Monday, September 23, 2013

An Audience With: Katsuhiro Harada – on 20 years of Tekken and the future of fighting games

Katsuhiro Harada, project director at Namco Bandai and the creative face of Tekken, is one of Japan’s most ebullient, mischievous game creators. A member of the Tekken team since its earliest days, Harada isn’t afraid to trash-talk his rivals – such as his close friend, Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono – or make appearances in cosplay as the mascot of his beloved series. But behind the boisterous swagger Harada is, as you might expect, a shrewd designer and marketer. Denied access to videogames when he was growing up, his encounters with the medium were snatched and illicit; darting rendezvous in the local arcades from which, when discovered, he would be hauled by members of the local PTA. Despite spending his career focusing on a single series, his enthusiasm has not diminished. We talk to him about his recent disappearance, disappointing his parents, and the cyclical nature of the fighting game genre.

You were in the news recently for reportedly disappearing for a week. What happened?

It certainly wasn’t my intention to disappear. I just needed to take some time out because I’ve been working so hard. But I learned a valuable lesson through this episode. In today’s society, if you turn your cell phone off for any length of time, then people presume that you’re missing.

Did you play many videogames when you were growing up?

It’s interesting, perhaps that is where this all comes from – my job and my obsessions – because when I was growing up, videogames were viewed with a great deal of suspicion in Japan. If you frequented arcades then the Parent Teacher Association would come looking for you. You’d get in trouble. My parents wouldn’t buy me a home console so I had to sneak into arcades.

I was discovered and dragged out many times. That cycle continued for a long while. But mostly I stuck to the rules. I worked hard and ended up securing a place at a prestigious university. And, once I’d made it to university, I figured that the adults couldn’t really say anything about what I did with my spare time. So I played games constantly and sought out a job where I could do the same. I suppose I was compensating for all those strict rules when I was younger.

When did you know for sure that you wanted to make videogames for a living?

Originally my plan wasn’t to make videogames at all. Back when I was in middle school, I copied code out of a magazine and I spent a whole week trying to make a game. But the results were no good. So I figured I’d find a job that allowed me to simply play games for a living instead.

You became a tester, then?

No, not a tester; I joined an arcade to become a promoter. I’d plan events and tournaments for Street Fighter and so on. Because of my psychology degree I was fascinated with human behaviour. I’d try moving cabinets to certain spots in the arcade to see if they’d perform better depending on their location. At one point I became obsessed with finding out whether certain types of drink would increase the amount of time that people would play games for, or influence how much they’d spend.

What did your parents think about all of this?

When I first revealed what I was doing, they were devastated. They broke down in tears. But during my first year working in the Namco arcade, I smashed the sales record two months in a row. I received an award of commendation from Namco’s president. It was the first time this had happened to an employee in their first year. So while my parents cried when they first heard I’d joined a game company, their feelings shifted somewhat when they heard about those early achievements.

How did you transition from working in an arcade to working as a developer?

I spent an entire year chatting to customers, finding out exactly what they liked or disliked about certain titles. I began to think that I could probably make a more successful title than many of the game creators working at that time. I knew what people wanted from their games and the sort of things that put them off playing. Thanks to the award, I now had a platform to approach the management and request that they move me into game development. So towards the end of my first year at Namco, they gave me a position on the first Tekken. My job was to balance the game, work on timing and frame data, adjusting that to get the most out of the game. Tekken wasn’t designed as a fighting game initially. They more wanted to develop a test case for using 3D models. This was a vehicle to try out animation. They really just wanted to prove that they could create a 3D character that would respond to your inputs. It was quite basic in some ways. Now, if you go back and play that early game it’s nothing like the game it has evolved into today. It was actually a little bit broken: there were certain moves that couldn’t be blocked. In truth, it wasn’t very well balanced at all.

In what ways did you hope to distinguish the game from Virtua Fighter as one of the early 3D fighting games?

We weren’t really striving to make the game different on a fundamental level to Virtua Fighter. Our entire focus was on pushing the technological boundaries. For example, Ridge Racer was one of the first times a texture had been added to a polygon model. Tekken was an attempt to take that principle and apply it to 3D characters. We were also keen to see if we could create a fighting game that ran at 60fps. Virtua Fighter only ran at half that speed. As you can see, the focus was on technology rather than gameplay design throughout. In fact, the game’s director and lead designer, Seiichi Ishii, had previously worked as a motion designer at Sega on Virtua Fighter. Ishii was completely focused on the 3D, the models and the framerate. That changed later, but in those early days it was where our focus lay.

