Notable Japanese Game Developers: Level-5

Notable Japanese Game Developers: Level-5


What’s interesting about the games industry today is that, even in a rough economic climate, there are enough ways for new and smaller developers to make a name for themselves. All it takes is a little skill and some foresight, and with avenues such as the iTunes store, Steam and digital distribution options across every current-gen game platform, indie developers have several options available to them for the distribution of their software.

Even with big name publishers like Konami, Electronic Arts and Square Enix showing a great deal of interest in digitally distributed games, there’s enough room for the indies to shine. Sure, there’s still a challenge there, one which ultimately boils down to “make good, marketable games”, but with the channel of distribution taken care of and the elimination of shelf space concerns, it’s a good deal easier to be an indie developer now than it was 5 years ago.

What’s truly difficult in this day and age is to compete directly with the big-boy publishers in the realm of commodities that require shelf space, marketing, widespread appeal and true risk-management through careful planning and budgeting / scheduling. It’s even tougher in a country like Japan where the economic recession has arguably had the worst impact and the rapidly aging population has no interest in videogames.

Before we go any further, there’s a few things you should know about Japan at this point in time:

1. Due to a variety of societal issues, the percentage of people aged 65 and above has been rising in Japan rapidly. By 2055, this percentage could be as high as 40%. Needless to say, most of these aged people aren’t interested in playing videogames.

2. Japan is a country where nostalgia isn’t merely acceptable; it is a cultural phenomenon. Japanese gamers like familiarity, and will often resist change stubbornly. This means that the remainder of the Japanese population that is interested in games, is primarily interested in games they’ve grown up playing. Dragon Quest. Final Fantasy. Mario. This makes it extremely tough for new I.P. to grow and prosper.

3. The home console market all but crashed after the PS2’s tenure. One could either attribute this to the Japanese game market “maturing” too quickly or to the resistance against change, but your average Japanese is easily distracted and does not like the thought of having to spend hours in front of the television. Furthermore, Japanese students and salarymen lead busy lives and the majority of them don’t even have time to spend in front of a TV, playing games for hours on end. Handheld consoles like the DS and PSP (and mobile phones) rule the interactive entertainment sector in Japan, and will do so for the foreseeable future.

4. We are in a global recession, which tends to curb spending habits.

Rogue Galaxy It goes without saying that if you aren’t Square Enix or Konami or Capcom or Nintendo, if you aren’t a big name Japanese publisher with a steady stream of well-known IP that will appeal to the average nostalgic Japanese gamer, you‘re probably in for a tough time.

Amazing then, that despite these circumstances, a developer like Level-5 has fought against all odds to become one of the fastest growing Japanese publishers in recent times. Getting to this point certainly hasn’t been easy though, and in honor of Level-5’s vigilance, a brief history lesson seems appropriate.

Level-5 was founded by Akihiro Hino. Prior to founding the company, Hino worked at now defunct developer Riverhillsoft, which started out developing games for the MSX, which was your standard personal computer back in the 1980s. Riverhill Software Inc.’s first’s game for the MSX was J.B. Harold’s Strange Case Files, which went on to become a long-running series starring the titular character.

One of the later games, J.B. Harold Murder Club, was among the first games to deal with the subject of fictional rape, a bold step for which it became the subject of controversy.

It wasn’t until Overblood for the original Playstation though, that Riverhillsoft started to make a name for themselves. Published by Electronic Arts in 1997, Overblood was a survival horror / adventure game, for which Hino was the lead programmer. Although the game didn’t stray far from your standard sci-fi biohazard formula in terms of plot, Hino must have performed well enough during the development of the game, for he was soon promoted to lead designer for the sequel.

Unfortunately, as was the norm back then, Overblood 2 never made it out of Japan, and finding meaty information on the game isn’t easy.

Shortly after Overblood 2, Akihiro Hino quit Riverhillsoft and started up his own development company. Hino was talented and an entrepreneur but was also presumably excellent at networking and acquiring publisher support, given that Level-5’s first game was published by Sony Computer Entertainment.

For those of you that don’t know, here’s a quick rundown of the differences between a developer and a publisher:

1. A developer is the team or studio that actually handles the day-to-day development of the game. Creating the art, creating the character models, handling the programming aspect. In short, they do the legwork.

2. A publisher is the entity that, depending on when they come aboard, funds the game and handles its marketing and promotion. The amount of creative control a publisher has over a project can vary. In some cases, the publisher dictates what they want the game to be like, while in other cases, they take a more “hands-off” approach.

Level-5’s first project was a role-playing game by the name of Dark Cloud. Development of the game began in 1998, shortly after the company was founded. Sony were quite closely involved with the development of Dark Cloud, not just because they were the publisher, but also because a demo of Dark Cloud was to be used to demonstrate the power of the Playstation 2 the following year.

