[Our own Christian Nutt talks to Level-5 (Professor Layton, Dragon Quest IX) manager Yoshiaki Kusuda on the dev's PS3 debut, designing RPGs in Japan, and the benefits of game creation outside of Tokyo. ]

What's up with the difference between Western and Japanese RPGs -- and their audiences -- anyway? Professor Layton and Dragon Quest IX creator Level-5 might be in a position to know.

The developer is finally planning to release its first current-gen game, White Knight Chronicles, for the PlayStation 3 in Europe and North America early next year, with Sony publishing.

White Knight Chronicles, which launched on PS3 in Japan on Christmas Day, 2008, has been through a long localization and improvement process -- what was primarily an offline RPG at launch has had its online mode boosted in quality and features and expanded through patches. The overseas version will include all changes made to the Japanese version over the last year.

The game has a uniquely Japanese conceit -- the player creates his or her own character who is not the hero of the story in the single-player mode, but, instead, is just a member of the hero's party -- the hero being a pre-set character, Leonard -- a typically brash, young Japanese RPG protagonist. However, when the player goes online, it's to form a party of these neglected create-a-heroes and play with others.

It's all a bit weird, isn't it? We spoke to Level-5 development manager Yoshiaki Kusuda about distinctly different RPG styles, the process of addressing two kinds of audiences, and the benefits of developing outside of Tokyo.

It's been a long time since the Japanese release of White Knight Chronicles, and you've since added what seems like a lot of content and made some changes. Can you talk about the thinking behind delaying the title and adding this content for the Western release?

Yoshiaki Kusuda: This is partly because we really value the international market and the users outside of Japan and we would like to focus on it. In addition to that, White Knight Chronicles has features of an online game, and it has been easier for us to receive feedback from users, and based on that user feedback we have made a lot of improvements and additions by way of patching.

Above that, the Dark Cloud series has become very popular in the overseas market or international market, so therefore, in releasing White Knight Chronicles in the international market, we really wanted to make it in the form of the second wave of features, which are currently available in the Japanese market today.

This game is the first Level-5 game, I think, that has had really a strong online component, which means that suddenly you're running a service; it's not the same as just releasing a game. What kind of challenges has that presented, and what kind of lessons have you learned since you released the game in Japan?

YK: In reference to the operation or the administration of the online side, Level-5 is working closely with Sony Computer Entertainment. In fact, this game is a first for Level-5 in many ways: it's the first PS3 title; it's the first RPG with online elements, and it's the first time for us to provide services in the form of online gaming support.

It's been really challenging for us, but at the same time we have been learning a lot because, with the online element, we have been able to receive feedback from the users real-time compared to the other games that we have launched in the past.

What is really interesting and surprising to us now is that the players would find very different ways of playing the game. They wouldn't follow the ways of playing anticipated by us before the release, so we find that there are many different ways of playing the game, which is a very good experience for us.

When you say "different ways of playing the game," do you mean in terms of how they progress through the quests, or enjoying activities outside of the stated goals? What is that teaching you about user behavior and how you should design future titles?

YK: Yes, exactly. Some players wouldn't proceed with the quests in a linear way from the start one to the goal and so forth. In White Knight Chronicles, we decided to give a high degree of freedom in terms both of the character creation, appearance, or skill set up of combos and so forth, but because of the high degree of freedom we find that some users have a lot of discussions of what kind of playstyle is ideal in the game and so forth. We find it very interesting, and we learn a lot from this.

Some Western users have been perhaps frustrated with the lack of freedom in Japanese RPGs compared to some of the Western RPGs -- obviously also many enjoy the Japanese style, so it's not one or the other. Is this feedback teaching you something about that the audience expectations, even inside Japan, may be different than you anticipated?

YK: I would say that different users have different tastes in different areas of interest because, as an RPG, White Knight Chronicles has a story -- of course -- but at the same time it has online elements. On top of that, we provide online communication elements with, for example, Geonet or Georama and so forth; so I would say that the options would be a lot more for the users to choose from, but different users may have different areas of focus or interest.

