Key differences for licensing mobile IP in the U.S., Japan, and China

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Games using licensed IP are a steady presence in the top-grossing ranks of iOS games. Finding the correct IP for your genre and market can significantly differentiate your game’s player acquisition, especially in the post-IDFA era. A good IP supports a game’s subgenre, player demographic and game feature set and should be knitted together from an early stage to ensure an optimal playing experience. Let’s look into some of the IP utilization trends and how they differ significantly across three of the major iOS markets we track: the U.S., Japan, and China.

United States

Above: External IPs in U.S. market.

Image Credit: GameRefinery by Vungle

Above: Shares of different IPs by type.

Image Credit: GameRefinery by Vungle

Looking at the most successful games in the U.S. iOS market, it’s clear that, with the notable exception of Pokémon Go, the top 10 grossing list is full of original games not based on well-known external IPs.

Looking at current data, we see that the share of IP-based titles (excluding PC and mobile IPs such as Call of Duty, Angry Birds, or Candy Crush) had risen modestly to 27% versus when we last looked in 2019, when it was 24%. The distribution of different external IP types is relatively even in the U.S., with TV/movie and consumer product-based IPs taking the lead. We can also see a spread of game genre types being used by the IP from midcore games such as turn-based, fighting, and action-RPG through to casual Match 3. There are also narrative-based games such as Interactive Story and Adventure.

Above: Subgenres of sustained top-grossing 100 games in the U.S. with a TV/movie IP.

Image Credit: GameRefinery by Vungle

In these top-100 grossing games, there are clear synergies at work between IPs and game subgenres. IPs with a rich selection of heroes and villains, such as the Marvel Universe, are combined with RPG subgenres that take full advantage of this diversity. The same goes for 4X strategy games that utilize the existing rich character selection and the competing factions dynamic present in IPs like Game of Thrones.

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For the U.S. market, the most successful IP strategy is to take a well-known brand such as the Marvel Universe, with its extensive character roster and action-packed world and adapt it to an RPG subgenre. The U.S. market also favors fighting games more than China and Japan that often opt for turn-based or action-RPGs.

Japan

Above: External IPs in Japanese market.

Image Credit: GameRefinery by Vungle

Sixty-six percent of the top 200 grossing iOS games are based on some kind of external IP. What sets Japan apart from the US (but, as we shall see, is similar to China), is that a large part of these IPs are existing popular game titles on other platforms, with 57% of IP-based games having the game (PC/console/arcade) or the game (mobile) IP type.

Anime/manga is the most popular non-game IP used in sustained top 200 grossing games in Japan. This mirrors the popularity of comic and TV-based IPs in the U.S. Since popular anime and manga franchises are widely known, they’re easy to integrate into the broader brand universe. Another IP type that stands out is the use of PC/console/arcade IPs. However, this is often the result of using multiplatform IPs such as Pokémon or other anime and game iterations.

RPGs, especially turn-based games, are a popular choice to combine with anime/manga IPs. This follows the overall popularity of turn-based RPGs in the Japanese market. In the RPG genre, 72% of games in the sustained top-grossing 200 list have an external IP. The most popular of these are anime/manga with 22% and game (PC/console/arcade), with 30%. While there can be some overlap between these (Fate/Grand Order is an example of a game with both), the two emerge as clear favorites in top-performing RPGs in Japan.

Above: Sustained top-grossing 100 games in Japan with the anime/manga IP. This list full of different types of RPGs.

Image Credit: GameRefinery by Vungle

RPGs are often a good fit with anime/manga titles since both tend to be character-driven, with existing fan bases both for the title and individual characters. This gives ample opportunity for character collection and development mechanics and gacha or other character acquisition-based monetization. People are likely to want to collect and develop their favorite characters to perfection.

Other subgenres such as match-3 use IPs much less, with many successful entries being the same ones we see in top-grossing lists in other markets such as the U.S. However, this dynamic changes when we look at the puzzle-RPG subgenre, where anime IPs are again popular. This includes successful titles like Dragon Ball Z Dokkan Battle, currently sitting in the top-grossing 50. This again shows that anime IPs work well with deeper games with character development and collection mechanics.

China

Above: External IPs in China.

Image Credit: GameRefinery by Vungle

Above: Different types of IPs in China.

Image Credit: GameRefinery by Vungle

Games based on PC/console/arcade IPs dominate in China with 51% of games with IPs opting for this type. Most of these come from PC games as consoles are restricted in China.

Japanese anime/manga titles are also popular, with both localized Japanese games and original productions made for the Chinese market utilizing anime and manga IPs, such as One Piece: Fighting Path, finding its way into the top-grossing 200. However, all other IP types are relatively evenly represented in this market.

Above: The most successful Chinese mobile games based on the game subgenre (PC/console/arcade).

Image Credit: GameRefinery by Vungle

Comic/novel IPs are also popular, which explains the popularity of games based on wuxia (martial arts) and novels in the MMORPG subgenre. These novels tend to be widely known among Chinese readers and often have expansive character rosters and draw their inspiration from ancient China, which fits the popular aesthetic among many Chinese MMORPGs. Moonlight Blade is an example of a game based on a classic wuxia novel, together with other top 100 titles such as The Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils.

Popular Chinese games tend to lean heavily toward midcore subgenres such as MMORPG and 4X strategy. A particularity of the Chinese market is that these are often adapted from existing PC game titles, with expansive storylines and relatively complex game mechanics. Examples include Three Kingdoms Tactics and Moonlight Blade, both of which are in the top-grossing 20 and are adapted from or based on PC games.

The Chinese mobile game market favors more serious, complex IPs at the cost of lighter IP types that were often directed initially toward a younger audience (brands such as Pokémon come to mind). More expansive worlds and serious, deep in-game storylines and lore are a good fit with midcore games. The biggest reason for complex IPs is the region’s history with PC history and thus its IPs. While there have been initiatives to limit minors’ gaming for some years already, the government hasn’t really been enforcing them strictly. The most recent restrictions that rolled out during last month might have some effect going forward. For instance, five years ago there were no limitations to minors of any kind and the market was already favoring more “complex” IPs.

What we’ve learned

Intellectual property use in all markets hovers at the 25%-30% mark when we exclude existing game IP types (think Pac-Man, Warcraft, and the like). This means that there’s still room to discover new opportunities for combining games with a popular IP (such as Demon Slayer). As we’ve seen, the three markets here all have significant differences in what IP brands achieve commercial success in the iOS market. In the highest-grossing games, local is king: Each market favors IPs that consumers already know and love, such as anime titles for Japan and comic and TV properties for the U.S.

Finally, in the post-IFDA world, IPs can serve as a vital organic pathway for user acquisition. By tapping into a known brand with an established base of enthusiastic fans and combining it with the right type of game, developers and publishers can access a large potential pool of players  who will discover their game without seeing targeted ads.

Mikael Orpana is the head of marketing at analytics company GameRefinery by Vungle, which provides feature level analytics, market insights, and benchmarks for the mobile gaming industry.

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