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Focus On: Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi

With Namco's We Love Katamari finally set to bring the Katamary Damacy cult phenomenon to Europe in the coming months, we caught up with the creative mind behind the series, Keita Takahashi, to hear more about his outlook on videogames.

When Keita Takahashi sat down to create a game, he created something genuinely different. He threw out the conventions of existing videogame genres, devised a simple, fun concept and built upon it in an inspired manner to create one of the biggest cult hits in the history of videogames, Katamari Damacy.

Equally, when Keita Takahashi stood up to deliver a keynote at this year's GDCE, he said something genuinely different. The conventions of the average development conference keynote went out the window. Instead, Takahashi led the audience on a refreshingly - and sometimes startlingly - honest trip through the reasons for the creation of a sequel to Katamari Damacy, the creative process for both games, and his thoughts on the place of videogames in people's lives.

He doodled on the projector screen throughout, his fertile imagination clearly not resting for a moment, but while his speech was laced with playful humour, Takahashi is clearly a man not content with the situation in the videogames industry at the moment.

Takahashi never wanted to make a sequel for Katamari Damacy. Like many critics, he views the proliferation of lengthy franchises and endless sequels as a major sticking point for creativity within the industry - although he acknowledges that there is certainly a market for those games, it's not one which will ever attract new players or lapsed gamers, a category into which he somewhat surprisingly places himself.

Indeed, while We Love Katamari - the sequel title which will be appearing in Europe in the coming months - is one of the most creative sequels we've ever seen, Takahashi openly apologised to the audience at GDCE for making it. "There's a lot of reasons why I decided to make a sequel, but they're probably going to sound like excuses so I won't bother you with them," he said.

"I'm not sure that someone who doesn't have the courage to stand by his convictions should be standing up here to give you your keynote today," he continued... Before grinning and adding, "but I kind of wanted to see what England is like. And it's nice!"

That's Takahashi in a nutshell; a man who is clearly thinking deeply about the future of the gaming medium, the need for innovation and creativity and the changing perceptions of how games fit into the lives of ordinary people, but equally a man who doesn't take any of it seriously enough to be considered out of touch or up himself.

"Games can be as stupid as they like as long as they're fun," he explained, but then went on to question his own assumption. "I'm well aware that a little bit of superflousness and silliness is essential for life, but I have two quite serious questions on my mind. One is whether it's okay to go on making games that are completely superfluous and meaningless forever."

"The other question, which almost faces in the other direction, is that because games are essentially meaningless, don't they need to be stimulating and embrace this meaninglessness in a punk rock style to remain entertaining?"

For Takahashi, that's perhaps the core of the creative quandary which he and other game creators face - and he even finds himself questioning the need for videogames in the first place.

"I also think that everyday life is full of many fun and stimulating things," he mused. "The feeling of just riding a bicycle or the sensation of sand on bare feet when you walk along a beach. The next one's a bit embarrassing, but the happy feeling you get when you just decide to skip, or the increase in heartbeat when you decide to stop in the middle of a road crossing."

"You couldn't really say that they're punk rock things," he said with a grin, "but all of them are stimulating, and all of them help to make you realise that everyday life can be quite fun as well. Things like these have ended up making me think that you don't necessarily need games to have fun, and you possibly don't even need games at all."

"But then I also end up getting frustrated and a bit sad that it's so hard to communicate these same sensations in a game. I know it's impossible to actually do this, to make these sensations come across in a game, but no matter what I do I end up thinking about it and getting sad. So I end up a bit messed up in the head, thinking about all these things."

Next-generation hardware isn't the answer to the problems either, according to Takahashi.

"People are all very excited at the moment about a new gen of hardware, but for myself I think it's all beside the point," he said. "Time will pass and next-gen machines will soon be next-gen machines no longer. The question is not what can it do, but what are people going to do with it?"

"In the end, the important thing is not the hardware but the software. Not the box that runs a program, but the thoughts and feelings of the person who puts that program in in the first place."

"The new hardware all goes on sale sometime around the end of the year, and I have to think as a developer what I am going to do with it - but at the same time I have to worry about how I'm going to interact with games that have an almost unnecessary level of complexity. It looks like my days of failing to answer to my own frustrating questions are set to continue."

Perhaps Takahashi's most damning comment of all, however, came after the end of his speech - which he concluded by apologising once again to the audience. "I'm sorry," he said, "I wanted to make you laugh a bit more, but it all got a bit serious."

