Japan's rhythm game infatuation: Empty wallets, full hearts

Millions of dollars flow from happy fans every day.

I am not showing you my receipts. We're not here to talk about me. We're here to talk about the hundreds of thousands of people dumping their money into the mobile rhythm-game industry.

I just happen to be one of them.

You can find us anywhere in Japan -- clutching our phones on the commuter train, tucked into the corners of cafes where we sap the WiFi, hunched over on the rest-area benches in fancy department stores. In a world of smartphones, rhythm games are practically the national sport. They're simple enough from a gameplay perspective: You tap, swipe, and slide your fingers around the screen in time to some catchy tune, like Dance Dance Revolution for the hands. Depending on the game and what graphics setting you choose, you get 2- or 3D videos accompanying each song, some of which approach the production standards of proper music videos. These games tend to take up a lot of storage; mine add up to around 15GB. They also eat a fair chunk of my monthly data plan.

I have four poisons of choice, which may tell you an awful lot about the state of my social life, student-loan repayments and sleep cycle: The iDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls: Starlight Stage, The iDOLM@STER Million Live: Theater Days, Uta Macross, and The Prince of Tennis: Rising Beat. These games, and most like them, are free to download. It is theoretically possible to invest nothing but time in them and never spend a cent.

It is theoretically possible, but it's also very unlikely. Most rhythm games use a "gacha" (loot box) system, generating revenue by offering players the chance to pull rare character cards and pretty 3D models with unique costumes. A lot of people cleverer and better-credentialed than me have written about the dangers of loot boxes; some countries and states have tried to regulate loot boxes as a form of gambling. The iDOLM@STER (iM@S) games boast a more generous drop rate for their highest rarity tier (Super Super Rare) than many others -- a whopping 3%, with frequent "Festivals" that double the drop rate--but those are still bad enough odds that jaded fans refer to the games' publisher, Bandai Namco Entertainment, as "Scamco."

I don't have the emotional fortitude to sit down with a calculator and my Google Play purchase history. The best I can tell you is that my spending is somewhere in triple digits. Quizoxy, a member of the mod team for subreddits r/StarlightStage and r/TheaterDays (two of the three iM@S mobile rhythm games), states that they have spent over $4,000 USD on Starlight Stage alone. Then there are the real high rollers, like Eruruu, who spent over 500,000 JPY rolling on a single box to bring his best girl home in April 2017. It took him a total of 1,693 pulls to bring out the card he was aiming for.

I can sympathize. I've never taken it that far (I've never had the resources necessary to go that far) but I may have, after throwing over $100 into a limited box, googled a checklist for symptoms of compulsive gambling.

I am not alone in my addiction hobby.

Starlight Stage has hung out in the Japanese Android and iOS stores' "Top Grossing" chart almost continuously since its release in September 2015, and currently sits in the top 10 in both stores. Within its first three months, the game was downloaded over 10 million times. Its third tie-in single, "Hi-Fi Days," debuted at the top of the Oricon record chart and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of Japan. Starlight Stage is so profitable that for its second anniversary it gave away 22,220,000 yen (around $201,000) to players via lottery.

Although some makers of mobile games release public earnings reports, these focus on the company as a whole, rather than breaking down revenue game-by-game. CyberAgent, the parent company of Cygames (developers of Starlight Stage, as well as the overwhelmingly lucrative RPG GranBlue Fantasy) and Craft Egg (developers of competing rhythm game BanG Dream! Girls Band Party), currently has a 13.4% share of the smartphone game market. In its financial report for fiscal year 2017, CyberAgent reported that its games division took in net sales of 140.3 billion yen ($1.27 billion) with an operating profit of 26.5 billion yen ($239 million).

2018 is shaping up to be a lucrative year for CyberAgent. It's already reported a 51.7% increase from Q1 to Q2 due to anniversary events in BanG Dream! and special promotions in its other games. Recent figures compiled by IGAWorks for show Starlight Stage's average daily take as 73 million yen (about $660,000). Further, CyberAgent stock prices have recently jumped due to a partnership with Nintendo (sending stock prices of rival developer and previous Nintendo collaborator DeNA, makers of Uta Macross, plunging). Before this upset, DeNA reported its total games-segment revenue as 98 billion yen ($885 million), with 25.1 billion yen ($227 million) operating profit. While this represents a decrease from their previous year's earnings, it's still a respectable chunk of change.

