At Anime Expo 2019, GamePress sat down with Bushiroad International CEO Daisuke Hattori, and Bushiroad Head of International Development Atsuo Nakayama to chat more about Bushiroad, the company responsible for hit franchises such as BanG Dream!, Vanguard, Revue Starlight, Weiss Schwarz, and more!
Thank you so much for joining us today this morning. I know it's been very hectic, it's been a very busy Anime Expo for you too. My name is Fred, and this is Max. We're with GamePress and today we have a very special opportunity to sit down with some people who are bringing some amazing games to the North American market. Would you mind introducing yourselves?
I'm Atsuo Nakayama, the head of the International Business Development for Bushiroad. My responsibility is on IP content development, especially mobile game, and also on internationalizing all Bushiroad content including Card games and Sports content. I appreciate for this opportunity.
Thank you for coming as well.
My name is Daisuke Hattori. I'm CEO for Bushiroad International, which is the subsidiary headquarter for global business. I just changed to the CEO position from this April taking after Atsuo.
Oh, congratulations on the promotion!
Before becoming the CEO I was the Head of Mobile, so heading the global mobile game business. Our biggest game right now, BanG Dream! Girls Band Party!, has been off to a great success. We're continuing on the live ops of the game, and also looking forward to many more games to come.
You are the CEO of Bushiroad International. Do you mind talking about little bit of how Bushiroad's corporate structure works? Like, how the different divisions within Bushiroad as an entity work together to bring games to North America.
There is a total of 8 group companies under Bushiroad. Bushiroad International, based in Singapore, is the headquarter for global business. We have Bushiroad USA which falls under International, and is in charge for mainly running trading card game tournaments and exhibitions such as this Anime Expo. The other companies are based in Japan, each focused on creation of IP and content such as TCG (trading card games), mobile games, music, merchandise and event pro-wrestling.
Bushiroad International, originated by TCG business, is now starting to gain a new function: mobile game. At the moment, the original game creation happens in Japan. Bushiroad International then localizes those games and delivers it throughout the world.
I see. So if I understand correctly, Japan's primary focus is the development and production of the game, whereas Singapore's primary business is how do we get these really, really good IPs to spread growth globally?
Yes, that's correct!
Would you mind going over what are the IPs you think the North American market will enjoy that you're most excited to say is from Bushiroad?
From our TCG business, Cardfight! Vanguard is our biggest. Other than that, we have two other trading card games called Future Card Buddyfight and Weiss Schwarz.
Weiss Schwarz specifically is a trading card game where we collaborate with multiple external IPs as well. For example, some of the cards can be from the characters of Attack on Titan, or Sword Art Online. So a lot of anime, manga-related content into one game. We also do include our own IP, for example, characters from BanG Dream! or Revue Starlight.
Something we look forward to doing with Weiss Schwarz for the western market is to try to acquire IPs that are more catered towards the western audience. We just released our first one, Batman Ninja.
And we look forward to talking with more companies that have IP's catered towards the western audience.
Do you mind also talking about your mobile game offerings as well? In particular, we noticed that Vanguard ZERO is doing demos over here.
Vanguard ZERO is our upcoming next big mobile game that we're working on. In Japan, it's slated for release in 2019, and then the English version will be followed by the Japanese release. I am now talking with our developer and seeing how we can shorten the timeframe for the English version release after the Japanese version.
Will the English version catch up to the Japanese version of the game?
Yes, we’re planning so that the English version is not far apart from the Japanese version.
That's very good to hear. Sometimes for certain games released in North America, we will be perpertually two years behind JP. We see what's going on JP and then we'll be like, "Oh, that's so cool. But we won't see it for years!"
Yeah, we want to shorten this to months rather than years...
You also have Revue Starlight Re LIVE and Love Live! School Idol Festival. You actually invited the School idol festival developer here yesterday?
We actually covered that panel as well. The fans loved it when [the developer] showed up. He was very reassuring when he said, "Yeah, we will try our best to bring content, especially the quality of life changes here as soon as possible!"
Yes, that’s what we try to achieve with our games!
Are there any other possibilities for mobile offerings for other properties for like, such as Weiss Schwarz?
Weiss Schwarz is quite difficult as it involves many rights companies. We’ve just released a mobile runner game from Case Closed last month, and we will continue to work on more mobile games!
Because of the so many collaborations you had, that makes sense. When you're talking about international IPs it can be very tricky. One thing I noticed about this interview, you talked about how much Bushiroad works towards collaborations in particular, both for internal IPs, and external popular IPs such as Batman Ninja, Attack on Titan and so forth.
