Like many young women, Takako Suzuki says the first thing she does most days is think about who her next boyfriend should be. Her choices: a cute millionaire, a butler or a samurai.
Whether playing the role of a teenager who fantasizes about her five rich housemates or flirting with a civil-war warrior, Suzuki says she can’t get enough of “otome” Japanese romance games geared toward women.
Suzuki, who says she once played 10 different titles concurrently, buys credit from Gree Inc. to pamper her avatar with virtual clothes or shoes, and to purchase tickets for additional game chapters.
“When I wake up in the morning, I play these games for a while before I really get up,” says Suzuki, 28, an office worker. “I need to play otome games because I’m so stressed out by my nagging boss at work.”
Suzuki and other female gamers are helping reshape the nation’s $10.6 billion video game market, where the popularity of Gree’s social network is luring developers typically focused on making titles for Sony Corp. and Nintendo Co.
Women will help sales of games played on social networks triple in the next five years, according to estimates by BNP Paribas SA.
“Developers must target women to expand their market instead of only focusing on men,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute Inc. “Dating games became a blockbuster category among women because characters in those games give them what they want from men in the real world.”
The domestic market for female-oriented games may reach ¥20 billion in five years from ¥6 billion last year, according to Hiroshi Yamashina, an analyst at BNP Paribas. Last year’s sales accounted for 6 percent of the overall Japanese industry.
Opportunities include turning manga into interactive games because female-oriented comics account for an estimated 70 percent of the ¥65 billion e-book market, Yamashina said in a report last Friday.
That has benefited Gree, which runs and develops games for its Facebook-like service in Japan. Shares of the company, which says women account for more than 40 percent of its users, have doubled in Tokyo trading this year, helping make it the best performer on the MSCI Asia Pacific Index.
President Yoshikazu Tanaka, 34, was Japan’s richest bachelor in March with an estimated fortune of $2.2 billion (¥167.89 billion), according to Forbes magazine. His 49 percent stake in Gree is now worth $3.4 billion (¥259.46 billion) based on current stock prices.
Tanaka, who pioneered social-network gaming for mobile phones in 2007, set up Gree’s first-ever booth at last week’s Tokyo Game Show next to the event’s biggest participant — Sony.
Gree, which counts otome titles as its most popular gaming genre among women, displayed “Darling wa Geinojin,” in which users play the role of an aspiring artist, and the high-school dating game “Kimi to Naisho no Kyokara Kareshi” at last week’s conference.
DeNA Co., a developer of cellphone games that counts on women for about 40 percent of its users, has also benefited. Its shares have climbed 23 percent in Tokyo trading this year, while Voltage Inc., which develops dating games for women, has risen 21 percent.
“Otome games are the hottest thing right now among women,” said Keiichi Yoneshima, an analyst at Barclays Capital in Tokyo.
Nintendo, the world’s largest maker of video game machines, has fallen 51 percent this year, while No. 2 Sony has dropped 48 percent.
Nintendo may be catching up. President Satoru Iwata said last week it will begin selling pink 3DS handheld players in October to lure women and restore the “good” balance it had between female and male users.
Sony sells its PSP players in six colors, including pink and white.
Increasing demand for female-oriented titles is part of the broader surge in the popularity of social-network games played on computers, phones and tablet PCs. While the games are typically free via Web browsers, companies including Gree profit by selling virtual items or chapters of an interactive manga, with the average user spending about ¥239 a month.
The social-games market in Japan will almost triple to ¥305 billion in 2013 from ¥107 billion last year, Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities Co. estimated in June.
By comparison, the software market for video game consoles and handheld players shrank to ¥318 billion in 2010, down 12 percent from 2007, according to research firm Enterbrain Inc.
Social networks are attracting developers including Konami Corp., creator of the “Metal Gear Solid” series, which has about 10 million registered users for social games. Capcom Co., publisher of the “Resident Evil” games, launched the Beeline Interactive brand in April to make social games on smartphones, including the iPhone.
The game industry has “now gone to computers and smartphones or tablets, and social games are booming,” said Edwin Merner, Tokyo-based president of Atlantis Investment Research Corp., which manages about $3 billion in assets. “Sony and Nintendo are not in this business much.”
Nintendo and Sony are adding features to their products as social networks, phones and tablets become increasingly popular gaming platforms for free titles. Nintendo is betting on 3-D in its portable game player, while Sony is adding Wi-Fi and 3G functionality to its upcoming PlayStation Vita player.
Sony is confident gamers will pay as much as the ¥29,980 sticker price for the Vita because its “value exceeds the price,” Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, said in an interview last week.
Gree and DeNA say they can coexist with traditional video game companies.
“The parameter for users is totally different because we target mobile-phone subscribers,” DeNA President Isao Moriyasu said. “Our games can be developed within six months, while console games take time and money as they are high-specification.”
Gree’s Tanaka is pushing overseas expansion after purchasing U.S.-based OpenFeint Inc. for $104 million this year.
Gree aims to generate as much as 80 percent of its sales overseas in three years, compared with almost none now, and plans to have 1 billion users, he said last week.
While dating games and interactive manga may not be as popular overseas as they are in Japan, the concept of targeting women may succeed globally, said Tomoaki Kawasaki, an analyst at Cosmo Securities Co.
For Japanese women such as Suzuki, the hardest part of playing otome games is staying away.
“I have to play them for 10 to 15 minutes before going to bed,” she says.
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