Zynga Japan, and why its ex-Koei president feels it deserves your attention

Kenji Matsubara, the former president and CEO of Tecmo Koei, really believes in Zynga -- enough that he was convinced to leave the storied traditional-game industry last year to lead up the Japanese division of the social-game powerhouse.

Kenji Matsubara, the former president and CEO of Tecmo Koei, really believes in Zynga -- enough that he was convinced to leave the storied traditional-game industry last year to lead up the Japanese division of the social-game powerhouse.

"When I left Tecmo Koei and was looking for my next job, 'social' was definitely one of the keywords in my mind," Matsubara told Japan's Famitsu magazine in an interview published this week. "One reason why I joined Koei in the first place was because I had a keen interest in online games. New entertainment that connects to social networks is something I wanted to work on, and so when Zynga approached me, I pretty much joined immediately in March of 2011."

Matsubara's zeal is understandable. In Japan, perhaps even more so than any other country, social gaming is the boss of them all in the game industry. Total proceeds from mobile and social gaming topped 279.4 billion yen (about $3.52 billion) in 2011, nearly the same amount as software sales from the entire rest of the industry over there last year.

It's part of the reason why Japan has a massive amount of mobile gaming platforms, with everything from GREE and Mobage to the Android-specific LINE (which has generated 50 million user accounts in a single year's time across Asia) vying for gamer attention. "It's a major surprise," Matsubara commented. "It's another reminder of the speed at which this whole business works. Both Zynga.com and LINE are just getting started, but I think we're really working hard to compete and not lose to each other. The key will be which service can provide more fun games and an easier-to-access environment."

Zynga's Japan strategy so far has been to localize CityVille, Words with Friends and the rest of the company's main lineup for the Japanese audience. Over 20 titles are available in Japanese right now across Facebook and smartphones, including some of the first Zynga Japan-made titles. One example: Ayakashi Onmyoroku, a trading-card game centered around traditional Japanese spirits and ghouls. "I think it's important that we take the original titles we create and get them out to not just Japan, but the rest of the world," said Matsubara. "Getting our stuff out to the world is another one of the reasons I joined Zynga Japan -- that hasn't changed, and it's a challenge that we're still tackling here. We want to build experience expanding our operation with Ayakashi Onmyoroku and extend that to releasing games simultaneously in Japan and elsewhere worldwide."

Zynga boasts 290 million monthly users worldwide, and Matsubara sees a chance to harness that to bring Japan's games to the sort of worldwide userbase that Koei probably only dreamed of. "I think it's something that'd be great to accomplish," he told Famitsu, "not just for us, but for any game made in Japan. Social features are going to be important for console games as well, going into the future, and that fusion is going to improve the value of games across the board. I also want to show the world that, hey, Japan can make really good stuff here."

Ayakashi Onmyoroku is available now for iOS and Android platforms. It's Japanese only for now, although the Facebook page has regular English updates.

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