As Harvest Moon: Innocent Life on the PSP approached European release, we were gifted a rare opportunity to have a few words with Yasuhiro Wada, the man behind the series for over ten years now since its SNES debut in 1996. We gleaned some fascinating insights into the philosophy behind the series, the games' creation over the years, and his experience of game development - and given that his series has been captivating fans old and young on almost every platform released over the past ten years, he's definitely a man worth listening to. We also learn new details about Innocent Life and Marvelous Interactive's plans for the Wii.
Look out for our review of Harvest Moon: Innocent Life in the near future - and in the meantime, enjoy this in-depth look into one of videogaming's most unique, enduring and well-loved series.
Eurogamer: After more than ten years, why do you feel that the Harvest Moon series is still relevant, and still loved?
Yasuhiro Wada: I think that the core system of the game - of the series - hasn't changed; it's something that is easily understood by the audience. But I've been doing this for a long time, and over the years I've been trying to offer new ideas, new characters and new worlds to that audience - I've been constantly trying to offer something new. At the same time, I have been listening to the voices of the audience, to what the audience wants, responding to their requests. That's key to the philosophy of Harvest Moon.
I pick up the voices of the players through things like the questionnaire that has always come with the games - many people who buy the game will give that questionnaire back. I also pick up what people think from games magazines and the Internet. At the moment, because there are so many opinions, I can't read them all, but up until quite recently I read everything that the fans have said!
Eurogamer: Which entry in the series do you think most accurately represents what Harvest Moon is about?
Yasuhiro Wada: I like the Nintendo 64 version best, because I worked the most on it! These days my role is to oversee others who work on the series, but on the earlier versions I had to work on them myself, almost alone - I had to create them with my own hands.
The world it presents is very real, because there are many characters and events, and the combination is so varied. That's why the game world feels so real. It's an old game system - you might feel it's redundant and old-fashioned. But this is the game that really established the unique philosophy of the Harvest Moon games, and that's why I like it.
Eurogamer: Why did you create Harvest Moon in the first place? Where did the farming-game concept come from?
Yasuhiro Wada: I wanted to convey the goodness of rural life - not urban life, but rural life - and farming was the easiest instrument to realise that feeling in a game. That's why I chose to make a farming game.
Eurogamer: What do you think it is that people love about Harvest Moon?
Yasuhiro Wada: I think it's very gentle and friendly. These days there are other games such as Animal Crossing that bear similarities, but before there wasn't such a game at all. Perhaps that's why people identified so much with Harvest Moon, originally.
Eurogamer: What can you tell us about the PSP game, Innocent Life?
Yasuhiro Wada: This PSP version is what we call the "New Harvest Moon Series", because these games are made by a different developer. It is quite separate from the main Harvest Moon games and their long history. We've allowed another developer to work on the series because we want it to develop into a totally new area, and felt that allowing new studios to experiment would help with that aim.
The other game in this new Harvest Moon series is on the DS [in Japan only] and is called Moon Factory. It's also done by another creator.
Eurogamer: Harvest Moon has been important in bringing more girls into gaming. Why do you think that it appeals to women where other games don't?
Yasuhiro Wada: I think one reason is that there are no fighting or battle scenes, and that makes the player feel relaxed and less aggressive. Also, half of my staff are female, so that working atmosphere is reflected in the game - there is a lot of female input.
Also, the male staff work a bit harder in order to impress the girls!
Eurogamer: Why do you think that the DS version has been getting a rather negative reception from fans?
Yasuhiro Wada: We want to offer new things all the time, so sometimes, something new comes up in the series that older fans criticise, because they are not expecting it. So, I can understand that people don't like the new game, but I am not afraid of these critical opinions. I would rather listen to them, and reflect that criticism onto the next games in the series. It is necessary to experiment in order to make things better.
Eurogamer: Harvest Moon games often don't make it to Europe, or suffer enormous delays on their way over from Japan. Is the audience simply much stronger in Japan?
