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Harvest Man: Yasuhiro Wada's Gentle World

In an in-depth interview, Gamasutra talks to Harvest Moon creator and Marvelous Interactive president Yasuhiro Wada about the unassuming series, creating games with unusual themes, and why he wants to make games like Spore.

The Harvest Moon series has been around since the twilight days of the Super Nintendo, offering up a relaxing but compelling world based around farming and familial relationships. The RPG series has gone from a cult classic to a real success, with several hundred thousand units of new titles in the series shifted in Western markets.

In a recent interview, Gamasutra speaks to series creator and Marvelous Interactive president Yasuhiro Wada about the unassuming series, his unique sense of game design, and creating games with unusual themes.

I have some difficult questions and some less difficult questions. Which ones do you want first?

Yasuhiro Wada: As you like.

Some easy questions first. So how long have you been in the gaming industry?

YW: 18 years.

Was that from the time when you created Harvest Moon?

YW: Oh no, Harvest Moon was 13 years ago.

Have you worked on other games aside from Harvest Moon, then?

YW: The first year I started, I did planning work. My first game concept was Harvest Moon, and that was something like three or four years after I started.

And have you wound up working on things that are not Harvest Moon after that?

YW: I worked on Chulip, and on a game that wasn't released in the U.S. and Europe called Boku wa Chiisai [Ed. note: that translates to "I Am Little".] It's about an extraterrestrial -- there was a time paradox, and you're always doing the same thing. It's like Groundhog Day -- always doing the same thing in a 24 hour cycle.

What platform was that?

YW: PlayStation 2.

Can you tell me something about the origins of Marvelous itself?

YW: Marvelous was established in 2003, and it was Marvelous Interactive. Marvelous Entertainment was established in 1997. Marvelous Entertainment in the beginning just released soundtracks of games. From 2000, they started to do some animation, too, then they decided to do the game business from there. The first project was just two or three people.

In 2003, they bought Victor Interactive, and became Marvelous Interactive. Actually I was working at Victor Interactive. From June 2007, Marvelous Entertainment and Marvelous Interactive have branched together to become Marvelous Entertainment, and the Marvelous Interactive part became a digital content company inside Marvelous Entertainment.

How large is Marvelous now?

YW: The development team is about 45 people. Promotion, sales, production, and the rest are 45. So in all, 90 people. And so if we talk about annual revenue per year, it's something around 50 billion yen, or 50 million dollars.

That's a lot, for a small company. Marvelous seems to be getting bigger every year, in terms of what it's producing.

YW: We only had like five or six titles in 2003, and this year, we already have more than 30 titles. And half of them are manga-based titles. But the rate of those manga-based titles is going to decrease gradually. We're going to focus on original titles.

 


I've been really interested in Marvelous, because I've noticed that the quality has been rising, and that the number of licensed titles is decreasing. It's an interesting way to plan the course of the company, because not a lot of people seem to have that specific goal.

YW: Our market is like the U.S. market -- you have to have the series titles, like sports games. It's the same as any other thing, but the user starts to get sick of this and gets fed up with those titles. I want to release more original titles. That's why I'm aiming for more original titles every year.

So that leads to a somewhat difficult question. Do you ever get tired of making Harvest Moon?

YW: Harvest Moon was my game concept, so now I'm still supervising the concept for the gameplay design. Before he started working with us, he pitched the work. So now, they put their own ideas in the game too, so now I'm just in the game concept development. Making a new IP for a new title is risky, and it's still really risky. I know that the casual producer won't try to do it. But I want to take this challenge and try these new titles, to make those original titles. My position now is to actually find those new titles, to work on the concept, to try and launch them, and once they're launched, to pick a producer to work on it.

So do you still get to create your own original titles yourself?

YW: Though Kimura-san is the producer for [our new game] Osama Monogatari, it was my concept. Once the concept was launched, I just handed it to Kimura-san to work on it. [Ed. note: Osama Monogatari translates roughly as "A King's Story".]

It seems to me that there's getting to be a much bigger casual market, so it seems that every year, Harvest Moon is in a better position to be popular, but it doesn't get a big push in the U.S. It seems like it's kind of a wasted opportunity, because the DS and the Wii are so much more popular, and Harvest Moon is perfect for the audience.

YW: In the U.S., it's published by Natsume, but we set up our own branch in Europe. So in Europe, we set up a deal with Nintendo Europe. And so in Europe now, it's getting really big too. We've reached almost five hundred thousand units in Europe, so now in Europe it's becoming really famous and we're hoping we'll be able to use this popularity in Europe in the U.S. too.

Which game is the five hundred thousand for?

YW: For Harvest Moon DS.

Do you ever have any plans to open up a U.S. Marvelous office?