Dark Cloud was originally intended to launch alongside the PS2 in 1999, but the development issues that so commonly plague games prevented it from seeing the light of day until 2000. Dark Cloud was well received and went on to sell over 800,000 copies worldwide, more than enough for a PlayStation 2 game to be considered a success.

Something that bears mentioning is that both Dark Cloud and Dark Chronicle have some of the best music in a videogame you will hear. Tomohito Nishiura, who is with Level-5 to date, did an outstanding job on the soundtracks of both games and it’s music like his that makes you glad game publishers in Japan release official soundtrack CDs of their games.

Akihiro Hino, being the multitalented wonder that he was, wrote, designed and produced Dark Cloud. No mean feat, I can assure you, as each of those jobs comes with a whole slew of responsibilities and stress. Unsurprisingly, a sequel, Dark Chronicle, was greenlit and released in 2002. Hino assumed the same set of roles, those of Scenario writer, Lead Designer and Producer, on this project as well.

Dragon Quest IX By 2002, Level-5 were associated with the quality role-playing experience. Hino and his team had proven that they had what it took to create compelling, unique games, and to do it within a reasonable amount of time.

This reputation is what led to Level-5’s big break shortly thereafter. Level-5 was contracted by Square Enix, one of the world’s most respected developers at the time, to work on the latest installment in Japan’s most popular game franchise: Dragon Quest.

With a scenario written by series staple Yuji Horii and art by Akira Toriyama of Dragonball fame, Dragon Quest VIII, just like every one of its predecessors, was bound to be a hit based on name alone. This didn’t mean that Level-5 could take it easy. On the contrary, it meant they would have to work extra hard to satisfy Square Enix’s quality benchmark, and with Hino set to direct the title, he had a long two years ahead of him. There’s no doubt that the next two years involved sleepless nights, extremely long working hours and the kind of stress that only comes with working on an extremely high profile project.

Sure enough, when Dragon Quest VIII released, the effort was worth it, as it went on to ship over 3 million units in its first week alone, easily making it the fastest selling PS2 game in Japan. Not only did it do well financially, it also did extremely well critically, and is considered, to date, one of the best role-playing games on the PlayStation 2.

True Fantasy Live Online

At the time, Level-5 had also been developing a game by the name of True Fantasy Live Online for the original Xbox. Just as with Dark Cloud and the PS2, True Fantasy Live Online was meant to demonstrate the capabilities of Microsoft’s console, or to be more specific, its online capabilities.

Unfortunately, Level-5 lacked the experience required to code online games, and Microsoft’s insistence on including voice chat only made matters more complicated for them. Following a slew of development troubles, True Fantasy Live Online crumbled under the weight of its own ambition, and was cancelled in 2004. Level-5 and Microsoft parted on a rather bitter note.

Disappointing as it might have seemed at the time, it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Level-5 had it made. They were now closely associated with, what was in Japan’s opinion, the best role-playing experience possible in the form of DQVIII. Their next game, Rogue Galaxy, a return to original IP as well as to Sony Computer Entertainment, was well received critically, and by now, it seemed like producing, directing, designing and writing all of Level-5’s projects was second nature to Akihiro Hino.

The time in between 2005 and 2007 was spent localizing Rogue Galaxy for Western audiences as well as any addressing complaints directed at the original Japanese release. A “Director’s Cut” version of the game containing the improvements of the localized Western release was published in Japan in 2007. Again, both versions were considered fine RPGs, and Level-5 continued to impress.

In the interim, Level-5 also released Jeanne d’Arc, a role-playing game for the Playstation Portable in 2006, which would mark their foray into the world of portable gaming. This is significant because portable games would be Level-5’s stepping stone to even greater heights over the next few years.

Jeanne d'Arc As with Level-5’s previous games, Jeanne d’Arc had something that made it special: namely voice talent. In the U.S. and Europe, the voice acting for Jeanne d’Arc was to be of the French accent, something that isn’t exactly standard in games. After auditioning a mix of French and English actors and actresses, the decision was made to proceed with American voice actors speaking with mild French accents.

A vocal coach was hired to supervise the accuracy and realism of the accents, and the result was magnificent. Jeanne d’Arc was the game that really kickstarted Level-5’s attention to art and sound, to creating a unique aesthetic. Far too few games dared to venture outside of the realm of American accented voice talent, and to many, Jeanne was a welcome change from the norm.

Then 2007 hit, and Level-5 went from developer to publisher.

I mentioned before, the differences between a developer and a publisher. A developer does the legwork, while the publisher is the entity that is “in charge.” They provide the funding, the marketing, and sometimes take creative control of projects.

In 2007, Level-5 published their first game, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, for the Nintendo DS in Japan. Since they were the ones publishing the game, it meant they had complete creative control over every aspect of the game. It was theirs to do with what they liked. Every single penny of the profits would go right into their pockets without a publisher taking a cut.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village was a mix of adventure and puzzle-solving, and was inspired by Akihiro Hino’s love for a series of puzzle books by the name of Head Gymnastics by Professor Akira Tago of Chiba University in Japan. Hino contacted the professor and brought him aboard to direct the game, and help create the puzzles for it.

