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How an ex-day laborer created Japan's top-grossing smartphone game

Puzzle & Dragons is a money machine. At one point the top-grossing iOS and Android app worldwide, the mixture of Pokemon-style battles and Bejeweled-style action puzzle elements has earned publisher GungHo Online Entertainment millions in revenue on a daily basis since the game's February 2012 launch. (The company posted profits of over 28 billion yen for the first half of 2013, putting it in the same echelon as console giants like Nintendo.)

This is made all the more surprising by the fact that Daisuke Yamamoto, producer at GungHo and main creator of P&D, is about the last guy you'd expect to come up with a blockbuster game idea.

"I haven't always wanted to make games; it was more happenstance," he told Famitsu magazine in an interview published this week. "I was actually a fan of chemistry, and back when I was in school I thought I should try to get into pharmaceutical research. That ended when, just before my university entrance exams, I realized that I was really bad at math. Really bad! I figured I could still get into the school of my choice as long as I aced the chemistry and English sections, but of course things didn't exactly turn out that way. So after I failed the exams, I wound up just idling for a while."

It's a trap that a lot of young Japanese people fall into fail the college exams, then wind up living off your parents and doing not much of anything for a while, a situation called "neet" in Japanese.

"Really, I'm not that good of a person," laughed Yamamoto. "But I always had an interest in games and I had this vague concept in my mind of getting involved with them. So thanks to a connection I had, I got involved with Braindock, which was this office built by a group of game designers. It was a freelance group, not really a company, and my first industry credit was as an assistant on [offbeat PS2 platformer] Zoku Segare Ijiri."

The game was a poor seller, though, and then life got worse for Yamamoto. Braindock disbanded, living him jobless; his girlfriend dumped him soon after; and he found himself living in a derelict apartment without any private bath.

"I was about 23 at the time and I did things like day labor for a while," Yamamoto recalled. "I thought to myself that, man, I better get a real job soon. So I did the whole formal job-hunt process for the first time, and I was picked up by Hudson, which had just started up their mobile gaming department. I worked on a lot of stuff there, including some console games when I had the time, but none of it sold much of anything. I made a game called Elemental Monster, and that did pretty well as a PS3 downloadable, but the retail version tanked. I guess you could say I've never had a successful retail-package game in my life."

Still, this time at Hudson gave Yamamoto creative experience on a lot of small-scale projects in diverse genres. This proved key in earning him at job at GungHo, even though he had little smartphone experience before that point. "I was originally working on a design for a tower-defense smartphone game," he said. "Then, two days before I had to give a presentation to [GungHo CEO Kazuki] Morishita, I came up with the idea for Puzzle & Dragons. I blazed my way through the design, coming up with a rough document, and when I showed both concepts to Morishita, he said 'I like this one, P&D, better.' So we moved right from there."

To say the least, it's been a busy year and a half for Yamamoto since P&D's launch. His current priority right now is Puzzle & Dragons Z, a Nintendo 3DS title hitting Japan December 12 that aims to add a more fleshed-out RPG element to the addictive puzzler.

After that? "The first priority is to make this a success on the 3DS, but I have a strong desire to give an arcade version a shot," Yamamoto said. "I'd also like to deploy out on all platforms, regardless of whether they're platforms or traditional consoles. Beyond that, I'd like to try making 'real' card games, too, not just video-game ones. This is still all stuff in the concept stages, but I'd sure like to make it a reality."

The next level of puzzles.

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