Dragons and Reapers: How GungHo Has Dominated the Free-to-Play Market

GungHo Online Entertainment has made a mark for themselves worldwide for well over a decade. As publishers of games that have permeated the online game market and have long standing communities of players, they know a thing or two about what it takes to keep a game going. Their latest free-to-play game, Let it Die, which was released last December, currently has over one million players, hacking and slashing their way through the game’s colossal tower, fending off death by enemies, and other players at every turn, under the familial supervision of the literal personification of Death (he wears 3D-movie glasses and rides a skateboard). To say this game is hard is an understatement. And as a free-to-play title, there is the ominous m-word (that’s right – *whispers* microtransactions), looming over its audience. Despite all of this, the audience continues to grow and returning players keep coming back for more other-worldly punishment.

As much as this can be attributed to the years of experience GungHo has had in the free-to-play and online market, even more of it comes from the fact that the company likes to publish and develop games that are fun and well maintained for both returning players and newcomers alike. Recently CGMagazine had the opportunity to speak with President and CEO of GungHo, Kazuki Morishita, about that philosophy, the future of Let it Die, and GungHo Online Entertainment.


CGMagazine: Since its release last December, Let it Die has seen a lot of success and has built an enthusiastic community of players. What impact has the players’ response and feedback had on the development of the game?

Kazuki Morishita: For the most part, the response has been quite very positive in regards to the game. We have and continue to get a lot of feedback from our users especially the very passionate users, and we’ve been collecting that and taking a look at it and we do our part to [improve] what we do. Especially when it comes to game balancing and fixes that they request. We’ve taken a look at a lot of them and prioritize them. We have implemented a lot of fixes and balancing based off of their opinions and feedback and we feel that we’ve got a pretty good system of communication with our users.

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Let it Die gameplay images via GungHo Online Entertainment.

CGMagazine: So I guess it’s that user feedback that’s really driving a lot of all the updates that come out and events and things that are happening.

Kazuki Morishita: It’s not so much the new content as we do have a roadmap of what we are planning to do. It doesn’t have that as much. But it might affect how we plan to go forward with the content we’ve been planning. So that is definitely one thing that is there. We are always taking a look at what people are saying moving forward.

CGMagazine: So what should new users and current users expect in the future for Let it Die?  

Kazuki Morishita: In regards to those who haven’t played [Let it Die], what they can look forward to is a low barrier to entry. It’s free-to-play, so come on in! And if you’re a gamer then we really would like you to come and try and see what we have in store for you. If you come in without being really prepared you’ll be in for something. By something, I mean a lot of pain.

And for our current users who have been playing the game. We’ve been providing new content for them with constant updates on a regular basis since launch. We are continually going to be adding new content for them to enjoy. We have a huge update coming at the end of the month which is going to prove to be quite a challenge. So for those users that have been playing, and have been adamant at collecting everything that they can and getting their gear up to speed with strength, they can find that there’s a lot of great stuff waiting for them based off the game.

So [current players] continue to have things to do and enjoy with new challenges to challenge themselves, along with the new players who haven’t played yet. We feel that we have a really good and healthy cycle prepared for new users as well as our veteran users, our loyal users that are continuing to play to this day. While the ultimate enemy, the biggest challenge that players will face will be other players.

So new users [will find that the current uses] are going to prove to be some, if not the most difficult obstacles.  They’ll have to overcome, or somehow evade them. And just because there’s an enemy in front of you doesn’t mean you have to beat them. There’s a strategy to this game, and one of the strategies is to run to fight another day.

But if you have been done through by someone, then we hope that you build up your stats a bit and get him back. This is a fun system that we have in the in the game. You know where it’s possible to do what we call “giant killing”.

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Let it Die gameplay images via GungHo Online Entertainment.

CGMagazine: So with that system, you can still be a casual player and be able to like at least develop your skills enough to be able to get further along in the game, and get that revenge that you’re talking about.

Kazuki Morishita: Very much so. If you’re focusing on building and crafting, most definitely. Although, I don’t know if casual users are going to come to us just because it’s free-to-play as much. I mean it is free-to-play, the barrier to entry is low but just because it’s free-to-play doesn’t mean it’s a casual game.

CGMagazine: Yeah.