The game starred titular character, Professor Hershel Layton and his apprentice, Luke, and was aesthetically extremely reminiscent of European comics such as Herge’s Tintin. Indeed, the Layton series may very well be one of the most gorgeous looking games created for the Nintendo DS. With gorgeous cutscenes provided by talented Japanese production house Production I.G. (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) and equally remarkable music.

With Professor Layton and the Curious village, Level-5 once again succeeded at what I’ve come to love them for: creating a convincing aesthetic. Layton and his apprentice Luke traveled to a small village by the name of St. Mystere where the townspeople were all obsessed with puzzles. Solving puzzles was how the inhabitants of Mystere would pass their time, and in order to solve the mystery they had been summoned to crack, one involving the fortune of the village’s deceased Baron, they would have to keep their wits about them and stay in the villagers’ good books by helping out with their daily puzzle-solving.

Professor Layton DS

The English releases of Professor Layton and the Curious Village features some of the best voice-acting heard in video games today, and is another indication of the effort that goes into any single Level-5 game.

Oh, and it was published by Nintendo in the West.

In another well-deserved twist of luck, Nintendo offered to publish and promote the Layton games in the West, something Level-5 weren’t quite capable of doing on their own, as it would require sizeable funds. Through smart marketing and consistent promotion, Nintendo turned the Professor Layton franchise into a phenomenon in Europe. Sales of the first game were stellar in the U.S. as well.

Level-5’s work was far from done. They already had multiple teams working on future Layton games, each and every one of which would prove to be a hit in Japan. The most recent game released in the West is Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, which released last month. If you own a DS and you have some patience, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

At the same time, Level-5 had been contracted once again by Square Enix to work on another Dragon Quest game: Dragon Quest IX for the Nintendo DS. It was Japan’s most popular franchise on Japan’s favourite game console… one that was breaking all sales records set in videogame history. DQIX was going to be massive, and the pressure was on Level-5 to deliver once again.

But new IP is equally important, and Level-5 president Akihiro Hino understood this better than anyone. This led to the development of Inazuma Eleven, a school-based soccer RPG that allowed you to choose from over 1000 characters to recruit for your team. Initially, it seemed Inazuma Eleven wouldn’t perform as well as Level-5 would have hoped, but it went on to become what is now one of the more popular franchises in the country.

The Inazuma Eleven anime continues to be popular in Japan and was recently given a two-year extension. The manga based on the game is equally popular, and is the most read series in the magazine that publishes it. While Inazuma Eleven hasn’t been announced for a release outside of Japan yet, I sincerely believe it is only a matter of time before a publisher picks it up for localization. Whether it will be Level-5 themselves or another publisher remains to be seen.

But Level-5 had gained a reputation for not being satisfied with just “good.” They wanted to be the best. They wanted to be, in Hino’s words, “the Studio Ghibli of games.” To those not in the know, Studio Ghibli is an extremely well respected Japanese animation studio, and is responsible for critical hits like Laputa and Spirited Away. When Hino said this, he was referring to the reputation and quality of work that the Ghibli name is associated with.

And what better way to be the Ghibli of games than to enlist the aid of Ghibli themselves?

With a little convincing and some luck, Level-5 pulled off what no Japanese publisher had managed to do in the past: enlist Studio Ghibli’s assistance with creating a game.

Shortly thereafter, Level-5’s new RPG with art and music by Studio Ghibli went into production and was given a name: Ni no Kuni. Akihiro Hino was invited to speak at the Game Developer’s Conference in the US and gave an extremely enlightening speech on developing original IP and Level-5’s development philosophy and risk-management.

Inzuma Eleven

Earlier this year, Dragon Quest IX released in Japan and is well on track to break quite a few game sales records in the country. It is currently the most popular and best-selling Nintendo DS game to date.

At a press conference in Tokyo last month, Level-5 officially announced the first game in a new Layton trilogy (this makes six games in total; three of which have been released in Japan, and two in the West). They also showed off a trailer for the upcoming Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva animated movie, which is set to kickstart a tradition of releasing an annual Layton movie every winter. Just like the games, it looks gorgeous.

Ni no Kuni, which was also present at the event in the form of a short demo, was well-received by critics and, judging by screenshots, is undoubtedly going to give both Professor Layton and Dragon Quest IX, two extremely gorgeous portable games in their own right, a run for their money in the art department.

A new Inazuma Eleven game with over 1,500 characters to recruit is set to release in Japan this year as well, and is probably going to be a sensation once it releases if its predecessor is any indication.

Most importantly, though, is the announcement of Fantasy Life, a game developed by Nintendo-owned studio Brownie Brown. Level-5 is handling publishing duties of Fantasy Life, which is to say; Level-5 are now publishing a game essentially created by a studio associated with Nintendo.

If that isn’t growth, I don’t know what is.

    By Ishaan Sahdev