[Manga/anime license Naruto is a surprisingly popular game franchise in North America - but what can you do when the Japanese TV show is airing two years ahead of the West? Tomy decided to get creative with exclusive new Western-specific characters and stories, producer Nobi Matsuo explains to big sister site Gamasutra - an interesting solution.]

Tomy's titles based on the internationally popular anime series Naruto is a surprisingly popular game franchise in North America -- and notably, they're also known for solid quality.

But Tomy's latest fighting game title, Naruto: Clash of Ninja Revolution 2 for Wii, was now faced with an interesting challenge: how to bring North American players the next adventure when the TV series in Japan is as much as two years ahead of what's airing in the West?

Clash of Ninja Revolution 2's Tomy producer Nobi Matsuo decided to leverage the gap by filling it in with original characters and storylines made specifically for the game.

But how does this work with a game licensed from a Japanese cartoon, developed for a U.S. audience, requiring permission from a Japanese IP-holder? It gets complicated, and Matsuo explains the process in an interview with Gamasutra.

How did this game come to be chosen and conceived?

Nobi Matsuo: It was a timing thing. Everything fell in place. We've been localizing [the Japanese titles] for the GameCube; as you know, the Japanese TV shows are as much as a year or a couple years ahead of the U.S. TV show. So a lot of the characters have grown up and everything, so we can't usually use any of the assets from the Japanese side and bring them over to the U.S. side.

Especially when we made the transition to the Wii -- by that time, all the Japanese games that, for Tomy, used all the characters, which were prohibited for us to use. So we basically used that opportunity to start from scratch and put in all our characters, because they didn't exist for the Wii.

We took advantage of that and said "Why don't we go ahead and put in original storyline?" A lot of fans already know the TV show and everything; they know how it's going to turn out: so, rehashing the TV show isn't something that I personally like. So I said "This is a perfect chance."

And then we also started exploring a lot of aspects of Naruto that, I think, would have worked for the U.S. audience. And one of them was the ANBU theme.

The ANBU are like the black-ops organization that belong to the same organization as Naruto. And they exist in the background, so they appear in the TV show; they're always masked; they're always mysterious.

So I wanted to take that angle, because that's more like the description of what we Americans understand as "ninja" -- not some blond-haired kid with an orange jumpsuit. So these are the masked guys with the katanas and everything -- let's bring them out in the front.

So what was the framework? Did you layer in your new material on top of an existing structure?

NM: It was like an iteration... this is basically the fourth rendition in the U.S. So we've been building on the same engines, same developer - obviously improving it. There was a big jump going from the GameCube from the Wii, we added a lot of additional systems.

We established that, and laid the groundwork for Revolution 1, and once we got that, we basically took that out and took a lot of user comments, ideas, things we wanted to put in but couldn't do; and we just started layering and adding it on.

Is this game actually going to come out in Japan as well?

NM: Exclusive for North America. I mean, if there are Naruto fans over in Japan, they're going to have to buy the U.S. version.

That's not exactly the usual situation.

NM: Absolutely. This is a really rare opportunity where we were able to do that. We went ahead and created original characters that never existed anywhere in the world, not in Japan or in the U.S. -- characters from scratch, characters I wanted to see in there from the TV show that never were created.

So we concepted those, sketched them out, and then we sent it to the publisher, the licensor, for Naruto and had them approve it, see if it's within the realm of possibility in that world or not.

Was it challenging to get that license and the liberty to add those new characters and storylines?

NM: Absolutely. Absolutely. It was always a challenge. But it was a fun concept. They weren't very like "Oh, you can't do this; you can't do that"; "Show us what you can do" was their attitude; "and then we'll guide you and we'll help you out." So that's the direction we had.

One of the main characters: she originally started out in a wetsuit type of bodysuit type like X-Men-like thing, and they said "It's kind of going away from Naruto." So we went for more of the Asian feel, the kimono type of thing. And they helped guide us, but not really block us from our creativity. So they were very cooperative with that.

So you're with Tomy. How does that how structure work? There's Tomy and D3 -- who owns the actual Naruto property?

NM: The Naruto property is actually owned in Japan by Shueisha. And then North American license-holder is VIZ Media; from VIZ Media, we pay royalties and stuff.

So, since our game is North American-related, we license through them. But, ultimately, they have to get approval for everything through Shueisha. Since we're running on such a short schedule, we basically CC to keep the VIZ Media guys in the loop while communicating with Shueisha. Normally, you go through it the other way.

We're the publisher for the game: Tomy. D3 helps with the distributing. So that's how it works.

That's a lot of links in the chain.

NM: Links in the chain, and we have a very limited schedule. And so it was a challenge just getting everything in place. But the fact that we were able to go in and put something original and add to the story, to the world of Naruto, is really, really great.

How long did you have?

NM: I think we had about eight months to start. We had to get the contract set up for aiding; we had to get through service, 'cause it's an original story, so we had to hire a writer and then write the entire scenario and then get that approved by the licensor.

And the licensor actually has to go through, step by step, and make sure the names are correct and everything; and that takes a lot of time. So there was a lot of bottlenecks that we had to overcome.

As far as the writing and the characters and the scenario and all that: did you guys generate it yourselves, and then pass it on to the licensor and so on?

NM: Yeah. It passed a lot of hands. You have the artists; we had alternate, separate artists that did it. We had a separate writer. We'd go and pass information back and forth. Obviously, we'd give them direction; they'd start forming something together: "Here's a rough draft. What do you think?" It goes back and forth.

And, once it solidifies, we give it to the licensor. The licensor comes back with all their information, feedback, and we make the adjustments necessary. It goes back to the writer; the writer rewrites it. And we have to resubmit it again. So it's a fairly time-consuming process.

It's actually a committee. It's a line of people sitting up on the table, and it's like "Please, give us approval. Are these models OK?" So all the animation, special attacks, and everything: we all have to put it on DVD, show them the images and stuff; and they'll say "We don't like the color", or, "Speed this up."

It sounds like a more international effort than would often happen with a game like this; is that typical?

NM: It is; it's normal. Even domestically, with domestic Tomy over in Japan, there's a lot of back and forth going on with that.

Actually, the fact that we're international, they've given us a little more leniency, because they're further along, so they know what's going on... in terms of how we could have certain characters interact with each other without it affecting the main story arc of the story.

How does it feel to have it done?

It's an enormous relief, first of all. The fact that we had such a limited amount of time, the fact that we were able to put in so much of that.

Another thing I didn't mention was we even talked to the animation studio that does the TV show, and we basically presented them sketches of all our original characters.

They created an original animated intro; so we actually had the guys who narrate Naruto all the time go in and animate our original characters that we concepted. So I mean it was a very big and challenging effort, but it was definitely good.

[This piece originally appeared on big sister game business site Gamasutra - don't forget to visit, check out the jobs, and subscribe to the RSS.]