The CEO of the unassuming Japanese studio known best for whimsical detective puzzlers really wants to make a horror game
Over the past two decades, game developer Level-5 – helmed by CEO Akihiro Hino and formed after the dissolution of fellow offbeat game company Riverhillsoft – has swollen from a skeleton crew of 11 to one of the most successful developers in Japan. Today, Level-5 is known for the the accessible, universalizing JRPGs that put them on the map – games like 2001's Dark Cloud and the 2011 Studio Ghibli collab Ni no Kuni. But the studio's biggest hit is the Professor Layton series of "puzzle adventures," which has been humming along since 2007.
With another entry in the Layton series coming in late July and the sequel to Ni no Kuni slated for the holiday season, it seems that Level-5 isn't about to relent on its mission to charm Western audiences with soft pastels, charming character work, and a heaping dose of Ghibli-esque whimsy. Glixel met up with Level-5 head Hino at E3 2017 to discuss his influences, his goals for these sequels, and what makes his company different from his Western counterparts.
Were there difficulties involved in interfacing with Studio Ghibli, a company that usually makes animated movies rather than games?
Working with Studio Ghibli wasn't difficult, to be honest. They're so good at putting that emotion and feeling into the movie characters – the whole "acting" aspect. That's something games don't usually have. They're a lot better at it than our company. By working with them, we were able to learn the ropes and really "level up" on showing emotions through characters in our games.
What were your objectives for Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom, and how did the development of the first game influence them?
Looking back at Ni no Kuni 1, I felt that the story was a little too focused on children because it was about a child searching for his mother. I wanted to bring something in Ni no Kuni 2 that appealed to everyone – I want the whole family to relate to it. To achieve that, this one is a coming-of-age story of a child that's forced into the role of king, but it's not only him growing up and becoming an adult – it's also about him coming into that position of power. Also, with the interactions with a variety of characters in different age groups – kids, adults, whatever – allow everybody in the family to relate to the story.
Let's talk about some of your previous work. For Dark Cloud and Rogue Galaxy – some of the first games that Level-5 made – you served as scenario writer, director, and producer. For some of your more recent games, you've served only as producer, with the exception of the Ni no Kuni games. How was that transition?
Well, right now in the credits, you only see me credited as "producer," but, in the background, I've been doing the same sort of thing. My job didn't change, despite what the credits say.
Level-5 has made a lot of Japanese role-playing games of varying types, such as Dark Cloud, but it wasn't until Professor Layton that you had a game that really caught on with Western audiences. Why do you think that is?
When we created Layton, it was aimed at Japanese consumers. But we took a lot of elements from European animation and movies during development. We studied those color palettes and did it in that style. So, there is this really fantastic world, and it appeals to a lot of people across cultures, not just in Japan.
Does it frustrate you sometimes that Professor Layton has remained so popular while some of your JRPGs have remained niche, at least in the States?
I mean, these games are focused for Japan, so it does have that kind of feel to it. With Dark Cloud, we were trying to make an original fantasy world, but Rogue Galaxy was more on the realistic side, since it's a sci-fi game. So, maybe that fantasy feel that people associate with Level-5 was lacking compared to our other games, so that might have been why Rogue Galaxy was less successful. To me, Layton is a perfect example of that fantasy world coming alive, and that's why it's been able to be so successful over the years.
In Ni no Kuni 2, there's a completely new set of characters. Most RPG sequels feature at least some of the same stars.What was your thought process there?
I think in RPGs, the main part of the appeal is getting that new experience – new world, new story, new adventure. If you bring in the same characters, what happens is you're forced to bring in the previous world as well, and that defeats the purpose of creating an RPG in the first place. I thought it would be better if we created a whole new set of characters and set it in a different time period, so we can have that element of "newness." That's the best part about RPGs – that discovery.
In the gameplay clips of Ni no Kuni 2, the Pokemon-esque monster training elements of the first installment appears to be completely absent from the game. Why change that core gameplay system?
It's the same thing with the story. If you use the same battle system, you don't get that new experience. Therefore, I wanted to revamp the battle system. This time, we've brought in these little sprites called Higgledies. By collecting different Higgledies, you can adjust your tactics, similar to the monsters in the first game. We wanted to add something significant, not just repeat what worked in the first game.
What was the genesis behind Professor Layton? What led you to that idea?
We started creating Professor Layton over 10 years ago. Back then, there was a moment where "brainteaser" type of games were really popular. There was a book in Japan I really liked called Atama no Taisou, which translates to something like "Brain Exercising." I wanted to make a game that was similar to that. Since there was another Nintendo DS game with a similar title, I figured a game like that would be a big hit. But because the trademark for "Brain Exercise" was already taken, I had to try something different. I reached out to the author of the book, Akira Tago, in collaboration with him, I decided to make a new game with puzzle-solving elements, but with a story layered over it. And that's how we made Layton.
