Celebrating the Rise of Level-5

By Ishaan . August 2, 2009 . 3:20pm

http://www.siliconera.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/mhpg2.jpg It’s no big secret that releasing a flood of new IP isn’t exactly the highest priority for most Japan-centric game publishers right now. Even harder to imagine is the prospect of potential new franchises actually doing reasonably well from a sales perspective, while bringing something new to the table.

 

One need only look to the weekly Japanese sales charts provided by Media Create to see what does and doesn’t sell. Unlike the U.S. market where a game can debut at 35,000 units sold and steadily sell at that rate for the next few months to eventually hit a million, the fate of new releases in Japan can often be deciphered by observing performance during the first two weeks. In other words, if it doesn’t have a big opening, don’t expect it to have long legs.

 

This is often the case with games in Japan that aren’t part of some long-running series that the Japanese gaming community associates with the silver years of the country’s game development scene.

 

http://www.siliconera.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/layton_luke.jpgAstounding then, that an up and coming publisher like Level-5 — far from the 320-pound* gorillas like Square Enix and Capcom — could not only introduce two new IPs in Japan in these past three years, but also successfully spin them off into other forms of media.

 

Case in point: the first two Professor Layton games have sold over 1.5 million units in Japan alone — a goal not many games in the country can hope to achieve in this day and age. The third game, Professor Layton and the Last Time Travel debuted at the top of the charts at 347,360 units, beating first week sales of both its predecessors by a wide margin.

 

Today, Layton has his own ongoing manga in CoroCoro magazine, as well as animated and live-action movies being produced over the next two years.

 

http://www.siliconera.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/inazuma.jpg Level-5′s other franchise, Inazuma Eleven – which has not seen a localized release so far, despite translating the feel of sports anime into a game very effectively — has seen similar success, although to a slightly lesser extent owing to its nature.

 

A sports-anime-influenced soccer RPG, the first Inazuma Eleven debuted at 41,000 units sold in its first week — a fairly low number, taking into account the DS’s ability to sell software. By its third week, it had fallen to 14,000, totaling a sales figure of a mere 84,000 units: certainly break-even, but probably not the number Level-5 or its fans had hoped for.

 

Here’s the kicker, though: Inazuma Eleven released on August 22nd, 2008. The week of July 13, almost a year later, it occupied the #27 spot on the weekly sales charts. The week before that, it was at #28…and at #34 the week prior. Right now, its total sales sit over 350,000…certainly not a number to scoff at for a new brand. The game has effectively defied the “If it doesn’t have a big opening” theory; again, an achievement not many titles can lay claim to.

 

Like Layton, Inazuma Eleven enjoys an ongoing serialization in CoroCoro, and its own anime series, which currently consists of over 70 episodes. With Inazuma Eleven 2 debuting in two Pokémon-like flavours with over 1,500 characters to recruit, suffice it to say the series has been a great success.

 

Level-5′s success doesn’t stop there, though.

 

Anyone familiar with Dragon Quest likely understands the prestige that accompanies being tasked with the development of not one, but two games in the series. As mainline entries in Japan’s pet videogame franchise, both Dragon Quest VIII and Dragon Quest IX and by extension, developer Level-5 have been a resounding success.

 

image

 

Level-5′s ties to top publishers don’t end with Square Enix either. Both Dark Cloud and Rogue Galaxy on the PS2 were funded and published by Sony Computer Entertainment, as was White Knight Chronicles for the PS3. Outside Japan, the Professor Layton games are published by Nintendo.

 

While the developer’s relations with Microsoft are rocky at best, following the cancellation of True Fantasy Live Online – intended to be a showcase of the original Xbox’s connectivity features — it wouldn’t surprise us to see Microsoft attempting to make amends in the near future.

 

And then there’s Studio Ghibli.

 

http://www.siliconera.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/ninokuni.jpg With Ni no Kuni: The Another World for DS marking their 10-year anniversary, Level-5 have managed to do what no other publisher could: enlist Studio Ghibli to collaborate on a videogame. Sure, the deal originally worked out largely due to the circumstances being right, but Ghibli’s involvement undoubtedly counts as a major achievement for a relative newcomer to the industry.

 

So, to what can we attribute Level-5′s success?

 

A variety of factors it seems, the first being founder Akihiro Hino’s strong understanding of the importance of promotion and partnerships. A true entrepreneur, Hino has been known to state that he understands Ni no Kuni will likely sell due to Ghibli’s involvement rather than Level-5′s, and he’s OK with that. This is the man who spearheaded Square Enix’s last two Dragon Quest games on the development front, after all.

