Between a rock and a 'Harada' place: The massive Tekken interview
Katsuhiro Harada has been making Tekken games for a long, long time. He had been the series producer since its inception in 1994, so if anyone has perspective on the series and its place in the pantheon of fighting games, it’s him. Frankly, he’s one of the better people to speak to about the history of fighting games as a business, period.
Tekken has always done its own thing, as a series. It was one of the first major 3D fighting games. It’s one of the first to feature extensive story, and each version adds crazy extras, from RPG modes, to extensive character creators, to simpler crowd-pleasing elements like the super slo-mo.
As Tekken 7: Fated Retribution continues the expansion of the series, Harada wants to make sure everyone knows the series has not only never gone away, it’s also the best-selling fighting game series in the world, no matter what anyone else may think.
In this extended interview, we discuss how Tekken is always arcade first, how the series made preparations for input lag beginning with the shift to LCD screens, and how to please both competitive and casual players simultaneously.
We're kind of having a fighting game boom right now, with Street Fighter over on the eSports side, BlazBlue et al on the anime side, Injustice, KI, and Mortal Kombat on the "American" side... where does Tekken fit in to this, and what do you think it will take for the genre to remain strong? The last time there were this many decent fighting games, it led to the fall of the genre in the 90s.
Many people see this kind of history through their own filter of preconceptions and are unable to correctly understand the situation.
One of Tekken’s strong points is that it mostly unaffected by the boom in fighting games (it obviously benefited to some extent, but what happened after that is more important). Many fighting games disappeared after the 90’s and early 2000, or they went into hiatus.
Even Street Fighter had a 10-year absence in between 3 and 4, but many people have forgotten this. However, during that time, we were methodically growing the franchise. In the 23-year history of the franchise, we started at a certain point to analyze the economic potential of the fighting game genre. As many titles disappeared or took a break, or even left the arcade scene, Tekken was consistently released first in arcades, and then on consoles.
As a result, Tekken has sold almost 46 million copies worldwide on console to date, making it the top seller in its genre. If you include the number of arcade boards and income from the arcade, the franchise takes an even larger lead over its competitors.
In the ‘90s, that wasn’t yet the case and we were still chasing the fighting games that came before us. Games that sell well in the US tend to give the appearance that the title is a hit worldwide. Tekken sells the most in Europe, with sales in the US coming in second (however, US sales are the largest of a single country). Tekken also does well in Oceania and Asia, so it sells quite evenly around the globe.
"We realized the audience was quite segmented. There were the hardcore players who liked the competitive elements, but also a very casual audience as well. Some people were only interested in the story."
More than 20 years ago, when there were already strong fighting game titles like Street Fighter, King of Fighters, and Virtua Fighter, my boss (along with upper management) often asked when we would catch up, and even surpass these rivals (in terms of sales). I said to them that it wouldn’t be easy and would probably take 10 years, but that if we planned in a way that didn’t rely on the popularity of the genre itself, that we would eventually come out on top.
Their answer was for me to continue until we win, or until the franchise ceases to be economically viable. I naturally felt quite a bit of pressure when told this. During the boom in fighting games, many different companies created many different fighting games, but the majority of them disappeared. It was clear they wanted to make pure fighting games.
At the time, we also wanted to make a pure fighting game, and did our best to catch up with and surpass rivals like Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter. We strived to create a solid fighter that was extremely balanced and geared towards competitive play. But partway through, we realized something. Who exactly was supporting the genre, or more specifically, Tekken.
We realized the audience was quite segmented. There were the hardcore players who liked the competitive elements, but also a very casual audience as well. Some people were only interested in the story. Not everyone was trying to be the top player, but there was a group of fans that valued the competitiveness of the title. One common trait was that many players weren’t motivated to be the best, only to beat a friend, or a specific opponent at that time.
