The Gaming Scramble: TinierMe hits half-a-million U.S.-based users

Posted by on September 7th, 2010 at 7:33 AM

TinierMe CEO Masaru Ohnogi in Tokyo. TinierMe hit half-a-million U.S.-based users this week.

Recently I’ve been writing a lot in this space and elsewhere about the critical roles played by interactivity and participation in the appeal of Japanese popular culture both in and outside of Japan. I devoted an entire chapter to the topic in my book, Japanamerica, because it seemed so revealing: “The draw of DIY (Do It Yourself)” addresses in part the participatory nature of Japanese comics and animation aesthetics, with their generally minimalist, 2D designs inviting the visual engagement of viewers’ own imaginations.

But the main reason the DIY chapter garners attention from readers, critics and students today is that it examines otaku, or über-fan-oriented pursuits such as cosplay (costume play), the role-playing activity that has fast emerged as one of the principal drivers of global anime fandom.  Cosplaying fans at conventions and expos across the country are the most visible and vibrant sign of a fully engaged community.

Problem is: Japanese animation studios make neither pennies nor yen from cosplay, however popular it becomes, because they remain mired in the DVD-sales-marketing doldrums.

Enter the gaming scramble.

Last spring in New York, I got wind of an enterprising new virtual reality game called TinierMe. The principal developer, the Japanese gaming company GCrest, a division of CyberAgent Inc., had opened an office in San Francisco in 2009 for the U.S. launch of its virtual reality portal, featuring decidedly anime -style characters and visuals.

This summer, the site announced that it has surpassed the one-million user milestone, and today boasts over 1,175,000 distinct users.  But this week, an even more significant number hits the streets and screens: over half a million of TinierMe’s current users worldwide are based in the United States, suggesting that the American audience for Japanese-made and -styled characters and environments continues to expand, even in a decidedly lackluster consumer market.

TinierMe welcomes you.

Having just launched in October of last year, TinierMe hasn’t even celebrated its first birthday.  “As a point of comparison,” says Sarah McNally from GCrest’s Tokyo office, “the Japanese version of TinierMe, [called] ‘AtGames,’ which has been in business for about four years, has about two million users.”

Imagine Second Life with anime-character avatars designed by a team of Japanese artists, giving American and other English-speaking fans a chance to cosplay virtually, to create their own anime-inspired avatars anytime they want, rather than waiting for the next area anime convention. Amid the seeming paradox of declining anime DVD sales and escalating numbers of overseas fans attending conventions and expos, entrepreneurs are beginning to see opportunity: Reach the fans via new networks of accessibility, and you just might survive, or even thrive.

“Our goal is to become a virtual Disneyland,” Masaru Ohnogi, head of GCrest America, told me when we met in the parent company’s Tokyo headquarters. “We want to entertain people all over the world, with music, games, anime…everything.  Most people have compared us to Gaia online, which has an American version of anime characters,” he adds, citing the California-based enterprise. “But that look remains foreign to us. It doesn’t really look like anime, Japanese-style.  So we’re taking a uniquely Japanese approach.”

That approach involves playing a bit of insider baseball with U.S.-based fans of a capacious anime playground.  In the spring, TinierMe rolled out the hipster Japanese character “Gloomy Bear,” a kind of grotesque twist on so-called ‘kawaii’ or super-cute iconography.  And this summer, an avatar (called a “Selfy,” in TinierMe-speak) of Hatsune Miku, the virtual celebrity pop-singing idol who has achieved superstar status, especially in Japan’s otaku community, entered the game.

Gloomy cool: "Gloomy Bear" avatar

“Most of our users know a lot about Japan,” adds McNally.  “They even use Japanese names for their avatars, like Keiko.  There are even users whose names are based upon [Miku’s nickname] ‘Hatsumiku.’  I just looked up ‘Hatsune’ in nicknames and found 300 users, like Hatsune-san, Hatsunemik-10.”  She assures me that more Miku releases will come later this month.

Ohnogi’s enthusiasm and knowledge are exceptional: Few Japanese content companies seem to possess the confidence and ambition necessary for reaching out to overseas fans–or to even bother finding out who they are–at a time when most are vacating their U.S. offices in 2010, cutting back on expenses, turning inward just as their Asian competitors may be usurping them.

Indeed, much of the gaming scramble is moving in the opposite direction, with American companies muscling into Japan’s estimated $2 billion market. U.S.-based Zygna’s (“Farmville”) heralded $150 million alliance with Japan’s Softbank this summer was followed late last month by CrowdStar’s tie-up with Japanese game studio Drecom.

But Ohnogi proffers an alternative approach: Instead of attacking overseas fans for their seemingly limitless and illegal access to anime visuals, why not get to know them?

“Over 70 percent of social networkers are under 20 years old,” he says, pointing to a page of colorful statistics and graphs on his netbook. “Around 63 percent of them are female. You have to know your audience in order to reach them.

More Miku on the way.

“We take down the site for maintenance twice a week, because part of what we’re selling is Japanese-style quality. I believe that you can sell to American fans who trust the quality of the Japanese product. We give them both free access and paid options. Lots of choices. You really need to understand both cultures to make it work.”

Traversing the cultural divide and making it work is never an easy proposition.  But paying attention to the character and demands of your audience at least gives you a shot at capitalizing on them.

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