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Postcard from GDC 2005: Rolling the Dice: The Risks and Rewards of Developing Katamari Damacy


March 11, 2005
 

Tamakorogashi

Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy, opened his talk with a puppet of the Prince from his game on his hand. "Hello, I'm Keita Takahashi," the prince said. "And I'm still tired." The evening prior, just after arriving from Japan , Takahashi won awards for both game design and innovation.

To demonstrate the gameplay to those who might not have seen it before, Takahashi played a short movie from his computer, while simultaneously absently drawing a picture of the King of all Cosmos (another character from the game), on the tablet with a stylus. It follows then, that he was an art major in college, specializing in sculpture. He joined Namco as a CG designer upon graduation, but none of the games he worked on in that capacity were ever finished.

Realizing that he'd like to work on a project that actually wound up releasing, he decided to start his own game, joining a tiny prototype-building project internal to Namco. Takahashi says that the title Katamari Damacy (Katamari Damashii in Japan ) doesn't even fully make sense in Japanese, so he was amazed at the positive reception. "If a simple game like this can become popular enough to even come out in the west," he said, "maybe the world's not such a bad place after all."

A lot of people have asked him what inspired the idea for the game - a question which he usually answers with 'nothing in particular.' But during his talk, Takahashi revealed the answer: he went to the zoo and saw a mother panda rolling her babies around in balls.

"Actually," he clarified, "that's a lie. I just thought of it."

But in fact, there is a sport in Japanese elementary school competitions (called undoukai), called tamakorogashi, in which small children roll a giant ball around, and indeed, that's the image featured on the cover of the pre-release Katamari Damacy demo from the Tokyo Game Show.

In terms of design though, Takahashi really just wanted to create something new that would be easily understood, something funny, and something that could only be done in videogames. Choices for gameplay style seems very narrow these days, he says, echoing Inaba's idea that the game industry is in a period of stagnation. As a result, videogames have also become narrow as a form of expression also.

But what, really, is the place of games in society? Politics, food, literature, these all have direct impact on peoples' lives. But videogames aren't necessary, he says. If games die, nobody suffers but the developers, and eventually people will forget about games altogether. Nobody will miss them, in the larger sense. That's why videogames have to be punk, they have to be rock, they have to breed excitement in the player, or else they have no use. And you don't have to shoot people in order to achieve this.

In fact, he says that kids shouldn't play games too much. During childhood, it's much more fun to play outside, while it is still socially acceptable for them to do so. He proposes that adults should play games instead. "People might say that adults are too busy to play games much," he began. "But this is wrong."

He wasn't out to create a game into which a player could escape, nor a device for relieving/venting frustration. He just wanted to make something fun, that would make people smile.

After explaining the origins of the game, the thought for a moment, finally breaking the silence to say: "I should come up with a more interesting story."

The development for Katamari was a year and a half, with 8 months of prototyping. A CG design school was used to make all of the objects in the game, just because of a brainstorm that Takahashi had at the time. He then showed a movie of the prototype, musing as the movie played; "Hmmm. I guess the game hasn't changed at all since then."

The fact that the game was so simple actually inspired some criticism both internally and externally. His higher-ups said that more features should be included, so he proactively ignored those suggestions. While simple is not necessarily best, he does think that it's nice to be able to sum up a complex design in a single word, in this case 'rolling.'

He really wanted to make a game that tackled feeling of love, or which gave people feelings that they had in their teenage years. While this was a bit too much to take on for a first project, he hopes that some of that sentiment can still be felt in Katamari Damacy.

Originally, the Prince and King of all Cosmos were planned as characters in a driving game. In the design, cute characters drove around a city, destroying it by running into things. The prince character bore a steering wheel into the back of a human driver's skull, controlling him as the human drove recklessly about. Takahashi says that this design was rejected, and after a dramatic pause gave thanks to those that did not approve the idea.

As mentioned, Takahashi's background is in sculpture. He thinks that the tactile aspect of games is very important, which is why he made a game that uses only the analog sticks. In the first two years of college, he just learned the basics of sculpture, but in the last two he was able to work on whatever he wanted, so long as he could explain the object's usefulness to his professors, which he found a bit tough. "I can't even explain my own game ideas" he added.

In terms of sculpture, he says that recreating reality is a rather useless practice. If you want to make a sculpture of a flower, wouldn't it be much nicer to see a real flower instead? And in general he finds that most abstract artists are just in love with their own work, even if nobody else is. They attempt to be too high-brow, and ultimately don't make an impact on anyone. So he didn't see how sculpture should fit into society.

The world has many problems - pollution, war, oil shortages. How can anyone help with this through sculpture? He came upon the decision that he'd just like to make people happy. Though he feels as though this is a simple idea, he thought that if he could just make people smile, then maybe they wouldn't fight as much. Perhaps eventually this could even be a solution for racial misunderstanding and war.

So he made a coffee table robot. He also made a tissue-box cover shaped like a hippo. In Japanese, hippo is 'kaba', which is also the pronunciation for 'cover'. So it became a kaba Kaba. In his various sculptures, like a goat-shaped flowerpot in which excess water is expelled through the udder, you can see that the humor of Katamari Damacy was pervasive throughout Keita Takahashi's creative career. Laughing, he said: "So. I made these things trying to prevent war."


Katamari Damacy

After college, he realized that the game industry sells enjoyment, similar to the kind he was looking for. He thought it'd be a really fun job but. it wasn't. He purposefully incorporated a peaceful theme into the game, because he had been affected by the political statements in Japan that videogames were too violent, and were adversely influencing people. Perhaps games can have a positive effect too, he offered.

Regarding next-gen consoles, he says that technology will continue to increase, but he doesn't think that high technology is necessary to make a good, engaging game. It won't play a big role in content, because better graphics and sound won't really surprise us anymore.

In Japan , only gamers play games, and it's not something that they're very proud to talk about, Takahashi says. Thus, more than technology, he feels that game makers should be more focused on how to appeal to the public, and make games more accessible to people. Games in Japan are mostly sold just in game stores, and if a person is not interested in games, they won't even browse. People should be able to play before they buy, he added, offering that a bookstore that had all of its books sealed in plastic would go out of business!

His solution is for manuals to be readily available. If people could read manuals before purchasing, not only would it give an idea of what the game was about, but manuals themselves would improve, and actually offer some interesting insight into the world of that game. Ultimately though, it's most important to improve the game content.

After the talk, an audience member asked him a question: how will you improve the world in the future, using your idea of making people happy? Takahashi's laughing response: "Maybe next time I won't make a game."

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