By Spencer . March 18, 2015 . 3:00am
Natsume is best known for localizing the Harvest Moon series which were originally developed in Japan by Pack In Video. After a series of mergers and acquisitions, Marvelous emerged as the owners of the Bokujo Monogatari franchise along with many other IPs. Natsume still owned Harvest Moon and after the two companies parted ways, Natsume decided to continue Harvest Moon by developing games themselves. In this interview with Siliconera, Natsume president Hiro Maekawa talked about transitioning to internal development and their plans for the future.
Natsume set up a studio in Tokyo to develop Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley. How did you set this studio up and what projects are they working on concurrently?
Hiro Maekawa, President: Roughly three years ago, Marvelous notified us that they were not going to license their Bokujo Monogatari series to Natsume anymore, and that they were going to release the series by themselves under a different brand name. Needless to say, we were surprised by this decision. One of the things I am proud of at Natsume is that we have loyal and longstanding relationships based on mutual trust and integrity with our partners, and we never like to see a successful partnership end, especially one that includes a product so near and dear to my own heart.
Harvest Moon was around long before Marvelous was involved in the series; Natsume spent over 18 years raising a once unknown farming simulation game into a well-known, family oriented brand with millions of Harvest Moon fans all around the world. I am very hurt by the notion that Natsume had no involvement in the actual development and growth of the Harvest Moon series; that our involvement was merely putting the game on a shelf.
Because of Harvest Moon, we now have several farming games like Farmville and a full genre of simulation games, in which we see the impact even a niche game like Harvest Moon can have on the industry. We don’t plan on stopping that longstanding tradition now.
In this case, Marvelous took the decision out of our hands, and we didn’t have any option but to face the fact that we were no longer able to get the license for the game from them. Therefore, we took their decision as a great opportunity to open the door for us to develop our own Harvest Moon to take the Harvest Moon franchise to the next level. Letting the Harvest Moon brand disappear wasn’t an option, because we couldn’t let our fans down. So, we started our studio in Tokyo with the initial plan to create our own Harvest Moon, Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley. Currently, the team is working on the European version of Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley, as well as the DLC for North America. Our studio is also working on several other mobile titles for both iPhone and Android.
It’s interesting to see farming games evolve into their own genre. Giants Software and Zynga have their own spins on farming games too. What do you see as the core elements when making a Harvest Moon game? How does this differ from what Marvelous sees in a farming simulation title?
The farming genre has really changed since I first introduced Harvest Moon back in 1997. It was in 1996 when I first came across a Japanese farming simulation game for SNES. I played the game and found it to be a very unique and special game that I had never seen before. My instincts told me that this niche game might have great potential to grow in the US. Since I was new to the video game Industry, I tried to listen to what other people had to say about the game.
To my surprise, all the comments I heard were very negative, saying that the game was extremely boring, no real guiding force, and there would be no market for this type of game in the US market. Everyone’s opinion was that bringing over this title would be a mistake, and that I should forget about it. But it was my strong belief that this non-violent, family-oriented and harmonious life experience game would have a big potential to grow in the US.
I had an extremely difficult time trying to convince retailers and distributors that this type of simulation game would do well here in the West. Now there are a variety of "farming games," each offering something unique to the consumer.
I spent over one hundred hours playing the first Harvest Moon SNES game, and the one thing that spoke to me was the message that "hard-working people should get rewarded for their hard work." This is the core element of the franchise, whether it’s working on the farm, building relationships, or starting a family, there is a sense of satisfaction to your accomplishments. This is the basis to all Harvest Moon games and to Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley.
Creating our own Harvest Moon game was a great opportunity for us to evolve the franchise and take the series to the next level. Through the years we have amassed a great deal of knowledge, from our own experiences, fan feedback and media reviews/comments. We put some of these ideas into Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley. A good example of this is the revised tool system. In the past players would constantly have to bring up their rucksack to exchange tools, seeds and such. Now players do not have to worry about dealing with the rucksack menu to switch out a tool. That has been incredibly popular with our players.
Natsume took feedback from Harvest Moon fans into mind when creating The Lost Valley. What feedback did you get from The Lost Valley that you plan to implement in future Harvest Moon games?
Through the years we have received a great deal of feedback from our fans and media in regards to the Harvest Moon games that have been released. Some of that feedback included the idea of expanding and customizing the farm. Thus, one of our focuses in the Lost Valley was just that, the idea of expanding the farm and making the area completely customizable to the player. It is one thing to be able to move the barn here and there, but we wanted something more, so we came up with the idea of customizing the largest farm, yet by letting the player dig and stack soil to create a farm like no other. We made it so the user can customize their farm the way they want to. Seeing fans post screenshots of their farm to MiiVerse, fan forums, and GameFAQs has been amazing.