Trying to create a fighting game that satisfied all of these player groups doesn’t sound quite possible. However, Tekken was said to be a game you could win by button-mashing, but other players said the controls required a lot of skill. It was also said that the strategy element is not that deep by some, but others said that if you want to win a tournament that you need a lot of knowledge about the strategy, and also a lot of play experience. So, it was quite interesting how conflicting these views of the game were.
"We still fight to overcome the shadow of Street Fighter, the legendary game that started the genre. And also fight to surpass the specter of Virtua Fighter, another legendary series with many fans who love it."
You still might hear these key words, and they still seem quite contradicting. However, this was evidence that we could appeal to the many different groups we were trying to reach. We also spent a lot of development resources on long CG opening movie sequences, Story Modes, or other bonus features – things you didn’t exactly expect from a fighting game.
More than 20 years after the fighting game boom of the ‘90s, what was the result? We weren’t really affected by the fighting game boom, or the revival after that. We didn’t really have a set image or evaluation of what the series is, and as a result of trying to appeal to a wide audience, we stand in the position we’re in today. I think that having the series disappear or fade out is the ultimate betrayal to the fans.
We didn’t make our game because the genre was popular, or there was a revival. We decided more than 20 years ago that we wanted to create a game that is relevant, and that can maintain its relevance with its fan-base, so that’s why we chased our rivals and worked so hard for so long. That is what Tekken is about.
We are always challenging ourselves. Not only in the number of copies sold or other financial records, but other objective data will attest that we have attained the top position in the genre, but data doesn’t necessarily overwrite the recollection or perception of people (even when many people see the numbers and still refuse to acknowledge this fact out of personal emotions… I have seen this often).
We realized this soon after we gained the top share according to sales figures. Some people never change their opinion no matter how much data you show them. That’s why we still fight to overcome the shadow of Street Fighter, the legendary game that started the genre. And also fight to surpass the specter of Virtua Fighter, another legendary series with many fans who love it.
That said, we don’t really care about finding a niche to fit into, or to stay comfortably in a certain categorization. That’s why we are challengers, and will be fighting against the legacy of these titles for years to come.
Do you see a future for Tekken in the eSports arena? How important do you think that is to the future of the fighting genre, or at least to Tekken? Is that an area in which you also need to fight?
At least to the core group of players who have enjoyed fighting games for a long time, eSports is merely a recent buzzword that encompasses what they have been enjoying for a long time. It is a convenient word to help explain to people who aren’t familiar with this aspect, so many of the community have adopted it. The competitive community has been holding their own tournaments for many years.
"The competitive community has been holding their own tournaments for many years. What has changed is that the age of streaming has arrived, and there is now a bigger viewing audience. So, now there are sponsors and companies who want to tap into this audience."
What has changed is that the age of streaming has arrived, and there is now a bigger viewing audience. So, now there are sponsors and companies who want to tap into this audience. And there are now pro-gamers as a result. This is evidence that video games have gained a certain social status, and I am glad to see this.
In addition to the game itself, merchandising, movies, manga, and other media, it is great to see games creating a new market. (The fact that someone can make a living streaming or commentating is pretty cool!) As such, I would like Tekken to contribute to this scene. Not just as fan service to our audience, but also because I believe it is a good way to make fighting games exciting.
That said, it is just another way to enjoy fighting games. No matter if the game is popular with the hardcore who participate in eSports, the scene will not sustainable if the game itself doesn’t sell, and we will see a similar situation to what I mentioned about the end of the boom in the fighting game genre above.
While eSports is an important element, it isn’t the only one we are focusing on with Tekken. We will continue to develop a title that appeals to a wide audience, across the globe. This is one of several elements of the franchise that we will focus on, and we want to definitely increase the enjoyment of spectator for our title.
From around 2005 to 2015 there were a lot of "crossover" games, where companies were creating fusion titles with multiple properties. In your mind, what does it take to make one of these successful? Obviously it's quite difficult to please fans of different series if you're tackling the same genre as the original property. Something like Project X Zone almost feels like an easier fit because it abstracts all the properties into a new genre. But with SF X Tekken for example, you've got to choose one game system or the other to move toward.
