Next Level Games has produced a good number of Nintendo titles — including the excellent Punch-Out!! reboot on Wii — but truly shot to prominence with the critically and commercially successful Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon. The studio has been working solely on Nintendo games for a number of years, and told us in our interview last year that it "actually feels like" it is an official Nintendo second-party. Yet despite its run of Nintendo titles it is still officially an independent company, unlike subsidiaries such as Retro Studios and Monolith Soft.
In an interesting interview with Gamasutra, co-founder Jason Carr and Dark Moon producer Ken Yeeloy have explained that, at present, its staff of around 70 is currently committed solely to Nintendo games.
Jason Carr: We are doing only Nintendo products now.
...We have worked with a lot of other companies before, and we're super happy with our relationship with Nintendo. There's no reason to look anywhere else. They keep giving us better and better IP to work with, and as long as we do our job and make good games for them there's no reason for us to venture out.
Because we're still a small shop. We're under 70 people. We like that size. For us, we're like, why would you want to go and talk with these other guys? What's it doing for your business? The guys in the company are just really, really proud of the company and proud of the games they work on.
The interview explains how the company has become increasingly familiar and comfortable working with multiple producers and teams from within Nintendo. In particular it's highlighted that the oversight management from Nintendo is typically made up those that are game designers, a different experience from the business-focused management of some Western publishers.
It is different, though. Like you say, it's about the people for them, a lot. We've noticed with their producery-type guys, these are all guys who have usually worked on content, art, whatever, and they've moved into roles where it feels like the creative guys are the decision-makers.
A lot of the North American publishers we've worked with, a lot of them come from a business background. They're money guys. It's like, "Wow. It's really nice working with guys you can imagine designing a game." Working with the guy who's basically controlling the path of the schedule, and it's like, he's a designer. He's not going, "Well..."
And they're very responsible on the business side, with their launch dates, and all of that, and they're very secretive about when it comes out, as you alluded to. But, man, it sure is nice working with guys who understand gameplay, and games, and game experiences, and stuff like that.
Another theme raised is that Next Level Games is keen to stay relatively small, maintaining a happy working environment; that seems to be a focus of Nintendo and senior figures such as Shigeru Miyamoto, too.
And the big thing for a lot of us, especially with guys getting older and having families, we thought we could build an environment where we could build games and not kill guys. Not slack off, but not throw the pool table in and "Here's some free food, and more pop! Stay here forever! Eat the magical fruit!" We realize that there's a whole life outside of making video games.
And for a lot of guys, when they come to work, they're fresh, they're immersed in it, they're excited by it. They want to come to work — they're not dragged in. It's worked out really, really well. And it's the kind of place where people want to stay — not all the time, but when they're there, they're happy.
Again, another Miyamoto-san quote, but he always asks us, "Is the team having fun? Are they having fun making the game?" It's really important that the team's enjoying themselves there, because they feel — and I agree — that if you're miserable it'll follow suit in your job. How are you supposed to make an engaging Nintendo game that's actually fun? We don't do the gimmicky stuff that you hear a lot.
It seems that Next Level Games is invested in the idea of working exclusively for Nintendo for a good while yet, even if it is technically entirely independent. Whether a true 'second-party' or not, that should only mean good things.