The secret to Level 5's success, says CEO/President Akihiro Hino, is having a really awesome trailer with lots of visual images that target the game's core audience. Said trailer's gameplay footage is "not final."
In a Q&A session following his "Level-5's Techniques to Producing a Hit Game," Hino said that the in-game footage that appears in trailers for games like Professor Layton and Izuma Eleven is usually taken when the game is "about 20% complete."
By that time, he said through a translator, the development team already has a pretty good idea of what they're going to make — so they're not worried about unfulfilled promises.
Their latest project, Ninokuni (The Another World), is no exception. At the end of the talk — and with a strong admonishment not to film or take pictures — they showed a neat trailer that includes only a few pieces of new stuff from what we saw at Tokyo Games Show: mostly lizards and swamp creatures that you may or may not have to fight and some more settings in the lush "Another" world and the bland "normal" world that the main character goes back and forth between with a magic book.
As for Level 5's "secrets" to success, they sound like common sense to me: have a clear concept of how you're going to sell the game before you make it (the Japanese call this catch-copy, we call it buzzword) and then, make a game that people will want to keep playing (he called this a "boom trigger," I prefer to think of it as the "crack factor").
The example Hino used was the Professor Layton series. They had a fancy cinematic trailer out before they'd even completely developed the game; they used famous actors and actresses to voice the cut scenes to attract attention from the core audience; and they had the crack-factor in the form of a communication gimmick (asking your friends for help on puzzles) and game extension with downloadable puzzles. This resulted in one of the most successful games for Level 5 with more than 936,000 units shipped in Japan alone.
Obvious or not, though, Hino thinks the strategy may not work for everyone: "In the game industry, we have a lot of artisan types of game creators. Sometimes when we think about how to sell games, that's seen as evil - but I don't agree. We need to sell games so that they'll have a wide audience so more people can enjoy games. From the start, we need to be thinking about how to sell the game."
Well, they certainly sold me. But being that Ninokuni might not even be close to done, I might be able to reclaim some scepticism. At least until they officially release that trailer so I can watch it over and over again.