As we touched on in our first impressions of Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley, 2014 is looking to be a bumper crop year for farming fans, with Natsume’s upcoming agricultural adventure and XSEED’s Story of Seasons both set to sow the seeds of farming simulation in North American 3DS consoles before the year is up. It’s a veritable tale of two towns, complicated by the fact that Story of Seasons has a much more impressive pedigree than its initially unassuming title might let on; this is the English release of the most recent game in the Bokujō Monogatari (‘Ranch Story’) series, better known in the West as ‘Harvest Moon’.
To get the whole story, we sat down with Head of Development Yoshifumi Hashimoto, longtime producer for both the Bokujō Monogatari/Harvest Moon and Rune Factory series, to talk Story of Seasons, localization, crop rotation, and the future of gaming’s most storied farming franchise.
First of all, could you introduce Story of Seasons for us?
The original concept of what a Bokujō Monogatari or Harvest Moon game is has been going on for 18 years, and of course you’ll see that in this title as well. But in its Japanese release, the subtitle is ‘Connect to a New World’ or ‘Connecting New Worlds’, and there’s a big emphasis on the ‘connecting’ in this title.
One, for the first time in the series, there are other NPCs that are farmers. So you’ll get to compete with them, talk to them, and even learn through those conversations — if a character tells you “I did this and messed up!”, you might think “Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t do that.” So you’ll get to have more companions who understand what farming life is, and connect with those characters more than the usual NPCs. Another way of ‘connecting’ is through Wi-Fi. You can go online with your friends who are playing, and if you’re not really good at growing a particular kind of crop, they can try to help you out.
Third, throughout the series there’s always been a shipping box, where you can simply place the goods you’ve grown into the box and it magically produces money for you. And with that system, you’d grow plants, take care of your animals, and milk your cows just to get money. For this title, we omitted the shipping box system. Instead, there’s a trading port that you can go to, with different countries that pop up during the story, with individual orders and requests. You can always just sell whatever you have, of course, but if there’s a demand for something in particular you can fulfil that. Later on they might send you a ‘thank you’ card, or a postcard with their picture on it, or let you know that your product has been a big hit — so you get to see what happens after you produce it, and that there’s actually someone on the other end appreciating it. So that idea of people praising your produce, saying thank you, or being happy for what you’ve created is a completely new aspect of this title.
Another new feature in this one is the safari. Throughout the series, there were always wild animals roaming around, but you’ve never really been able to interact with them. For this title we created a safari system with different habitats for the wild animals, so you can visit them any time, feed them, and take care of them. There’s one safari, but within that there are different sections. So there’s an ice area, a forest area, and so on. A good example is the penguins that live In the ice section. You can’t have these penguins as pets — you can’t bring them into your house, of course — but you can always have them there in the safari to feed and take care of. That’s another thing we added to give players a little more connection with the wildlife.
We’ve heard that there are some special surprises in store for Nintendo fans in Story of Seasons - could you tell us a little about those?
Yes — another big feature of this title is that we were able to collaborate with Nintendo for the first time, so you’ll be able to grow Super Mushrooms, Super Stars, and Fire Flowers in the game. For example, if you successfully grow the Super Star, all the crops around it will be invincible, meaning the freshness will never go down and they’ll never go bad, so you’ll be able to produce the very best of that crop. As for the Super Mushroom, in the Nintendo world, it makes the character themselves get bigger — but if that happened in Story of Seasons your character wouldn’t be able to harvest crops any more because they’d be so much bigger! So instead of affecting the character itself, the Super Mushroom makes all the crops around it become bigger, just like you see in the Nintendo games - [Hashimoto-san makes the ‘power-up’ noise from Super Mario Bros], and they grow bigger right in front of you.
This was the first time we approached them [Nintendo] to ask if we could create something new. We didn’t want to lose sight of the essence of Story of Seasons/Bokujō Monogatari, but to make it more interesting, and to have fun with it. So I think it will bring another level of entertainment to the users that they’ve never experienced before. And I think it’s something that everyone will be really curious to grow, and see what happens.
