Yo-Kai Watch is a Japanese phenomenon, and now it has come West (read our review).
Gamers in the U.S., Canada, and other Western nations are finally getting a chance to play developer Level 5’s creature-catching game. In Yo-Kai Watch, you play as a young kid who must capture spirit- and ghost-like monsters known as Yo-Kai — although, as you’ll read, I learned the hard way that Yo-Kai are not actually ghosts.
If that quick description has you saying, “It sounds like Pokémon,” you don’t even know. The developer is releasing the 3DS game along with a line of products and an animated television show, which is exactly how The Pokémon Company brought its monster-catching game to Americans back in the 1990s. And now, Level 5 is waiting to see if it can guide Yo-Kai Watch to the same kind of global success that Pokémon has achieved.
It might seem crazy for any developer to have expectations that a new franchise could match Nintendo’s pocket monsters, but Level 5 has already done that in Japan. And it has set out on a similar path to do the same in the States and elsewhere.
To find out more about bringing the game to the West, GamesBeat had a conversation with Level 5 chief executive officer Akihiro Hino about Yo-Kai Watch and the company’s strategy for conquering the rest of the world.
Here’s the edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Yo-Kai Watch is just making its way to the West. It’s finally here. How do you feel about finally introducing it to a new audience?
Akihiro Hino: Yo-Kai Watch was a big hit in Japan, and it’s finally coming to America and Europe. We definitely want it to be successful there. It was a big project, with lots of people involved. I’m very anxious to see how it’ll be received by audiences here.
GamesBeat: Is there one thing that you’re most proud of about the game — something you hope will catch on with Western gamers?
Hino: The main thing about the game is the Yo-Kai. Each one has a distinct personality. They have their own backgrounds and stories, a story about how they got to this point. They’re not like animals or pets.They’re more like humans, every one of them, and they have their own human drama. I hope everyone here will be able to enjoy the human drama each Yo-Kai brings.
GamesBeat: You pointed out a difference there — they’re not animals or pets or Pokémon, and yet people continue to compare the game to Pokémon. Is that a fair comparison? Where else do they differ?
Hino: We don’t really mind the comparison with Pokémon, but there are lots of differences. Yo-Kai Watch doesn’t take place in a fantasy world. The setting is like a real town in Japan, something closer to the user’s own life. It’s very relatable for kids. It’s something they can connect to their own life. We did localize it well, though, to make sure that kind of element carries through to the American version.
Another key point is that this isn’t just for kids, though. It’s for the whole family. We have elements that appeal to mothers and fathers as well, not just their kids. The franchise contains humor that can appeal to both kids and adults.
GamesBeat: The game was clearly originally made with a lot of humor in mind, some of it specifically designed to appeal to Japanese audiences. Were there any characters or jokes that you liked in the original version but couldn’t directly translate into English or other western languages?
Hino: From the beginning, that was one of the challenges in localization. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the story of the Jibanyan. He was originally a kitty who was hit by a car and became a Yo-Kai. Some people didn’t want to focus on that fact that he was killed by a car and wanted us to change that. But that’s at the core of the Jibanyan story, so we didn’t want to change it. We brought that here intact.
GamesBeat: Did it feel like a win to keep that element of the story together?
Hino: We paid very close attention in the localization. There are some elements that only work with Japanese culture and some elements that we had to tweak a little bit to fit the humor for an overseas audience. But we kept the essence of Yo-Kai Watch as it is to bring it here.
GamesBeat: Yo-Kai Watch is more than just a game. There’s the whole product line coming to the west. How important is it to ensure that the game is a strong center pillar that supports everything else?
Hino: Of course this is a cross-media project — movies, anime, comics, lots of other things. But Level-5 is the IP holder and works primarily on the game. How the game succeeds will definitely affect all those other things. The viewership of the anime goes up when the game does well. The movies sell more tickets when the game does well. So the game is definitely the center of all this entertainment, and we know it has to be very good.
GamesBeat: It seems like the reviews have been mostly positive so far. Are you happy with that?
Hino: I’m very happy that the U.S. version and other overseas versions, the localized and culturalized versions, are very high quality. They’re as good as the Japanese original. So I’m happy that the game is being accepted by overseas media.
GamesBeat: It seems like people are excited in the west specifically because Yo-Kai Watch was so successful in its home country. Did that success surprise you at all? Did it change the way you thought about introducing the game to the rest of the world?
Hino: I’ll admit that it was a bigger success than we originally suspected, even in Japan. The game did really well, the movie did really well. We did have a solid strategy for our launch, but as you know, it was a huge success. When we decided to bring the franchise to overseas markets, to be successful in other markets as well, we wanted to maintain the core elements of the franchise, which is that cross-media quality.
We wanted to have the connections between different media and the ability to share the experience across different media — things like the Yo-Kai Medals, which have a compatibility with the games and the app. Sharing the experience across media is a big thing for us. We wanted to make sure that we could have a solid plan for that in the overseas markets. In the U.S., Hasbro is bringing out the toys, and we want to build the same kind of phenomenon we had in Japan. The plan is solid, and I’m very comfortable with what we’re currently bringing over.
