GDC: Level-5 CEO Akihiro Hino's Keys To Success

Level-5's games have an average global shipment of 1,844,000 copies in Europe, North America, Japan -- and its CEO thinks that the key lies beyond making good games, in making developers understand that the games have to have stand-out concepts from the g
Akihiro Hino, president and CEO of Level-5, didn't open his talk as perhaps he should have. Later, after presenting a lot of information, he put his thesis this way -- and maybe it's the best summation of the entire presentation. "This is a usual way to do business in other business fields, but in the game industry we have a lot of artisan-type game creators. Sometimes, when we think about how to sell games, that is 'evil' or that is not [considered] a great thing to think about. I don't think so. We need to sell games so we can have a wider audience and more people can enjoy our games. From the start, we need to pay attention to how we can sell this game. I think that's very important." The point of his talk? How Level-5, a company that has been broadly globally successful with its titles, creates games that sell well. Says Hino, "That seems like quite a grandiose topic, but for this GDC session I'm sure there are lots of topics on how to make games interesting and fun -- so we'd like to change this a little bit and talk about how to make a fun game sellable. Hino says, "In other words, there are many titles that may be fun, but they don't sell very well, and that's a shame." What's the key, then? "It's important to think about the impact that [promotion] will have from the starting point of planning the game. It's often said that 'This is an interesting game but it doesn't sell.' or 'It's an interesting game, once you play it.' I think it's such a shame that this happens." Though Level-5 is not the highest profile developer in the West, it's a major company in Japan -- its Dragon Quest VIII, produced in collaboration with Square Enix, was the best selling title of the last generation. Its Professor Layton series is well-known globally; published by Nintendo in the West, in Japan it's published by Level-5 and is the developer's owned IP. Over the last ten years, the company has shipped over 12,912,000 total copies of its games globally; that's a 614,800 unit average, or 1,844,000 average in the three main territories of Japan, North America, and Europe. Of course, hits like Dragon Quest VIII, which shipped 4,880,000 copies globally, help boost those numbers. "Think of us as the Ichiro of the game industry," Hino jokes. Building Buzzwords The first concept that Hino brought up was the concept of "catch copy" -- a Japanese expression he translated as "buzzword" but which might also be broken down to a "bullet point" -- something unique about a title, that catches the attention of the audience. The key, though, is something many developers might not agree with -- Hino suggests that "Promotion has to be taken into account from the point of planning a game. The creators also have to think about promotion, and promoting the game as they start planning the game itself." Hino even admits that this may be his weakness. "I think more about the successful launches than about the [game] story itself. Sometimes I say something so outlandish that we have to worry about how the creators will make it later." 
 The first example he cited was the company's Professor Layton series. Though, as a questioner noted that these points refer to the Japanese market specifically, the concepts do map globally (just not all of them, in this specific case.) - 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 Hino showed a promotional video for the third Layton title, which was recently released in Japan, but unfortunately many of its brighter points did not come across well in the simultaneous live translation. It was clear that it did a good job of setting up an intriguing story and communicating the new features -- via text copy overlay -- of the game, showing the audience these three core points. The campaign for the Layton series targeted women -- an audience casual gamers. Actors and actresses popular with the female audience were hired for voice recording. It's worth mentioning, to unfamiliar audiences, that the Professor Layton series contains many elements similar to Western casual games -- its moody mystery puzzle gameplay will be familiar. Promotional videos don't just help the audience understand the game, but according to Hino, help the team understand the target for the game. He starts producing them early on, and gradually adds completed assets as he goes. Level-5 programmer Usuke Kumagai agrees. "By creating a good promotional video, the team's morale would increase. When we made [Layton] part 2, all of the team members understood what we should make, which lead to great teamwork, and great success." Another title Level-5 released last year is hybrid soccer / RPG Inazuma Eleven, which has not come to the U.S. Its buzzwords are: - Cross-media interlock with TV animation and comics - Funny and unrealistic killer tricks [i.e. special moves] of soccer - Over 1000 collectible characters On the last point, Hino says, "When we made the plan to create 1000 characters -- it was not a byproduct; we decided to do it because we could attract users." He presented a video of the game, and it became clear: blending the RPG aspects and collectibility along with RPG-style special moves in a soccer context (the game contains a fully-functioning touch-screen soccer game on the DS rather than a battle system) Level-5 was able to leverage its genre expertise and target a new audience. Says Hino, "We took this promotional weapon and targeted it to the segment who would appreciate the most, and this segment happened to be younger boys from 8 to 11." Though the game has only shipped 342,000 units so far in Japan, since its August 2008 release in Japan, the company has been