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.
Astounding 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.
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.
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.
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:
– 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
– Cross-media interlock with TV animation and comics
– Funny and unrealistic killer tricks [i.e. special moves] of soccer
– Over 1000 collectible characters
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.