It is indeed quite difficult to please fans of a different genre, especially if the main objective is to please both groups of fans of a crossover title. On that point, it differs quite a bit depending on what you are trying to achieve with the particular crossover. With Tekken, the goal is not really to get fans of another series to pick up Tekken. It may sound surprising, but it isn’t realistic to expect to directly pull in fans who are currently playing a rival fighting game, and even so, there is a limit to the number of players you could obtain, so that isn’t really the main purpose.
"The goal of crossovers is not really to get fans of another series to pick up Tekken. It may sound surprising, but it isn’t realistic to expect to directly pull in fans who are currently playing a rival fighting game."
The actual promotional and awareness benefits are different. With crossovers, a lot of media may be interested in covering the content, and a lot of buzz can be created on social media, which can reach quite a large audience. Collaborations like these can create a lot of discussion then it is then able to reach different age groups and different segments of gamers. This causes people to become interested in your game.
When we announced Akuma, and Geese [for Tekken 7], these topics were really trending on social media. One reason we are able to stay relevant for over 20 years is because we adapt and arrange our methods with the times so that we can continue to provide our games to the fans who enjoy them. Crossovers are one way to achieve this.
This doesn’t necessarily apply to all companies or crossovers, though. In a lot of collaboration titles, the title will conform to one of the established titles. For example, a collaboration character implemented into a 2D fighting game becomes a standard 2D fighting character. However, the case is a little different for Akuma from Street Fighter in Tekken (and Geese from KOF when he comes out).
In Tekken, which is a 3D fighter; a 2D fighter will control and feel a lot like they do in their native game while existing in the 3D fighting platform. A 2D character isn’t automatically turned into a 3D fighting character, nor is the game changed into something new. The 2D fighting game character exists within the 3D fighting system, but with several interpretations made for these two to co-exist. This is something you don’t see often, so it surprised many people.
Another important thing to a crossover is that we show a lot of respect to the original creators of the guest character, and the community of that fighting game franchise. We don’t borrow any character models or assets, but create our own from scratch, trying our best to faithfully recreate that character, but also add a slight Tekken flavor to the mix, in an effort to excite the community and hopefully have them say “X character in Tekken looks so hype!”
How do you deal with lag in Tekken 7? There has been a debate about whether it's better to allow offline play to be a mismatch with online play (online play will have more input lag), or to unify input lag and make on and offline both have it equally. Where do you fall in this debate?
Fighting games weren’t born in the age of online play, but offline in arcades. As such, it’s a fact that there are some things that aren’t ideal. Even without online play, there was a time when the shift to LCD monitors caused more lag. Even though recently this has been somewhat addressed, many people are still playing on these old monitors. Media storage has greatly increased along with the amount of data for a game as well, even though the speed at which the data is read hasn’t drastically improved.
Compared to 20 years ago, input device architecture is more complex, and VS. fighting-harnesses have been replaced by Ethernet cables along with internet routers, and hubs have also been added to the chain. Game engines have enabled beautiful graphics and highly detailed environments but these advancements require more processing resources. This is the current reality, and will continue to be so.
That’s why 10 years ago, we started to gradually change the base game. For example, in the ‘90s many fighting games had moves that were about 3 to 4 frames, which is quite fast. Early on, Tekken had some 8 frame moves, but these were later discarded, and the fastest move is now 10 frames. For a game in which the moves are 5 frames, it is more greatly affected by the lag induced from network, graphic rendering, and monitors. So, rather than judging lag by a set number, you really have to consider the game system and move properties in relation to this set number of frames of lag to really get a sense of the game itself.
"Network infrastructure is quite different from country to country, as are the input devices and monitors that people use. I would like to tailor the game even more to absorb lag, but the tempo of the game is just as important."
However, a lot of people don’t realize this and become obsessed with a fixed number in itself. This is why Tekken started to get rid of the 8 frame moves 10 years ago, along with making other adjustments to the game system so that the architecture is less impaired by lag, as it couldn’t be helped.