able to sell a lot of character merchandise thanks to the cross-promotion, and the game continues to sell a steady, small amount -- shipping 5,000 copies a week since its introduction. Hino discussed the company's Ninokuni: The Another World, which will be released for the Nintendo DS sometime this year. It's a collaboration with the Academy Award winning animation house Studio Ghibli, and it's the game that marks the 10th anniversary of the founding of Level-5. Hino says, "This is going to be our 10 year anniversary game, so even if it doesn't sell much, we wanted to create something meaningful." "The main character, a boy, engages in battle without swords -- but with a magical book," explains Hino. This extends to the real world game -- it will ship with a book included in the package, which is necessary to play. "As we were thinking about this project, Studio Ghibli entered the collaboration." He continues, "Of course, this will be successful because of Studio Ghibli, and that's fine. It's actually able to be successful because of a partner -- and we learned that's okay too. It was able to gain one of the top positions in the ranking of the most anticipated games." The "Boom Trigger" In Japan, the English word "boom" is used exclusively in the sense of a massive explosion of popularity. Hence, the "boom trigger", or elements of a game that will make it become more popular with its target audience. "It's like creating a small fire, and then if you can keep feeding the fire, then maybe it will become big," says Hino. Hino says, "If you have a boom trigger in your game, you can sell your product for a longer term. 'Boom' is created by word-of-mouth. People start talking about one game, and the more people talk about it, the more people want to try it. How can we make our game catchier?" Level-5 takes a two-pronged approach. "We use the 'communication gimmick', to get people to talk about the game longer. The 'extension gimmick' -- a trigger so players would like to play the game for a longer period." As Hino sees it, "Even though a game is interesting, if players don't talk about the game with each other, the boom would not be created. And as far as the extension gimmick, even if the game is interesting, if you can complete the game in one or two days, in the classroom, the students won't talk about it. If you can keep them playing for one month, then maybe you can create a boom." For the Professor Layton series, Hino deliberately seeded it with these boom triggers: 
 Communication gimmick - Players will ask others about unsolved puzzles - Implement a system where a player can challenge others to crack the puzzles Extension gimmick - Plenty of sub-games - Deliver new puzzles via wifi for one year. With Inazuma Eleven: Communication gimmick - Exchcange info about characters, skills, locations, etc. - Battle against other people Extension gimmick - Collect 1,000 characters - Deliver new characters and moves over wifi for one year - Offering new products in cross-media exposure On the last point, Hino says, "We are still doing this [form of] promotion. During the promotion period, children are keeping interested in this game, and then we have been selling this product." Hino is confident the boom trigger works. Take the original Professor Layton. The title actively shipped to Japanese stores for two years. The initial shipment was 128,000 copies, but the accumulated shipment was 936,000. Of course, sales are important for company health, but Hino also thinks that team morale is crucial too. "If people buy our products, that's a good reward for the developers. And actually being successful like that will change the mood of the development team as well." Kumagai noted that the team checks its sales every week to see how things are progressing. Hino respects creativity, but in the end, sales matter. "There are daily grinds where the developers become tired physically as well as emotionally... But if [your game] sells well, and people send fan mails, and we can see it in the numbers... No matter how technically advanced a game is, and how artistic it is, if the game doesn't sell well, the team members will feel let down." Hino finished his presentation with a short trailer for Ninokuni, and then opened up the floor to Q&A. One questioner asked if the company considers the markets outside Japan when planning the games -- some of the buzzwords were very Japan-specific. Hino suggested his company puts some, but not a complete, effort into it. "We think about the Japanese market first. However in recent years, almost 100% of our titles are sold in North America and Europe... We did the Dark Cloud series in the past. It was made for Japanese users. Eventually, it was accepted by this country. It sold well in the U.S." Hino noted that 90% of the first Dark Cloud title's sales came from outside Japan. Another questioner asked about the Layton series -- which is up to its third installment in Japan, but only its first in Europe and North America. The company has already announced a second trilogy of Layton titles for Japan. Hino's response: "Basically, in Japan, United States, and Europe should be covered. We're planning to see these six titles in all three territories. We are creating and trying to localize [second title] Diabolical Box. It'd like to sell it as soon as possible, maybe six months later. After this, maybe every six months." Of course, one fan couldn't resist asking about Studio Ghibli, and how it was to work with famed creator Hayao Miyazaki. Hino admitted that even successful, confident creators can have fannish reactions. "I showed off my picture with Mr. Miyazaki to everyone. I didn't only work with Mr. Miyazaki, I worked with all of the people in Studio Ghibli. I was like a child going to an amusement park. I was so nervous, had trouble walking the first time I went to Studio Ghibli."

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