One solitary hand raised to ask a question.

"Why don't you play any games any more?"

Takahashi paused for a second, then answered firmly; "Because there aren't any fun enough games to play."

We caught up with Keita Takahashi after his keynote to explore some of the points he had made in more detail, and find out why the man who has created one of the most enjoyable games of the last few years believes that the rest of the industry is failing in its mission to create enjoyment for the public at large. First of all, can you tell us a little about your career before you created Katamari Damacy?

Keita Takahashi: I was in a group which was involved in producing experimental titles, and I was involved in a couple of them as a CG designer. However, unfortunately the company did not continue with that.

You've previously said that it took three years to bring Katamari Damacy from being an early concept to being released; how many people were actually working on it during that time? Was the game a fairly major investment for Namco?

Well, the three year figure doesn't just include the time it took to make the product - it also includes the prototype I made to show to the Namco management that the game works, that it really worked. It took about six months to build a playable code prototype to show them that, to demonstrate my belief that this would provide a fun game.

The company did have the faith to allow you to spend six months working on a prototype, though? Many publishers wouldn't let their staff do that...

Firstly, what happened was that the concept, the idea that I had wasn't approved. At that stage I involved a college called Digital Hollywood, and set a lesson for them where they created CG images for Katamari, so that we could make a prototype to show to Namco. That's how it got started!

Even with that prototype, was it difficult to sell this idea to the Namco management - or did they understand as soon as they actually saw the game being played?

Actually, they thought about it for three or four months, after I showed them the prototype. It's been a long process.

Looking a little more at the game itself; one of the key factors in both Katamari Damacy and We Love Katamari is the music, which is extremely unique and unusual. How did you go about sourcing an original soundtrack to fit with the whimsical motif of the game?

It wasn't really difficult, because the sound staff really understood - they understood exactly how I wanted the in-game music to be in Katamari. They wanted to avoid the stereotype of game music, too - so it worked quite well. I didn't have to try and persuade them or anything like that.

Then for the second game, you signed up a few quite well-known Japanese recording artists...

Actually, the team tried to ask for more, much bigger name artists! But that's what we got, and it was really interesting to work with them in collaboration, actually.

The game is very stylised and cartoonish - do you think that allowed you to do things that you wouldn't have got away with if your graphics were more realistic, like the levels where you rampage through a school?

Yes, absolutely. I think that was the point!

You stood in front of a room of game developers at GDCE and - rather bravely - said that you don't really play many games any more because none of them are fun enough to be worth the time. What games have you actually played recently, and what made those fun enough to be worth the time?

Wow... I think I'd have to go back quite a long way! Mmm... I suppose Zelda: Wind Waker, the Zelda series, and the Mario series, I've played everything in both of those.

The fun element in both of those... Well, I can kind of see what's going to happen in them. I guess there's a theme to them, and I could see that already before I played the game. There were no real surprises in the games.

So you'd still describe yourself as a fan of Nintendo's games, at least to some extent?

In a way, yes, I'm a Nintendo fan... However, they don't surprise me. Their games are very well made, and it's really difficult to achieve that level of quality so I do admire them. But there's no surprise there. Everything they do has all been done before, it's all been in the series beforehand.

What do you think of the Nintendo DS? You've expressed concern about the next-generation consoles being very expensive to develop for and possibly demanding too much detail; the DS seems to be a step in the other direction, with an innovative control system and low cost of development. Is it something you're interested in working on?

I think it's something that could be possible, yes, but my feeling is that the touch screen on the DS... It's just not exciting enough. I feel that there's still something missing from that.

The obvious question, then - given that there's not a lot in the games industry which appeals to you, or which you find exciting or surprising - is whether there's anything out there which you think is going the right direction? Is there anything you've seen recently which has really grabbed you and made you excited and interested?

Hmmm.... [long pause] Not really. Maybe it's just that I haven't seen many new things, so I've not seen anything that catches my attention... But no, not really!

Do you think that the problem lies with a failure to take creative risks on the part of many game publishers? Does the games industry need to address that issue before it can start to interest people who have moved away from gaming, or don't have any interest in it in the first place?

Absolutely. Of course. Even saying that, though, with Katamari Damacy it was more the sales division which was saying, "we think this is going to sell" - not the development side. I think that the development teams, the people and the studios, also need to... Hmm, not change as such, but evolve, I guess. That would be a major step forward for the games industry.

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.