Here's a fact that might make adult gamers feel old: Level-5, the developer and publisher behind games like Professor Layton, Inazuma Eleven, White Knight Chronicles and a lot more, is going to be 15 years old in a few months.
"To be honest, it doesn't really feel like it's our 15th anniversary," president and CEO Akihiro Hino told Famitsu magazine in this week's issue. "I feel like we established this just a few years ago. Recently some of our newer staff have been telling me 'I played Level-5's games when I was a kid,' and I replied 'When you were a kid?!'."
For a man like Hino who seems to have his finger in every pie when it comes to Japanese popular media (he's done everything from direct the Layton and Inazuma games to lead up the story writing for the latest Gundam TV series), it's been a busy past year. His crowning achievement of 2012? Getting Fantasy Life, the 3DS RPG action hybrid released late December in Japan, out into the market.
"For me, Fantasy Life is a title I'm really glad we were able to make," Hino said. "Development on it was difficult and time-consuming, but seeing it be appreciated by everyone gives us the confidence to try creating new things. I'd like to see Fantasy Life grow into a series we can sell a million copies of [in Japan]; I think it's one of the bigger success stories in our drive to take on new challenges, so I'd like to have the courage to connect it to the next thing."
What about 2013? In addition to overseeing Yokai Watch, the 3DS title that's set to be Level-5's latest big Inazuma-style anime/manga/game franchise, Hino's also trying to get his company to stay ahead of the times elsewhere. "We'll deal with the changes the game industry has seen in our own style," he commented. "Right now, there's a huge wave of smartphone software, and instead of just accommodating for that, we want to seriously tackle it in a way only we can. We created Layton for the people who bought a Nintendo DS for Brain Age but had nothing to play after that, and I feel like the people playing puzzle games and such on smartphones right now are pretty similar to those DS owners who only played Brain Age."
Thus, Level-5 announced three new smartphone games for 2013 release, all RPGs of one sort of another — the high-fantasy Wonder Flick, the simulation RPG Majin Station, and a more casual one, Chikyu Kaimetsu teki B-kyu Kanojo, where battles are played out using slot machines. Hino himself is heading up work on Wonder Flick, and he's got high expectations for it: "We're taking the things that make traditional RPGs fun — raising characters, finding treasure, hoping for rare stuff to appear, upgrading your equipment — and making it into something you can enjoy in three-minute spurts in a smartphone environment. We're hoping it can be something like what Dragon Quest is to console games."
What does Hino think about the imminent next generation of home consoles? For now, not very much. "I've thought about it a fair amount," he told Famitsu, "but for now, I don't see anything concrete that we have to do on the new systems. Ultimately, it's the gamers who pursue what they want to play next. I'm sure that, within a year from now, what gamers want from the new systems will start to match up with what drives us to create, and we have preparations at hand to move once that happens."
Although Level-5 isn't taking immediate action, Hino emphasized in the interview that he wants to hit the PlayStation 4 et al once the time is right. "Things like pretty graphics and social features are going to be standard-issue," he said. "Beyond that, the key lies in what new thing you can do with these new systems. I'm looking forward to seeing how technology advances — maybe you'll see game characters that have real memories and can play out a full, realistic simulation of their lives. I think that having the ability to make new things happens is what motivates creators to build new things."