Some people say that they are only interested in proceeding with the story, or there may be some others who are really devoted into Georama, or there may be some others who only use the blog feature of the game, and so forth. So I think that there should be a lot of different areas of interest among users.

It's interesting the game has two lead characters; the story mode has Leonard, and then the online mode has your own player avatar. It would be more typical, I think, at least for a Western-developed game, to just have the creatable character across the whole game -- why did you proceed the way you did?

YK: Sorry I'm giving a lengthy answer, but in fact in order to answer your question, I need to talk about one basic concept for White Knight Chronicles. When we decided to create a PS3 title, we decided that one of the basic concepts of the game should be an online introduction RPG because, among the PC users, many have already been accustomed to online games; however, among the PS3 and other console users, there are many people who say that they don't like online games.

So one of the challenges or the theme for us at the time was to see how smoothly we could draw these people into the realm of online games. In order to do so, we could include many features. In playing an ordinary online game, you have to log onto the lobby, look for people who might be interested in partying up with you, discuss what kind of quests you are going on, and so forth, which might be quite troublesome for some people who haven't played any online games before.

In White Knight Chronicles, you can play the story mode, and then maybe between some events you might want to go on for just a couple small quests; and then for these people, we provide the matching system with which you can gather together and meet up with other players and set off on the quest. So, from the world map, you can easily go into the online mode to go for a quest; and then, after completing the quest, you can go back to the world map in a casual manner.

It's not just an online game solely with avatars, so for many players it would be interesting for them to proceed with the story where Leonard, the protagonist, rescues the abducted princess, but at the same time, by lowering the barrier for these people to the online game, we thought that we would draw many people into the online game and make sure that these two worlds are combined with a linked world to each other.

So your own avatar, which is created for the online mode, also participates in the adventure with Leonard in the story mode; and then this avatar -- your avatar -- would leave the team for awhile to set off on online quests.

Did you ever consider making the main character of the story being the player character rather than Leonard, who is a defined character?

YK: It would be very interesting if we could do it successfully, but, as the story unfolds, the characters -- especially the main character, the protagonist -- would be very important. In fact, in story mode, your avatar hardly speaks because, if the avatar speaks in a totally different way than you would conceive, you would find it very difficult to sympathize with the avatar, although it's supposed to be pretty much you.

So if the protagonist is not a set-up character but you could create the protagonist, it would happen the same way, because as the story unfolds you might think that the other character you created would not say this thing or would not behave this way and so forth, which might ruin the story; so for the story, we thought that it's better to give a specific name with a specific kind of characteristic to the protagonist, rather than allow players to create their own characters to play the hero.

Some games let you pick and choose what you want to say, and it's like a role-playing game with the emphasis on the role-playing; whereas some games -- obviously like this -- have a well-defined character, and it's more like a film or something where you can enjoy a story.

There's a lot of debate, I think, inside the industry of which is the better tactic to go with. Is the story-driven approach, the defined character approach, the creative approach that Level-5 finds best, or is it something that is defined by user expectations? That's what I'm curious about; what inspires Level-5 to make the decisions they make creatively on a game like this?

YK: Basically, in creating a scenario, we think what kind of character would be the most appropriate for the story, and then we have a lot of discussions within Level-5 to decide on one character.

And to change track completely, what's it like to be based in Fukuoka? There are not many studios there compared to Tokyo.

YK: In fact, the city of Fukuoka is an ideal mixture of an urban city and countryside; living in Fukuoka, you don't feel the stress of commuting everyday on a crowded train, but when you want to do shopping or dining out, it is also convenient, with a lot of shops and restaurants in the neighborhood. It's a town where you feel the least stress, I would say, which is very important for creative types of jobs, and we believe that it's really essential to provide an environment that wouldn't pose a lot of stress on creators so that they can make the most of their talents.