Farming and life simulation – two genres you wouldn't really think to mix, but about fifteen years ago in Japan, a man called Yasuhiro Wada decided to try. And in 1996 a game called 'Farm Story' was born, which we know as Harvest Moon over here – and the rest they say, is history.
Harvest Moon games generally revolve around planting and tending to your crops, looking after animals and building up relationships with the other inhabitants of the village you live in. Cultivating friendships is as much a part of the game as cultivating your crops, as you're able to marry and start a family with the lucky boy/girl of your dreams. Over the years, there's been a few changes to mix things up a bit, but the games have largely followed the same formula – and this year's Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar is no exception. This time round, you get to sell your crops at a weekly market, as opposed to the usual chucking it in a shipping bin and magically receiving money.
A few weeks ago, we had a little chat to Yen Hao, the Product Manager of Rising Star Games - the company responsible for bringing the Harvest Moon and Rune Factory games to Europe:
The Series In General...So, this year is Harvest Moon's fifteenth anniversary, and it's just gone past the million sales mark – how many games is this across? And is that only in the UK, Europe or worldwide?
The million sales is across Europe, and includes all the main Harvest Moon games, as published by Rising Star Games – the three DS games and the three Wii ones.
Natsume always published the game in America, and I think they started doing it before Rising Star was even formed. But Rising Star Games was formed by Marvelous, the people behind the Harvest Moon series, as a channel to promote and sell Harvest Moon into Europe directly - that's the reason why we're in existence.
Is Harvest Moon as popular in Europe as it is in Japan?
Absolutely, yeah - although you'll probably find it's a bit hard to see because we're split by territories. The French kind of like it, but not that much; the Italian and Spanish, the DS market's virtually non-existent down there at the moment; but the Germans love it. They're probably our biggest market – they seem to love simulations in general.
What do you think makes Harvest Moon so appealing, seeing as it's gone past a million sales now? What makes it so so many people have bought it over the years and enjoyed it? It seems to be the sort of game that appeals to everyone...
It's a strange one. It's a good question though, and if I knew the answer, I'd be making millions. I think its a combination of it being simple to play, but addictive. Its very simple – you just till your land, plant your seed, wait a few days, water it, pick it up again and sell it on. It's very simple, but also very addictive – it's this constant attention thing. You can jump in for about half an hour to an hour, leave it, do something else, then come back the next day and do the same thing again. But you see a reward at the end of the day – it's one of those ridiculous mechanics where you just have to keep coming back and see how well your farm's growing. There's also this nature in people to want to take care of things, and Harvest Moon really taps into that – it's like your Tamogotchis and your Pokemon and those similar sorts of things.
I mean, do you see any competition from things like FarmVille?
No! FarmVille? We recognise that FarmVille has been a huge success – it's basically Harvest Moon on Facebook. The tag-line we have is that Harvest Moon is 'the mother of all farming games', as it wasn't necessarily the first, but it was the one that bought farming games into the public consciousness. It made it popular - I like to think without Harvest Moon, there would be no FarmVille. The other thing with FarmVille, as popular as it is, is that you need to play it on a web browser, so you can't take it with you, and whatever you want to do with FarmVille, you have to pay money – so although it's free to start playing, if you want any extras, you have to pay for it. With Harvest Moon, you pay upfront and then you've got your full farming game in that one package.
We've always noticed that there's a long period between the games coming out in Japan, then coming out in North America and eventually in Europe – is there a reason behind the big delay? Is there a chance we might eventually close the gap and catch up?
It's very difficult. It's all down to localisation. Obviously Japan comes out first because they create the game, the Americans go out far closer because they just translate the Japanese into English. For Europe, we've got five languages to translate into, and Harvest Moon's not a small game. You've got something like anywhere between three hundred thousand to half a million words in every game, which then all have to be tested. That's why our games come out a little bit later.
There has been quite a partnership between Nintendo and Harvest Moon – there's been a few PSP ones along the way, but the vast majority have appeared on Nintendo consoles. Is there a reason why the Harvest Moon series has gone so well with Nintendo platforms?
