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This anime girl derby mobile game is taking over Japan

Written by Headline Asia Published on     7 mins read

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Headline Asia takes a closer look at the factors behind the success of Uma Musume.

Uma Musume Pretty Derby, which translates as “Horse Girl Pretty Derby,” is a racing game inspired by real-life racehorses personified by anime style girls (yes, it’s… a thing). Sure, the concept might raise a few eyebrows, but the red-hot popularity of this game is nothing to scoff at.

Since its release on February 24, 2021, the game Uma Musume Pretty Derby, or just Uma Musume, has rapidly gained steam and surpassed 9 million downloads as of July 20. Last month, the game celebrated its six-month anniversary, and it was a hot topic, particularly because there were surprise gifts for users, such as jewels and the character Silence Suzuka as login bonuses.

In Uma Musume Pretty Derby, anime girls are your racers. Image courtesy of Cygames via Headline Asia.

Whenever new information is announced, the associated keywords instantly become trending topics on Twitter in Japan. There’s even been a rise in folks using the game’s soundtrack on TikTok. Even if you have never played the game itself, there are probably many people who have seen the word “Uma Musume” on social networking sites. In this article, we take a close look at the factors behind the success of Uma Musume.

In the training simulation game, you work as a trainer with your “horse girl” to win races. At first glance, Uma Musume is your standard free-to-play mobile app, but in fact, Uma Musume is a mixed-media entity that has been developed through anime, manga, and other media. Of course, the purpose of these other mediums were always to bring the focus back to the game app, which monetizes gameplay through gachas. In the manga and anime, the universe is the same but the storylines are different. This allows the Uma Musume fandom to access different facets of the universe.

But success did not come overnight. The Uma Musume project launched in March 2016. It was announced at AnimeJapan 2016 held at Tokyo Big Sight. The manga was subsequently published on Cygames’ webcomic site Saikomi from May to September 2016. A 13-episode anime TV Series adaptation by P. A. Works ran from April to June 2018. It was followed by a second season from Studio Kai that ran from January until March 2021. An anime TV series adaptation of the spin-off manga Umayon aired from July to September 2020. Another second season of the anime TV series aired in the summer of 2020.

Initially, the game was announced to be released in the winter of 2018, but after a delay of almost three years, it was finally released on February 24, 2021. The explanation behind the prolonged wait was to improve the quality of the game, and by all accounts, the postponement paid off. For fans who had enjoyed Uma Musume in the comics and anime, this was a long-awaited game app release.

Game overview

The bulk of the game consists of training your “horse” (or rather, animated avatar girl with equine-ears and tail) to win races. Training sessions distinguish Uma Musume from other gacha games. If you’ve ever played a sim-raising game, you’ll be in familiar territory.

There are over 70 unique Uma Musume characters. Each of them has different characteristics, such as “ease of training” and “suitable distance.” The key to winning races is to train each of the avatars with these characteristics in mind. Training mode is the heart of gameplay. However, raising a bunch of characters with no other possibilities would almost certainly feel a little empty. That is why there are a few other modes where you can show off your characters.

The racing portion is where you can enjoy the powerful races of the avatars you have trained. Race results are decided by AI, so once the race starts, you have no choice but to trust the character you have trained. Sometimes, the results comes down to luck. After each race, a “Winning Live” is held where the winners perform a dance.

The more races you win, the more songs you can watch, and once a song is performed, you can watch it as many times as you like. The main content of the game spans training, racing, and watching live performances, but you can also use the “support card” system to enhance your horse girl’s abilities, or the friendship training system to interact with other horse girls and go out with them. Utilizing this kind of content will not only strengthen the character, but will also make the game more enjoyable for users.

What makes Uma Musume unique?

#1. A tribute to real horses in history

History buffs will love this fact. One of the main reasons why Uma Musume has become a hit is because its characters are based on actual famous horses that lived. There’s Tokai Teio, Daiwa Scarlet, and Special Week, whose heart-wrenching, real-life story is actually a part of the character’s backstory.

A photo of Special Week (left) and its corresponding character in Uma Musume. Image courtesy of Cygames and Headline Asia.

