Last year, Japanese game developer Level-5 kicked off an ambitious plan to make a series about Japanese folklore creatures into a global phenomenon. Called Yo-kai Watch, the game debuted in Japan in 2013 and went on to become a massive success, selling millions of video games and raking in more than $1 billion in merchandise revenue. Two years after that, Level-5 took the franchise outside of its home country, releasing an onslaught of Yo-kai Watch into the world: an animated series aired on Disney XD; Nintendo published a game on the 3DS; and Hasbro released a huge collection of toys, from plush characters to a replica of the titular watch.
Now the series is back for another push, anchored by a pair of games hitting the 3DS on September 30th. Yo-kai Watch might not be a Pokemon-like success yet, but that isn't stopping Level-5 from taking another shot. "We have to understand that it takes time," president and CEO Akihiro Hino said during an interview at E3 last week. "But then at the same time we have to work as hard as we can to shorten the time as much as possible."
Neither Level-5 nor Nintendo are revealing sales information for the game's global debut last year, so it's difficult to ascertain just how well Yo-kai Watch is doing outside of Japan. In December, Level-5 said that the series had shipped 10 million copies worldwide, a sizable jump from the 7 million copies of Yo-kai Watch that had been sold in Japan as of last April.
"We have to understand that it takes time."
But even if the series hasn't yet become a massive sales success outside of its home country, the continued push in 2016 shows that Level-5 and its partners believe it's still possible to make a big global splash. In addition to the new game in September, Hasbro will soon be releasing a new line of toys — including a watch with a built-in projector — and Disney will be airing a second season of the show this summer, with nearly double the number of episodes. Meanwhile, earlier this year Level-5 expanded to mobile with the release of the puzzle / RPG hybrid Yo-kai Watch Wibble Wobble on both iOS and Android, while the first season of the animated series debuted on Netflix.
According to Hino, despite the seemingly quiet reception of the franchise in America compared to Japan, things are actually going just as planned. "I think we're following the same kind of sales trend as Japan," he says. "Meaning that our first game in Japan had OK sales, but it only became a huge phenomenon when we released the second game. I think our launch here in the US is kind of the ideal sales that we had expected."
He also notes that following the global release, Level-5 has found that Western countries tend to fall into one of two different categories. In European countries such as France, "who are very open to Japanese culture, and accepting of Japanese culture" the game and its follow-ups have been an almost immediate success. But in places like the US, things have been a bit slower. "I think those are areas where we have to sell our product as more of a fantasy story, rather than a Japanese story," Hino notes. "And those are the areas where it takes a little bit of time for us to build the brand within the market."
The series had already made some big changes last year in order to appeal to a new audience. In marketing materials, publisher Nintendo largely stayed away from describing yo-kai as creatures from Japanese folklore, instead calling them "invisible beings" that are "not ghosts or spirits." The majority of the character and place names were localized for the Western release — the setting of Sakura New Town became Springdale, for instance — but many Japanese features remained, such as the option to eat plum rice balls to regain health. For the upcoming games — which are called Bony Spirits and Fleshy Souls, and which will be released simultaneously much like Pokemon — the level of localization will likely be the same.
The series made some big changes to appeal to a new audience
But Hino says the important thing will be the messaging — though he's not specific on how exactly that will change. "For the markets where it takes more time, we have to change the messaging, trying to push the aspects that are more familiar to those markets," he says. "Not just push the game as-is, but pick the unique aspect that will be familiar."
Level-5 has made a huge effort to expand the franchise outside of Japan, going so far as to launch a Western subsidiary called Level-5 abby in California, focused entirely on the global cross-media aspects of the franchise. And the company's partners clearly see as much potential as Level-5 does. In its most recent earnings report, Hasbro cited Yo-kai Watch (along with stalwarts Star Wars and Nerf) as one of the reasons for a big increase in its "boys" category of toys. "We continue to see new fans being introduced to the franchise," says Mike Ballog, Hasbro's senior director of marketing on the franchise.
Meanwhile, in a statement to The Verge, a Nintendo spokesperson said that, "The franchise has gotten off to a solid start in the US. Now that it has some momentum, we're aiming to help it grow with two new games on the way. We expect, as is the case with new franchises of this type, that sales will grow steadily over time. And in particular, Yo-kai Watch should benefit from Nintendo's established history of ‘long-tail' software sales over an extended period of time."
And Level-5's ambitions remain the same as ever. "We do believe that Yo-kai Watch can be as big of a social phenomenon [in the West] as it is in Japan," Hino says.