Of course, I won’t say that this solves everything. Network infrastructure is quite different from country to country, as are the input devices and monitors that people use. I would like to tailor the game even more to absorb lag, but the tempo of the game is just as important. I wish there was a system that could achieve both objectives, but you can’t change time so there is no choice but to continue to reevaluate the game system.
Even light, which is the fastest thing we recognize around us, can only travel the globe 7 and a half times in a second. So, if a person in Tokyo is playing someone in Brazil, even light would take 1/15 of a second (4 frames) to reach its destination, and the same amount to return. Even light experiences lag, of course these are just theoretical numbers, but consider that optical cables aren’t nearly this fast. There are many access points, hubs, and modems in between, and with packet loss, the speed is even slower. This is the real world that we live in. It is greatly different than when we were a few inches apart, with CRT monitors and arcade boards directly connected, like in the arcades.
It is amazing that a business/game model born in such a different environment is continuing to adapt and keep-up with the times. I think many games/genres will need to be fundamentally reevaluated to match the current generation eventually. Tekken 7 was actually the first fighting game in the arcade industry to have network battles between different locations. It was quite successful, but the game system had to be adjusted to make this possible. Several game producers have knocked on our door to ask how we did it, but were not surprised to learn that we had to make changes to the base game system.
This is the first Tekken with built-in streaming. How did this affect your design decisions, making Tekken very "sharable" for social media?
Up until recently, it was enough for two players and the people watching behind them to feel the strategy executed in the game. Now, there are a lot more people watching a particular match with the introduction of streaming. This is why we focused on adding visual cues to let spectators know “this is a strategic turning point” or “something spectacular is happening now!” This is also the objective of the addition of Rage Arts, Rage Drive, and the super slow-motion effects. This was heavily influenced by how people are currently enjoying games and viewing games.
I do think you've succeeded at making the game share-worthy – the character customization has always been a draw, but now that it can be streamed it's even more amusing. How do you define the limits of your customizations so that you don't infringe on others intellectual properties, and also don't allow any forbidden content, while also keeping it fun?
"Even if you acknowledge that a person’s perception may be quite different depending on their race or country of origin, and you try to address any and all critiques, while also trying not to infringe on others’ IP, you end up with either very run-of-the-mill items, or something that is unique and strange, but not familiar to everyone."
We are quite happy that people are enjoying these elements as it was quite difficult to achieve this. For the customization element, there were a lot of problems to overcome to get to this point. It is not as simple as it may seem.
Even if you acknowledge that a person’s perception may be quite different depending on their race or country of origin, and you try to address any and all critiques, while also trying not to infringe on others’ IP, you end up with either very run-of-the-mill items, or something that is unique and strange, but not familiar to everyone.
Depending on the costume or items presented, it might turn out to be something that has historical meaning and is offending in some country. There are quite a few cases in which we have deleted customization items for this very reason. Face paint is another item that adds a lot of freedom for creativity, but we had to delete some of these as well before release. In Japan, face paint is used quite often in festivals and other cultural events, but we were told some of these were highly likely to be offensive in some countries, and we had to give up on these items.
In Tekken Tag Tournament 2 for WiiU, there was a feature that allowed the player to take something they drew and apply it as a texture, but we also received many complaints about this after release. Even though it was the player who created something offensive to somebody, we received complaints that it was the game that allowed them to do so. We took steps to make it so this feature wasn’t shown online, but there were still complaints, so the feature was scrapped later. In recent years, it is quite difficult to try something new with customization because of the increase of these types of complaints.
"Globalization is great. The internet has eliminated borders, and the difference in people’s values have become clear. However, if so much is eliminated because of possible concerns, I feel like the individual (or individual country, or culture) identity will become homogenized."