YW: Yeah. But we might leave Harvest Moon to Natsume. We might choose the new titles that we're trying to launch now in Japan for sale at our U.S. branch.

When might you be creating your U.S. branch?

YW: Two years.

Will you be bringing people from here to manage, or will you be growing up a company from within the U.S.?

YW: We're going to send two or three staff to the U.S., but we need someone over there who already has the contacts and who is very strong with all the retailers and with the distribution channel to help us. We hope to find a partnership with someone over there to set up our U.S. branch.


 


So here's a curious question. There always seems to be a theme in Harvest Moon of missing parents, or an attempt to reconnect with family. Why is that?

YW: In the Harvest Moon series, we need some drama, so that's why. If everyone was a happy family and if you were surrounded by your family from the very beginning, it would be kind of boring. That's why you want the user to build this family -- to reconnect with his family, and to build it. You start from nothing, and you get to the end, so you have to have some drama.

It almost reminds me of... many traditional RPGs begin with the hero losing his memory. But in this case, he has lost something which he does remember. Like, "Your parents are dead, and you're going to see your grandfather," or, "Your grandfather lost his farm, and you have to get it back." It seems like it always begins from a point of hardship, and I wonder why it's always focused on family first.

YW: Think about what it's like if you went through a loss of someone in your family. But here in this game, I want people to be able to get it back. As I said before, if you were happy in the beginning, there wouldn't be any story. So the main goal is, maybe you start from a loss, something really hard, but you can become happy in the end.

I certainly understand the story rhythm that comes from that. What's really interesting to me is that over multiple games, it often deals with that theme. It seems like there's something more behind it.

YW: You have a lot of joy and a lot of sadness in your lifetime. Different types of joy and sadness. Not everything is sad, and not everything is joy. It's just what's in front of you. In an RPG or another game, everything is always just straight-up. In Harvest Moon, you actually go through different stages, and you want the user to go through those -- sadness, happiness, and everything.

So you're forging your own story. What's also interesting to me is that it seems like the new relationships you form with people like the wife that you get or the animals you accumulate are more important than what you lost.

YW: It's not just ignoring the dead. It's knowing that you also have people who are still alive, and that they're really important for you to take care of them.

It's interesting that there's a consistent message in the series, it seems, of the ways to make yourself happy -- that you'll come to a better point from a point of sadness. I was also curious about the fact that it seems like there's a theme of technology versus nature, where quite often the main character comes from a city and is brought into the country, and has to deal with the differences of the countryside. Was that simply a device to teach the player how to play, because he comes from not knowing anything, or is that actually a message?

YW: That's the message. It's not just for design purposes, it's because I want people to go back at some point to nature, and to not forget nature.

I was just going to ask where you were born.

YW: Kyushu. Do you know Kyushu?

I've never been. I would like to. So in your own words, what would that message be?

YW: Back to nature! It's not the only important thing, with not only technology and city life.

It's interesting. It's kind of a dichotomy -- when you have two things that are related. There's this message being told through the most high-tech, technological vehicle.

YW: It's not like that. It's just a medium to get the message, in the end. At some point there might be a dichotomy, but it's not contradictory. I'm not pushing to go back to the countryside life. I want to tell people that you need to take care of nature and the forest, and since everybody's going to the cities, there's no one in the countryside, and nobody is taking care of nature.

 


Are you concerned that if your games are too good, that people will just enjoy nature there and not real nature?

YW: In Japan, there are lots of fans of Harvest Moon who play in Tokyo, and because they really like it, they actually went to a real farm in Hokkaido to enjoy the farm life.

So you're not worried about that. Have you ever farmed yourself?

YW: I have, but it was really minimum-sized.

Do you have a garden right now?

YW: I'm living in a condo, but I have a veranda, and in the veranda I have some vegetables and some herbs growing.

Another silly question -- what's your favorite animal?

YW: A dog.

Yeah, the dog always gets really good treatment in the games, so that makes sense. What kind of games are you hoping to make in the future? Harvest Moon is very well established. Do you want to create a new universe of that scale and size?

YW: I'd love to make Spore today. In the first place we thought about Osama Monogatari, it was more like Spore than what it is now. But since we put Kimura-san on it, it kind of diverted from the original concept.

Eventually, I'd like to make something like Spore, where you create something, and from there, new stuff is going to be created again and again and again. In a micro world, like The Sims for example, you have the city expanding but you can't see it. But you want to be one of the people living in the city, and to be a part of this growing too.

So you can control from macro to micro. Since when were you thinking about this idea?

YW: Since I started working in video games. Harvest Moon was actually a part of this idea.

Do you think it's something you could still do now?