Yasuhiro Wada: The source of this problem is purely the localisation. You need to translate a game into five languages for Europe, and as you know Harvest Moon has a lot of text in it, so it's very difficult for us. Of course we would like to launch the game in European markets at the same time as in Japan, but there is an inevitable delay because of the localisation. I mean, Harvest Moon DS came out two years ago! The language problem held us up by two entire years.
As we accumulate experience [of localisation], the delay will get shorter and shorter. In the future it will not take as long to bring Harvest Moon games through to Europe.
Eurogamer: What other projects are you working on at the moment, apart from Harvest Moon?
Yasuhiro Wada: I'm working on something on the Wii platform, which is top-secret. I'm also working on No More Heroes on the Wii, which is headed up by [killer7 designer] Goichi Suda. It's a totally different world to Harvest Moon...
Eurogamer: What goes into the visual and character design for Harvest Moon?
Yasuhiro Wada: First, we set up the characters, create character profiles based on sex, age groups, occupations and personalities. We outline each one, and then we give that information to a character designer called Igusa Matsuyama, and he or she - their gender is a secret! - will make a sketch of the character. Then we'll do a brainstorming session, put in this, take out that, and that's how we come up with the character designs.
Matsuyama has done the character design for every single game in the main Harvest Moon series - that's why the look of the games is so consistent.
Eurogamer: What's the next Harvest Moon game in store for us?
Yasuhiro Wada: We are working on a European version of Magical Melody for the Wii.
[PR person interjects, and there is a short argument about whether or not we're allowed to know about that before Rising Star's Richard Barclay clarifies the matter for us.]
Richard Barclay: We haven't received official confirmation from Nintendo that Rising Star will be a Wii publisher, and we haven't told Nintendo we've told anybody that we'll be releasing Magical Melody, which was a GameCube game, as a Wii game.
[It seems certain to go ahead, though, so we've no qualms about telling you so, especially as Magical Melody is our favourite Harvest Moon ever ever ever in the whole wide world. Hurrah!]
Eurogamer: A Wonderful Life and Mineral Town were two very different games - one focused on the farming, the other on characters and socialising. What direction do you think that Harvest Moon should take in the future?
Yasuhiro Wada: Really, I want to develop based on the Magical Melody formula, as it combines the two [A Wonderful Life and Mineral Town] - I'd like the series to go in that direction in the future. But Magical Melody has a bit less conversation and fewer items than some of the other games, so I would like to expand upon that area, strengthen the character interaction and item roster.
In Japan, we are about to release a game [on Wii!] called Tree of Serenity, and that's along exactly the same lines as Magical Melody - that's going to be released in June.
Eurogamer: Traditionally, handheld Harvest Moons have been more traditional, and console versions more experimental. Why is this?
Yasuhiro Wada: Because of the nature of handheld consoles, the main point of handheld Harvest Moon games is that the player can start quickly and finish quickly. The game must be simpler, so that people can pick it up again and again. For the console versions, we want to make the Harvest Moon World richer, in terms of graphics, in terms of character development, tools, and the things that you can do with all of the items. So there is a clear difference between these two mediums.
Eurogamer: What made you decide to get into games development in the first place?
Yasuhiro Wada: I loved games as a boy, especially Legend of Zelda on the NES.
I didn't specialise in games at University or anything. I think that people who like only games are no good - you have to try and learn from all areas of life, from other entertainment and experiences, what is fun, and to try and bring that fun into your games. That's the secret to being a good game developer.
Eurogamer: How have things changed during your time in the industry?
Yasuhiro Wada: At the very beginning, it was like a band - there were very few people, someone could do this, someone could do that, and together you came together like a band; you have the same attitudes towards things, you have the same goal, and so there's very personal interaction between this small group of people. Then it moved on to being more like an orchestra, and now, it's most like a big factory.
Because the number of people on the team is getting bigger and bigger, it is more difficult for a creator to communicate his personal feelings to everyone working for him. It's getting more impersonal in that sense.
I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. But I feel that it's a pity that everything I think cannot be conveyed to everybody.
Harvest Moon: Innocent Life should be out now on PSP. But isn't - actually you'll find it in shops on 11th May.