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Yasuhiro Wada waxes nostalgic about Harvest Moon

Heidi Kemps

Yasuhiro Wada has been engaged in the games industry for over 20 years, but lately he's been more into management than actual game production. With the formation of Toybox Inc, however, he joins the ranks of Japanese developers like Yuji Naka and Keiji Inafune – developers who left top management positions at major companies to pursue more active creative roles at smaller startups. While his name might not be the biggest in the biz, he's responsible for one of the most quietly influential games in the industry: Bokujou Monogatari, known outside of Japan as Harvest Moon.

Wada grew up in the countryside, where he dreamed of eventually making his way to the big city. When he finally did get to Tokyo, however, he learned that there are some elements to good ol' country living that deserve appreciation. It was this experience that served as the inspiration for a game idea: A non-combative game that conveyed the simple pleasures of country life. It wasn't an easy pitch, and Wada had to build rapport at his company first with a portfolio of small successes. It took about 2 years to build both the record and the budget necessary to propose Harvest Moon to his higher-ups, but his patience paid off in both development and marketing experience.

[Image: GameFAQS]

The first major hurdle in developing what would become Harvest Moon was a surprisingly obvious one: why would people want to play a game that simulates doing work? It's a matter of simple psychology – make the work have an inevitable payoff that leaves the player feeling satisfied with the effort they put in. He took inspiration from Derby Stallion, a popular Japanese horse breeding and racing simulation, where raising horses would have payoff in race results. He also thought that just seeing screenfuls of statistics would make players feel disconnected from the simple pleasures of country life that he wanted to convey, so the decision was made early on to reduce the amount of digits on display. Instead, players would be able to gauge their progress through seeing visual cues, and more would be shown as the game progressed.

Early builds of the game showed promise, but ideas that sounded good on paper didn't always translate into gameplay so well. The core game involved caring for a herd of cows and interacting with NPCs in a village. However, caring for every aspect of the cows proved not to be very much fun, so their maintenance was simplified. Interactions with the village folk also felt stilted and dull. Wada realized that the reason why combat was an essential part of many games was because it added depth and challenge. Making a fun game without combat was proving more difficult than anticipated.

A further prototype showed considerable improvement. More varied elements of farm life were added beyond simply raising a herd of cows. Simple tasks, such as clearing land for a field to plant crops, kept players' interest, and seeing the result of that work – the seeds sprouting for the first time – was immensely gratifying. He also implemented the idea of finding and marrying a wife to the game as an important social goal.

It certainly wasn't smooth sailing from that point, though: not only were the programmers struggling with some of the technical limitations of the SNES, forcing some ideas to be scaled back or cut, they were also dealing with the parent company's financial straits. Wada was about ready to give up on Harvest Moon, but two of his colleagues – game planner Miyakoshi and programmer Yamatate – convinced him to keep going. With six months left to develop the game and a limited budget, the team broke their backs optimizing code and assets, and eventually got the game out.

Harvest Moon proved to be a slow burn. Initial shipments were low – in the realm of only 20,000 units – but word of mouth spread, and soon the team had a minor hit on their hands. While Wada was initially averse to the idea of developing more Harvest Moon titles, he felt obligated to the company that had stood behind his project. Both Harvest Moon on Game Boy and the N64 sequel proved to be major successes, with the N64 game including many concepts that were eliminated from the initial release due to time and tech constraints.

While Wada isn't personally involved in the series anymore (his last Harvest Moon project was 2008's Animal Parade for Wii), he has many memories about his time working on the series. A team tasked with doing a port of the N64 game to the PSOne wound up changing a lot of character dialogue and names in the process, and by the time he found out about it, the game had nearly wrapped, leading to an inadvertent "parallel universe" Harvest Moon series. When the decision was made to do a spinoff game targeted towards female players, he found that a lot of them took umbrage with the idea that marriage was the be-all, end-all goal of the game – they wanted to continue into family life (which was eventually implemented into later titles). But of all the games in the series, his favorite was A Wonderful Life on GameCube. Why? "It's closest to the very original concept I had for Harvest Moon," he said. "The original working title was "Life Story" (Jinsei Monogatari) rather than "Farm Story" (Bokujou Monogatari). The focus of A Wonderful Life is leading a full and happy existence from beginning to end, so in essence, it's what I always intended Harvest Moon to be."

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