GamesBeat: This sounds like a lot of work — maybe a lot more work than the typical localization of a game from one market to another. Was that the case?
Hino: I don’t want to say it was necessarily challenging or difficult. It was a large-scale launch, because of the involvement of a lot of different companies. We had to negotiate deals with all those companies to make it easier for everyone involved. Yo-Kai Watch is definitely a big franchise, so that created lots of work. But at the same time, it was fun to put it all together.
GamesBeat: You used the word “phenomenon.” Level-5 was already a successful and respected company before Yo-Kai Watch, but you maybe didn’t have a phenomenon until Yo-Kai Watch. Did that success change the way people inside and outside the company looked at Level-5?
Hino: It does change some of the perception of Level-5, yes. It’s a cross-media project. Lots of different media companies are involved, and we need to make sure that each channel is successful. There’s a lot of hard work involved there. When we first started, we didn’t have a lot of experience in this area, so it was a learning process for us.
But as we gained more experience, we received stronger support from everybody. And after it became a big success, the outside view of Level-5 as a company definitely changed. But for the people at the core of the production, for us, we became more united, more of a team, better at working together on these kinds of projects as a company. That’s been the progression from inside and from outside as well.
GamesBeat: Now that you’re more united around this one very popular brand, how do you ensure that you can shepherd the series in the future such that current fans will always have something to love and a new generation of fans will come on board and find something as well?
Hino: As a team — It’s not just Level-5 staff. It’s all these other companies who are also involved in the project as a creative support team. All of these people from different markets and areas got together and met together. We tried to decide together how to succeed. That’s how Yo-Kai Watch works and it’s how Yo-Kai Watch succeeded. A lot of different people from different areas and genres got together and work on the cross-media project.
Moving forward, we want to keep doing that. Talking about the next generation of our audience, we want to make sure we continue to offer new features that appeal to that next generation. We want to treat these characters in Yo-Kai Watch like the stars on a variety show. On a variety show there are trends. Every season’s different. Anime TV shows have different seasons where the second one will be out, the third one will be in development, and the fourth and fifth one will be worked up later on. We want to make sure that every time we come up with something new, it will appeal to a new generation of users and match with what they want.
We’re definitely going to work on new systems and updates to things like the battle systems. The characters will be new and other systems will feel new, so we can appeal to a new generation of users. That’s something we’re focused on, especially for this kind of cross-media project.
GamesBeat: In the West, we tend to hear that in Japan, everyone is playing on mobile and all the money is being made on mobile devices. How has Yo-Kai Watch shown that not everything is necessarily happening on mobile? Do you believe this shows that there’s still life in traditional portable devices?
Hino: I’m aware that the mobile market is getting bigger, but I feel like the major platform that kids still play games with is the Nintendo 3DS. I want to offer the best quality game on the system that kids still play with. That’s why we’re offering Yo-Kai Watch on the 3DS.
But the foundation is the best quality game that kids can play on a game platform. At the same time, we made sure to include features and functionality that adults can enjoy as well. When you combine those two elements, Yo-Kai Watch is something that not just kids, but the whole family can enjoy together.
I feel like the kinds of things we wanted to do are only possible on the Nintendo 3DS, and that’s why it was so successful in Japan. We sold more than six million copies just through this one franchise. That’s pretty big. In the future, we might see the possibility of working on mobile apps as well, but it might be some kind of simultaneous project. What’s fundamentally the most important is working on the platform kids are playing with.
That’s what we want to go after.
GamesBeat: The subject of ghosts can maybe be a little touchy in the West, especially in America. When you were working on the localization, did you encounter any problems with religious connotations?
[Here the translator explained that Yo-Kai are not ghosts.]
GamesBeat: In that case, did Level 5 ever find it frustrating to have to explain to people like me that Yo-Kai are not ghosts?
Hino: Even before we worked on bringing it here, the internal team was asking me, how should we describe the Yo-Kai in English? Do we describe them as ghosts, or as monsters or creatures? That was a question I was often asked, even from the beginning. I was already expecting those kinds of issues, so it didn’t really frustrate me.
We always had this concept that Yo-Kai aren’t ghosts or creatures or monsters. They’re Yo-Kai, simply Yo-Kai. Yo-Kai are Yo-Kai. They’re original beings. So a key point was that we had to make sure to communicate that fact, that they’re not any other thing that already exist. They’re original and unique beings, with their own human dramas involved.
If we can accurately communicate that point, that’ll be very important to the success of Yo-Kai Watch. We weren’t very frustrated, then. I understood that could be a source of confusion.
GamesBeat: Finally, it took around two years for Yo-Kai Watch to come from Japan to the West. Will it take just as long to get Yo-Kai Watch 2 overseas?
Hino: It shouldn’t take that long. [Laughs]