What is your philosophy regarding cross collaborations in particular? We noticed you bring back a lot of old IPs into your games. Why is it that Bushiroad focuses so heavily on that?
Good question. It's our policy to cross promote. While our main focus is in creating our own IPs, it is very difficult for anything new to become a hit. By collaborating with an already existing IP, we get the additional exposure in growing our new IPs.
We definitely notice that seems to be something that Bushiroad excels at: Finding the IPs both old and new to bring into your various IP offerings.
In that sense, Weiss Schwarz plays a big role in building the relation with many companies that have an IP of their own. Because there are not a lot of major trading card games out there, many IP owners are excited to have their IPs take part in Weiss Schwarz.
Through the discussion in Weiss Schwarz, we get to know each other better, which makes it easier for us to collaborate with other business opportunities. So for example, there is a Persona and Hatsune Miku collaboration in both Weiss Schwarz and in BanG Dream! Girls Band Party!.
She had a concert here, I think two years ago.
*Note: Miku Expo was held in the US 2016 and 2018
Hatsune Miku is very popular in North America. Same with Persona. Our BanG Dream! Girls Band Party! fans loved the collaboration.
What would you say that sets Bushiroad apart as a publisher, compared to everybody else?
One of the things we do differently is that we don't stick to being a publisher ourselves. So if you take a look at the example of Love Live! School Idol Festival. From game to game, we discuss with the developers of the game on which side should do the publishing.
Yes, we talked to KLab last year. I'm not sure if you guys remember Mark from KLab games. He's a special, special character. And we really enjoyed our time we spent with him last year.
In Japan's market, BanG Dream! Girls Band Party! is also not published from Bushiroad. It is published by Craft Egg. Flexibility applied for the best of the project is a strength of ours.
Also, something very special to Bushiroad is that we have a very strong founder, Takaaki Kidani who founded this company 12 years ago in 2007. He was actually in Singapore, until March 2018.
Wow, you see, you all seem to really love Singapore.
After stabilizing the global business from Singapore, he decided to go back to Japan because we have all our IPs created there, and he was to head the creation from Japan.
Right now, the strategy and the philosophy of the Bushiroad group is to become an IP developer, and we are working on creating multiple IPs. This is something that our founder, Kidani excels at doing. I would say he's one of the best entertainment producers in Japan. And with his leadership, were able to create multiple IPs. What is special about Bushiroad is that we have multiple functions within the company that enable us to create an IP. So we're not just working on games, we have a subsidiary called Bushiroad Music, that produces the music for BanG Dream!. We also have HiBiKi, which is a voice actor agency. Many of the voice actors in our games are from this group company.
Such as Aimi?
Yes, the main character Kasumi Toyama from BanG Dream! is voiced by Aimi. She was here with us yesterday!
She has a great smile.
I think so too! We also even have Bushiroad Creative, which makes merchandise of these IPs. So again, we have multiple functions in creating a strong IP within the group. Not a lot of companies do this; it's a very rare function to have.
Also, the strong leadership of Kidani enables us to move much faster than many of the companies which are bigger than us. A lot of the decisions in other companies take time, you have to confirm with person A, Person B, and it takes a while for decisions to be made. But our company makes decisions really, really fast.
I have one interesting story, of all the listed companies in Japan, there are three thousand something. But today there are only two whose founder has ever relocated to outside of Japan. That is Sourcenext, owner live in San Francisco, and Bushiroad, owner lived in Singapore a few years ago.
Willing to go out there and explore the world, that's what make Kidani-san so unique.
He is a serial entrepreneur. He is a founder who knows business outside of Japan as well.
Yeah, who has a very global vision instead of focusing mostly on domestic. Does that mean that Kidani-san is the person who also started the Singapore branch?
Yes it was his idea, but he himself moved to Singapore a few years after the company was built.
It was unplanned in some sense, because sometimes our decisions are made based on the user's reaction. When we first did this starting with Vanguard, he didn't even know the market potential of Vanguard.
I remember growing up, Vanguard just blew up one day and suddenly everybody's playing it.
Thousands of users posted on social media and all sorts of the dozens of distributors wanted to bring Vanguard sets to the international market. So that's why we were pushed to come to Singapore.
You have a huge presence at Anime Expo too! Two booths, occupying a lot of real estate. It's been fun checking out various activities here. You mentioned earlier how you are now focused on creating IPs and becoming an IP developer.
Would you say Bushiroad is a company in transition, from the licensing IPs to now actively producing your own IPs?