With the idea of ‘connecting’ such a big part of the game, will there be any StreetPass features for players to use?
In the Japanese version, we have a StreetPass feature where you can see the profile and personal data of each farm owner you pass, so you’ll be able to see what kind of farm they have, how big it is, and how much they’ve progressed in the game. We’re still in talks to see what we’re doing for the US release, but I’m hoping we can put that in to the English version as well.
Are you considering any other StreetPass uses in particular?
For StreetPass, my main idea was to have players share their personal information, but this was the first time we’ve actually implemented it in the Bokujō Monogatari/Harvest Moon series. For example, the previous title [Harvest Moon: A New Beginning] was the first time you could customize your avatar. When we announced that, a lot of longtime fans that were used to the series really didn’t like that idea, feeling that Bokujō Monogatari/Harvest Moon characters should be ‘one and only’ set characters that you get to play as. But once the game came out, a lot of people really liked that they could customize how they look. It was something that I really thought people would like, and it worked out. But moving forward, I wasn’t sure how much StreetPass was really necessary in a ‘farm life’ game. Is it something that really makes people happy? So we’ll see what the outcome is for that. But we did implement a Wi-Fi capability where you can actually help out other people and give gifts to each other, and we’ll see what the outcome of that is as well, if we’ll continue it for the next title, or make it more advanced.
Compared to Harvest Moon: A New Beginning, the art design in Story of Seasons is quite different - it looks to us to have an almost ‘antique’ feel to it. Could you tell us about the thought process that went into the art direction?
I think it’s just a part of who I am, but I don’t like to create the same type of game for every sequel - I always want to create something new and different. But at the same time, I don’t want to go to opposite extremes from title to title, so I try to see what to do next within the same realm and while keeping the same core essence. The last title [Harvest Moon: A New Beginning] was more cute and more colourful, but for Story of Seasons I wanted to concentrate more on what farmers would look like in Europe during a certain period. There’s a famous painting where farmers are planting crops in a field during this era, and I wanted to make it look something like that. In the painting, their clothes are very dark, or light pastel at the most, so it wouldn’t really pop - we made it a little more colourful, but that was the time period we were thinking about. So I can understand why you felt it had an antique look to it!
Bokujō Monogatari/Harvest Moon games have always had wonderful music to go along with the relaxing gameplay — could you talk a little about the sound design, and how that fits into the game?
Thank you! I try not to think of the music as a song or a BGM, but more like when you’re at a park, just laying on the grass and listening to kids playing and laughing, or a squirrel going up a tree, or the wind blowing — it’s more of an ambient sound. So trying to put that ambient sound into a shortwave or phase, and then making that into the BGM, is one of the things that we concentrate on in sound design.
Many Harvest Moon games feature references to previous games, especially in the form of character designs and names. Is that something you’ll still be able to do in Story of Seasons, or is that an issue with Nastume’s ownership of the Harvest Moon IP in the West?
For character names and item names, there are definitely things we can use, but there will be some that we’ll change. A good example is the Harvest Goddess — we’ll probably change that name to ‘Seasonal Goddess’ or something similar. I think it will go case by case, and we’ll talk more about what we can do with these things. But we don’t want to say “that’s not part of the series”. We do understand what the fans want and we’ll keep a close eye on that going forward. But we are very careful with how we do our translation, not only for this title — we have a lot of pride in how we translate and localize, and we’ll try to make it the best for the users.
Regarding Story of Seasons itself, previously when we created a title, we made the game and sold it in Japan, and that was it for my job; afterwards we’d give the title to the [Western] publisher and then they would localize it and sell it over here. But for this game, working with XSEED as part of the same company [XSEED is a subsidiary of MarvelousAQL, the game’s developer], we get to communicate a lot more. So while I’d usually be done and working on the next project, we’re actually still working on it even after the Japanese version came out. This lets us see what the users are saying, and try to refine the game for the US audience. It could be a change in a small setting, or the difficulty level, maybe we should make it a little bit more difficult for the US audience for instance — we’re still fine tuning it, and that’s one of the big differences you’ll see in the publisher change [from Natsume to XSEED].
