Music and rhythm games are trending in Japan – guest column


This is a guest post by Mona Hietala, the Japan market analyst at GameRefinery, an analytics provider for the global mobile games industry. She writes about the popularity of music-based mobile rhythm games in Japan, and the opportunities available – including ones you may not expect, like virtual concerts.

Music and rhythm games have been making somewhat of a revival in recent years. While the heydays of peripheral-based rhythm games such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero are long behind us, one of the latest trends is video games incorporating music elements into existing genres, whether that’s the rhythm game mode that features alongside turn-based battles in the mobile role-playing game (RPG) Dislyte, or the musical gunplay of Metal: Hellsinger, a rhythm-based first-person shooter featuring music from vocalists in System of a Down, Trivium, Lamb of God and many more.

Mona Hietala, GameRefinery

Alongside this musical mash-up of genres, traditional rhythm games are still thriving, especially in the mobile market. Maybe you’ve heard of Beatstar, the mobile rhythm game that’s so successful you’ve got artists such as the Black Eyed Peas debuting new music in the game and Eminem’s recent collaboration with a themed takeover to promote his latest album.

Rhythm and music games are alive and well, but they’re especially popular in Japan. At the time of writing, data from GameRefinery shows ‘music/band’ is the fourth biggest mobile subgenre in the country, with a 6.1% market share in the Japanese iOS market in Q2 so far and four rhythm games in the Japanese iOS top-grossing 200 chart at the time of writing. That means Japan’s mobile market is eight times the size of China’s, and a staggering 35 times bigger than the US.

This might come as a surprise to readers in the West. Mobile games don’t get much coverage in gaming media spare a few specialist mobile websites, especially mobile games in Japan and China. Unfortunately, this means that most people aren’t aware of Japan’s thriving music and rhythm game market, and the literally untapped market potential for the global music industry. Let’s dive in and see what’s happening.

Project Sekai gameplay

The most popular music games in Japan and why they’re successful 

The top two music/rhythm games in the Japanese mobile market are Ensemble Stars!! Music and Project Sekai Colorful Stage feat. Hatsune Miku. While the success of both titles in Japan has led to them being released in the US, Project Sekai in particular acts is a perfect case study for showcasing the key features of Japanese rhythm games. 

There are some key differences between rhythm games in the US, China and Japan. Beat-matching and casual rhythm games are more popular in the West. In China, players prefer cosmetics and customisation, while the most popular rhythm games in Japan such as  Project Sekai feature rhythm gameplay wrapped around character-driven narratives with heavily detailed storylines and progressive RPG elements. 

Characters often have an anime-style appearance and feature complex development systems, such as upgradable levels, unique skills and class advantages that are used to aid the core gameplay. In many ways, the easiest way to categorize successful Japanese rhythm games is by thinking of them as musical RPGs. 

Another key trait of successful rhythm games in the East is that they’re often tied to popular franchises and IP, such as other games, manga and anime, or feature music based on real idol groups. This might explain why Project Sekai Colorful Stage feat. Hatsune Miku is such a hit, as well as being a vocaloid, Hatsune Miku is one of the most popular and successful virtual idols in Japan. 

With the strength of Hatsune Miku’s brand behind it, Project Sekai has managed to make numerous appearances in the top-10 grossing iOS games. The game follows the journey of five bands from formation to success, with the integration of vocaloid singers creating a mix of original music and famous songs with vocal covers. New band members can be unlocked and upgraded through in-app purchases, with the difference in skills across the various characters incentivizing the purchase of new characters. The game is also one of the few rhythm games to feature a Battle Pass, a monthly subscription that unlocks additional bonuses.

Connect Live concert

Virtual concerts in mobile rhythm games

While you might associate virtual concerts with big console and PC games such as Fortnite and Roblox, Project Sekai followed up on the success of its live events by hosting its first premium concert experience called Connect Live on June 11 this year, featuring a live performance from the virtual idol band Vivid BAD SQUAD. Fans that purchased a ticket in advance were able to interact with the band in real-time with glow sticks and emotes, as well as other fans in the game’s social hub, and in-game revenue almost trebled in the period before and after the event. 

This wasn’t the first virtual concert in a mobile game and by no means will it be the last. The K-pop group BLACKPINK recently performed in PUBG: Mobile, a first-person-shooter with over 30 million daily active players, while Justin Bieber is lined up to play a virtual show in Garena Free Fire. If you thought 30 million daily active players was impressive, Garena Free Fire managed to surpass 150 million in Q2 2021. Many of these players are located in Latin America, India and Southeast Asia – arguably an enticing market for Bieber’s team. 

With advancements in fibre broadband and 5G making high-quality mobile games and live events integration more accessible than ever before – and with many of the most popular mobile games eclipsing the player numbers of even the most successful console and PC titles – it’ll be interesting to see if music mobile games start pulling attention away from the likes of Fortnite and Roblox. 

Written by: Music Ally