamagishi.
Yes, globally. Gree's U.S. development studio, based in San Francisco, has taken the genre away from the fantasy tropes that power Dragon Collection and Rage of Bahamut with MLB: Full Deck, an officially licensed Major League Baseball product. "The combination of baseball and card collection is a timeless concept that we knew baseball and CCG fans would enjoy, so it made sense," says Tyler Nation, the game's lead product manager.
In fact, the flexibility of the genre is precisely what makes it appealing, says Yamagishi. "It varies according to each title," he says, and the audience "could be anyone from anime fans to sports fans."
"We discussed several game concepts internally, but ultimately the license for MLB: Full Deck was pursued specifically to create a great baseball game for collectible card game fans," says Nation. "Typically, CCGs have a small yet highly engaged user base, so I set out to create an MLB card-collection game that was more accessible and therefore captured a larger audience."
Nation says his U.S.-based team strove to make the game more accessible. What has to change to bolster the genre's popularity in the West? Surprisingly little, is the answer, and what changes is pretty predictable if you follow the market.
"While we did not make any changes to the system that was used in Rage of Bahamut, we focused on designing a UI that would resonate with Western users," says Cygames' Iino.
"For the Western version of Bahamut, we focused on being sensitive to religious issues and the different tastes of Western gamers. There is a slight difference between the cards, due to their optimization for the overseas market. We have also adjusted the stats of certain cards to fit the market. Furthermore, we implemented a Battle Ranking system because we believed that Western gamers would enjoy competing against each other."
Similar changes were made to Dragon Collection, says Horiuchi. "We haven't changed the balance in the game," he says. "There were adjustments to make it easier to operate and understand to users in U.S." The company tweaked the UI, and even removed text, but in doing so also made the game's story elements "stronger," he says.
Ngmoco's Scott puts it like this: "the core compulsion and design of Rage of Bahamut remains true to what made the game a success in Japan. The core of what makes Rage of Bahamut a great game is absolutely universal across all iterations of the franchise."
Horiuchi hopes that marrying the "know-how of user analysis achieved in Japan" with an understanding of the "uniqueness of the market and users" in the West will be Dragon Collection's recipe for success -- the same blend Ngmoco's CEO, Clive Downie, says will make his company successful in the long run.
"I truly believe that we are the leaders in maintaining and growing the live services in Western mobile because of what we've been able to learn from DeNA in Japan," he recently told Gamasutra.