Are there things you’re excited to be able to do differently now that you’ll be localizing the games ‘in-house’ with XSEED?
To be bluntly honest, as a creator and a developer, the old way was that once the Japanese version was done, the game was completely done. Now that we’re working closely with XSEED and I’m still fine-tuning the game, that means the project isn’t done — so it’s a lot more work for me! [Laughs] But at the same time, to make a better game and to satisfy the customer is something that people just have to do, it’s not an easy task. But one of the good things is that, before, when the Japanese version was done that was the end, we’d just completely rely on the US publisher to take care of it, and sometimes we’d hear things like “This part was kind of weird” or “I didn’t understand this part”, so some things could have been lost in translation. Working closely with XSEED, I can fine-tune those — not change things, but refine the game so that the US audience can experience exactly what the Japanese audience is experiencing.
Moving forward then, will ‘Story of Seasons’ be the name for more Bokujō Monogatari games in the West in the future? And since Story of Seasons is the first game in the series under this new branding, how do you see new players who have never played a Harvest Moon title coming into the game?
In the Japanese version we don’t have a title change, of course, so it is more of a change for Harvest Moon fans. But Story of Seasons is a new IP, and as you said, there will be newcomers, so we’re talking closely with the US side about how to make it more friendly for new players. The difficulty level is something we’re thinking about adding to, or tweaking for the beginning of the game, or having different difficulty settings you can select from in the beginning (which the Japanese version didn’t have) — so that’s one of things that we’re trying to concentrate on.
Bokujō Monogatari/Harvest Moon games have evolved and grown quite a bit since the first Super Nintendo title, but the essence of farming itself hasn’t changed that drastically; do you have any ideas for new directions you’d like to take the series in, or new things you’d like to try in future Story of Seasons games?
As you said, it’s been 18 years since the first iteration of Bokujō Monogatari, and through that time what farmers are doing has been the same, even though technology has advanced to make things easier. But the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons land is a place where they don’t even have electricity. We did think about putting in combines or tractors to make it more modern, but in the end it just didn’t feel right for the series. We also tried to implement something where every once in a while wild dogs would come down from the mountains, and you’d have to defend your farm — not with a gun but in some way — but that really wasn’t what Harvest Moon was about either. So we’ll probably stay true to the core essence of just experiencing life as a farmer. But I am always looking for more fun elements to play with. For example, I wanted to have a little more fantasy in Harvest Moon, but when I tried to do that, it wasn’t Harvest Moon any more — that’s why we created Rune Factory. I do want to create something a little more modern, and if we are to go forward with that we’ll probably create another new title that isn’t Harvest Moon or Story of Seasons, but another new IP.
Between planting crops, cooking, raising animals, and wooing potential partners, there’s lots to do in Story of Seasons and the Bokujō Monogatari games — what’s your favourite part of the experience as a player?
Probably the farming aspect, growing crops and taking care of the vegetables — and riding horses. The reason I like the farming is that every time I have a break or a vacation — though I haven’t done it in a while — I usually go to visit a farm, to be there for a little while, help them with their harvest or planting, and try to get a feeling of what they experience, and then try to put that enjoyment into the games. I used to ride horses as well, so that’s one of the things I really wanted to have in the game, to have people experience something that you don’t really get to experience in modern life any more, but that’s really fun to do.
Also, because the series has been going on for so long, we get a lot of fan letters, which I really appreciate, and sometimes I get letters from actual farmers. In real-life farming, you get to harvest a crop maybe twice a year within the same land, but after that the nutrition is gone from the soil, so you have to rotate the fields and use different land, to let it rest. If we put that process in the game, it would feel like more tedious work, so instead we have one plot of land where you can just keep planting and harvesting. But I did once get a letter from a farmer saying “That’s not how it works!”, and I had to reply “I understand, but that doesn’t work so well in a game.” So that was a memorable letter! [Laughs]
We’d like to thank Hashimoto-san for his time, and Jimmy Soga (XSEED Product Manager) for translating. Story of Seasons will be released in North America this Fall.