GDC 2012: How Harvest Moon almost didn't happen
"It wasn't all that easy to apply the concept of living life in the countryside to a game design document," said Yasuhiro Wada, creator of the Harvest Moon franchise.
Wada had moved to Tokyo after being brought up in the countryside. Though he had no interest in returning to that environment, he finally understood its advantages compared to the big city, and thus wanted to turn that experience into a game. The problem was that he didn't know how.
"I needed to nail the player experience," said Wada, but he had a problem: "How do you express the game system of living while working?"
The Missing Ingredient
He had come up with the idea of a game where the player raises cattle after playing the popular-in-Japan Derby Stallion horse breeding and racing series, but it wasn't coming together as a concept.
"When raising a cow, you communicate with your heart and give it a lot of love," he said. "Just imagine how hard it was to represent these actions within the game."
"It can get pretty boring if everything is presented in a calm and composed manner," he said. Though he thought that diligent work on the part of the player "would feel like a reward, just like in real life," the game design wasn't turning out to be interesting enough.
"Too much work would cause stress to the player," he said. "It just didn't work."
Though he'd arrived at the idea of also creating a village where the player could interact with the townspeople, "the actions seemed repetitive and way too simple," Wada said.
"This is when I realized the greatness of a battle or combat system," he said. "By developing a combat system you can give a simple game a lot of depth or pacing. Because the project had the concept of a non-combative game, we did not have the depth and pacing from the beginning."
The solution? "We came up with the idea of farming," he said. "This core mechanic of farming sounded more promising than the human interaction and the raising and breeding of cows."
Of course, he says, "fast forward to today; there are a lot of social games" that concentrate on farming, but at the time, the concept was untested.
The farming element was inspired by SimCity and Zelda, he said.
Once he saw the prototype, he knew it would work. "Once you worked on the land, you wanted to go back and see."
"We saw the first sprout appeared... It may sound simple right now, but I will never forget the moment I saw that on screen. It was pretty amazing, and I knew we could do this. I said to our team, 'Let's continue to make this game.'"
Development progressed smoothly for six months until the first playable ROM, but when the three game elements -- character interaction, farming the fields, and raising cattle -- came together, the game did not work well.
"The pieces worked individually on their own, but not as a whole," said Wada. "The frame rate completely dropped."
This presented a problem, he said, because "there are a lot of objects in this game and it's up to the player to place these objects," so the developers couldn't control them. "We could reduce the number of objects.. But we also lose the fun factor in the game."
"From that point on, it was a process of trial and error to see what it was possible to display on screen," he said.
The Nightmare of Harvest Moon
The team grew to 10 people from this point, and another six months of development progressed. But then, he said, "A nightmare that none of you, including myself, would ever want to face" occurred: "The developer went under."
"Despite being small, the developer working on Harvest Moon had several projects going on simultaneously for the PlayStation and Saturn platforms," he said. "They took on more than what they could handle and eventually shut down."
"The president went missing -- literally. Teams were scattered. The only thing remaining was unfinished game data and assets," said Wada.
"I was in no position to comment on their operations, but in hindsight I wish I did, even if it means I had to cross a line."
"I was very heartbroken," said Wada. The game had already used up most of its budget, but it was far from complete.
"The only thing I wanted was for people to experience this new type of game," he said. "There was no way to complete the game within the remaining budget, and I was ready to call it quits."
He was stopped, however, by the main programmer, Tomomi Yamatate, and the scenario writer Setsuko Miyakoshi. "The two said, 'Let's do it, let's finish the game'," he said. "I actually couldn't believe it, and was kind of ashamed to think I was the one who was ready to give up."
"Back in the day, a single individual could finish the game, and here I had two associates," he said. Miyakoshi took over the graphics and Yamatate handled the programming. Wada worked on the dialogue and design.
He got six more months from his publisher. "We went to the developer, and dragged the equipment from the studio, and made room in a a meeting room -- and, of course, made room for our sleeping bags."
Yamatate ended up throwing out most of the code that had already been completed; Miyakoshi created missing assets and wrote the game script. "I assisted with dialogue, scripting, and repeatedly played the work in progress game to provide feedback," said Wada.
"We threw away a lot of stuff. We simply had no time and couldn't dwell on the little things."
This had an unexpected upside, however. "As a result, we were able to conform the core pillars of the game." This resulted, Wada said, in a "more enjoyable experience."
"Six months later, what I thought was never going to happen, happened. We had completed the game," he said.
"I never felt happier or more thankful in my life."
The game went on to be a minor hit in Japan, selling over 100,000 copies -- and was followed up by a Game Boy version which, thanks to Pokemon's popularity, sold over 300,000, launching the new franchise.
Wada continued to work with Yamatate and Miyakoshi on the later games in the series -- including the last game in the series he worked on, for the Nintendo DS, for which he made sure to return to the producer's role, he said, as he knew it would be his last game in the franchise.