In his inimitable style, Keita Takahashi began his Game Developers Conference session by demonstrating a hand-made scarf knitted by his mother.
“It’s Boy (from Noby Noby Boy)," he explained, "but also a scarf, and here you can put your hands in. So, when you’re cold, you can use this. Even when it’s cold, you are safe.”
“Most people may not know what I tried to achieve here, or why I tried to do this,” and so he attempted to explain.
“First, I came up with my own idea, then talked to my teammates. Sometimes, they might think I’m a bit weird for making this kind of crazy game; I’m very normal. I don’t use drugs, or drink at all. Please don’t worry about me, I’m okay.”
Creating Katamari Damacy
“In [Katamari Damacy], I wanted to show an ironic point of view about the consumption-based society," he revealed. "But I wanted to make more objects -- if it were empty, I would feel empty or lonely. But when these objects are rolled up and absorbed by the Katamari, they’re gone. Then I felt empty.”
“I feel the same way about disposable society. I think I could successfully express my cynical stance toward consumption society with Katamari, but still, I felt empty when the objects were rolled up.”
Takahashi decided that he wanted to make something with fewer stages, and less of a "goal." "My answer was Boy, who has a long body. He has a long-winding body. This is fun, right? I was also thinking I wanted to create a game where I didn’t need to worry about boundaries."
"The boundaries I was concerned about were time, and money," he continued. "To be able to create a game that’s not limited by time and money is impossible. So, I thought about not worrying about these, and just being able to create freely.”
He noted that games typically have goals, or "carrots on sticks." His personal goal was to create a game which presented no goals for players, which he admits might seem somewhat abstract. Takahashi also hoped to create something that designers wouldn't be able to control or predict.
“Katamari had rules in there," said Takahashi. "You had the Katamari size goal, and the time limit as well. I wasn’t happy with that existing. In the last remaining one second, it’s perhaps possible to create a huge Katamari, and maybe use your time well. But even that doesn’t quite make me happy. This was a formula, and I felt like it somehow betrayed my vision."
“There are some games that follow the rules and make something wonderful, but I wanted to throw that out and start from scratch, from the beginning of what games should be," he added.
“In Japan, people who play games are called ‘users.’ Maybe it’s just the game industry. I always thought this was bad. Why do we call them users? Aren’t they supposed to play? We throw around the term users without thinking about it, so perhaps it’s about consumption.”
Consumers, Not Players
Takahashi cited a quote from animated film director Hayao Miyazaki, stating that children today are not playing, they're consuming.
He conceded that one has to create something that's consumable in order to maintain a company. “But I hear executives talking about users, users, and I just want to hit them. Sometimes I think maybe they should just die. But I’m getting sidetracked.”
He then drew a graphic of a person playing games on a train, with his face down, staring at the screen, while his parent is sitting nearby, being ignored. This is not how things should be, he says.
"Maybe it’s a bad thing if a game sells," he posed. "So, I thought maybe it should only be on PS3 and maybe only download. That’ll mean it’ll not sell that much," he joked.
"It’s been about one month since we launched, and I was right, it didn’t sell that much. Though I guess maybe that’s bad.”
Noby Noby Beginnings
Takahashi started thinking about developing a new game in 2005, and sought out a programmer for the project. Most didn't really understand his goals. "I showed one programmer this, and he said ‘Yes, I’ve been thinking about these kinds of things as well!’ He showed his wife, and she said ‘You should work on this as though your life depends on it.’ So, we have a collection of crazy people working on it."
He also revealed that the original 2005 prototype was developed on Xbox 360, despite it eventually being released exclusively for PlayStation Network. “There’s some stuff that wasn’t in the PS3 version, but it’s pretty much there," he said.
“In 2006, it was decided we’d put it on PS3. At the time, the 360 wasn’t doing well in Japan, so maybe there were some political reasons for the company to do it on PS3. For me, it was important that the PS3’s sticks were straight across from each other. For the 360, they’re not, and that was enough for me.”
He had difficulty with the physics engine, though, and initially sought outside help. “I’m sure developers know, but Havok is a physics engine, and if you use it, you have to show their logo. I didn’t want to do that. I thought it would be awful to have to put a logo on the game every time, so instead we used physics effects that SCE puts out.”
“But I still had to put the Namco Bandai logo, so I guess putting a logo on wasn’t something I could avoid," he said.
“Before we knew it, it was 2009," he said of the game's long development cycle. "People higher up were really mad at me, and some of them really glared at me if they saw me in the hall. I don’t know how many we’ve sold really, but if you go to web web boy [which shows stats from the game], there are 55,768 players now.”
“In spite of the fact I said the game shouldn’t have a goal, but Noby Noby Boy does have a goal,” he admitted, and that goal is growing Girl.
“The goal is to connect the solar system," he said. "I thought it was such a huge goal for a game that it wouldn’t really count as a goal.”
