Level-5 has created some of the most successful Japanese exports of the generation, yet its inner workings remain a mystery. Dave Cook speaks with the CEO Akihiro Hino to gain some insight.
The city of Fukuoka rests on the northern shore of Kyushu, Japan's third-largest island. It's said to be a place where metropolitan living, clean streets, and innovation are commonplace, and serves as one of the country's key entertainment-producing hubs. Among the prosperity and potential sits Level-5, arguably one of the most successful game studios in Japan today.
Founded in 1998, Level-5's notoriety in the West has grown considerably over the years, thanks to critically-acclaimed releases such as the stellar PS2 role-playing epic Dragon Quest VIII, and of course its highly successful Professor Layton series, which saw it building a strong working relationship with Nintendo.
The Layton series is itself a phenomenon - having surpassed lifetime sales of 13 million units sold in March this year - but it's still rare to hear the company talking about its good fortune, or about the way it operates internally. Typically, Nintendo or other publishers do all the talking on its behalf.
Here in the West, developers and their publishers often wax lyrical during pre-planned and often-expensive press junkets, giving game critics an insight into how they function. Yet here is Level-5, a company that remains relatively guarded in the West, saying very little on these shores itself, but still enjoying significant success.
It's a mystery to many, yet a growing number of its games are globally recognised. In 2010, Level-5 released a set of photos from within its lush Fukuoka HQ, giving the impression that the studio was doing rather well indeed.
Try this glittering view on for size:
This rare glimpse sparked new interest in the press concerning Level-5's inner workings, and highlighted a studio enjoying great success across the globe. It's a studio that has always fascinated me, yet I've actually known very little about it.
I was lucky enough to secure an email interview with Level-5 President and CEO Akihiro Hino in an attempt to strip back some of the mystery and ask him about how the company operates, the role of its newly-opened 'International America' studio, and its next releases Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, and Professor Layton Vs Ace Attorney.
It's important to note that Hino conceptualises and produces every game that comes out of Level-5, suggesting that he has a good eye for quality. In fact, Hino holds standards in high regard, as suggested in his official Level-5 mission statement. This keen eye for quality and bankable concepts is an asset that has helped the studio become one of the ten largest game companies in Japan today.
Among his company's many qualities, Hino attributes Level-5's current standing to its broad reach beyond Japan's borders, "I believe that it’s because some of our original titles such as the Professor Layton series or the Inazuma Eleven series have gained so much traction outside of Japan.
"I also believe that it’s because we put in the time and effort to make every single release a success, even if it doesn’t end up becoming a franchise. Our company started with only ten people, and we’ve grown to house close to 300 staff as well as new departments, such as PR, marketing, and sales. We’ve also expanded our stage beyond video games into anime, manga, and movies.
“Time moves extremely fast in this generation, and so it is very important to predict what audiences want now more than ever before.”
"But we still maintain the ideals we had at the beginning: We want to create five-star titles that everyone can enjoy. We’re striving to become one of the top entertainment brands in the world."
It didn't start this way for Hino of course, as he first got his foot in the door at now-defunct studio Riverhillsoft in the early '90s. His first job was as lead programmer on PlayStation survival horror title Overblood, and after work had wrapped on the game's sequel, Hino decided to branch off with a group of colleagues with a view to creating his own company.
Hino was initially unsure of his ability to form a company that could compete as an independent studio, so he turned to Sony and began talking business. Sony quickly offered him a PlayStation 2 publishing deal on the provision that he create his own studio first, and as such, Level-5 was born. In 2000 the studio began work on its first title, the critically-acclaimed RPG Dark Cloud.
It wasn't until 2007 that Level-5 released its first self-published game: the runaway Nintendo DS hit Professor Layton and the Curious Village. While the game was published by Nintendo in the West, Hino had proved that his growing studio could stand up on its home turf among a sea of giants.
Hino agreed however that these are now volatile times, and that the gaming populace and market at large are becoming harder to predict as the industry advances, "I believe that our success can be attributed to LEVEL-5’s speed and flexibility as an organization.
