The Disruption and Renewal of Sakura

Apr 10, 2012
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As style entrepreneur and design authority Tyler Brûlé once astutely observed, it’s always a good time to visit Tokyo.

I had the honor of spending the past week there on a business trip, which by stroke of good fortune, coincided with a week of cherry blossoms (sakura) in full bloom.

Appreciation of the fleeting moment of flowering cherry blossoms and the corresponding hanami celebrations are typically Japanese traits.  The blooming of the sakura marks the arrival of spring, representing not only a renewal of the seasons but also a rebirth of many facets of life: the start of a new school year, a recalibration of personal goals, and a reassessment of business objectives.

One industry undergoing dramatic rejuvenation which interests me professionally is the gaming sector.  Historically. Japan has produced worldwide leaders in this area: card games like Hanafuda which my Japanese aunt’s grandparents played as kids, arcade games from companies like Konami and Namco (remember Pac-Man ?), later giving way to console games from goliaths like Sega and Sony, only to be subsequently out-innovated by Nintendo’s Wii.

Today, the gaming sector faces a new kind of disruption in the form of social games.  In the West, we cannot escape almost daily coverage in the tech press of social game darling Zynga.  However, the true leaders of this sector are in Japan:  notably DeNA and Gree – two incredible success stories with market caps comparable to Zynga yet with operating margins exceeding a whopping 40% – and to a lesser extent Nexon, a Korean company recently succeeding its IPO on the Tokyo Stock Exchange as well.

Oh and by the way, unlike Zynga, these two Japanese leaders operate their gaming activities almost exclusively on mobile.

I submit that the nascent market of Europe, particularly France with its deep bench of game development talent, can learn a lot from these giants.  For example, a relentless focus on market iteration helps these firms develop advanced insights into customer experience.  These insights translate into savoir-faire in monetization, resulting in ARPUs surpassing the already impressive figures of Zynga by 3~5x.  Applying just a fraction of those metrics to the European market produces some insanely audacious projections.

But like the short-lived blossoming of the sakura, the current gaming model will not last indefinitely.  Already rumors swirl about the prospect of increased government oversight and potential regulation of the highly profitable free-to-play/upsell model.

Combine this risk with a saturated domestic market, a strong yen, and a new generation of internationally-minded Japanese entrepreneurs, and we have a perfect storm of convergence for adventures abroad, such as DeNA’s acquisition of Ngmoco and Gree’s acquisition of OpenFeint in the past 18 months.

On my last night in Tokyo, my dinner companions spoke about the general macroeconomic situation facing Japan, and one person even posited that Japan should look to France as a model for how to gracefully manage a once-leading economic superpower in its gradual decline.

The suggestion that Japan could actually learn something about economics from France definitely caught me off-guard.  But it was a typically Japanese thing to say, a phrase filled with humility and perspective.

My gut feeling, however, is that Japan will continue to reinvent itself.  After all, the creator of the original hanafuda paper card game fell from grace only to later rise again with a blockbuster success: Nintendo.  Wii shall overcome.