“Within one week after sales, girl was able to reach the moon," he noted. "I was very moved by this. But as I showed you earlier, there are 55,768 players right now. At the average, girl is growing 40 million meters per day. If we go at this rate, in order to connect the entire solar system, it will take 820 years. This is a problem, I’ll be dead by then.”
What He Couldn't Do
“There are tons of things I couldn’t do," Takahashi admits. "I don’t want to say I’m making excuses, though. But girl goes around the solar system, starting with the moon, then mercury and so on. We accumulate points to go around the universe. I wanted the top players to get a gift. The first is this scarf. Then here’s a long pillow.” [Shows images of gifts on screen.]
His mother made the scarf, and the pillow was made by his younger sister. “Why did I want to do this? It’s a gift to say thank you to players. But also I wanted everyone to enjoy this game. I wanted to give actual gifts to players, this is just my style, and how I feel. Games have their own rewards, but if we give actual gifts to players, maybe they will feel there’s an actual goal.”
“I didn’t want it to just be a gift like a download or something like that," he said. "It should be something real."
"I couldn’t do this, partially because of privacy issues, and we also needed a very secure distribution platform,” he continued. “Also people might put this up on an auction site, and then I’d buy it back and re-deliver it. I thought that would be pretty amusing."
“Another thing I couldn’t do was having to do with Girl’s ranking," he said. "I really wanted it to just be fun, but if there’s ranking, people may just keep trying to extend girl, or give up halfway. I wanted to use more fuzzy ranking. Boy, and Girl should move around regardless of ranking, but there was no time and programming resources for this.”
“I also wanted to do a search system, with some sort of Google type system, so if you Google within Noby Noby Boy, characters will bring some results and you could eat it and open the site. But a popular site can run very fast. It’s tough to get. It’s kind of meaningless, but maybe fun?”
“The face of Noby Noby Boy is simple circles, and I thought it’d be nice if you could customize it, but I couldn’t. I also wanted to use Youtube uploading so players can report bugs. That might be really convenient. Also players could suggest things through Youtube, and then the players and the development team could exchange ideas.”
Why make this game?
Continuing with his musings: “Why did I want to do this? Well, because I felt constrained," he said. "In the last four or five years, the world has become much more of a cramped place. This is not a game world, it’s the real world we live in. It has nothing to do with the recession, it just feels constraining from a different perspective. Maybe this is just me, but I feel like there’s something physical that is tying me up. I feel everything is controlled by systems.
Takahashi added: "Maybe this thing that’s tying me up is Namco Bandai, but there’s a much bigger cramping happening in this world. The word Noby Noby means to not be constrained, and to be mentally liberated. Maybe this is a little dramatic, but Noby Noby Boy is a way to fight against this constraining world."
"Maybe that’s why I created this game. But ultimately games don’t need these kinds of goals, honestly. Games should just be fun, and if that’s the case, what I said is just nonsense. But personally I needed this kind of explanation.”
Noby Noby update
He continued: “Before PS3, we thought it might be fun to do it on the iPhone. So we're in the process of making it for the iPhone. I thought if we used the boy from the iPhone as well, girl can reach the solar system in only 400 years.”
“In the [PSN] update, it’s possible to do multiplay,” says Takahashi. He then demonstrated a local multiplayer mode, in which players could also each eat each other and connect. “At maximum, four people can play at the same time,” he said.
What's in a game?
“A lot of people ask me if Noby Noby Boy is really a game," he says. "Basically this is from the time of Katamari Damacy, but I don’t really think of creating a “game” when I’m making these. I’m just trying to create something fun. Parties, festivals, that sort of thing.”
“People who ask whether it’s a videogame, I’d ask them what a game is. Is it good level design? Is it good AI? A good story? Important goals? Great music? People say without these, one won’t be motivated. But even using at the catalog for GDC, there’s no definition for a game. The games we make aren’t about level design, or a sense of accomplishment.”
“I’ve been complaining a lot now. People call me not Keita Takahashi but “Hater” Takahashi,” he joked. "But I think there is a lot of potential in games, and I am just frustrated that they don’t reach their potential. I’m sure there’s something more that we can do. If we love video games, we have to think about this more. We have to observe more, and have more fun while we’re making these games.
His conclusion? "There is no completion in the industry games, it’s always developing. But despite that, we believe there are certain ways that games have to be. Perhaps we’re also hiding behind these rules, and maybe just relying on past experience. I’m sure you’re going to misunderstand this, but I think perhaps we have to ignore the players, and our companies."
"Maybe we should just try creating a game that we like, rather than thinking about what’s going to sell or what’s popular, or looking outside for the standard. We should look inside to see what’s fun. Games aren’t created by management. We have to rely on hardware, but hardware doesn’t make the games. It’s humans that do. Se whouldn’t be afraid of being criticized, and just create what we want.“
Takahashi ended by noting of this freedom: “This will create something fantastic, or something fantastically awful. But even if it is awful, it still has value. So I think we should all keep trying. I think that is our mission. There are other missions certainly, but crating something new is something that should be a goal for developers. I hope you will join me.”