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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

ALSO OUT THERE

Mobage-town a rising-star site of mobile users, but filters loom


Staff writer

Just when mobile phone users may have thought the worldwide proliferation of video games and social networking services into the popular culture left little room for radical new tacks, the combination of the two has opened up new avenues.

News photo
A mobile phone displays the popular site Mobage-town managed by DeNA Co. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

But one such popular provider may find some of its avenues closed off under a new filtering regime.

Mobage-town, which offers the combined service, has become a giant in Japan's mobile phone Web world since its February 2006 launch, especially with young people.

The Web site is managed by DeNA Co., established in 1999, and can be accessed only by subscribers to NTT DoCoMo, KDDI's au service or Softbank Mobile.

Tetsuhiro Kaneko, head of DeNA's public relations group, said Mobage-town had about 8.65 million registered members at the end of December. DeNA's rapid expansion is remarkable, even compared with mixi Inc., another SNS giant, which successfully attracted about 3 million subscribers to its Web site in around two years.

Mobage-town pages were viewed an average of 480 million times a day in December.

In November 2006, about 70 percent of the members were teenagers, but the demography of users has shifted since the company began promoting itself through wider means, including TV commercials. Now, teen account for just 44 percent, with an increase of users in their 20s and 30s.

The company announced last week that it will establish a subsidiary in California to use a Mobage-town business model to exploit the U.S. market.

Its members can play more than 120 cell phone games, with one or two new games added every week, after registering for free. They are also given SNS accounts as well as avatars — the online characters to represent them — for free.

When DeNA started Mobage-town, there were few free game services, but Kaneko said the company already had a certain number of potential users who were also members of Mobaoku, a mobile auction service run by DeNA, so it was able to spread quickly from an early stage.

It was also not just gaming that got the young interested in it.

"If it was just a game, people would leave when they were done with it," Kaneko said. "So we thought users would stay longer if we added the SNS function."

Users can also check the information of a person who has attained a high score in a game and send a message to ask for tips, thus making games and SNS interactive.

Another feature that drew users to the service is avatars that appear in not only its SNS pages but also on occasions such as playing games with others online or when viewing the rankings of a game's record scores.

To make their avatars stand out, users can select from 20,000 clothes items.

Newly registered members get 300 Mobagold, virtual money mainly used to purchase clothes and items for avatars. Users can also earn Mobagold by introducing their friends to Mobage-town.

The site has experienced tremendous growth and has started providing other services, including a search engine and news. It now describes itself as a total Web portal.

The company, however, may face a challenge due to a new instruction by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

On Dec. 10, the ministry asked mobile phone carriers to install a filtering service in new phones as a default setting to block minors from harmful sites.

Under the ministry's new guidelines, new mobile phone users who are under 20 will need to obtain parental permission to remove such a setting, while existing users under 18 will have to submit similar permission or they will find themselves blocked from sites on the filter list.

Due to fears that some people might try to use community sites as dating sites, nearly all community sites that include functions like chatting and Web mailing, including Mobage-town, are on the filtering list set by filtering companies.

The day after the ministry made the announcement, DeNA shares fell sharply.

Kaneko said the company is not sure how the new guideline will actually affect the operation of Mobage-town until it comes into effect nationwide.

To improve its security, the company stopped providing its mail service to users under 13. It also began restricting mail exchanges of users under 18 in December.

This is an occasional series focusing on hot topics, people, events and trends in today's Japan.


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