Even as the fad of Brain Age and similar games has subsided, why do you think that Layton has able to remain successful today?
I believe that the main reason is that the Professor Layton games are designed from everybody, across the age spectrum. And the reason for that is, even if you're a non-gamer, or you're not good at solving puzzles, there are still aspects of the game they will enjoy. We always make sure of that.
What do you think makes Level-5 different from other Japanese developers?
Our mission is to create new intellectual properties. We strive to make new IP every year. That's not to say others are not doing it, but we strive to be creative, rather than just making lots of profit or generating lots of revenue. That's really our focus. Though revenue is good, of course.
Here in the West, despite your continued success, it seems like a lot of game players aren't necessarily familiar with the name Level-5, at least not yet. Do you dispute that? How do you feel about it?
Well, I think it's worth splitting the West in two territories for this kind of question. In North America, I agree with you. We haven't had a ton of success, besides Layton. But we've had incredible success in Europe. For a lot of our games, we sell more copies in Europe than in Japan, like Layton. Maybe the Dark Cloud series was a hit title in North America, but most of our stuff is more successful in Japan. It's just how it is.
I see it as a situation where Japanese companies didn't invest in making games that excited people, so that makes Japan look like it was behind.
How would you describe your approach to game design?
Well, one unique thing that we do is we follow a sort of rulebook. We call it the "TRC." Those are the standards that we set to make sure that we keep things a little easier than other developers. Unlike other titles, which are targeted to a worldwide gaming audience, we want to make sure our games are still playable for what we call "non-core" gamers. Things like the intervals between save points, and the overall difficulty. We want people to feel like they're having a good time, even if they're less familiar with games.
Over time, how has Level-5 changed as a company? Do you feel that that change is for the better?
One obvious change is the size of the company. Whether you measure that by headcount or revenue, we've grown tremendously over the years. But the biggest change when we decided to get out of our comfort zone of being just a developer, and decided to become a publisher. Getting licenses, doing the sales and marketing, and moving into the cross-media business to help support our IP, with television and movies. People didn't expect Level-5 to do those things. We've developed a capability in different areas of entertainment that not a lot of gaming companies have.
Who would you say are your biggest influences as a designer?
If I was to name one person, it'd be Yuji Horii, the creator of Dragon Quest. I learned how to approach the mass audience from him. He taught me how lazy the mass audience is, and how to approach that laziness for maximum impact.
What do you mean by "laziness?"
I noticed that there's a big gap between so-called normal game developers, who mostly make games for the "core gamers," versus the mass audience, many of which play games, but aren't necessarily gamers. What I mean by "laziness" is that, in an RPG, there are moments where you're told to collect 10 items in the world, in the particular world you're playing in. If you give people these objectives, no matter how menial, people will go and collect them. No matter how hard it is, people will focus on collecting the items. They'll obsess and focus on these items so intensely that they'll tire themselves out, and they won't move onto the next chapter of the story, even if it's optional. They'll ruin the games for themselves, basically.
Is there a genre or style of game you haven't had the opportunity to tackle yet that you'd like to try?
The one thing I've never really done is horror, and I would really like to try that. I think that the difficulty of making a game comes from being able to influence people's emotions. We make people cry, we make people's hearts race, we make people love with jokes and the like, but making people scared is something we've never tried yet. It seems exciting.
What is your favorite game you've worked on?
My favorite is definitely Professor Layton. It was the first title we worked on as a publisher, so I was able to focus on every little detail. We all worked so hard on it, as a result, we delivered it, and people really loved it. On the producer and consumer side, it made the best result. That's what matters.
Do you have any regrets as a developer?
I have so many regrets that I really don't know where to begin. But they all come from deadlines, and time constraints. As a developer, we want to put more time into it, but to make it work out as a business, we have to give a hard limit at some point, and send it out there.
Level-5 had its period of greatest success when a lot of Japanese developers were experiencing a cultural and commercial contraction. It's only in the past few years that they're starting to mount a comeback. Do you agree with that, and does that matter to you? What makes Level-5 different?
Well, I actually disagree, to be honest. I see it as a situation where Japanese companies didn't invest in making games that excited people, so that makes Japan look like it was behind. The Japanese developers were still putting a lot of effort into details other than the craftsmanship that Japanese games are known for. Japanese game companies have always been good at that craftsmanship, and they still are. Maybe it's a comeback, but I don't see it as one. It's just a different movement in the gaming industry. We've always done what we're good at, and we will continue to do it in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.