“Anyone can make a difference”. These words welcome players turning on upcoming 3DS title Hometown Story for the first time, but after meeting its creator and Harvest Moon mastermind Yasuhiro Wada they also become a declaration of intent. His latest game is a ‘shop simulator’ on the surface, but a deeper look will uncover the intricate relationships of over a hundred townspeople who use item exchanges as a way to develop their own personal storyline. We talked to Wada about the conception of Hometown Story, his hopes for the title and what he is doing to make a difference in the gaming landscape.
Yasuhiro Wada, much like the game he is most famous for, arrives unexpectedly into the room of the Central London office where we have agreed to meet him. He walks in unannounced, with a floaty step, a grin on his face and an unassuming demeanour; he sports a ponytail, John Lennon glasses and a very suave linen blazer, a look that is best described as ‘rockstar librarian’. His answers throughout the interview are concise and collected, but his face brightens up when subjects like rapport building and wish fulfilment in games are brought up. These are ideas close to his heart, ever present in his games and even more so in Hometown Story, so we start by asking him if this is more of a personal project after years of producing Harvest Moon sequels: “My early motivation was a very personal story as I was inspired by my hometown, but at the same time I understand that everyone has a hometown and everyone has nostalgic feelings about it. Everyone adores where they are from!”. So is it more of a universal theme that happens to resonate with him? “Yes, it is not really a personal project, but the motivation was very personal”.
Wada recently traveled back to his hometown in the prefecture of Miyazaki, in the South Western island of Kyushu, Japan, to attend his father’s funeral. This got him thinking not necessarily about the joys of country life, but rather about how small communities interact: “When I traveled back to Miyazaki, I rediscovered the many good things about being there again. Harvest Moon originally came about after I moved from Miyazaki to Tokyo and I started to look back and think about the nice things of the countryside that I left behind. But Hometown Story does not concentrate on that so much. Instead, it focuses on small groups of people and their will to live a happy life with each other. Even cities can have smaller communities like that”.
Eschewing the farming elements, one of the most popular aspects of Harvest Moon, and focusing on relationships is an interesting yet risky move. Has this been prompted by recent events in his life, like the death of his father? “We all want to connect to other people. When Harvest Moon came out, I was feeling nostalgic about where I came from, but I’m in a different place now. [Hometown Story] is more about human relationships because of what happened in my last visit to Miyazaki”. But wouldn’t it be fair to say all his games deal to some extent with the relationship between player and the characters inhabiting the world? After all, marrying a partner and having children is a very big part of many Harvest Moon games; how will that be different in the new game? “You can actually expect stronger characterisation in Hometown Story compared to my previous games. After so many Harvest Moon sequels, the characters can become a bit clichéd. With Hometown Story you can expect fresher characters and more storyline behind each of them.”
Earlier reports suggest that there will be over 100 NPCs in Hometown Story, how can that be the case? “You will have over 100 characters coming into the shop, but only about 30 of them have a full story that you can enjoy”. Many of these stories are interconnected – take for example the Lumberjack: “He needs to cut trees, and for that he needs to have a tool. [Our task is] to source the tool for the lumberjack from the right person”. While this may sound like a simple fetch quest, Wada has put “more story behind his story than in any character in previous Harvest Moon games”. He illustrates this point with another example: “You may find a customer looking for fish, but the shop doesn’t have any, so what the shop owner has to do is go look for the fisherman, who can tell him where he can get that specific type of fish. But before this happens the fisherman starts talking about his own problem. Because the shopkeeper needs to buy the fish, it’s in his interest to solve the fishermen’s problem”.
But solving these conundrums may not as straightforward as it sounds - when we get a chance to try a beta of the game later on, we notice the hints as to what is troubling the villagers are far more oblique than the ones in your standard RPG sidequests: a character musing about how far away their son lives and how they never get a chance to share any good news with him will snatch a pen away from the player’s hands in a heartbeat, even if they don’t necessarily spell out they want to write him a letter. And new possibilities may stem from any random transaction: “Once [the player] solves a customer’s problem, they may give them a present back that they didn’t really asked for. It could be really valuable and bring more customers to the shop, or it could be junk”, Wada explains with a glint in his eye. As a player, we need to make decisions on what to stock and not, since shop space is limited. Displaying rare items with an unproven selling track record may be a way to bankruptcy or perhaps “a particular customer that has been looking for that particular item for many years will come into the shop and a new story opens up then”.
Trading is the perfect gameplay device to trigger connections between characters, but why did Wada settle for a shop and not, say, a post office or a restaurant? “This is completely away from the game making, but one day I started thinking about the value of goods: some things that hold no value for some people are very valuable for someone else”. His eyes light up when we mention the old idiom “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”: “Yes! That is exactly what I mean!”, he nods emphatically. “I realised that this disparity in the value of goods is something that forces people to interact with each other, and a shop was the sort of mechanism that allowed for any type of goods to be displayed and for people to meet with each other at the same time”.
Such focus on human relationships in games is not new for Wada, but getting carried away with it can also have its drawbacks – the later Harvest Moon games ended up with more than 30 potential characters for the player to marry, shifting the focus of the game from the running of the farm to “a dating sim”. We can sense that a lot of these decisions were probably out of his control, and while he is grateful for having been given the chance to “grow the franchise together with the player”, he sounds relieved to have left Harvest Moon behind: “Because I spent so much time growing the Harvest Moon franchise, I always had mixed feelings about the sequels, because in many ways you are always repeating many aspects of the previous titles. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to create something new and come up with new IP, but the opportunity didn’t happen until now”.
The fact that Wada is now the master of his own destiny after working for Marvelous Interactive for so many years may have something to do with this: in February 2012, after a brief stint as Chief Operating Officer for Grasshopper Manufacture, he founded his own company, Toybox Inc, under the banner “We game for Love, Peace and the Earth”. Is he enjoying the new situation he finds himself in after so many years of working for someone else? “Rather than worrying about economic aspects, I’m enjoying having more free time and more freedom to create what I really want. Of course, being a small team means you also have limited freedom in what you can do compared to the big boys, but at the same time I’m certain this is what I really wanted to do, so I much prefer this environment”. So is there no pressure, even if self-imposed, to come up with another killer app like Harvest Moon? It is after all Rising Star Games’ best-selling series in European territories and it enjoys a healthy following in both the American and Japanese markets: “No, there is no economic pressure; if anything it was a desire to go ‘back to basics’ that inspired this new project”.
The approach may pay dividends if our initial impressions of Hometown Story are anything to go by. Even though the game is a departure from the Harvest Moon series, Hometown Story shares a great deal of its charming DNA and, potentially, a lot of its crossover appeal. We ask Yasuhiro Wada what is it that makes his creations successful across different ages, genders and nationalities. His answer elicits a broad smile: “I grew up with access to Western culture [as well as Japanese], I like many books, films and music from abroad, so I don’t really have a Japanese bias. I really appreciate the foreign influence in my work, I think this is why all my games have been accepted by a wide audience naturally. My creativity comes from the mantra of giving something back [to all those people]. Paying people back is always on my mind”.
Hometown Story does not have a confirmed release date in the West yet, but an end of the year date for NA and early 2014 for Europe is likely.