There’s an interesting phenomenon that I noticed recently. Unlocalized Asian apps have been going viral in the United States. Users are curious enough about the apps that they’re poking around blindly to figure out how things work.
A few weeks ago, we saw the Chinese-made MyIdol take the US by storm. The app let users take a selfie and superimposed their faces onto a 3D avatar. Users could then dress up their digital selves with different clothes and act out “scenes.” You could watch your miniature selves sing karaoke and even pole dance.
For the last week or so, I’ve witnessed another app spreading like wildfire on Facebook and around the internet. The app is called Neko Atsume, which basically translates to “gather the cats.” This self explanatory title is the entire point of this Japanese game. You leave out toys and food to attract stray cats into your backyard. In exchange for your hospitality, the cats bring you gifts and sardines. Sardines are the game’s currency, used to buy new toys and food.
The interesting thing about both of these viral Asian apps is that American users are using the apps even though they can’t understand what’s written. MyIdol was entirely in Chinese (they recently localized it) and Neko Atsume is in Japanese. Why are users putting up with using an app they can’t read?
Let’s take a look at why people are flocking to these apps in the first place. Both have universal appeal; MyIdol lets us see ourselves in ridiculous and hilarious situations why Neko Atsume just gives us cute cats. Both apps have a universality about them that transcends language and culture.
While the hype and novelty of MyIdol seems to have died off, Neko Atsume is going strong. This is because the game offers something more than novelty (there’s only so many times you can make your avatar pole dance before you get bored). Neko Atsume keeps players coming back to see different cat characters and the gifts they leave.
The gameplay of Neko Atsume isn’t new. There are plenty of other mobile games that use the same “freemium” model (offering the game for free with in-app purchases for items). So why did it go viral?
One reason is that it’s cute as fuck. The art style in the game is basic but endearing. The various cats all have their own personality and you’re kept wondering what other types of cats you’ll encounter in the game. One of the goals in the game is to take pictures of the different cats that visit you to add to your cat photo album. Also, cat buttholes are drawn as an “x,” which for some reason is hilarious and cute.
Neko Atsume already has a feverous fanbase in the US. Just look at the Twitter hashtag #nekoatsume to see how many people are sharing screenshots of their cats. There’s even an entire subreddit dedicated to the game where users strategize about the most efficient ways to get sardines or how to attract “rare” cats. Users are also sharing “daily passwords,” which give players a daily reward for playing.
There’s no definitive answer about why MyIdol and Neko Atsume went viral in the US but both point to the importance of word of mouth. Both apps would never have blown up if people didn’t start sharing their creations on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media. While the apps do have some form of social network integration, the users sharing the apps were compelled to do so because of their own, genuine excitement.
Neither app offers anything new. JibJab preceded MyIdol, but the Chinese app wowed users with its excellent facial recognition abilities. Neko Atsume is basically a city builder with cats. While not new, the novelty of both apps launched them into the spotlight.
In the end, it’s clear that novelty and cuteness work. For how long remains to be seen.