These days, the concept of a game about farming isn’t anything strange. However, when Japanese developer Yasuhiro Wada first had the idea to make such a project, that concept seemed completely crazy.
At his post-mortem talk for the original Harvest Moon at this year’s GDC, Wada kicked things off by stating that there are two types of concepts: Creative concepts, and business concepts. Game developers often think about the creative concept—as in, what they want to do with the game—but when it comes to the business concept—how to actually make such a game—what first may seem like a great idea can suddenly run into trouble.
For Wada, the initial creative concept for Harvest Moon came from a simple source: Moving to Tokyo to attend university, and finding himself missing some of the things he had experienced while growing up in the Japanese countryside. It wasn’t that he was homesick–it was more of a realization that, by living in a major city, you’re only able to see one side of life.
Wanting to communicate those elements to those who had only even known city life, Wada started to put together some ideas for how he could do that. At that time, most video games were based around some sort of combat or competition. Maybe he could craft his new idea into a game that was something totally different—and in doing so, maybe he could show his worth and value to his colleagues.
In order to get the funding to begin putting this project together, Wada built a portfolio of titles for his company that, bit by bit, would prove profitable. Foolishly, Wada originally thought that the profit he made from doing this would be his to invest in his game idea. Then, unsurprisingly, he came to understand that that isn’t how companies work. However, he had proved to be a valuable asset to his bosses via his action, and was given a budget to make a game. So, two years after first coming up with the idea, the game that would become Harvest Moon was finally ready to being development.
Though the overall creative concept was in place, a huge question mark hung over the heads of the team: What exactly would you do in this game? Most people played games to escape from the drudgery of work—so could they be convinced to play a game that was based around doing work?
Wada found the answer in a game he had become hooked on: The Japanese horse racing sim Derby Stallion. The idea there was to raise, care for, and breed horses. If that could be fun in such a game, why couldn’t an idea like that work if the setting was swapped out for a farm?
Development for Harvest Moon got under way, and the game was based around that plan of raising and taking care of livestock—as well as interacting with a small village of people who themselves were going about their own lives. Unfortunately, Wada found the game lacking. He came to understand why combat is so important to so many RPGs: Because it gives the player another major aspect of the story to interact with. But with that specific focus on not basing gameplay around combat, what could be added that would help make the game more fun?
The answer, of course, was crops. Wada thought about games like SimCity, where you build fantastical cities by lining up different pieces on a grid, or games like The Legend of Zelda, where you clear trees by burning them with a candle or destroy rocks with bombs. What if Harvest Moon were to include these types of aspects, where players would clear and manage the land, and then plant and raise a variety of crops?
The moment Wada and his small team first tried their hand at planting crops—and then were shown what the result of those actions would be—they knew that they had a game on their hands which would be thrilling for players.
The project continued, the team grew to ten members, and then six months later, the unthinkable happened: Their parent company went under. The company’s president literally went missing, teams were scattered, and the only elements that remained were random game data and assets. For Harvest Moon, 80% of the game’s assets were recovered—but when put together, Wada’s team found that only 30% of the final version of the game was able to be assembled.
Wada felt like his dream to make a game that gave players something fresh and new had died—but his team demanded that they go on. Wada had two people to support him—programmer Tomomi Yamatate, and writer/artist Setsuko Miyakoshi—and together, the three of them figured out a way to get six more months of development time and two more staffers to help finish the game. Harvest Moon had to nearly be started from scratch, much of the original design for the game had to be scrapped, and the team had to work out of a crowded meeting room—but six months later, the game was complete.
Wada told the crowd that at that moment, he had never felt as thankful, happier, or as fortunate in his entire life. He also said that without Yamatate and Miyakoshi, Harvest Moon never would have existed, and he never would have been standing there at GDC telling the tale of how the game came together—or how it had nearly all fallen apart.