"I may be at the helm, but our greatest strength as a company is our ability to adapt quickly so that we don’t miss out on opportunities, whether they are in production or advertising. Time moves extremely fast in this generation, and so it is very important to predict what audiences want now more than ever before.
"I believe we will eventually see things separate into two polar extremes," Hino added in regard to the way software might shift moving forward, "One type of game that can be picked up and played on the go, such as those on cell phones for example, while console and PC games will be more cinematic, with higher quality imagery. Games continue to grow and develop based on these loose definitions."
“Ni no Kuni began as a concept that for our 10th anniversary as a company, we wanted to create something that we were passionate about and that would have meaning, instead of focusing on sales.”
In an attempt to catch wider trends and to branch out into the global market, Level-5 opened its first Western site earlier this year, dubbed 'Level-5 International America'. The studio recently released the GUILD01 collection on Nintendo 3DS, which is a four-game compilation featuring contributions from Grasshopper Manufacture founder Suda 51, creator of Dreamcast oddity Seaman Yoot Saito and Ogre Battle creator Yasumi Matsuno.
I asked Hino what Level-5 International America exists to achieve, and whether or not this expansion overseas could lead to a collaboration with Western studios further down the line, "One way they benefit us is to help us understand the culture outside of Japan. Another is to make LEVEL-5’s entertainment available to everyone in their native language. Level-5 International America is an invaluable partner to making these things happen.
"We don’t have any plans to partner with any Western studios at this time. However, these types of collaborations between two popular studios seem to create hype and set player expectations that could be compared to the feeling you get at a celebration in some ways.
"From a developer’s point of view, these opportunities are very appealing, as we get to understand and learn each other’s culture, techniques, technology, and see a new point of view on product development."
So that's not a 'no' on the Western collaboration front, but given Hino's scant reply to questions regarding the way in which his studio operates, I got the feeling that it's still an area that remains shrouded - whether this is deliberate or not remains up for debate.
Thankfully Hino seemed much happier to discuss the studio's incoming releases - Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney - due for release on PS3 and 3DS next year respectively.
Working with the 'Disney of Japan'
Hino believes that through Level-5, and his involvement with local movement the Game Factory Friendship, he can help turn the studio's home of Fukuoka into what he calls the “Hollywood of the gaming industry." Collaborating with Studio Ghibli - widely regarded to be the Japanese equivalent of Disney - is a solid step towards realising this lofty goal.
The partnership resulted in the development of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on PS3, and the Japan-only DS release Ni no Kuni: Shikkoku no Madōshi. The PS3 game has yet to launch in the West, despite releasing in Japan back in November last year.
Hino confirmed that the delay is largely down to translation, with the game's entire script resulting in, "a million Japanese characters." Given the size of the RPG, it's no surprise that localisation has taken so long.
“We gave Studio Ghibli and Momose-san a general plot idea and the high concept of the world. Then we gave them complete freedom to create their own world that would realise Studio Ghibli’s style to the fullest.”
I ask Hino to go back to the beginning, and to recall how the collaboration with the artistic driving force came about, "Ni no Kuni began as a concept that for our 10th anniversary as a company, we wanted to create something that we were passionate about and that would have meaning, instead of focusing on sales.
"We discussed the idea with Studio Ghibli to give the game its unique identity, which is more important than anything else when creating a game. We had many discussions with Momose-san, the animation director from Ghibli, about each character’s concept art, the art boards, and the story boards.
"We also had the actors give us their performance advice at the motion capture studio for direction. Momose-san was overjoyed that the game ended up very close to Studio Ghibli’s hand-drawn animation style, to the point that it’s like playing a game inside a Studio Ghibli film."
Hino's not wrong. Ni No Kuni really does capture the essence of what makes Studio Ghiibli's films so endearing. It follows orphaned boy Oliver who is sucked into an alternate reality and begins a long quest to find his mother Arie. it's a turn-based RPG that feels like a solid amalgamation of Level-5's work to date.
