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Katsuhiro Harada is synonymous with Bandai Namco’s long-running Tekken franchise, serving as producer and director (and voice actor!) at various intervals throughout the series’ 23-year history. As one of the last-remaining giants of the Japanese 3D fighting game scene, along with Street Fighter (and to a lesser extent Dead or Alive and King of Fighters), Tekken is now nearing its seventh official entry into the series.
With the fighting game scene reaching new heights in popularity thanks to highly publicized tournaments like Evo, we caught up with Harada and senior game designer Michael Murray at Bandai Namco’s headquarters during Tokyo Game Show to discuss the fighter’s continuing adaptability in the streaming era of gaming.
GamesBeat: How has the esport scene impacted Tekken’s development? What’s different now?
Katsuhiro Harada: Before there was esports, there were always tournaments and these kind of fighting games, especially Tekken. And since the game itself was developed with arcade in mind —even from the early days of arcade, there was a switch that only the operators could access —you could turn on an event mode that would make it more suitable to tournaments. So that kind of influence has always been there before esports boom. But e-sports has enabled the visibility of online personalities, and the console version allows for the tournaments and practice, and for users to be able to set up their own qualifiers, I guess you would say, over great distances.
Michael Murray: And even now for the arcade version of Tekken 7, we have online play and tournaments between arcades in different locations.
GamesBeat: Oh, you mean linked play over high-speed connections in arcades?
Murray: Yeah, not just on the console but for the arcade itself. Tekken is actually the first title that can do that. I could be [at an arcade] in Kyoto and you could be [at an arcade] in Tokyo and we could match up.
GamesBeat: Because of the fast networks?
Murray: Right. And, people will stream that. And, they can have matches and all kinds of things. And that fans the excitement of the esports as well. The Event mode was designed in the arcade and console to make it easier for people to create tournaments, etc. It hasn’t made it easier to run it on our side, but it’s easier for the player to enjoy.
Harada: Also, the implementation of Critical Arts —when the characters are ready to use a Rage Art— there are different ways to use it. Normally, they just give you advantage in terms of power or for attacks, but for Tekken 7 you have different choices. For example, one of them is Critical Arts where you lose a rage status. But, you can do this series of powerful techniques that’s very cinematic where the camera moves around; you can really power through your opponent, which is not only fun to control, but to watch, as well. People can see the tide of the match change when they see someone pull out their Critical Arts functions.
GamesBeat: Since the fighting scene has expanded to a wide mainstream audience with tournaments like EVO broadcasting livestreams, it exponentially increases the reach to millions of people. I’m sure this may come down to normal play-balancing issues, but have you seen any emergent play styles that have affected the way you design certain characters or balance them?
Murray: Not so much. Because unlike a lot of games that are out there, Tekken has been out in arcades for so many years that we would go to the arcades and watch people play. Whereas with console games, you can’t just walk into people’s homes and watch them play.
With arcades we always had opportunities to watch people play. We haven’t seen much of a change in the way people play the arcades and at EVO, but we did see that when people started playing on the big stage, like at SBO [Super Battle Opera] in Tokyo. It’s kind of like the EVO for Japan. When we started watching people play at SBO, we saw that the tension gets to the players and they mess up commands that they normally wouldn’t. So the team does try to alleviate that. If we notice someone made a weird jump that they weren’t intending to do, it was probably because the command was similar to something else that they were trying to do. So we might change the control mapping to eliminate those types of mistakes.
GamesBeat: It’s not that the emergence of the scene has imposed itself on the design of Tekken itself. You just lead the horse to water and they drink, so to speak, right.
GamesBeat: And you have the arcade to test things.
Murray: Yeah, and now there’s YouTube to reference, as well. Now we don’t have to go to the arcade as much because we can just watch posts on YouTube.
GamesBeat: Right. It feels like the big 3D fighting games remaining are Street Fighter and Tekken. Virtua Fighter is around anymore, and the Dead Or Alive rivalry hasn’t really been a thing for a while now. How do you feel about the lack of rivals? Street Fighter and Tekken aren’t really rivals, so the competition in the scene seems less intense now.
Murray: It’s interesting you didn’t mention Mortal Kombat, though.
GamesBeat: Well, I’m just referencing Japanese games since we’re in Japan for the Tokyo Game Show.
Harada: In the very beginning, Tekken wasn’t even considered a proper fighting game, and while we were trying to figure out how to be acknowledged in the genre, we saw the established fighting games kind of disappear. Even Street Fighter was out of the market for 10 years between SF3 and SF4, and we didn’t see Virtua Fighter for a while, and even our company stopped making Soul Calibur for the arcade. So, there was a long period during the arcade era where Tekken was alone on the market.
So the market was really empty right when we had just started getting into it. I agree to a certain extent, and there aren’t as many fighting games now as compared to the peak of the ’90s. Tekken has shipped more units than any other game as a series throughout the franchise, but that’s because we’ve been continuing to updating our arcade and console games.
But now Mortal Kombat’s doing really well on the console, Killer Instinct is back on the market, and Arc System Works has released IPs like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue. So, when I think of those days when we didn’t see any other fighting games, I’m happy now that there’s still some competition.
GamesBeat: There was a real low point where everyone in Japan was trying to make social games and resources were being taken away from core game development. How has the Tekken team managed to withstand that trend and keep the series alive?
Harada: Our company is no exception to those trends where many companies were shifting resources to developing SNS and mobile titles. We did Tekken Revolution for the PS3, which was a free-to-play title. That’s not something that I really wanted to do, but the vice president at the time pushed for it, and the general feeling within the company was that we had to shift over to different platforms. Tekken Revolution saw a certain success there, but I think the reason why Tekken is still around is because we have the arcade business in Japan, and we were able to make a strong base game and test it thoroughly because it costs 100 yen ($1) per play. If the game sucks, nobody’s going to continue to put coins in, so it’s a proving ground for the quality of the game, allowing us to make a strong game.
