In an age where children are growing up with the Internet’s limitless diversions as a fact of life, perennial access to information, and more television and distribution channels than ever before, it could take a lot for a franchise to grab the attention of this generation of overstimulated children.
Yokai Watch is a successful game franchise in Japan created by Level-5 Inc., which launched in America recently. In the game for the Nintendo 3DS, users play as a kid who gets the titular timepiece, which lets him or her see and befriend spirits called Yokai–and with their aid, take on evil spirits and help people with problems. But Yokai Watch isn’t just a game. It’s a cartoon, recently launched on Disney XD, a mobile app for iPhone and Android, a series of books and comics, and a line of toys and collectibles.
When creating the new franchise, Level-5 had this robust approach from the beginning. It’s what drove them to create the franchise in the first place.
Akihiro Hino, founder and CEO of Level-5, tells Co.Create through a translator, “As a cross-media project, we intended for it to succeed in all media simultaneously. Level-5’s motto is always to try new things. I personally feel that I don’t get motivated unless I’m always challenging myself to do new things. That’s why I wanted the challenge.”
In the Yokai Watch world, any of the mischievous spirits the protagonist befriends gives him or her a medal, so the titular watch can summon them. Back in the real world, besides all the other toys and merchandise, there are also medals to be bought and collected (produced for America by Hasbro). These plastic discs have colorful art of the particular Yokai on one side and a QR code on the other. The code will add the corresponding Yokai to the mobile game or unlock an item in the 3DS game. But it is also a collectible, with both basic medals and rare ones, and much like pogs or trading cards of old, they are swapped among fans.
“It creates communication between kids, trading the medals. Some of the rare medals are traded for $500. The face value is like $1. But some of the rare ones have become valued a lot by the kids. So I hope kids in America will be excited about the Yokai medals as well,” says Hino.
There are the typical medals to be purchased like toys and the limited-edition medals to be had from events. The medals are a physical thing that ties all the different media platforms together, effecting the games, working with toys, shown in the cartoon. And the medals, too, were part of the Yokai Watch concept from the beginning, another part of establishing a cross-media franchise.
Level-5 isn’t just a production company creating franchises. They are developers creating content. So in the development of the franchise, they knew that story would be important too for Yokai Watch to find and audience. At the start of the initial process, they looked at long-running franchises in Japan to figure out why they had such staying power.
Hino says, “When we looked back at those long-lasting franchises, created 20 to 30 years ago, what they presented was things that that generation experienced in their own daily life. That’s what I wanted to have in this franchise. Things that kids have issues with or trending topics from our current time.“
And so Hino and the others at Level-5 decided to show kids’ lives, doing research on what they care about and what issues that they deal with. After all, you can’t have a story about mischievous spirits in people’s lives if those lives aren’t believable. An effort was made to not only create storylines for the game or the cartoon that were relatable, but to do so from the children’s perspective.
“The anime has this episode where kids have a sleepover at a friend’s house. At nighttime, they try to see a show with ladies in bikinis, something they are not usually allowed to watch. That kind of thing is something adults really don’t want kids to know how to do, but we wanted to show it in a humorous way. So kids will feel that this is something created in their point of view,” says Hino.
Another key part to reaching kids who are following a million sites, shows, and games is to making things flashy. Level-5 decided it was not enough to give characters like the Yokai cool attacks and special moves. They have to be spectacular for kids to take notice.
“As kids grow and as they get overstimulated, it’s kind of hard to impress them with normal moves. It has to be more radical,” says Hino. “So even though we wanted to make the game like their lives, make players relate and be immersed, we couldn’t just reflect what’s in a normal life. So we included some of the over-the-top action and presentation similar to a comic book or anime.”
The game and cartoon was also designed to be for the whole family. And as the sleepover example shows, that didn’t mean creating something that was completely safe. It meant making something for the kids, and something for the adults. Level-5 wanted parents to watch the show and laugh at things only they get, such as a song that is a parody of a tune from an old TV show. And they wanted parents to enjoy the games, to even play multiplayer with their children.
Like any new entertainment property, there is a chance it does not catch on with kids in America. But with a concerted combination of television and games, toys and books, collectibles and merchandise, Level-5 is firing on all cylinders to have their work find its fanbase. And Hino wants to see Yokai Watch succeed in America just like it has in Japan.
“Yokai are there for kids who rescue them. Some of the Yokai get together with the kids and do mischief with them. Or sometimes they help people with problems. So they have an existence very close to the kids,” says Hino. “In Japan, what energized the franchise is that kids are always blaming Yokai for mischievous things. I’m hoping the same thing will happen here.”