Big in Japan – why Knives Out, not Fortnite, might win the mobile Battle Royale
Updated: May 7, 2018
Fortnite is currently one of the hottest games in the US on console, PC, and mobile. While it's making a splash in Japan, mobile players are more interested (and invested) in a competing Battle Royale game.
A.I. Games’ virtual streamer Kizuna AI playing Fortnite
The success of mobile Battle Royale games like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) and Fortnite has taken a lot of people in the industry by surprise, but nowhere has this surprise been more evident than in the Japanese mobile market.
EEDAR’s research has shown that, on the whole, Japanese mobile gamers view personal progression and collection as compelling reasons to engage with (and spend in) a Free-to-Play mobile game – while the idea of competitive PvP gameplay doesn’t really resonate strongly with the Japanese mobile gaming market.
However, all of that was turned on its ear when Netease released Knives Out this past January. The initial version of the game lacked any localization (or even a Japanese language option) but it skyrocketed to the top of the Japanese download charts almost instantaneously.
On one hand, this shouldn’t be surprising. Japan is the country where the concept of “battle royale” as we know it originated. Koushun Takami’s seminal novel, Battle Royale, was published in 1999 and was quickly adapted to a manga then an extremely popular movie in 2000. For a generation of Japanese 30-somethings, the idea of a Battle Royale game hits a sweet spot of nostalgia and fun.
But while Japan seems very taken with Knives Out, it hasn’t quite seen the appeal of other mobile Battle Royale games like the cultural touchstone Fortnite (yet).
In examining how the two titles performed in the Japanese mobile market, there are some very pronounced differences between them – despite the fact that both games are from the same genre and share similar business models (where players can purchase cosmetic items, outfits, emotes, dances, and the like).
Comparing their performance in terms of downloads, the two Battle Royale titles are at a competitive level of performance. Knives Out made it to the market first but hasn’t suffered much from the competition posed by the newcomer Fortnite.
In fact, Knives Out has sat perched at the top of Japan’s download charts for almost 3 months straight. Fortnite, by contrast, is already starting to slip after a strong surge of popularity.
In terms of financial performance, however, the gulf between the two titles is laid bare.
Knives Out has ranked as a Top-10 grossing game for the better part of 6 weeks now. In a country where “mobile Top-10 grossing game” is synonymous with an RPG hybrid driven by strong Gacha monetization, Knives Out is an outlier.
But what about Fortnite?
Currently, Epic’s take on Battle Royale gameplay is making waves across all platforms and has done extremely well for itself on mobile in many markets. Stateside, Fortnite has never been anything less than the #1 or #2 most downloaded game on the App Store since its launch – and it hasn’t dipped out of the top-five grossing since launch.
Unfortunately, it seems like mobile players in Japan aren’t finding a reason to spend heavily on Fortnite just yet, as it has yet to crack the Top-100 grossing, peaking at #136 for Japanese games.
The real question in all of this is “why?”
Why has Knives Out, a game which was – by all appearances – an attempt to beat Fortnite and PUBG to mobile while cashing in on the popularity of both, been able to maintain strong financial success in the Japanese mobile gaming market while Fortnite, currently the hottest trend in US gaming at the moment, has struggled? There are a few possible explanations.
Firstly, Fortnite is still very much finding its footing in Japan. The HD version just launched on March 8th and it doesn’t quite enjoy the same level of cultural cache that it does in the United States (yet). Some server outages and instability has marred its reception there as well.
Secondly, it can’t be overstated that Knives Out made it to the market first and it may have become a typifier for what Japanese mobile gamers associate with the idea of Battle Royale. If this is true, it may paint a grim picture for competing Battle Royale titles in the space as it suggests the market is tolerant of only a small number of established leaders.
It’s also possible that the more comedic art style of Fortnite may not land well with Japanese players. While Japan has a long-standing love of many things silly and kawaii (cute), what’s kawaii in Japan is different from what’s cute in America. Llamas, pinatas, and fishbowl helmets may be meme-worthy in the US, but they may not have the same over-the-top impact in Japan that they do in the west. Put simply, Japanese gamers may prefer the more realistic presentation of Knives Out over the more cartoony style of Fortnite as it's close to what they expect from Battle Royale as a homegrown concept. Finally, the addition of Fortnite’s building may also be a factor, as Japanese players may view it as an unwelcome - or at least, not compelling - addition to what is otherwise a "pure" Battle Royale experience.
It remains to be seen what impact Fortnite will make on Japan’s mobile charts as the Battle Royale craze wears on, but – for the moment, at least – it seems that Netease’s Knives Out has beaten it to the chicken dinner.
In Japan, at least.
Edit 5/7/2018 - Netease has recently signed the scriptwriter of Battle Royale, Kenta Fukasaku, as the head consultant for Knives Out. Fukasaku will pen an original expansion for Knives Out titled "The Final Battle of Tokyo" - which (like this article) suggests that Japanese mobile gamers are likely to view Knives Out, rather than Fortnite, as the more authentic Battle Royale experience.