Thursday, March 28, 2013

Interview - Michael Levine (Usagi Yojimbo: The Way of the Ronin)

Usagi Yojimbo: The Way of the Ronin is one hell of an awesome game on iOS and Android. At PAX East 2013, the creators of this amazing game Happy Giant Media had a booth set up showcasing the game. I had a chance to speak with the CEO of Happy Giant Media Michael Levine and pick his brain about the game.

Omnicomic: What got you interested in working with Dark Horse for this game?

Michael Levine: The story is basically I have known Usagi; never read it as a kid, but knew a lot of comics. I was a big comic book guy. A good friend of mine a few years ago said how could you have never read Usagi? You gotta read them. Dropped ten books on me and started reading them and after the third book I thought we've gotta try and make this into a game. The more I read the more I fell in love with it. I have always loved Japanese stuff as I read Lone Wolf and Cub as a kid and other manga.

I reached out to Dark Horse and they were incredibly receptive and amazing to work with, letting us license it from them and work directly with the creator Stan Sakai, who has been writing and drawing the comic for twenty-eight years. It was important to me that he was involved with the game and supported it with feedback and help with the story and more, as he was a great guy to work with. Super nice and extremely helpful in getting the game to fit with the Usagi lore.

Omnicomic: Was this an original story you guys created for this game?

Levine: Yes, we came up with this original story. We researched it and the original Japanese myths to make sure we were staying accurate to it and when we presented it to Stan we felt he wouldn’t approve it because it was too epic and big, but he was like this is great man great idea go for it. Completely original and with Stan's help we improved it, with putting a lot of the characters from the comics into the game, but also creating some original characters for it; specifically the doss monsters since the comics didn’t have too many bosses, but everything else is pulled directly from the comic series.

Omnicomic: For fans who might have never heard of Usagi, can they jump into the game and understand what’s going on?

Levine: Absolutely. You don't need to know anything about Usagi as I like to think we made a story on par with Stan's, but I will bow my hat to him as the superior Usagi expert. Without any knowledge of Usagi you can still dive into the gameplay and appreciate it. If you are a big fan of Castle Crashers, the old retro side-scrollers like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. will enjoy it and will also introduce them to the world of Usagi and appreciate the story as well.

Omnicomic: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is where I recognized Usagi from. Is TNMT a big influence on you guys?

Levine: Well I was definitely a Turtles fan, but not a hardcore one. As we have gotten into Usagi at San Diego Comic Con as well at New York Comic Con with Dark Horse and Stan, you start to see people who recognize Usagi from the Turtles and I would joke if we can get 1 out of 5 Turtles fans into the game that would be awesome. The Turtle fans remember him and remember reading the comic as a kid and this is one of the reasons I wanted to make the game, as it's a labor of love.

I wanted to remind people that Usagi is still out there and not forgotten, as sometimes he's taken for granted because Stan kept doing it and never stopped. When you go back and read the issues, it's amazing his continued originality with plots and stories. We wanted to make sure we stayed true to that.

Omnicomic: The Museum of Fine Arts is doing a promotion with you guys to get special armor for Usagi to wear in game. Is this something other city with museums will get?

Levine: This is the beginning of an announcement for a co-promotion with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Samurai Exhibit that's lasting from April to August and what we did is actually took the Samurai armor and built it for Usagi. There is a special bonus level for the game and if you go to the Museum and get a special code when you go see the real armor that lets you unlock both the armor and the bonus level.

On top of that on May 11th Stan Sakai is flying to Boston to do a co-exhibition with us for Samurai Saturday, for Stan to talk about the comics and give away drawings as well as talk about the game. All in addition to the samurai swords exhibitions for a special promotion with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Omnicomic: Are there any plans on making Usagi and multiplayer game or putting it on Xbox Live/PSN?

Levine: We are listening to what people want as the plan initially is tablets and phones, then get it to desktop as we made it with unity and it fully runs fine. We would love to get it onto Steam and other PC/Mac stores.

In terms of multiplayer, we'll see, as it all depends on the reaction to the game and if people want it. It's more set up as a linear experience, with players being able to replay the levels and the combos you get are based on how well you do in each level. Replaying gets more combos. On multiplayer we can’t commit either way right now.

Omnicomic: Was the game designed to be offered for a set price instead of the micro transaction route?

Levine: Correct. This is something we thought a lot about and Free-to-Play wouldn't work on certain game types and we didn't want to feel like that kind of game were we are milking money from people. We decided to go old-school and charge a buck or two for a great experience within, where gamers didn't feel like they had to buy stuff to enjoy the game. There is a free version we came out with that has one level so you can try it out. If like it, buy it.

Omnicomic: Will there be any additional content for this Usagi Game?

Levine: We've gotta see how it does, it’s doing well and keeps doing well we'd love to make another one. I'd love to work on another one, especially since we have so much artwork done; it would be a lot easier to make a sequel. It just really depends and Dark Horse has been really supportive, helping us spread the word and getting it to fans. Even if we didn't do a sequel I would love to work with Dark Horse again as they have so many great properties to work with.

Omnicomic: Have you heard a lot of feedback about the game from the fans of the comic or fans in general?

Levine: Yes from both.

The comic fans are most important to me, as I met them at San Diego with Stan and it's important to me that they loved it and how much we knew about the property and the response from them have been overwhelmingly positive. From gamers who don't know Usagi we've gotten the most feedback directly here at PAX East. It's been great as people have been loving it.

You get a lot of feedback online with comments and ratings. We've been listening as the iOS version came out last month about the controls and things like that, with all of them being addressed with updated already. If you played the game when it first came out and didn't like the controls I highly recommend you re-download it to get the new version as we have completely revamped the controls for a lot smoother gameplay.

Omnicomic: Do you have any new games in the pipeline? Any ideas you're possibly exploring?

Levine: Lots of ideas. Some pretty big names we're talking to that we can't talk about just yet. Several ideas we are really excited about as we want to keep making games that have strong stories and characters. Games like action adventure games in the old style. That's all I can say now on that, but wish I could say more.


  1. Hola-
    Any way you'd find it in yer heart to share the code with us unlucky folks who are outside the Boston area?
    I'm in Jersey but would love to outfit Usagi so stylishly...