Kazuki Morishita: This game was made for gamers so the users that are sticking with us are pretty hardcore, they really get into it; get into the deep, down, and dirty parts of Let it Die.

CGMagazine: So the new content that’s coming available, can they expect new levels, new areas, and different equipment, things like that?

Kazuki Morishita: All of those. So yeah, and more floors to the tower will be added for the first time since launch.

CGMagazine: Oh great!

Kazuki Morishita: We are bringing new enemies with new weapons, new equipment, and new armour. But every month we’ve been adding new sets of armour and weapons.

CGMagazine: Yes. So I guess maintaining the property and catering to your users is a really high priority for GungHo.

Kazuki Morishita: Remember, we said it is a top priority to take care of our current users. But we are also always looking to get new users. So you know we have our booth in the front there [at E3] and we launched some T.V. commercials in North America. It’s always great to get the word out; to get the image out. That’s how we’re trying to bring in new players. We’ve seen in the last six months that we had our hardcore users and our current users and new players coming in constantly. And we’ve been careful to maintain the balance of the game. New players who are starting off new can participate with the higher level players because of a number of things we’ve prepared for them. And there is still a healthy system for both current and new players to enjoy the game. And beat the crap out of each other.

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Let it Die gameplay images via GungHo Online Entertainment.

CGMagazine: (Laughs) You really want them to beat the crap out of each other!

Kazuki Morishita: (Laughs) Yes.

CGMagazine: So in addition to Let it Die, GungHo has started to bring a lot of properties to North America. How has that experience been?

Kazuki Morishita: So we’ve been picking our way to the North American market. Of course, there is a lot of potential. We’ve been trying to see how we can approach this potential. And the number of users that have to begin to recognize the GungHo name continues to grow.

It still may be a little small, but it’s growing for sure. With what we have brought over, we’re expecting to grow even further. Of course, we want to expand on a global scale. We would like to start making most of our initiatives to be global centric. At least, a “global first” development style, I can say, in comparison to “Japan first”.

CGMagazine: How do you how do you plan to demonstrate that “global first” tenant within your games to attract those users?

Kazuki Morishita: In regards to core game concepts and core game design, we feel that the basic, most forward part of the game is gameplay. These elements are quite universal. Pick any country, go anywhere and it is going to be the same. What it ultimately comes down to is the world setting, the characters, and the design. Through that aspect, we would like to see people start focusing more on our styles, so we can be more appealing to a universal global audience.

Moving forward we would like to start releasing games globally, worldwide at the same time, instead of Japan first and then the west. Even if we are not able to do so entirely global, we are probably going to focus on the western market for the first release and then, if necessary, release Japan later.

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Puzzle & Dragons images via GungHo Online Entertainment.

CGMagazine: Now most games that GungHo has released in North America are free-to-play. The attitude that North America has towards free-to-play is very different than that of other parts of the world. As GungHo continues to bring more IPs to North America, have there been any challenges or lessons that you have learned about free-to-play games geared towards a North American audience?

Kazuki Morishita: We’ve demonstrated, a lot of the time, to not make a game that is “pay-to-win”. We know that “pay-to-win”, at least in the North American market, is quite frowned upon. But to be honest I really don’t like it either. With Puzzle & Dragons, there are of course many points [where players can make in game purchases]. But for the most part, we’ve made it so that it’s not “pay-to-win” in order for the game to really come together work well. That’s important for achievement anyway. It has to be skill based.

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Let it Die gameplay images via GungHo Online Entertainment.

CGMagazine: Absolutely.

Kazuki Morishita: That’s very important, so of course, it’s a good way to get a good balance of not only luck but also user skill. There’s always going to be elements of both, but we really want to try and get a really good balance. If we were to say the balance between skill and luck, it would probably be 70% skill and 30% luck. So I guess, rather than something that we’ve learned, it’s something that we’ve been aware of and have made sure that we are aware of in process of developing. In regards to Let it Die, we haven’t been told that it plays as if it’s “pay-to-win”, which means the direction we’re going was indeed the right one.

CGMagazine: So what new games can North American audiences expect from GungHo in the future?

Kazuki Morishita: So we’re currently trying to grow our current IPs and have them also blossom into other things. At the same time , hile we’re doing that, we’re creating new IPs as well. So it’s definitely something to look forward to.

The interview was edited for grammar and accuracy.