 

Another aspect of Level-5 games — and this ties in with #1 — is basing game design around personal communication and clearly marketable traits. Here’s a breakdown of the design/marketing ideology behind Professor Layton and Inazuma Eleven from Hino’s perspective:

 

Layton:

- Mix of puzzles and story

- Collaborative work with Dr. Tago, whose book sold over 12 million copies

- Voice over casting of stars, and movie-quality animation

 

Inazuma:

- Cross-media interlock with TV animation and comics

- Funny and unrealistic killer tricks [i.e. special moves] of soccer

- Over 1000 collectible characters

 

http://www.siliconera.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/dq9.jpg Hino went on to emphasize the importance of word of mouth and a “boom trigger” that would ensure consistent long-term sales. For Layton, the boom trigger was getting players to communicate with each other to solve puzzles. For Inazuma Eleven, it was multiplayer battles. A common feature shared by both games was the delivery of additional content via wi-fi for a year after release. This is something that is being implemented in Dragon Quest IX as well, where downloadable quests will be offered every week for the next year. This is new ground being broken in the handheld division.

 

It’s also a very Nintendo-like approach to design, and certainly helps explain Nintendo’s interest in Professor Layton, as well as the global nature of the franchise in general.

 

Hino has stated that he aims to turn Level-5 into the Studio Ghibli of the games industry, where people buy the company’s games based on brand and faith alone. It’s certainly a lofty goal, but he seems to mean it. The newly-opened Level-5 motion capture studio — the largest of its kind in Western Japan — which will lend its services to other Japanese developers is an indicator of just how serious Hino is.

 

With three unannounced titles waiting to be revealed at their press event this month, and Hino set to give a talk on stage at this year’s TGS, it doesn’t seem like Level-5 intend to slow down the pace any time soon. Personally, I’m rooting for them.

 

*The average weight of a Japanese sumo wrestler.


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  • http://anosou.com/ Anosou

    “Level-5 have managed to do what no other publisher could: enlist Studio Ghibli to collaborate on a videogame.”

    Magical Pengel, Jade Cocoon. Almost anyway :)

    • jarrodand

      Magic Pengel/Rakugaki Kingdom and Jade Cocoon weren’t Ghibli, but were (ex?)Ghibli animators freelancing. Ninokuni is the first full Studio Ghibli game ever, though they licensed out their properties for games before iirc (Nausicaa on PC-98).

  • http://www.nisamerica.com NickyD

    I’ll sum this up the only way I know how.

    “Level-5 kicks ass and they’re stickin’ around for a while.”

    I couldn’t be happier. They deserve every shred of fame/fortune/prestige they get. Ya work hard, ya find success… it’s a fantastic story, really.

    • lostinblue

      I hope Image Epoch follows suit, they’re going after that model (good pay/good facilities) and trying to branch as much… and their track record has been nothing but awesome.

      I can’t praise Arc Rise Fantasia better… specially being a new IP. (and can’t wait for 7th Dragon and World Destruction as well)

      • Joanna

        I really enjoyed both of their Luminous Arcs, even if they were a little easy and fan service-y. I can’t wait for the last game (I remember hearing it was going to be a trilogy)

        btw, Fantasia looks very promising. Has it been released in NA already?

        • lostinblue

          Never heard it was supposed to be a triology, but I’d like to see that.

          Arc Rise Fantasia is set for a Q4 2009 or Q1 2010 release, no one knows for sure at this point. I have imported the japanese release.

          It’s basically Tales of meets Skies of Arcadia with a Grandia 2 fair and a FF7 materia system with a spin, which all come together to create a quite unique and fast paced turn-based game. Complete with Tales staples such as a classic worldmap, skits and a colliseum mode with cameos that this time around are characters from both Luminous Arc 1 and 2.

          here you go, that’s the flickr I created to hype it:

          -> http://www.flickr.com/photos/40792909@N02/

          Personally I’m psyched about the game :)

  • Hraesvelgr

    Eh, Level-5′s okay, I guess. Their work on the recent DQ games hasn’t been too bad and I like the idea of the Dark Cloud games, even if they could use a good deal of work. Outside of those, though, I don’t think they’re anything special.

  • lostinblue

    I want inazuma eleven still :(

  • Mr. Mee

    Level 5 needs to keep moving up. I absolutely love the direction they took with Dragon Quest VIII and Dragon Quest IX. I’m hoping that they will be the team behind Dragon Quest X (supposedly for the Wii according to Yuji Hori). Rogue Galaxy was also lots of fun as well as Jeanne d’Arc. I’m also hoping for a statewide release of Inazuma Eleven. Moreover I’m hoping for Level 5 to work on a 360 title of some sort.

