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Postcard from GDC Europe 2005: Seeing What Sticks: Developing a Katamari Sequel

September 2, 2005
 

Before the keynote, the defining memory of Keita Takahashi from the conference comes earlier at the Robin Hunicke’s Game Design Mash-up. While the other panelists were greeted well enough, the softly-spoken, slightly-scruffy man received open adulation from the audience which only intensified as he described his cat-peripheral-based game for Grandma idea.

It’s true: We Love Katamari.

Creator of one game, he’s become something of an icon and his popularity is in proportion to the dissatisfaction of many developers with the mainstream games industry. By creating something so obviously novel, he’s attracted to him anyone who feels similar. In other words, Katamari Damacy’s critical standing has actually become a katamari in itself, snowballing onwards, bigger, ever bigger as it picks up all the waifs and strays of the game design world.

Which leads us to this fascinating, openly personal, keynote, where Keita describes the stress and his thoughts about conceiving a sequel to a game which, as he fully admits, was never conceived to have one.


Keita Takahashi and the Prince.

Speaking through a be-suited translator, Keita is alternates between being gleefully provocative and self-effacing. The sense of humor all too apparent in Katamari is equally noticeable here, with even the translator stopping to laugh before telling the audience what Keita actually says. Like, for example, thinking he was offered the keynote by mistake.

He starts by describing the pre-history to Katamari. Working at Namco, looking around at what they had in development and there wasn’t anything he could bear to work on. The vast majority of games were too similar. They all seemed to be aimed at a similar demographic, and mystifying to new users. He couldn’t see what he’d get from working on any of the games.

He found his attention wandering to the Namco motto, lifted from Confucius: “Knowledge is not equal to Devotion. Devotion is not equal to joy.” That is, to know what something is isn’t the same as actually liking it, and to like it isn’t actually to enjoy it. He decided to not ignore this core message Namco and Confucius were telling him, and try and find something he believed in. Or, as he puts it: If you don’t enjoy something, you may as well be dead.

To get a flavor of the keynote, it’s probably important to note that halfway through his tale he stopped, stood up and wandered to the center of the stage where he seated a plush-doll of the Prince lead-character from Katamari before wandering back.

Fast-forward three years from the game’s conception to launch, his GDC presentation in March and now, finally, a release in Europe.

But why a sequel? The concept came as a direct reaction to sequels and “boring games”. When the idea was suggested to him by Namco, he wasn’t originally into making it.

He pauses then stresses this: “I really, really wasn’t”.

He’s aware that a sequel is actually a contradiction to his original statements. After deliberation, he eventually relented. He had lots of reasons, but he doesn’t share them as “They’ll sound like excuses”.

He also notes that “I’m not sure that someone who didn’t have the courage of their convictions should be standing here giving a keynote… but I wanted to see what London was like”.

Having decided to drink from this particularly bitter cup, he looked at what he wanted to change. The original game was constricted, based tightly on the basic idea of the game. Starting with a small katamari, you roll until you get a universe-sized ball. For the sequel, they were far less controlled, lobbing in anything which would amuse them. It’s a point which Keita returns to repeatedly: that if you’re not amused when making the game, he doesn’t believe the game will be any fun at all. Or, as he puts it memorably later in the presentation, making a game is a game too.

Since the sequel would be more diffuse, he would aim to create less of the stressful rush of the first game and a more like zen-like relaxing approach. Later in the presentation, when he demonstrates a few levels from We Love Katamari. The snowman level is a tranquil world full of sledgers, ice-skaters and a world of snow. Your task is to make the head for an enormous snowman in the center of the land. You can make your capstone as small or large as you wish before rolling it into place. This is so simple that Keita considers it may not even be a “game” at all. In the two-player mode, it’s perhaps even more pronounced, with one player rolling the head and the other the body. The level ends whenever the two press together and create the finished icy edifice. Maybe not a traditional game, yes. But in terms of atmosphere or zen-relaxation, you suspect that Keita has hit his goal.

Keita also examines the importance of packaging to him, describing how when as a child he played videogames he would pore over manuals which extended the pleasure of experience by re-living it in his mind. The lavishly illustrated Japanese manual of We Love Katamari and the playful cover of the outside of Namco building, with the design team holding up signs and a Giraffe on the roof is a world away from Inevitable Sequel VII. While Keita admits some would critique this and the game’s title as self-indulgence, he views it as an attack on the stupefying seriousness. And it’s fun. Fun for him, his team and hopefully everyone else.


We Love Katamari introduced a two-player co-op mode.

He dwells on areas and elements they hoped to get into the sequel, but proved impossible for either time or technical reasons. On the technical side, a worms-eye view of the katamari to let you understand how big you’ve managed to make the enormous bolus proved unachievable. More esoteric urges to try and make the decreasing of katamari size not be a negative, fail-state aspect in the game were equally unachievable.

His esoteric – in fact, you may suspect deliberately esoteric – approach to influences are almost telling. The never-released game "Densen", which he only has a screenshot of, which involved sliding with a coat-hanger down electric wires was one. Because, like Katamari, it turns a normal world into something strange – in his case, skyscrapers and people into material for an enormous ball. Even more obscure, a fairground water-target game where you aimed a jet at vegetable-themed targets, such as a smiling aubergine. He liked its directness and the way that water bubbles went into the stream as the time ran out and the power slackened off… especially as he suspected that was an engineering fault rather than an actual deliberate design.

Concluding, he admits he’s expressed a confused message of a man who’s “walking forwards while facing backwards”. He believes that silliness is essential for life, but still finds himself returning to two questions. Firstly, is it okay to go on making superfluous games forever. And secondly, because games are essentially meaningless, shouldn’t they embrace this transitory nature in a punk-rock style.

He knows games are interesting… but life is interesting. From feeling the rush of air in your face while riding a bike, to the joy of skipping or the heart-beating in your chest when you stop. These may not be particularly punk rock, but they all stimulate, and all make life worth living.

“You don’t need games to have fun,” he considers, “possibly you don’t need games at all”. He gets frustrated of his inability to communicate these simple aspects of life in a game, and stresses that all developers should remember to not think what the Next Gen can do… but what you can do with the Next Gen. The thoughts and feelings of a game are all that matters.

He concludes doubting that he’ll ever be able to put these frustrating questions aside, and promising that now he hopes to put Katamari aside and return to his first love: something new: “Suspend your expectation and wait and see what happens”.

Something in the Q&A section stands out, and seems to capture something of the psychedelic lament which ran through the keynote. Someone asks why he doesn’t play many games anymore. He answers simply: “Because there are no fun ones.”

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