When the Nintendo 3DS game launches this November, Level-5 and licensing partner Hasbro have confidence that Yo-Kai Watch will already be a familiar name to gamers. The companies are taking a full cross-media approach in launching the hugely popular Japanese spirit-collecting series in the North America.
This is a key strategy for Level-5, says Yukari Hayakawa of abby, which is the studio's new multimedia subsidiary. Generally, she says, "once [a property] becomes a hit in one area of entertainment, then other entertainment follows. We don't do that, we launch everything simultaneously."
The hope is that by starting with the Yo-Kai Watch anime, which is currently airing on Disney XD, the series will already have a fanbase when the games and, in January, toys launch. This is especially important in trying to establish it in the crowded and quick-paced Western marketplace.
"TV is a great traditional doorway in," said Mike Ballog, senior director of global brand marketing at Hasbro. "But what's great about this property is that we have three different experiences moving toward each other."
These experiences include both the anime and game, as well as the toy component. Yo-Kai Watch will rollout a full selection of toys, from medals that can be used with the 3DS game as well as a physical version of the watch and a mobile app.
The mobile app is something specifically created for the West. It functions as a compendium of the various Yo-Kai spirit characters that young protagonist Nate must combat and collect throughout both the anime and the game. It allows players to scan and register physical spirit-bearing medals, which will be sold in mystery packs of six.
"Digital interaction is critical" for the American market, Ballog said. "In Japan they have Gatchaman machines [based on the series], and it's a very different format from what you see in the rest of the world."
Recognizing the constant growth and popularity of mobile as a platform, Hasbro plans to continue developing the app after launch. While at first it will primarily serve as a companion product to the medal toys, which will also be compatible with the game, eventually the app will also offer an arcade mode filled with mini-games starring some of the mascot Yo-kai, like the cat-like Jibanyan and Nate's sidekick Whisper.
Could Yo-Kai Watch go fully mobile in the future? Neither Hasbro nor Level-5 are ruling it out. "We don't necessarily stick to any particular platform," Hayakawa told us. "We're always thinking about what is the best way to reach to our targeted audience."
A key part of attracting that audience overseas is by emphasizing the humor of the series.
"Humor is a huge part of the franchise," Ballog said. This is conveyed through the inherent relatability of the characters, whose names were translated to winning puns that suggest the everyday concerns they are meant to represent. "The underlying idea of the things 8-to-10-year-olds encounter give reason to the world" of Yo-Kai Watch, Ballog explained, and that is key in broadening the appeal.
The humor is geared toward and appropriate for kids, but appealing to an older audience, as well. In the episodes of the anime we checked out, Yo-Kai like the perfectly named Dismerella slithered around the house in a gloomy daze, sharing her thoughts bluntly and following them up by saying, "Hashtag no filter." This tone appears in the game as well, which is closely linked to the anime.
Despite this, the game does still preserve many of its Japanese elements. Its core cast of characters, like the red cat Jinbanyan and Nate's ghost sidekick Whisper, retain their original names from the Japanese, and the designs of the spirits, many of which are based on cultural traditions, remain the same. This can be seen in the game, as well: Despite the name of Nate's hometown being changed to Springdale, he automatically removes his shoes upon entering the house, as is typical in Japan.
Details like these are charming and render Yo-Kai Watch something more unique than the Pokémon-esque franchise it is often compared to. Whether or not the stage-based launch strategy pays off for the companies will become more clear over the course of the next few months as the game, toys, manga and other products hit stores.