    • lostinblue

      Didn’t they vow to never work on a Microsoft console again after the Fantasy Online fiasco? there’s some BAD BLOOD there.

      (plus, if their titles on PS3 keep being published by Sony and their other titles are on Wii and DS platforms, who lead in Japan, they won’t even feel pressured to support, which they seem to be fine with)

      New Dragon Quest will come in time, coming from them or not; what I’m the most interested in right now is Inazuma Eleven Wii. :3

  • http://twitter.com/ravenschwann Tim Nguyen

    Has Ni no Kuni: The Another World been released in Japan yet?

    • lostinblue

      I don’t think so

  • Aoshi00

    I have to say I didn’t like the Dark Cloud series or Rogue Galaxy, but that’s just because of the type of games they are. Loved DQ8, Jeanne D’arc, and the Layton trilogy, and am looking forward to Ni no Kuni, but not so much White Knight Chronicles (too MMO-like). Their name certainly means a degree of quality and confidence now.

    I wonder if those Dr. Tago games are fun w/o the Layton Mascot.

  • Doc

    Inazuma Eleven in English please!!!

  • Trotmeister

    Level 5 plain sucks.

    Yeah, someone had to say it. These people got plenty of technical and artistic skills, but they lack ideas.

    • MadMirko

      Level 5 is not Factor 5.

      • Trotmeister

        No shit, Johnson.

        • MadMirko

          Heh. Thought you were confused, but turns out you are just wrong.

          Sorry, can’t help you with that.

    • TrollMaster

      This man speaks the truth.

      Don’t believe the hype.

    • Hraesvelgr

      Hm, yeah, I’m not that far from agreeing with you, to be honest. When you think about it, most of their games (Shirokishi, Rogue Galaxy, yadda) are only mediocre at best. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I like their Dragon Quest work, but *anyone* could do DQ, so it’s not anything special.

      • Trotmeister

        Their Dragon Quest games are good because working on them didn’t require creating gameplay concepts – which is exactly what Level 5 so miserably fails at. The series patriarchs closely oversee the development process, decide how these games should work, so it all turns out okay.

  • jarrodand

    I wonder if they’re planning to stick with Nintendo for their selfpublished DS/Wii localizations? Layton’s been a huge success for them (and Nintendo), but things seem to be moving so slowly… where’s Inazuma Eleven already?

    Not sure who else would be a good match though? Maybe the EA Partners program?

    • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

      I highly doubt Nintendo would ever pick up Inazuma Eleven. I mean, soccer RPG? It’d be hilarious to see EA Sports pick it up, but obviously that’ll never happen. :P

      • jarrodand

        Not EA Sports, EA Partners. It’s the division MTV/Harmonix use for Rock Band, Valve uses for retail PC/360 stuff, Crytek uses for Crysis games, Realtime Worlds is using for APB and Mikami/Suda are using for their horror game.

        • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

          Yea, but imagine Peter Moore trying to pimp a niche soccer role-playing game up on stage. :D

          • jarrodand

            Soccer based Poke-clone complete with anime series? I can see any exec chomping at the bit to pimp that, at least in Europe…

            I actually thought EA Partners would be good given the success they’ve had with peripheral based releases though (Rock Band), which L5′s going to need for that Nunokuni spell book.

          • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

            Oh, I forgot about that spell book. Be interesting to see if the console and DS versions share a common spellbook or if there’s a separate version for each. Or if the console version will have one at all…it sounds like a DS anti-piracy measure to me.

  • http://twitter.com/Recarm Recarm

    Level-5 and Studio Ghibli are also working on Ushiro for the PSP. Also has a neat art design from the early footage, but we haven’t heard or seen anything since TGS ’08 I think.

    Ushiro (PSP): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4D467R3KFkk

    • jarrodand

      Ushiro isn’t Ghibli.

      • lostinblue

        yup.

        it looks good though.

      • http://twitter.com/Recarm Recarm

        Thank you for correcting me. It doesn’t even look like Studio Ghibli work, so I only thought it was in the cloudy mixture of announcement news. Now I’m more excited about the game.

    • Joanna

      this and Jeanne is why I need to get a PSP (and a few others as well XD)

  • CJ

    from the moment i bought and played DQ8 for the PS2 i consider my self a level 5 fan

    very well writen nice to see that they get the attention they deserve!

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