In retrospect, we might have focused a little too much on the farm and focused less so on a few other areas, like the town. We have heard the feedback and see that having a more robust town is important to our fans, and we have taken that to heart. In the next Harvest Moon game, you will definitely see a more robust town. We’re also listening to other aspects of feedback – like the intuitive tool system that fans adore, but that they would love to upgrade their tools again, which we’re definitely looking into preserving for future games.
The Lost Valley is also the first Harvest Moon title with downloadable content. The great thing about it is that DLC allows us to take feedback on game development even after the main game was completed and launched. It lets us react to feedback in a way we didn’t have the opportunity to before; it’s a freedom we relish now that we’re the developers. We didn’t start developing the DLC until after the game was and released, because we wanted the DLC to be what fans were asking for once they experienced the game. DLC is a process and will continue to roll out as the content is developed and produced.
We also wanted to give the romance system a depth it hasn’t had in many years. We missed the way previous some previous Harvest Moon games portrayed relationships and decided to forego the breadth to restore the romance system. And we’ve heard a lot of positive feedback for this choice.
What can you tell us about the downloadable content in Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley? Are these new episodes, will we see new characters?
We are experimenting with a few ideas. One of the main goals of the DLC is to constantly give Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley new life and replayability. One criticism that many Harvest Moon games share is that after a point, the game gets repetitive. We know the first two DLC releases may not seem like the biggest updates for the game, but players can look forward to more in-depth DLC offerings as we continue to roll out the releases.
We’ve seen Natsume say that Harvest Moon 64 wouldn’t come to Virtual Console for Wii, but is it possible that we’ll get game for Wii U Virtual Console?
Unfortunately, Harvest Moon 64 suffers from technical issues that won’t allow for it to come to the Wii U. We know how beloved the title is by fans, and we have tried everything possible to have it released on the Wii Virtual Console, but there is nothing that can be done.
In a way, we already have. We released Puzzle de Harvest Moon, as well as Harvest Moon: Frantic Farming, which were both puzzle-based spinoffs (not farming simulation games). That being said, we’re focusing on the core Harvest Moon brand right now, but who knows what might come in the future?
How is Natsume balancing internal development with licensing games from other publishers? With so many Japanese games being localized, is it more difficult to find games?
We are still following the same fundamental business practice that I set up when I took over the company 20 years ago, which is to focus on unique entertainment that the whole family can enjoy. We have regularly asked ourselves, "What’s different from what’s already out there? What can we do with it? What do our fans want?"
These niche titles have a lot of opportunity – just look at how the farming genre has bloomed since we brought over the first Harvest Moon nearly two decades ago. Our plan is to continue to balance our own development and licensing games where it makes sense. There’s always been competition for the best games to localize – that hasn’t changed in the last twenty years. Perhaps we’ve been more public in games we’re interested in but don’t get the chance to localize, which has changed perception.
A-Train was a surprise! What made Natsume pick up this title for the West?
We took one look at A-Train and knew it was something our fans could really sink their teeth into – a game with deep customization, and gameplay aimed at a mature audience which is under-served with games intended to challenge, instead of just titillate. Who doesn’t love a robust simulation game? We pride ourselves on bringing titles like this to market that most publishers wouldn’t be interested in. We know there is a market of gamers out there for these titles, and we are happy to bring them the content they love.
How does Natsume come up with ideas for new IPs and will we see any new IPs from Natsume this year?
Our New IPs are decided and developed based on our ongoing strategy of looking for untapped or underserved "niche and unique" markets. Currently, we have several IPs including Harvest Moon, Reel Fishing, Hometown Story, Gabrielle, and our new Ninja line, and we will continue to add new IPs when available based on those guiding principles.
Speaking of Hometown Story, Harvest Moon creator Wada-san and Chulip creator Kimura-san have formed their own studios. Since Natsume worked with games from both of these developers, does Natsume have any plans to work with them on future titles similar to how Hometown Story started?
We’re always keeping our eyes open for great games and are open to working with new developers. It would be great should there be any opportunity to work with Wada-san and his studio, Toybox, sometime in the future.
Natsume has a library of legacy IPs like Wild Guns, Spanky’s Quest, and Shadow of the Ninja. Has Natsume USA considered to bring any of these games back?
Natsume classic titles including Wild Guns and Shadow of the Ninja are currently available on Wii U VC through the Nintendo eShop. We’re always open to reviving these beloved franchises, but we don’t have any specific news right now.
Natsume has expanded on to iOS with Gabrielle. Can you tell us more about your mobile plans? What about the PC audience? The Harvest Moon series seems like it could have appeal there too.
We plan to make all of our IPs available for mobile in the future. We see the mobile market as a growing one, and Reel Fishing, the Ninja series, and Gabrielle have all done well for us with the mobile audience. We definitely have more to come. Keep your eye out for some big announcements in regards to some mobile content (maybe around E3 hint, hint).
Right now we don’t have any PC plans – but it’s a market we’re not closing any doors on.