I think we have been working on both aspects, creating our own IP and then collaborating with different IPs as well. We will continue doing both. But we see that our strength is definitely creating IPs. So again, the strategy and the philosophy that we are saying is to become an IP developer. That's our focus now.
Having both functions in one hands should be the essence of game business.
To look back on Nintendo or DeNA case, they could maintain their strength not only by their platform function but also by their 1st tier developer function. Without knowing how to make a game, then we cannot get how to promote others.
It also allows you to move a lot faster.
So what's your plans for the West, in particular, the English market? You mentioned Nintendo and DeNA earlier, is your goal to be on the same level as those very established companies?
We have established a certain level of user base with our TCG and mobile games. Thanks to the success of Love Live!, we were confident to bring BanG Dream! and introduce it to the west. What we are thinking now is, how do we put more international idea in it from creation?
Many of the titles we have developed in Japan did not start with the global market in mind. We’re also doing quite well in penetrating throughout Japan because we succeeded to establish the media channel strategy, like TV CMs, all sorts of digital media, concerts and also even exhibition, but we haven't been able to replicate this strategy well in the US.
So in addition to Anime Expo or any other event, we're going to make our own exhibition, called CharaExpo. We started running this event in the US from last year, and we’re going to have our 2nd one this December.
Yeah, we were very excited when Aimi and Haruka were announced for that and GamePress definitely is going to be there as well. Do you mind talking a little bit about CharaExpo? We noticed that it was started in Singapore?
We at first hosted this event in Singapore 2015, 16, and 17. And the attendees size in the last time, we captured 15 thousand users. The size is still unattainable in USA. The difficulty in this country is definitely the geographical distance.
Yeah, trying to fly back and forth from Japan and Singapore to even Los Angeles. Quite the distance, a 20 hour flight.
Everywhere in Singapore is accessible as it’s a very small country. In Singapore it will take just one hour from end to end. In US, it's impossible.
But as US is our biggest market globally, we moved over CharaExpo from Singapore to US in 2018. We had 7.5 thousand attendees, and this year are aiming for a minimum of 10,000 attendees.
We certainly will try to help you out. In that case, let's chat about CharaExpo a little bit. What should fans expect at CharaExpo?
We will be bringing in many of our IPs over, the biggest one being BanG Dream!. So from BanG Dream, we will be bringing two of our bands, Roselia and RAISE A SUILEN (RAS), from Japan to do a live performance. They both appeared last year as well, and our fans really loved it. There are fans from Japan that also travel to attend the exhibition.
And of course it won’t just be BanG Dream!, there will also be a TCG tournament, pro-wrestling matches, and we are also in discussions with many external partners on bringing their content to the event!
When you work on these different IPs, I noticed there's a lot of different approaches you take, because you come up with the games, you come up with the anime, there's a lot of different cross promotion from there. What is your strategy regarding all the different ways that you branch out into these?
Diversification is the key to making a big hit. If you look at the current Japanese market, everyone takes the same media strategy. Traditional media, Digital media, same size of budget, same level of distribution.
Even though we have sufficient 10 billion dollar mobile game market, taking different creation and promotion approach one by one can be the only clue to catch their eyeball. Diversification of IP strategy would be, in some sense, our artificially made entry barrier.
So you are very creative in how to establish your IP in a very saturated market. So is that approach you're making with in the American market? Well, you know, Hollywood is very saturated as well. Is that why you're bringing your own convention stateside? You're you know, putting yourself out there with an expo and such.
That's true. We put more focus on the live experience, rather than traditional media channel strategy. We are aiming to be more visible on those kinds of various occasions.
If you don't mind me asking what challenges have you encountered with localizing for the international market? The English market?
The challenge should be to know the market size of the genre.
Let’s say, Power Rangers or Pokemon, those big IPs which established their market in USA in the 1980s, 1990s. Traditional media was powerful in those ages.TV broadcasting maintained astronomical level of visibility, but gradually time changed.
The users are separating and genres becoming are more segregated. Our challenge is how we make certain level of hit in this fragmented market, which in the past one-for-all strategy could have tapped.
We know Japan has sufficient market of Girls Band "idol type" game, but not so in North America. So how can we bring those niches--but in the past, even in Japan, Girls Band market has not existed—to mass penetration. But 20 or 30 years history, unexpectedly, it can grow up to this level.
So can we replicate that success that once happened in Japan into this North America? It's our mission, challenge, trial.
One challenge that we face is because these IPs are spearheaded from Japan, without the success in Japan, we can't really bring it global. Our first focus is to create the IPs in Japan, then our role is to bring that over to the global market and expand.
