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Iwata Asks: Level-5 CEO Akihiro Hino Edition

Level-5's CEO talks about how his studio came to be and expresses love for the 3DS.


Nintendo's sole 3DS launch title Nintendogs + Cats out of the way, CEO Satoru Iwata has turned his interests towards the the system's third party lineup. The latest Iwata Asks column, available in Japanese here and English here is about Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask, Level-5's launch title.

Expectedly, the column has Iwata speaking with Level-5 CEO Akihiro Hino. In addition to comments on the new Layton title, Hino shared some background history on his past and the formation of Level-5.

Iwata noted that although they're separated in age by nine years, Hino, like himself, started off as a programmer then went on to management. Hino first took interest in game programming when he was in third grade. He learned that games were being made on things called "Micro Computers," and decided that he wanted one, so he started reading magazines and books.

Hino recalls being most impressed by a screenshot he saw of 1981's Wizardry. The screenshot showed a treasure box and had the text "What will you do?" At the time, the Japanese game world had nothing but Space Invaders, which had levers and buttons so there was no confusion about what you should do. But with a computer game, Hino wasn't sure what should be done. This made him wonder how the game is played, which got him excited. However, he didn't end up buying a computer until three years later in the sixth grade.

Layton and Luke return on the 3DS, now displayed as 3D models.

After getting his first computer, Hino began to do programming, first in Basic. He eventually bought a new computer and an Assembler called DUAD. This was the true start of his life as a programmer.

Hino's first exposure to the actual game industry came after hearing that Yuji Horii, who would go on to create the Dragon Quest series, won a software contest from Enix. Hino called Enix and asked how he could make a submission for the contest. Of course, 20 years later, Hino would end up working with Horii as Level-5 served as developer on Dragon Quest VIII and IX.

Dragon Quest III was actually the game that most influenced Hino early on. Said Hino, "Up until that point, games had appealed to me as digital devices, but after experiencing Dragon Quest III, I started to look at games as a medium, like movies. Dragon Quest III showed me the limitless potential in games." This is despite Hino having been in contact with computer games, which had better resolution and visuals than Famicom games. DQIII was simpler, yet moved him so strongly.

Due to Dragon Quest, Hino wanted to make a living out of games. He joined a company called SystemSoft (makers of the Daisenryaku series) and was one of three to make it into the company out of forty applicants. However, he was assigned to the product management, which manages projects rather than actually creating, so he ended up leaving after four months.

He ended up at a company called Riverhill Soft, where he was allowed to be a main programmer at the age of 24. After making a couple of product for Riverhill Soft, he approached the company's president and said "From now on, it will be the era of 3D." This was before the PlayStation, but Hino had seen 3D games from overseas. He asked the president to let him research 3D on his own.

After PlayStation came out, Hino became director of the project team. He left Riverhill Soft and formed Level-5, with members of his team serving as the nucleus of the company, which consisted of around nine people at the time.

Sony Computer Entertainment had something to do with the formation of Level-5, as Hino had formed a connection with SCE and had been asked by them to make software for the new PlayStation 2 system, which had yet to be released. They suggested that he set up a company. Level-5 was registered in 1998, when Hino was 29.

The name Level-5, Hino told Iwata, means "five stars" in school report cards. The name is meant to signify the studio's ambition to make top quality software.

The rest of the conversation has insights into the creation of the Layton series and how Level-5 and Nintendo turned it into a huge hit, particularly in Europe.

Hino also expressed his favor for the 3DS system, saying "The moment I fell in love with the Nintendo 3DS system, I decided, privately, that I'd be with it from the beginning. I wanted LEVEL-5 to be a firm part of the image of the Nintendo 3DS system, as a game publisher, from the very first stages."

One thing that excited him was the system's appeal as a must-have item, something he feels stems from the ability to see things in 3D right where you are. He thinks that people may end up buying the system just to experience a "whoa!" moment from seeing the 3D.

He's also excited about StreetPass, "The impact of StreetPass, and of the 3D visuals. I was certain that combination would make the hardware a success, and I was also interested as a creator. For those reasons, I decided to develop everything in one go."

Level-5 announced six titles for the system back at Nintendo World, even moving over some titles that had been in development for DS. We'll get to see the result of the studio's 3DS work as Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask launches with the system on February 26.

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