Japan's largest mobile carrier plunges into already-crowded social game scene

When a company like NTT Docomo – the largest mobile carrier in Japan with more than 60 million users – decides to launch a new gaming platform, it's really big news.

Docomo is planning to launch the "dgame" platform in late November in Japan, placing the company in the same market as the wildly successful GREE and Mobage mobile-game platforms in the region.

"These are games that light users can easily play and that lots of people can enjoy together," said Hideki Watanabe, head of Docomo's net services planning department, in an interview published in this week's Famitsu magazine. "We also think that social games are good as simple titles that people who don't play many games can get to grips with. There's also the fact that the times are shifting toward social games in terms of user appeal, and they've become an essential need that we have to fulfill for our users."

Docomo used to have a near-monopoly on the Japanese mobile market in the 1990s with its wildly popular imode service, but has faltered somewhat recently as competitors gained more traction in the nation. (It remains the only large carrier in the region that doesn't offer the iPhone, preferring instead to stick with Android so it can have more direct control over the content and services it offers to consumers.)

Although no longer the runaway leader in Japan, Docomo still has a huge userbase for its dmarket content portal, and dgame will launch as a part of dmarket. However, as Watanabe put it, Docomo doesn't see itself in competition with GREE or other general-purposes game platforms.

"Our goal is to have users enjoy playing games on dmarket," he said. "We don't think of ourselves as competitors because we think we run on a different model. If we were running a full-on platform, we would have perhaps prepared a hundred or a thousand titles for the launch, but we have only 15 because we're more concerned with content than quantity. We don't intend to manage the line so that titles are too heavily biased toward a single genre. If you have multiple games from the same genre, that only serves to confuse users, so we're working with game makers to help preserve the overall balance."

Those 15 games include titles from traditional game publishers like Konami, Square Enix, Sega, and Namco Bandai Games. They'll also have titles launching on dgame next month, and the library will be available not just on Docomo devices, but those from other carriers as well. "Social games are all about getting as many customers to play as possible," Watanabe explained, "so they can't be successful if people using other carriers can't manage them. The games are all free to play and register for, and the monetization largely comes from in-app item purchases. We're hoping that dmarket movie and ebook users, as well as people who aren't on Mobage or GREE, will try this out and then take the opportunity to explore the rest of d Market's video, music, ebook, and anime content."

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