Q&A: Natsume Inc. President Maekawa On Expanding Past Harvest Moon

For a decade, Natsume has been synonymous with the Harvest Moon series, which it publishes in North America -- but now the company is significantly broadening its Western publishing reach into rhythm games, fishing games, and more. Gamasutra speaks
For a decade, Natsume Inc. -- the U.S. publisher offshoot of Japanese developer Natsume -- has to an extent been synonymous with the successful farm sim Harvest Moon franchise. In many ways, the division has long been independent of its counterpart across the Pacific. Founded in California in 1988, only a year after Natsume was formed in Tokyo, it distinguished itself in the 1990s with Harvest Moon, a Marvelous-developed franchise unrelated to Natsume's Japanese branch. But with Marvelous expanding its own publishing operations in North America, resulting in some give and take regarding the series' publishing rights, Natsume Inc. is starting to take more initiative. To discuss Natsume Inc.'s past and future, Gamasutra sat down with president Yasuhiro Maekawa, who first secured the rights to publish 1997's original SNES game Harvest Moon in North America. He discusses the company's plans, Harvest Moon and its more traditionally RPG-influenced Rune Factory spinoff series, the recently-released rhythm game Princess Debut, and the relationship between the company's regional divisions. Rune Factory You're releasing Rune Factory 2 for DS in North America, but Marvelous is publishing Rune Factory Frontier for Wii; is that correct? Yasuhiro Maekawa: Yes. How is that working out? YM: Marvelous, as you probably know, has started publishing in America. We have been working very closely together, and because they are coming to America, the company mission is to make everyone happy. We don't want to be too greedy. So for now, this version will be taken care of by Natsume, and the Wii version will be published by Marvelous. How do you think the Harvest Moon relationship will end up now that Marvelous is publishing here? YM: Okay, well, here's the real thing with Harvest Moon. It was almost ten years ago that I decided to bring it [to North America]. At that time, it was a simulation game, a farming simulation game. No Harvest Moon-like game had existed before. It took almost ten years [for people to] appreciate that. So, regarding Harvest Moon and some other titles which Natsume released in collaboration with Marvelous, we agreed that Natsume will continue publishing [the series]. I see. How close is the relationship of Natsume Japan and Natsume Inc. in the US? YM: Very close. Very close, and I fly to Japan almost every month, and every time I fly in, I meet with the Natsume people, including the president of Natsume. Is Natsume in the US considered actually a subsidiary of the Japanese company? YM: It used to be a subsidiary. We are still a related company, but Natsume is operating independently right now. Of course we share the name, [and] of course we still have a relationship. Princess Debut On Princess Debut -- this wasn't created internally at Natsume, was it? YM: Not entirely. It was developed by a company called Cave, but originally that idea came from Natsume in the US. We teamed up with Cave, and Cave developed. Why the decision to go to Cave, which has a deep history in shooting games? YM: I had been actually thinking about the idea for almost a couple of years, but I just couldn't find the right developer. Instantly, when I teamed up with the people at Cave, they had a similar idea. So, all of a sudden, it came together -- "It's a good idea, let's do it." Cave is a pretty good company! It is really a pleasure working together with them. So even when it was released in Japan, it didn't have anything to do with Natsume [Japan]? YM: No. It was published by Cave there. Natsume Japan is not involved in this game. We agreed that the Japanese market would be taken care of by Cave, and the USA and European market will be taken care of by Natsume. Market Divisions and Company Organization Do you actually have a European office? YM: We don't have a European office; we team up with different distribution partners depending on the title. How much is Natsume expanding? Just one franchise at a time, like with Princess Debut? YM: Basically, I don't want to make the company jump all of a sudden; this company has been always steady in its growth, instead of releasing a lot of titles all of a sudden. It's just step by step. We don't want to race. What makes this the right time for Natsume to expand? YM: We have a kind-of unique marketing strategy. It's a niche marketing strategy, and a distinctive marketing strategy. It is our policy to raise niche and unknown original titles, by spending time and money. If we think there is [a game that] is a niche title right now, but it has a great potential to grow, that is our market. Harvest Moon is our typical example. Harvest Moon How did that come about? YM: It was back in 1996, when I first came across it, the Japanese farming simulation game. At the time, I was a newcomer to the video game industry; I didn't know much about video games, so I tried to listen to what other people would say about the game, and to my surprise, all comments I received were very much negative. That was [around] eleven years ago. The comments were that this game is boring -- you just have to repeat your chore of raising, planting seeds, watering, raising and feeding animals, and according to them, it would be a mistake to bring the game to the American marketplace. But I had an instinct -- America [is] a huge farming country, and then I said that it's niche right now, but it should have the potential to grow. Based on that belief, I decided to approve it. And another thing about the name -- it has nothing to do with the Japanese [title's] translation into English. It's a different title in Japan. So, again, I checked with my friends. There were about 30 or 40 name candidates. One name came out, "Harvest Moon." "Harvest moon" usually gives the impression of autumn at the harvest, but in this game you have spring, summer, fall, and winter, throughout. And another thing [about the game] I really like is that hardworking people get rewarded. The more you work, the more you can get. You might be able to say that if I didn't bring this title, and only listened to what other people say, probably the name "Harvest Moon" wouldn't exist. Do you remember any of the other potential names in the past? YM: There was "Meadow Story," and "Happy Farming," and "Peaceful Farming." I think there were 30 or 40 different names. I actually did not like any of them. The name "Harvest Moon" just came to my mind. It's quite an iconic name, so it works pretty well. Expansion Plans YM: But getting back to your question, to increasing our number of titles -- yes, that is, again, our marketing strategy, to keep continuing the Harvest Moon franchise. As you probably know, we released Puzzle de Harvest Moon [last year], and are just trying to expand the universe of Harvest Moon into different areas. For example, Rune Factory maintains the world of Harvest Moon, but extends it into a fantasy game. Also, Princess Debut is one of the titles we would like to raise as a franchise in the future. We have another franchise called Real Fishing; we have a plan to extend Real Fishing into WiiWare and Wii, those types of things. Real Fishing? YM: Yes. That is one of the biggest fishing franchises. I shouldn't give numbers, but it is the biggest-selling fishing game ever, compared to any other title; not only PlayStation titles, but all of them. It's interesting to look at games like that, because those are the kind of games that the general consumer media doesn't really focus on too much. It's easy to forget that a title like that could actually be very popular. YM: Yes. And when we talk about fishing games, it's usually sports fishing games, but Real Fishing is not a sports fishing game. We call it "harmony with nature." It's not only catching the fish, you are listening to the bird music, and also the sound of the stream, watching the falling leaves. And after catching the fish, you can of course release it, or you can keep it in your aquarium. You can name it, you can feed it, and the fish can grow. You can watch the fish growing. Through the game, we are trying to give a message to the players of how important it is to value nature, and how important it is to live together with nature. This is the basic concept of Real Fishing. I think that's one of the reasons it continues as a franchise.

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