How have you managed to stay interested and engaged with Tekken for so many years?

The appeal to me is to be found in the thrill of fighting against a human opponent. That interests and motivates me. It began with Double Dragon – the scene at the end where you fight against your companion – and then that evolved into Street Fighter. The sense of elation that you feel when you win, and the sense of anger you feel when you lose – there aren’t many other types of videogame that elicit such strong emotions in such a short space of time as fighting games. It’s not like I need to make fighting games per se, but I don’t think I could work on any style of game that didn’t deal in these heightened emotions. Right now that means working on fighting games, but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be able to work on something different in the future. So if you’re making a game you find exciting, it’s a shortcut to maintaining interest in developing games for the long haul.

You’re one of the few designers to have worked through the rise and fall of fighting games, from the highs of Tekken 3 and Street Fighter III to the lows of the early-to-mid 2000s and back up again with Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter X Tekken. How will you keep the genre’s momentum going?

It really depends. Tekken has never been extremely huge and dropped off – it has been fairly constant in terms of sales and player base. Creating a game that appeals to the tournament-going crowd is… well, maybe it’s overstating it to say that it’s easy to take that approach, but you simply need to make something that fills all the requirements of the fighting game community. But to gain a large following you need to appeal to a wide fanbase, and that might not be what tournament players are looking for.

Street Fighter X Tekken

Street Fighter X Tekken.

In what ways have you seen that balance change?

We had Street Fighter II, which was widely popular. Capcom then updated its series according to what the tournament players wanted, and eventually arrived at Third Strike. That game was hugely well received by the tournament-going crowd, but the wider game-buying public wasn’t quite so enamoured. So the team returned to what they were doing in the early days of the series with Street Fighter IV. It may not be quite as pronounced with Tekken, but we still saw the third game draw in a huge number of players, which dropped off with the fourth game. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 catered to the core crowd, while with the most recent game, Tekken Revolution, we’re trying to appeal to people who have perhaps never played a fighting game before. It’s an almost cyclical setup in fighting games. We see a mainstream title draw in a large number of players, and then subsequent games polish and refine it as their abilities improve.

The most recent Tekken for PlayStation 3 adopts a free-to-play model. What do you think makes the genre well suited to this business model, and will we continue to see this approach adopted with fighting games?

It’s certainly not been decided internally at Namco Bandai that all of our fighting game titles will be free-to-play in the future. In a sense this is an experiment – try it out and see how consumers respond to this way of working. There are lots of different things we wanted to see as a result of this. Just like in the arcades when I started off, I’m going to be listening to fan feedback and adapting where appropriate. Depending on how well it goes it might influence future decisions, but we’re not going to make the next mainline title in the series free-to-play just because this one is.

Tekken Revolution.

With changing business models and the introduction of new hardware platforms, some of which are digital, it’s a turbulent time in the videogame industry. What’s the greatest challenge facing the Japanese industry today?

It’s a difficult question to answer because there are so, so many challenges facing us. It’s not that there’s a lack of ideas from Japanese developers, it’s just that the system has changed. Japanese games companies are entirely focused on short-term profits. In videogames, it’s very hard to take your idea and have it ready in a format that people can see and buy into; that takes money and months of work. It used to be that one company would come up with an idea, create it, take it to market and then, if it was a success, improve it in a sequel based on feedback. Now it’s all divided up to spread the risks. One company will have the idea; another company will make the game; still another will sell it and liaise directly with the consumer. I think this lack of a unified creative process has had a profound effect on the industry.

You’re now 20 years into a successful career at Namco Bandai, having worked your way up from the arcades to project director. In the beginning, your family wept over your choice of vocation. How do they feel now?

They’ve come around. It requires considerable effort to rise to the position I have over the past 20 years, and I think they appreciate that now. But I think that the fact I work in videogames is irrelevant, in some ways. To my mind it doesn’t matter what you do: you have to produce results otherwise nobody’s going to be impressed. I’m still hungry for results.

The post An Audience With: Katsuhiro Harada – on 20 years of Tekken and the future of fighting games appeared first on Edge Online.



Post a Comment