Fans often say ‘the people who are complaining haven’t even bought the game, so don’t worry about it,” but it isn’t that simple. Even if the fans and I don’t listen to them, these complaints can cause wider issues, so they can’t be simply ignored. And compared to past development, today’s video game development requires highly detailed textures, and the physics components also weigh heavily on the game engine, so it is resource intensive, even though the risks like those mentioned above are high. It is an issue that always gives me a headache.
Globalization is great. The internet has eliminated borders, and the difference in people’s values have become clear. However, if so much is eliminated because of possible concerns, I feel like the individual (or individual country, or culture) identity will become homogenized. Perhaps everyone around the world should just wear T-shirts and jeans. The shirts should be white, with nothing on it, or on the jeans either. If there is a design, it could offend someone somewhere, right? I have become quite tired of trying to avoid causing potential offense issues.
Sometimes I think, “Uh oh, the designer has now made a customization item of sushi, which you can attach to a character’s back...and other types of food on the character’s head.” Perhaps in the near future, someone will complain this is treating food wastefully. But it’s just virtual food, anyway… It’s just polygons. Not even plastic or anything. This is the feeling I get these days. I do feel motivated to find new ideas to overcome this problem. Probably the current system has reached its limits.
How does the game choose what to put into slo-mo? I know that it wasn't quite right at launch, and then you adjusted it to be significantly better and more impactful. Can you talk about those adjustments a little?
I had wanted to implement that from Tekken 5 in 2005. The spectators can experience the same feeling at the same time as those playing, and feel the excitement. I had seen many scenes like that at tournaments in the past, in which the audience becomes very excited. Before a move hits, the game program predicts beforehand, and if the situation is that both characters are trading blows, the game goes into slow motion. However, at that time, both spectators and players still don’t know the outcome, so everyone is tense waiting to see what happens. It is very exciting, and in hindsight was a great addition to the game.
The fine-tuning was done by the young designers on our team. I just gave them the order that it should be in real-time, and not a slow-motion replay, and that the game should return to normal speed if it doesn’t hit, or if it doesn’t result in a K.O.
How has it been for the team being able to watch people play live? Is it encouraging? Nerve-wracking? Do you notice all the tiny mistakes you've made, the way I do when I see people play my games?
"I always go to arcades and watch people play my games. You can see how their body reacts, their facial expressions. "
Tekken has continued to release in the arcades. This means we don’t just wait to see videos of people playing our game to see what they think, we can actually go and watch them play the game when we want to. You can see how their body reacts, their facial expressions. Not just for Tekken 7, I always go and watch people play my games.
Tekken 7 is the same case, and there are even more tournaments around the world this time, so I have even more chances to see this directly. If there were a lot of issues with the game, the game’s popularity in arcades wouldn’t be so high, this applies to the game’s popularity on consoles also, so it’s safe to say it is doing well.
However, there are a few bugs that we have never seen before until we see the game being played by the public. Sometimes, an unintended element of the game goes unnoticed, and players might even get upset if we change it after the fact. But these aspects of game development aren’t unique to only me, it’s something that probably everyone in this industry experiences.
How important do you think story is to a game series' longevity? They get crazier and more convoluted as time wears on, but it seems fighting games with stories seem to do better than those without them, even if most players ignore the story for the most part. Or maybe they don't! What do you think?
"We always try to keep this in mind when working on Tekken; before it is a fighting game, it is a character-based action game."
I thought it was a necessary element of Tekken, which is why we were one of the first to include 3D pre-rendered CG movies in our game in the ending movies along with long opening cinematic sequences. We also early on used real-time rendered story sequences. eSports and serious VS. fighting are quite important.
But in reality, even though it is a VS. fighting game, the majority of our audience are casual players who aren’t trying to be the best in the world, but are satisfied to beat a certain rival, perhaps just the friend next to them.
We always try to keep this in mind when working on Tekken; before it is a fighting game, it is a character-based action game. The story isn’t all that crazy or convoluted, if you take a look, you’ll see it is all just about 3 generations of Mishimas trying to kill each other, with everyone else just being pulled into this fight.