It has the art style of Ghibli combined with the colourful palette of Dragon Quest VIII, the charm of Professor Layton and the strategic thinking of Dark Cloud, Rogue Galaxy and other Level-5 titles. It's a wonderful celebration of all the things Hino strives for, and its an end-product that relied heavily on mutual respect.
"We gave Studio Ghibli and Momose-san a general plot idea and the high concept of the world," Hino explained. "Then we gave them complete freedom to create their own world that would realise Studio Ghibli’s style to the fullest. Since we gave them free reign to work exactly as they do when creating an animated film, we did not ask them to do anything outside of their comfort zone. All-in-all it went very smoothly."
The puzzling professor
Level-5 is also working on the madcap Professor Layton Vs Ace Attorney for Nintendo 3DS, in with the studio's flagship hero crosses paths with Capcom's blundering lawyer Phoenix Wright. The game takes the pair back to the days of witch hunts, in which innocent women were charged with witch craft - which of course is the perfect kind of court case for Wright-flavoured escapades.
It's a bizarre crossover, but the project's strange nature is exactly why Hino pursued it in the first place, confident that the freedom of both franchises would yield positive results, "When the project began, I was very excited to see what kind of story would evolve when the worlds of Professor Layton and Ace Attorney were merged.
"The main characters wander into a place where knights and magic are reality, and they have to tackle a large puzzle called a Witch Trial in a world where common sense is invalid. The story unfolds in a way that’s never been done in either series, and I think that players will be excited to see how it all works.
“We have many, many elements included in the game, and it will not only be a puzzle-solving game, but true entertainment.”
"It’s interesting how at first, having the two characters and their distinctive styles in the same game seems very fresh and unique, but as you progress through the game, the two characters and their worlds start to collide and this fusion starts to feel like it was normal all along."
Beyond Level-5's crossover, the core Layton series is approaching its final chapter. The game's working title is Professor Layton and the Azran Legacies, and it's also in development for 3DS. Hino teases that this will be a vast, globe-spanning outing for the professor, and one that the studio has gone to great lengths to achieve.
Hino explained, "We are preparing some grand mechanics that are fit for such an end. I think the story will also end up being the best in the series as the truth behind Professor Layton and all the characters who have become regulars in the series is revealed.
"This will be an adventure that traverses the entire world, a first in the series, allowing the player to move around the world map freely. And of course, the sheer volume of puzzles will be greater than ever before. We have many, many elements included in the game, and it will not only be a puzzle-solving game, but true entertainment."
“When establishing LEVEL-5, I was set on creating games that would bring the children of today the same excitement I felt as a child. This single desire is what inspired us to start this company.”
Will the series continue on with a new lead or off-shoot? Hino isn't entirely down on the idea, "I don’t know for sure. We haven’t planned anything yet, but I feel that there are many great possibilities in the style of Professor Layton, so we many end up creating something similar to it or in the same vein."
While Layton's adventures are coming to a close, his mark on the industry - in terms of sales, critical reaction and the educational nature of its puzzles - have been felt far and wide. Looking back, Hino is grateful for the series' success, and for the success is has brought to Level-5's door.
"Yes. It has been deeply rewarding," he admitted, "being that Professor Layton was the first title we published ourselves here in Japan. Of course, I always hoped that it would be accepted in the West, but I never expected it to become this popular. It’s the greatest feeling to know that Professor Layton is so well loved in the United Kingdom, because the series is set in England and the character is modelled as a true English Gentlemen."
Level-5 is an entity that has enjoyed great success so far, penetrating Western markets with a great deal of success, and enjoying the kind of sales that should ensure its future for many generations to come. It's refreshing that Hino has never lost site of what makes games special along the way.
Going back to Hino's official company statement one last time, there is a particular line that sets out his vision for Level-5, and it paints a noble, humble view on why his studio makes games in the first place.
"When establishing Level-5, I was set on creating games that would bring the children of today the same excitement I felt as a child. This single desire is what inspired us to start this company."
Judging by the playful, entertaining nature of Level-5's games, and millions of titles it has managed to sell worldwide, I'd say Hino has stayed the course so far. Wouldn't you agree?