Though Crunchyroll Games is publishing free-to-play mobile games for now, it wants to work with console and PC games too.
Crunchyroll has been a prominent name in the anime industry for years now. The company has been the go-to for anime streaming for a while, but it has expanded into other ventures in recent years, with one of the most interesting being video game publishing.
In 2016, Crunchyroll Games began publishing games based on anime or original titles featuring anime-like art styles--the most recent of which, Princess Connect! Re:Dive, released in the US on January 19 after a successful launch in Asia back in 2018. The publisher has worked on games about other established properties, like Mob Psycho 100, as well as original IP, like Grand Alliance, all in the hopes of promoting types of games that traditionally haven't done as well in the west. Though there are exceptions, like last year's Genshin Impact, plenty of anime or anime-looking games just don't make a splash in American or European markets.
"I think [game publishing] goes in hand with our philosophy, which is our long-term vision to be a more significant kind of piece of that anime ecosystem, of that puzzle," Crunchyroll general manager of games & head of 360 Terry Li told me. "We already are on the video side, but I think on the game side, there's certainly an aspiration that we want to get more involved in game development, game publishing. Not for the sake of just doing that, but because we do believe that today there's an abundance of games that get made in Asia around this anime ecosystem that don't fully consider a global audience."
Li mentions that developers tend to design for their immediate audience. Which, of course, makes sense. An American developer is likely designing its game with an American audience in mind, so it stands to reason, as Li argues, that the same is true for Asian developers. A Chinese developer likely most cares about appealing to the immediate Chinese audience, for instance, and a Japanese developer likely feels the same way for Japanese audiences. And because of this design philosophy, certain games don't translate as well when they're ported overseas.
"And that's why you statistically see so many games that get ported over, they only do anywhere between 15 to 20% of what they did back home, even within the case where it's a global audience," Li said. "And part of that is because they don't put as much effort into marketing it and part of that is that they designed the core loop and the narrative to fit within the initial audience. And they haven't really thought, 'Well, do Western audiences play games like this?'"
That's where Crunchyroll Games wants to come in. Crunchyroll has been in the anime space--an industry that, like gaming, straddles both the western and eastern hemispheres--and thus it has a great deal of experience in how to market the same piece of media to two very different audiences. As it stands, anime and gaming audiences have a lot of overlap, so Crunchyroll being able to reach the former means it can market to the latter as well. For now, that means helping games from Chinese and Japanese developers better translate their systems for Western audiences, though Crunchyroll Games wants to do more in the years to come.
"Starting this year with Princess Connect and going forward, we do have a lot more involvement, if only at least around ensuring that the overall narrative within the game and the anime makes sense," Li said. "We are hoping to leverage our kind of expertise in anime to provide more data points and share more feedback to our partners in Japan, helping them navigate where the storylines [between the anime and the game] should diverge or should evolve or should pivot entirely."
Beyond that, Crunchyroll Games wants to take a more active role in the development process for anime games and indie games with anime-inspired art styles, assisting studios with ensuring their titles appeal to a global audience, regardless of whether those players watch anime. According to Li, the point is to get "games that were relatively unknown, or at least underserved in the Western market" into the hands of players that may like these types of games, they just don't yet know they exist. "Practically speaking, the reason we focused on free-to-play so far in mobile is, we're really trying to create a more this feeling of accessibility," Li said. "We want to be able to get our games into as many people's hands as possible. And so we made the conscious decision that putting up a paywall or a game that you have to purchase will severely limit the audience."
Li adds that as Crunchyroll Games grows, it hopes to impact genres beyond free-to-play mobile titles. Working with the studios that develop console and PC anime games or titles that feature anime-inspired art is the next step. "As the situation evolves, we will certainly start looking at games that can do cross-platform or support cross-play," Li said. Because that's becoming more and more common nowadays."
For now, though, Crunchyroll Games is sticking to mobile games and already has a few more titles in the pipe. Li wasn't able to share what those were with me, but I did ask if any might have come about based on the announcement of the recent acquisition of Crunchyroll by Funimation, a company that's in turn owned by Sony, which of course owns the PlayStation platform. "Good question," Li said. "To be honest, we just haven't had this discussion. The deal is still in the works and so as of right now, we're operating under 'business as usual.' But if that situation does come, if the deal actually closes, then I'm sure we will talk about it. But nothing yet."
For now, if you're looking to download a Crunchyroll Games title, you do have a few options. As previously mentioned, Princess Connect! Re:Dive is the most recent release--it also got an anime in 2020, one of our favorites for the year, which is getting a second season in 2021. However, there's also Mass of the Dead, Grand Alliance, Naruto X Boruto Ninja Tribes, Mob Psycho 100: Psychic Battle, RWBY: Crystal Match, and Grand Summoners. All seven games are available for both Android and iOS devices.