Special Week’s mother, which was also a racehorse, died soon after giving birth to Special Week. However, Special Week was a record-breaking horse, as you can see from her first-place finish in the 1998 Japanese Derby (Tokyo Yushun), her consecutive wins in the 1999 Tennou-sho (Spring and Autumn), and to miss the top three just one time in 17 career races in the Kyoto Taisho-sen by the age of five. According to the official website, Uma Musume’s Special Week is “honest, cheerful, and hardworking. Her mother died soon after she was born, and she was left in the care of her mother’s best friend, a human woman.” Even the way the character is drawn is an homage to the animal. The white forelock on Uma Musume’s Special Week’s head is thought to be a faithful reflection of the elongated white star in the middle of the actual horse’s forehead.

The history of the famous horses, their appearances, their personalities, and all play into the high-level of realization of their characters in the game. This respect for history is fascinating for the players.

Of course, not all of them are realistic reflections of the actual stories, like Silence Suzuka. She was also an excellent horse, but she suffered a breakdown during the 118th Tennou-sho (Autumn) race in 1998—when she was the overwhelming favorite—and was eventually euthanized. However, in the game, Silence Suzuka is a very strong character. In other words, through the Uma Musume game, you can experience the alternate storyline that never happened in the real world, and this is what makes horse racing fans so passionate about the game. Horse racing fans will also be fascinated by the realism of the live coverage during races.

Uma Musume’s races are sprints that involve the game’s anime girls. Screencap by Headline Asia.

#2. A sim-raising structure that keeps players coming back

Uma Musume has a complex game structure for a training simulation game. As mentioned earlier, it is not a straightforward game as you need to develop each of your characters based on their individuality and characteristics.

Additionally, there’s a trait called “Inheritance” that allows you to pass on the abilities of an Uma Musume who has been inducted into the Hall of Fame, or whose training has been completed, to another character you will train in the future. This is a highly attractive feature that encourages users to continue training and raising different “horse girls,” in order to combine them for even more advanced capabilities.

#3. Extremely strong graphics for a mobile game

The three-year delay for the release of the game was intended to up the quality of its graphics and gameplay—and it certainly shows. We were pleasantly surprised by how good the graphics were for a mobile game. During races and the live performances, users can actually change the camera angle to their liking for a different view.

Uma Musume by the numbers

According to a financial report by CyberAgent, the parent company of Cygames, which manages Uma Musume Pretty Derby, the company posted sales of JPY 192.2 billion (USD 1.75 billion) and operating income of JPY 44.5 billion (USD 405 million) for the quarter from April to June 2021.

This amount would represent a 70.3% increase in sales and a 540% increase in operating profit over the previous year, which is a phenomenal growth rate. CyberAgent is engaged in three main businesses: games, advertising, and media. Although its media business is in the red, the advertising and games businesses are overwhelmingly profitable.

Since the distribution of Uma Musume began, the profit margin of the game business has been enormous. In the period of October to December 2020, ahead of the launch of Uma Musume Pretty Derby, sales were JPY 29.9 billion (USD 272 million), down 15% YoY, and operating income was JPY 1.1 billion (USD 10 million), down 77.8% YoY, both of them down from the previous year.

In February 2021, post-Uma Musume, from January to March 2021, sales jumped to JPY 63.9 billion (USD 581 million), up 42.7% YoY, while operating income was JPY 23.2 billion (USD 211 million), up 122.3% YoY. The operating margin was about 36%.

In the third quarter from April to June 2021, sales were JPY 92.3 billion (USD 840 million), up 151.7% YoY. Operating income was JPY 44.2 billion (USD 402 billion), up 483.5% YoY. The operating income margin was about 47%.

CyberAgent’s media business posted sales of JPY 19.9 billion (USD 181 billion) for the period from April to June 2021, up 48.7% from the previous year, but an operating loss of JPY 3.8 billion (USD 34.6 million). However, the number of downloads of ABEMA, which is the core media of this media business, has continued to rise steadily since its release on April 11, 2016, surpassing 68 million downloads in five years and three months of operation.

The TV animation of Uma Musume Pretty Derby is also being broadcasted on ABEMA. However, as experienced investors know, if we focus only on the profit of a certain business, things may look negative. In order to continuously earn profits over the medium to long term, it is necessary to view the big picture of the business and examine the interrelationship of these businesses regardless of whether they are in the red or in the black. The fact is, one cannot ignore the media mix aspect of Uma Musume as a primary factor in its success.

We’re excited to see just how Uma Musume will continue to attract users and develop its business in the future.

This article was originally published on Headline Asia’s Medium site. It is reposted here with permission from Headline Asia.

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