I know that the Western users were quite frustrated that they had to wait for the game to be available on the console, but because we were able to commit to the arcade, get it approved internally, and generate a certain amount of revenue, that’s the reason we were able to make the console version of Tekken 7. If we didn’t have the arcade version first, we wouldn’t have been able to continue the series past Tekken 5. That said, I realize that circumstances change year-to-year for the arcade and the balance between regions changes, etc. so committing to arcades is not always going to be the right choice, but it’s quite possible that without the arcade versions of the games coming first, people would now only have fond memories of Tekken and be wondering what happened to the series like some of the other fighting games.
GamesBeat: So if for whatever sociological reason the Japanese arcade business phased out, Tekken would survive, but it would change the developmental experience. You would change how you would test the game?
Harada: That’s precisely our challenge right now. It’s something we have to consider. Tekken Revolution for PS3 was a learning experience for us because Tekken has always been an arcade game, being an arcade game affects every element of the game. From the length of time we expect the player to play, how much satisfaction is netted from a one-time experience, the pacing, the focus of the game, depth of a story line, etc. All these things are dictated by the game being an arcade game. But somewhere around developing Revolution and Tekken 7, we’ve changed the philosophy and balance of where you add the value to the game and matching it to people’s expectations. We’ve put a lot more focus on player content and features that benefit the audience of e-sports, rather than just the average arcade consumer and the game just being a port of an arcade game.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you mention that because Bandai Namco, or originally just Namco, has always been the best at transitioning its arcade titles to home console releases. And by that I mean, arcades are designed to be quarter-crunchers, right? They’re designed to get you to put money in the machine, but Namco has been the best at bringing these home because you added minigames, you added these other modes. Whereas companies like Sega basically did a straight port of the 15-minute arcade game, while adding a Practice mode, and then charge $50-$60 for it. Bandai Namco has created much richer home products. But even so, the Tekken series has moved away from the gimmicky minigames like Tekken Ball. How do you see it evolving now?
Harada: Well, the Wii U version of Tekken Tag Tournament has a Mushroom mode as an homage to Mario, and we’ve added content that we think the consumer would find funny, and like our other games, half of the ending movies are kind of nonsense. So, we don’t feel like we’re losing the humor or taking the fun out of the game. But, one thing that has changed from a couple decades ago, and the same can be said for Japan and the US, is that the game industry used to evolve around what the developers came up with, and those bonus contents were included not as a marketing point, but because the developers, like myself, thought it was fun and we’d just throw it into the game.
Now, the game industry is a huge business, both in Japan and U.S., so now there’s a business model that we adhere to. When an industry becomes a business, it’s run by smart businessmen, which to a certain extent is a good thing because it can measure risk and manage resources. Businessmen are the center of the video game industry. The same can be said about the U.S. Publishers are the center of the business and they have a lot of power in what goes into the game. Then, the question becomes how do we convert these services to profit or help the bottomline? Any content that can’t be measured for its value gets thrown out. So, we have to either give it value or throw it out. So, we either add it as a marketing point as added value or sell it as an added service for a fee. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it helps maintain a thriving industry but because the marketing department has a stronger say in how the game is sold and what should be in the game during the development. That’s one reason why you might get the impression that games have changed. Some people might hear this as a negative view, but really the reason why we have a thriving industry is because games are developed based on marketing research and input. So, it’s not all bad or good, it’s just a consequence of the change within the industry.
GamesBeat: Why did you choose to include Akuma in Tekken 7? Was it a continuation of the relationship between Street Fighter and Tekken?
Harada: The idea was there from quite a few years ago, maybe seven years ago, when we first started talking to Capcom about collaboration. I thought that it would be interesting if we could take their characters and not only implement them in the game, but some kind of crossover, for example the game setting. Maybe not the entire setting but a small part. But, even more so when you’re making fighting games for such a long time, the fans expect the same thing with each installment, while the creators have an image of the game that they want to preserve and continue to improve, so it’s hard to break away from the formula that you have already established.
Akuma was an attempt at doing something drastically different from the regular formula that the creators and the fans would expect, and to break that form. But this was something necessary to make the game more interesting and also to gain a wider interest from outside the core fans or even just the fighting genre fan base. That was the main reason for adding Akuma.
GamesBeat: Did you choose Akuma because he was another older man like Heihachi? Like a oji-san (Japanese for “old man”) battle?
Harada: That was actually a coincidence. When we thought about which character would match the Tekken world, Akuma was the obvious choice. Obviously, if you want to portray one of their more iconic fighters in a pure martial arts match, Ryu or Ken would be great choice. But when you think of the Mishima family, the whole story in Tekken and the way that Akuma speaks, his background, those aspects of him fit the Tekken storyline a lot better. We found this later on but apparently Heihachi and Kuma were born around the same year.
GamesBeat: You mean the lore was coincidental?
Harada: Yeah. We didn’t plan that.
GamesBeat: Did you do anything special to commemorate the 20th Anniversary?
Harada: The release of Tekken 7 in the arcade was the celebration, actually. And we held a big King of Iron Fist Tournament towards the end of the year to send it off in Japan. We had different qualifiers from Tokyo, Osaka, and winners from EVO and also from Paris brought to Japan for this big showdown. That’s where we first showed Akuma coming to Tekken 7, actually. He was already in the arcade but he came with the update patch, Fated Retribution. That was the first time we showed him and everything exploded, everyone went crazy.