YW: I think you can do it now, machines specifications are getting better, graphics are getting better, and space is getting bigger too. For a small calculation, you should be able to make that too. It will be one day, that we are able to make this game.

I think Will Wright has been working on Spore for many years now, and it's not even coming out until next year. I interviewed Will Wright a while ago about various things. He's a very smart guy, but the way he makes his games is that he makes a bunch of very small prototypes -- like 200 prototypes -- and out of those, he will use two, or something like that. Then he goes through such a long prototyping process to create this thing that it seems very, very labor-intensive, more than design-intensive.

YW: For Osama Monogatari, of course we made a prototype, but before making a prototype, we first wrote what we wanted to do with the game on paper. We made many, many concepts, just to get rid of the stuff we couldn't make because we didn't want to use it, and we made sure of what we few ideas we wanted to use, using the talent of the producer and the guy who made this game concept. After that, he's working really hard on this, to re-improve it, and in the end we got Osama Monogatari.

I think it will be really interesting if you do manage to do it. It seems like it may take a very, very large staff, so that will be difficult, but I hope it happens.

YW: After ten years, maybe! Just joking.

So you plan to stay in video games for a long time?

YW: Yes.

 


What made you choose this medium to express yourself?

YW: I like video games. As a medium to express what you really want to say, of course you can do it with books, movies, or music, but you can't interact. The idea of interacting was very interesting. I really liked that, so that's why this was the best medium for me. And because the users are completing the game world. It was beyond even my expectations. There's a kind of chemistry happening between users too.

Or maybe more like alchemy! Does it bother you that when you're trying to create a story and you have a message, even if it's a message that they discover for themselves, the players have a lot of control, and they can just screw around and do silly things that you may not intend to do? Does that change the way that you can tell a story?

YW: Actually, no, I think it's interesting. I want to actually create a game that has many ways to end it and to play it -- not only just one way. There's just one way to watch a movie.

I played Silent Hill 2, which is a very moving, psychological game, and it starts you in a bathroom, and the first thing I did was that I made the character crouch in front of the toilet, just because it was funny. And I actually care about games.

I guess you can't make everyone play your game the right way, but I guess if that's what you want, that's a good thing. Some games that are kind of like that already are Western-style, like Grand Theft Auto. They have a similar design scope, but they probably have a different message than the one you might want to tell.

Do you think the two of those things can go together well? With a game like Grand Theft Auto, that's one way that this sort of thing you're talking about is done, where you can have different endings and various methods of doing things. But it seems like it's different from the message you might want to tell. Do you think that those two things can go together?

YW: You can match it together, but for example with GTA, it's something you can actually do in the real world, too. If you could really do whatever you want in your world, it should actually change the world, and not just do the stuff that you can only do in the real world.

So it really affects the entire universe. Do you think -- and maybe you would want to -- but do you think it's possible to make such a world that's not based on conflict? It's really hard to make games like Harvest Moon that are not based on conflict, and still have people compelled to go through and experience that kind of small-level drama.

YW: GTA and some points of Harvest Moon are more or less the same, but at the same time, they are different. It's really up to the producer to put what he really wants to put in his game. In GTA, you can hijack a car, and so you can try to improve the way you can hijack a car, for example. But in Harvest Moon, it's farming, so we've got to try and improve the way you can farm. Basically we have the same base, but the improvement of the message is going to be done in different ways.

More than that -- except in the recent spin-off Rune Factory -- there is no real physical conflict in Harvest Moon. Even in Spore, there is physical conflict. Is it possible to make this kind of free world without conflict?

YW: It's possible. You don't need the conflict -- it's really up to the producer. But I think that you can make these games work without having to use a conflict background. It depends on what type of game you want to develop, and depending on that, it's going to change.

It seems really difficult, because if you give players freedom, they're so used to fighting in games, it seems like they would immediately try to do that. Sometimes people try -- even in Harvest Moon -- to take the axe and hit the cow or something like that.

YW: That thing's going to happen, no matter what we're doing. But as producer, you have to think who you're targeting, either kids or adult users. When you create the game system, we can't actually log this kind of stuff, like beatings of the cow. It's really up to the producer, and it's his duty to think about this kind of thing.

It would be very difficult to limit, so long as it was a free world. That would be extremely difficult to do, I think. It would have to be designed in such a way that players would never want to fight.

YW: I still think it's a game design thing. I come back to the same response -- game balance is up to the producer, but you can really do it.

What do you think of virtual worlds like Second Life?

YW: It's like the Matrix -- just a simulation. You don't have any design behind those kinds of games, but it's interesting. For example, if you create this virtual world and the user could fly, there's still no meaning. But it's something you can't do in the real world, so that's why it would be fun.

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