I think it comes down to numbers really – the DS ones in particular have been very successful, at least partially down to so many people having a DS. But I think with Harvest Moon in general, the feel of the game is more casual, more family friendly, and I think that's why it's been more successful on the Nintendo formats than on something like the PSP. It's all about matching the audience with the proper game for them really.
What sort of audience does Harvest Moon have?
I don't have any specific information, but I think it's mostly women from eighteen to thirty years old. So it's quite a broad audience that tend to pick up Harvest Moon. It's also a majority female audience – a sixty:forty split, so kind of the opposite of a lot of games out there.
About Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar...As the games are based more on repetition and less on 'skill', I guess that makes it really easy for anyone to pick up and play, doesn't it?
You say that, but Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar's a bit different, because there's quite a lot more skill involved in the overall game. The farming mechanics has been simplified and streamlined, so it makes it a bit easier to get into. But the Bazaar mechanic, where you sell your products involves having to judge what products to take with you to the Bazaar, based on what you think you can sell. You also have to time your plants well too, because sometimes you could pick a plant that takes seven days to grow, but your Bazaar's in five days, so you're not going to grow it in time. Also, the characters that come to your Bazaar aren't going to all want the same thing, so there is that element of skill involved too.
Each game kind of has it's own little self-contained storyline, doesn't it? What's the storyline in the new Harvest Moon game?
In Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar the town that you're in used to be really popular, thanks to it's once thriving market, but people moved away and it's now decrepit with no-one really shopping there any more. And as a new villager, you're tasked with regaining it's former glory. So you start fairly simple, selling your turnips and your strawberries and try to get more people to the Bazaar to buy your products. But the more you play, the more you farm and the better products you have – and after a while you should have some really desirable products that will entice more people to come, which in turn gets more money from people and grows the town.
Do you have any tips about how to make the most of the weekly Bazaar?
Yeah. Keep a lookout for the shoppers' reactions. Part of the challenge of the game is knowing what to sell certain people, and you can tell that by the speech bubbles above their heads – they kind of flash up to let you know if they're interested. Like if you've got a flower, a rock and a bun, and somebody wants a pie, and you don't have it on there, you loose that business and they'll become unhappy.
So in terms of animals, what do you have on your farm in Harvest Moon?
I like the sheep and the goats. You can't go wrong with sheep and goats.
A Little Bit Of Rune Factory...What is the relation between Rune Factory and Harvest Moon?
It's a spin-off. We're trying to get Rune Factory out there as a stand-alone series now. The first two games had a tag-line of 'A Fantasy Harvest Moon' on them. We've seen fairly good reactions to the Rune Factory series as a whole, and with the last one particularly, as the farming element has been reduced in favour of more of the role playing game elements. So although it is a related series, we're trying to move away from the whole connection – what we want to say is that Harvest Moon is your core, farming experience, but if you want a bit more action, then pick up Rune Factory.
For someone who's new to Harvest Moon and Rune Factory, how would you sum up the difference between the two in a quick snippet?
Harvest Moon for girls, and Rune Factory for boys. I wouldn't be surprised if it was split that way either, seeing as we know Harvest Moon has a bigger female audience, and we know boys tend to like to hack and slash and kill things, so that's the basic difference between them. I mean, Rune Factory is basically Harvest Moon with swords and monsters – it's more of a role playing game with farming elements.
Do you have any idea where the decision came from to spin of Harvest Moon into Rune Factory and add battles into it? Was it to expand the market, or what?
I think it was a bit of both. A bit to expand the market, and a bit to expand the series. I think that about five years or so ago, Harvest Moon was really in danger of being classed as a one trick pony. And there's so many other things we did – we did Innocent Life as a more futuristic role playing game, we did a match 3 puzzle game (Frantic Farming). I think the decision to do Rune Factory was after a look at the series as a whole and trying to work out what else they could do; how they could expand that whole series and give something different, but still related, to the series.
The folks at Rising Star also recently announced a twinning between the virtual world of Harvest Moon and Surrey Docks City Farm in London – which we paid a visit to, to see how it compares to the games. Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar and Rune Factory 3 are both out on the DS now – with the one's nifty bazaar addition and the other's funny characters, you can't really go wrong with either game.