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Level-5's Akihiro Hino talks consoles, Layton and the recession

Nikkei gets the industry's busiest producer in the hot seat.


Level-5 president Akihiro Hino got plenty of attention in San Francisco last week at his Game Developers Conference speech. But before that appearance, the busy producer sat down with Nikkei Trendy for an installment a series of interviews being conducted by the site with key game industry executives. Here's a summary of what was said in the lengthy interview that was conducted in early February and posted at Nikkei BP on March 16.

Akihiro Hino at September's Level-5 Vision press conference.

Hino first recapped the end of 2008. Towards the end of the year, Level-5 released the third Layton game as a self-published title. As a developer, it completed work on White Knight Story, which was published by Sony. Hino also made note of continued sales for August's Inazuma Eleven. In terms of business, he said, the end of 2008 was a good one for Level-5.

Asked about effects of the recession, Hino said he wasn't affected personally to a large extent. However, he has heard from friends who manage development studios that work requests have been going down of late, something that he views as possibly being due to the downturn.

On the retail front, Hino feels that the recession hasn't affected game sales yet. In fact, over the holidays, he was surprised to see long lines at registers at major retailers. He pointed out that rather than everyone focusing on one major release, people appeared to be buying a variety of games.

Hino does warn, however, that the effects of the recession may be felt from here on out.

The interview next moved on to Level-5's operations. Looking back over the year, Hino believes Level-5 was able to firmly keep its business running along the lines of its initial plans. The firm was a bit too adventurous in some areas, though, he admitted. This is specifically in reference to the announcement of so many projects all at once around the time of Level-5 Vision (here are some pics of this press conference...) and Tokyo Game Show.

Regardless of this feeling, Hino says he has no regrets. He's actually extremely excited, noting "I was able to express my dreams to a large number of people, and will now have to work hard this year in order to realize those dreams."

Focusing specifically on Inazuma Eleven, he believes the game has been a success due to the fact that orders have continued since its summer release. He's personally happy to have been able to create a hit series in the soccer genre, which he says is cited as being a difficult category.

He did admit to being surprised with the way Inazuma Eleven sold, however. He was originally expecting it to have sold quickly rather than over a lengthy period. Looking at the end result, however, he's satisfied.

A good amount of the interview discussed Inazuma Eleven's sales, with Nikkei noting that games that emerge from Coro Coro Comics, including Inazuma Eleven, Dorabase and Penguin no Mondai, end up being long sellers. Hino explained that there's a big difference between what's really popular amongst kids and what adults perceive as being popular. To help show this, he brought out an example of Inazuma Eleven's showings at the World Hobby Fair. The game was playable at the summer 2008 World Hobby Fair (see this gallery for Level-5's booth pics), but this was prior to its release, meaning Level-5 had to push people to come to the booth. However, at the following winter event, held in early January, the booth filled up without their doing anything in particular. The difference in popularity that emerged over those few months is the difference between kids "having interest" and something being "truly popular."

Hino also pointed out one difference between the Tokyo Game Show and the World Hobby Fair. Level-5 didn't have to decorate its World Hobby Fair booth as fancy as it did its Tokyo Game Show booth. All they did was set up a table, and kids were willing to line up for competitive play. And this was with the kids using their own copies of the game!

For the sequel, he expects big numbers from the start, as he believes kids already enjoy the game. The numbers for the anime are good too, he said.

Moving on to Professor Layton, the interviewer noted strong first and second week sales for the third entry in the series. Hino admitted, with a laugh, that he'd wanted even higher sales in the game's first week, possibly even a million copies. Still, the game is expected to sell at the same level as its two predecessors, he said based off sales figures from the time of the interview.

Hino unveils ROID (to the left) and Ni no Kuni (to the right) at Level-5 Vision. ROID will begin service in June.

The interview turned to the topic of consoles. Asked how he views the current console adoption rates, Hino said, "There isn't a clear winning system," adding "This is a problem for a company like mine." The problem stems from the fact that if they make a game for one system, they can't expect big sales numbers.

During the time of Professor Layton, Hino explained, DS was extremely strong. Because of this, and under the belief that if they made a good game that stood out over other titles it would definitely sell, Level-5 staged promotions which Hino said could even be described as being excessive. In the case of the consoles, none of the systems have seen adoption rates as high as the DS, so the same strategy won't work. In order to aim for sales above a certain mark, they have to use a multiplatform strategy, something that takes up development costs.

This gives companies with a lot of money for development an advantage, as even if their profits are low for a single game, they can build up their profits by releasing a large number of titles. In other words, companies that can make a number of titles that sell in the 100,000 range become strong.

On Xbox 360 and PS3 in particular, the site asked if the current situation is due to a combination of there being two platforms as well as there being fewer users who want HD than was initially expected. Hino's response was that perhaps the hardware has evolved beyond what most users want. It's not the users who need the advanced capabilities of the 360 and PS3, he explained, but the developers who are unsatisfied with future development. In other words, the developers are a few steps ahead of the users in their feeling of "I want to make something even better," and the hardware was made around the opinions of those developers. Thus, he doesn't believe the blame lays on the hardware manufacturers, but on the developers.

Developers get excited when being able to make something really neat, explained Hino. However, players want something of more pure fun than this. This is why the Wii has sold better than the other two platforms. "It's a truly difficult era."

Level-5 appears to have a fix for the difficult times. "As a publisher, we can't just not develop for consoles. We considered quite a bit and have now pretty much decided on the direction that should be taken. We were able to make many popular series like Professor Layton, Inazuma Eleven, and Ni no Kuni. We will use such series as weapons to evolve our console business."

Moving on to Level-5's recent movie business, Hino said of the upcoming animated Professor Layton movie that's due for New Years 2010 release, "We originally made the game with movie-making techniques as the base, so I believe it will be interesting as a movie."

Level-5 isn't becoming a movie or anime company, though, as Hino assured, "For us, even if we make movies or make anime, we believe games are the core of our business."

Looking forward, Hino said, "We'd like to carry the Level-5 brand as high as possible in the game industry. We'll work so that in 2009, or 2010, it will become a top brand. If we make truly good games, I don't believe it will take too long to realize this."

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