Because the main focus starts in Japan, what we can change from the Japanese version into the global version, how we can culturalize it more to cater toward the western market, is a challenge we face.
Our sales is right now much bigger in Japan at the moment. So the developers that we work with would be more focused on the Japan market. But our role from Bushiroad International is to gradually get their support into culturalizing it, which will make our global fans more happy.
For example, creating original content for BanG Dream! is something we look forward to working in the future. But we also need to prove ourselves that this will work in the global market.
You mean that original content for the global version?
Are there any considerations for making a completely Western based IP, something designed from the ground up?
Yes. We did actually give a try new card game of Western based artstyle. It was called, "Dragoborne". This was a challenge we did Unfortunately, we couldn’t help closing it down, but we still continue to explore.
If you don't mind me asking, what experience did you learn from that attempt? Is it an approach you want to reassess at some point?
Media promotion in USA that we have taken for Dragoborne was very grounded approach. We explored and taught users into most states of the North America by ourselves.
We did a tour. In total almost 2 weeks, I drove day by day, visited many card shops and taught 20 to 30 users face to face.
Unfortunately, I wasn't part of getting to experience it. But we do a lot of "caravans" to go to the card shops to explain to the players in person, for them to be able to better understand our product, and for us to understand what their expectation is for us as well.
So this is a bottom-up approach which we think is effective and will continue with any potential new releases.
On the other hand, we need to enhance our overall marketing strategy in able to successfully launch new games. So the marketing side is...
...is the difficulty and challenge. And hopefully the solution.
This is actually a great opportunity in building relations with media like this. Media like GamePress that has US audiences and knows the market very well.
If there's anything GamePress can help with, just let us know.
This is something that we haven't really been able to do well in our business, talking to the media. We hope to expand this function further.
You talk about like visiting actual shops to help try to push these games, so you're familiar with the competitive scenes of the especially for your card games.
What is Bushiroad doing to help encourage the competitive scene to develop? And are there any plans to help grow those clients?
To my impression, card game is quite a matured market. You know Magic the Gathering, Yu Gi Oh, and Pokemon. How old are they?
The oldest card game still takes first and second place after countless challenges…it doesn’t look so healthy. Market should have rotated and continued to regenerate new titles.
A fluid market basically? Yeah. Like say, eSports, right?
It looks like Vanguard ZERO is going to be bringing a very mature card experience to mobile. Have you ever considered maybe like Vanguard ZERO should be pushed as an eSport title?
There is definitely a potential. The game will have a PvP feature, so this can be utilized. We’re expecting there to be many more casual players compared to the physical TCG Vanguard, where you physically need 2 people with a physical deck to be able to enjoy the game.
The mobile game on the other hand, will be free to play, and accessible anytime, anywhere.
I've also talked to a few people who came to our booth to try the Vanguard ZERO, and they used to play Vanguard, but aren't playing now because they become busy. We’re expecting those players to download and play Vanguard ZERO, but also potentially through that experience, come back to playing the TCG Vanguard.
As we grow the community, we will see if an eSport experience will work for Vanguard ZERO. We run TCG tournaments throughout the world, so we can even run a physical Vanguard ZERO tournament side by side.
Just more accessible for people.
Yes, more accessible. The rules of the game itself, which I will have to follow up with you in more detail, has been a lot more simplified from the original gameplay. So we're definitely optimizing for the mobile game experience.
Normal match style of Vanguard takes 20 or 30 minutes.
And the demo, we play, it takes about five.
Yes, exactly. This must be a much, much more accessible game. And we also have the function of autoplay. So in the case of autoplay, they can last only three minutes, and it's finished.
I think we're almost out of time here, so we'd like to ask our last question. If there's one thing you want your international fans to understand what should it be about Bushiroad?
As we stated, USA, fragmented and unapproachable market, is the primary market for us to tap. Diversified ways to deliver content is one of the solutions, but we continue to explore the ways possible to reach everyone. Hosting exhibition and sharing live experience is one of the ways.
We recognize ourselves as IP developer and also IP platformer. In both functions in one hand, we keep trying to bring something new to North America. One last thing, we can expect more to come, as we are going to be IPO in... this month.
Oh, wow, congratulations! That's a big deal.
Yes, and the gains through this IPO is catered to the investment for more IP development. From 2020 to 2021, you can expect more titles coming out from Bushiroad. So please stay tuned.
We're very thankful for our fans who enjoy our IP.
We definitely will continue to try to grow our business so that we can bring in more entertainment for our fans as well. And then, it's very important for us to hear from our fans on how they're enjoying our content, we'd love to hear a lot of feedback, and something that we want to work together to grow through the community together.