LEDZone, Pt. 3: Attracting the Japanese gamer

How do you get gamers brought up on consoles to give PC gaming a whirl? First you make them comfortable, then you make it easy on the wallet, then you bring in the girls.

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[Yesterday's Part 2 of this special report from Japan can be read here].

TOKYO--By early 2003, Tetsuo Tsuchiya had solved two key challenges. He had successfully persuaded Namco's top corporate brass to fund his LAN café project, and then he secured the Japanese CS license from Namco, but now he had to wrestle with a basic question. How could he sell LEDZone to Japanese gamers?

There were a lot of stumbling blocks. Japanese people, according to Tsuchiya, prefer simple interfaces like joysticks and dislike keyboards. The kind of facility that Tsuchiya envisioned had no precedent in Japan. And the Counter-Strike user population in Japan, by his estimate, was only 2,000 people, so LEDZone had no built-in user base.

Tsuchiya’s first order of business was designing a facility that would appeal to Japanese gamers. He feels that one of the most important criteria to gamers’ enjoyment is fair competition, so he’s taken steps to ensure that users are matched with appropriate opponents. Customers have unique user profiles that include a skill rating based on play time and kill ratio: the staff makes sure that newbies play newbies and experts play experts.

In the course of Tsuchiya’s research, he found that bad online manners and cheating are “big problems” in overseas online CS games. LEDZone solves both these problems. Unsurprisingly, playing in the same room with both teammates and opponents naturally curbs the use of four-letter words--or their Japanese equivalents--in online chat, and players don’t have admin privileges for the LEDZone PCs, so cheats can’t be installed.

Tsuchiya’s background in visual marketing and previous experience in leading development of a number of Namco’s theme parks came in handy: he knows about creating environments that attract people. The fact that some gamers spend five or six hours a day at LEDZone make it clear that Tsuchiya’s design succeeded. The shop looks a little bit like a Star Trek set: dim lighting, neon highlights around the game machines, and the color scheme is heavy on red, black, and stainless steel.

The shop uses PCs housed in custom consoles: flat screens, plush upholstered seats, and special keyboards that have white keys for a, s, d, w, and the space bar, and black keys everywhere else. There’s a subwoofer mounted flush with the floor in front of each seat, just where your feet naturally come to rest, so gamers feel each gunshot and explosion through the soles of their feet.

Once Tsuchiya had his hardware, he needed to work on the software. Of course, Counter-Strike NEO needed a Japanese interface. The sign-in and configuration screens are now in Japanese, with updated graphics, and all messages during gameplay are displayed in Japanese. While the engineers were tweaking the interface, they also optimized the game’s graphics code for the GeForce 4 cards used in all LEDZone PCs, yielding higher-resolution textures and improved frame rates. There’s also some new code that associates each player’s configuration preferences with his profile, so that a player’s settings travel with him no matter which PC or which LEDZone location he’s using.

Location was an important consideration as well. The first LEDZone is near Japan Engineering College, a school with a special focus on multimedia and CG--obviously a great source of potential customers. The second LEDZone is located inside a high-traffic video arcade in Ikebukuro, another promising location, and Tsuchiya tells me that the customer base here is growing even faster than at the first store.

Another inducement is LEDZone’s introductory price: 100 yen for the first two hours. That’s less than a dollar, and this pricing does seem to be effective in persuading people to come in and try CS: Neo for the first time. After two hours, the hook is set, and many gamers are willing to pay the full price of 300 yen ($2.75) per half-hour on subsequent visits.

Finally, Tsuchiya looks closely at how to train and prep all LEDZone staff. There are two positions: first, there are the coaches who teach CS Neo to new users, and second, there are the experienced players who help customers improve their games. Though LEDZone has both female and male staff, there are more women working there than you might expect. Tsuchiya cheerfully admits to having borrowed an idea from the LAN cafes he visited in Hong Kong. “One place only hired young women. And, well, most of our customers are young men, so we tried to think what they would prefer…”

Tomorrow's Part 4: How Tsuchiya hopes to use a unique value proposition, and licensing, to differentiate and grow the LEDZone concept.

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