Not all companies report their figures publicly, but numbers like these don't come from a handful of big spenders. They point to large, dedicated fanbases willing to open their wallets.

Most rhythm games feature an expansive cast of cute girls. Starlight Stage, one of the most populous, features 183 idols in total -- too many to know them all intimately, but the perfect amount to trigger that "Gotta catch 'em all!" instinct in a target market raised on Pokémon. These large casts operate on the same marketing strategy as real-life idol groups: If you keep throwing in more characters, eventually everyone will find someone to love.

It'd be easy to assume from the platoons of cute female characters that rhythm games are marketed mainly to men. Some rhythm games are deliberately geared toward a female audience, such as The iDOLM@STER Side M LIVE ON ST@GE!, which functions essentially like the other iM@S rhythm games but features 46 cute boys as your singing stars. Rising Beat, with 57 characters, capitalizes on the mostly-female fandom that the Prince of Tennis manga and anime series has been building since 1999. However, plenty of girls (particularly in the American side of the fanbase) play iM@S and Love Live! as well, picking out favorites they'd want to befriend or mentor in real life.

Story chapters are released regularly in most rhythm games. In idol-centric games, the player is cast in a producer/manager role and can sometimes interact with the characters via dialogue options. As they interact with the characters and learn about their personal quirks, players become emotionally invested--and that's where the money comes from. None of these games expect you to love all the characters equally, although some players attempt to raise their idols without playing favorites. But the developers count on users forming attachments to their personal "best girls." You vote for them in popularity polls, you buy their keychains and cell phone charms (if the publisher is generous enough to make you some), and, if they're a featured card in the gacha box, you pull and pull until your girl "comes home." Featured cards generally come with unique outfits for the 3D model, and in some games, users can merge multiple copies of the same card in order to increase item drop rates during normal gameplay or raise a card's stats.

Eruruu, who has been playing Starlight Stage since its release, explains that he liked Shirasaka Koume, the game's resident horror-movie fanatic, from the moment she was introduced. "I think I was interested in her because she looked so eccentric," he said. "The gap between her appearance and her personality was also appealing." His famous 1,693-pull video shows not only his dedication to his favorite character but also a certain "team spirit" that develops between players. Eruruu, who livestreams many of his gacha pulls, states: "I think of them as a form of entertainment. I try to make sure my gacha streams are fun for my viewers, too." He clearly succeeds in doing so, as some audience members donate cash toward his gacha expenditures in return for the thrills he provides.

Quizoxy acknowledges that gacha systems are, at their core, gambling, but they point out that gacha is also "the main source for game developers to fund production for free content access." While they disapprove of practices that pressure players to spend on microtransactions, Quizoxy acknowledges that paying players help keep the game up and running for the F2P crowd.

I'm of the same camp. While I don't always get the card I want out of the gacha, I'm voting with my dollars -- funding the addition of new features and story chapters, and hopefully contributing to a sales spike that demonstrates my favorite characters' popularity and profitability.

No matter how cute the characters are, a rhythm game lives or dies on the strength of its music. iM@S frequently features songs by members of the famous MONACA music studio, as well as Linda AI-CUE, who composed for Taiko no Tatsujin, and singer-songwriter Fujita Maiko. Most games attempt to diversify their offerings, playing to different characters' personalities. Even if the characters are idols, their repertoire surpasses traditional idol pop to include enka, rock, techno, rap and even death metal. The publishers rake in further earnings by publishing extended versions of these songs on CD and digital download, often accompanied by audio dramas. The Prince of Tennis franchise has been releasing character songs as anime tie-in merch since the early 2000s. With over three hundred CD singles already published, some of which are written and composed by the voice actors themselves, the developers have chosen to stagger implementation and dole out their existing material gradually.

Uta Macross deserves special mention here as well: Although the game features only 10 playable characters, the franchise itself dates back to the 1980s. In order to appeal to the established fandom and bring in older players, classic songs such as "Lion" (2008), "Sudden Attack Love Heart" (1995) "My Boyfriend Is a Pilot" (1982) and "Do You Remember Love?" (1984) are made available to players almost immediately.

The songs have to be catchy because players will spend a lot of time with them. When new songs are introduced for special in-game events, players who intend to "tier" for ranking rewards often repeat the same song dozens, even hundreds of times. For the most part, I'm not particularly ambitious about chasing rewards; I only play about 12 hours per week between Starlight Stage and Theater Days, with a further two or three hours on Uta Macross and Rising Beat. Livestreamer Eruruu estimates that he puts in twenty-four hours every week between Starlight Stage, BanG Dream! and Osu!.

