Akihiro Hino, president of developer LEVEL-5, tells PlayStation.com how his team joined forces with the legendary Studio Ghibli.
It's a dream partnership: LEVEL-5, the development team responsible for some of the grandest adventures ever to hit PlayStation, and Studio Ghibli, the creative force behind landmark animated films such as Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away and Ponyo. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is the result of their teamwork and the game has sped to success on PlayStation 3, reaching the top of the charts in countries including France, Germany and the UK.
Here, Akihiro Hino explains how two of Japan's most respected studios teamed up to bring us the story of Oliver and his journey into a second world...
How and when did the idea to collaborate first arise?
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch originally began as a tenth anniversary project for LEVEL-5. We asked Toshio Suzuki, a producer at Studio Ghibli, if he could help create the animations for our upcoming project, and we were thrilled that he said yes. Studio Ghibli is one of Japan's leading animation studios, so to create something with its team was an honour. LEVEL-5 has aimed to create titles that appeal to a broader audience in recent years, so in that sense we also wanted to learn about the techniques Studio Ghibli uses in its films.
How did the partnership work?
In terms of the process, Studio Ghibli's director of animation Yoshiyuki Momose drew some concepts, storyboards and character designs based on my written descriptions. We didn't make any specific requests; all we asked of them was that their designs have the famous Ghibli-like style.
Did Studio Ghibli come up with ideas for specific story elements, characters or monsters?
Yes. In terms of the animation, Mr Momose created the storyboards, which included everything from staging to the dialogue, based on the written materials we provided. In terms of the in-game event scenes, Mr Momose supervised everything from frame compositions to direction during the motion capture sessions. We're quite confident players will sense this Ghibli-like nature throughout the entire game – not just in the animation.
Were there any doubts or worries from either side about how you might work together?
I wouldn't say there were any doubts. We were very excited about working on a project with Studio Ghibli. I suppose it was difficult figuring out how to explain what might be different about catering to a gaming audience. Movies last at most two or three hours, but games can run anywhere from ten to over 100 hours. The process is a bit different in terms of keeping the player interested or evoking emotion.
I feel that Studio Ghibli's team found game production to be a fresh experience, and overall I think they enjoyed it. They've kindly informed us that it was invigorating to work with such a young and eager crew of creators.
Did LEVEL-5 have any particular Studio Ghibli movies in mind when developing the game?
We were very conscious about making our scenes in the same style as Studio Ghibli. The development team was constantly playing Ghibli films on the production floor throughout the project, not simply to reference the way characters walk, run or talk, but to absorb the feel of their worlds.
And did Studio Ghibli look to any other video games for inspiration?
We discussed a number of games and communicated the appeal of role-playing games. It was Mr Momose's first time being involved in the production of a game, and he showed a lot of interest in the medium and ended up playing a very active role.
What did the team at LEVEL-5 learn from working with Studio Ghibli?
We learned how important it is to show the little habits of everyday people. Before this project, we tended to move the camera to create the coolest composition possible, or we'd exaggerate character movements for added effect. But the Studio Ghibli animators only move the camera when it's necessary, and instead compose scenes so that the natural movements of the characters are easy on the eye. In fact, if the motion doesn't look perfectly natural, they prefer not to show it at all. Not only does this provide the viewer with a greater sense of realism, but the level of empathy is totally different.
Might this be the start of an ongoing partnership?
LEVEL-5 would of course love the opportunity to work on a project with Studio Ghibli again. If we could adapt one of its films into a game, Castle in the Sky would be interesting. I'm a huge fan of the film.
Find out what Akihiro Hino had to say when the PlayStation Community put their questions to him over at PlayStation.Blog. Want to know what Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is like to play? Then find out in our preview. If you like the sound of the game, download it now from our online store.