"On average, I spend four to five hours daily on weekdays and roughly eight hours daily on weekends to assist users, plan and initiate content release for months to come."

Quizoxy, meanwhile, is a highly competitive player who plays "pretty much throughout the day if I am not at work or busy with other commitments." They have earned multiple high score trophies for Starlight Stage in-game events, as well as 13 SSS trophies, which are awarded monthly to the top two thousand players. In June 2018, Quizoxy placed at Rank 1 for the Season 22 SSS ranking cycle, making them the single most active Starlight Stage player worldwide for the month of June. In addition, they also play Theater Days, BanG Dream! and Tokyo 7th Sisters.

However, Quizoxy also keeps busy by moderating r/StarlightStage and r/TheaterDays, two of the main sources of English-language information about these games. Because neither game has an English localization, Quizoxy has devoted countless hours to writing startup guides, translating official announcements and providing technical support to other players. They describe his commitment as fairly time-intensive: "On average, I spend four to five hours daily on weekdays and roughly eight hours daily on weekends to assist users, plan and initiate content release for months to come." Quizoxy hopes that this work can inspire other fans to participate in building the English-speaking iM@S community.

But why do users like Quizoxy need to put forth this effort? Unfortunately, most companies are unwilling or unable to do it themselves.

Despite the billions of dollars rhythm games earn in the domestic market, most of them are not officially available for download in America. While Love Live! released an English localization, fans strongly criticized developer KLab's removal of homosexual subtext from the characters' interactions, causing KLAB to issue a patch with more accurate translations. Bushiroad and Craft egg recently ported BanG Dream! to English, but this is a newer game. Comparatively, Starlight Stage has almost three years' worth of event stories, character stories, loading-screen comic panels and incidental dialogue. Translating this much content would be a time-consuming endeavor.

Further, the large casts of rhythm games would make for incredibly costly audio dubs. The music also presents a problem: If it's left as-is, the contrast between each character's speaking and singing voices may be deeply unpleasant. If it's dubbed over (as some '90s anime imports attempted to do), this creates even more work for the translators and voice actors.

In some cases, there are also licensing issues that prevent global distribution. In the 1980s, Harmony Gold purchased international rights to the original Super Dimension Fortress Macross anime for use in Robotech, and aggressively asserted global rights not only to the original series but to its sequels. This has prevented other companies from acquiring the rights to release subsequent series such as 2008's Macross Frontier and 2016's Macross Delta outside of Japan and interfered with the release of related merchandise such as figurines and games. Harmony Gold's licensing rights will not expire until 2021, so we're not likely to see Uta Macross on the American Google Play and iPhone stores anytime soon.

However, these games aren't entirely unavailable to non-Japanese consumers. It's possible to download the games' APKs via third-party distributors like QooApp, enabling out-of-region use. This is a beneficial situation for many companies. Quizoxy explains that APK distribution allows companies to profit from foreign markets without investing in their development: "Regardless [of] the fact that the game is not distributed or supported in other regions, players will still be able to access the game and spend on in-game purchases. That way, they are able to bring in sales without actually providing the additional service to other regions."

It's tempting to frame my relationship with rhythm games as an addiction narrative, and I'll admit that I frequently do so in service of cheap laughs. But the truth is that this is an industry I'm happy to support. When I spend money on them, I know that I have no guarantee of pulling the card I want. Gacha is, at its heart, gambling. What is guaranteed is that I'm continuing to support the voice actors, musicians and choreographers who pour their talent into these games. I don't view my spending habit as substantially different than those of my friends who shell out for Overwatch loot boxes or new Borderlands episodes.

Further, I feel that I have an incentive to put money into these games simply to prolong my access to them. If a game doesn't continue to turn a profit, the developers have little incentive to continue producing content for it--particularly the kind of complex, multilayered content a rhythm game demands. The vast teams behind these games don't just write dialogue. They need to write and record music, choreograph and motion-capture dances, work out how to puppet both characters and their highly-detailed costumes convincingly. If tossing money in the gacha buys me another year of new music, storylines and game maintenance, it's a price I'm willing to pay.

Images: Bandai Namco Entertainment / Cygames (iDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls: Starlight Stage); Big West / DeNA (Uta Macross)