Today Katamari Damacy is one of Bandai Namco’s most beloved series, but when its creator Keita Takahashi was trying to bring his quirky idea to life in the early 2000s, he encountered numerous pitfalls along the way, mostly in the form of bureaucratic red tape.
But he persevered and won, as author L. E. Hall describes in this excerpt from her new book Katamari Damacy from Boss Fight Books, available this week.
How does someone take an idea for a game from concept to reality? It’s easier said than done, especially in the hierarchical structure of a Japanese video game company.
Japanese business culture relies deeply on tradition and relationships, including loyalty to one’s team, boss, and the company itself. In many companies, employees who join directly after graduating can expect to retire from that same company 40 years later, although a study on video game developers in Japan revealed the average time spent in the game industry is closer to six or seven years.
Internally, Japanese company structures and customs are often highly regimented. The long-term relationship that an employee develops with a company also leads to strong bonds between managers and their employees, and among teammates.
Although their in-office interactions can appear formal and are often based on a “master-apprentice” model, this rigidity exists to achieve collective harmony: Everyone knows what to expect.
As long as employees grow their networks, avoid mistakes, and don’t rock the boat, their career growth over time is fairly predictable. This is especially important in a society where everything from romantic relationships to housing applications to a child’s grade school acceptance can be affected by one’s job and the corresponding status it affords them.
However, sometimes that requirement of loyalty results in tough times and unhealthy lifestyles for employees, including long workday hours simply for the sake of appearance or because a boss is still present on site.
Game developers in particular experience long periods of what’s known as “crunch,” in which teams work intensely for extended hours and on weekends in order to finish a product by a deadline—sometimes for months at a time, and at the cost of time spent on family, sleep, and general well-being.
Takahashi’s path through Namco was ordinary in some ways. For example, his departmental shuffling to find the best fit is a fairly standard practice for new employees at Japanese companies. Atypical, though, was his ambition to create a new kind of game, and his willingness to speak up and fight for his point of view rather than conform to the wishes of his superiors.
This is most evident in the fact that no clearly laid-out internal process within Namco existed to pitch a game design from the position Takahashi held or the department he was in.
“I talked with [Mitsutoshi] Ozaki-san, my boss, about how we should move this idea forward to an actual internal production,” Takahashi said. “Usually game ideas were proposed from the game design department at Namco, but we both worked in the art department. Also, technically Ozaki-san was not my actual boss at that time. He had moved to another department, so I had to talk to my current boss about my idea first—but he was not a manager of game designers, he was a manager of artists. He seemed to not have a bad impression of my idea, but he couldn’t make a decision about the game itself.”
Faced with that institutional obstacle, there seemed to be no clear path forward, but Takahashi pushed on anyway.
“It sucked, and I was stuck,” Takahashi said. “But Ozaki-san had suggested a very unusual method for moving forward to me. At that time, I think he worked in the ‘new business department’ where they explore new business models. And that department was going to establish a specialised school for making video games for Namco by collaborating with a school for learning computer graphics called Digital Hollywood.”
The Namco Digital Hollywood Game Lab was a six-month course designed to help developers learn skills necessary for creating games for the PlayStation 2. Instructors were selected from Namco’s development staff, and included people who had worked on titles such as Soulcalibur and Tekken.
Like the Konami education program that had produced Beatmania, Dance Dance Revolution, and GuitarFreaks, Namco’s hope was that their program would produce new and interesting work while funelling graduates into new hires, resulting in a reduction in the in-house training usually required of new recruits.
“Ozaki-san said that Masaya Nakamura, then president of Namco, was interested in being a school principal, and that is one of the big reasons for this business,” Takahashi said. “And this game class had a curriculum where they actually make a game.”
“But the students of this school [were] learn[ing] to be CG artists. So Ozaki-san needed a game idea that was easy to collaborate on with very junior artists, and my idea was selected. Ozaki-san thought the students could make objects that a katamari can roll up.”
The plan for the class was to produce a prototype game, and if that went well, to create a fully-fleshed out product.
Takahashi recognised that this was a high-risk project. “But I felt that it was so much better than joining boring other projects,” Takahashi said. “So I decided to join this project as game designer.”
Work on the prototype for Katamari Damacy went forward as planned, with Digital Hollywood staff members and contributors pulled from wherever the team could get them.
“The students of Digital Hollywood worked on the modelling,” Takahashi said. “Fortunately, we [got] a lead visual designer from Namco, but we had to find engineers who could work with us. Almost all departments at Namco declined to provide their engineers to us because our project was very unclear and they were very busy developing their games.”
“And then it turned out that a department that makes arcade games was going to lay off some mechanical engineers, and it sounded like some of them had coding experience. So we asked them: Get fired or code our project? And then they chose to work with us.”
The prototype came together quickly, encouraged by upcoming deadlines and technological constraints. The team was made up of Takahashi, three Namco programmers, three visual designers, and ten to twelve vocational college students.
The development of the prototype was speedy, lasting less than six months.
“One of the goals was to exhibit a Katamari prototype at Japan Media Arts Festival,” Takahashi said. “Of course, the biggest goal was to make this project into an actual commercial product.”
Picking the right development platform was the next challenge for the small team.
At that time in the early 2000s, Sony, Sega, Nintendo, and Microsoft were all deep underway in developing the next generation of consoles. The industry was transitioning from 2D computer graphics to 3D, which included better texture mapping, lighting, and shading; shifting from chunky ROM cartridges to CD-ROM discs; and introducing overall better audio, video, colour, and resolution.
The PlayStation, which used discs, dominated the scene, having become the first home console to sell 100 million units globally. Its rival Nintendo 64, which had stuck to the cartridge format and suffered delays in its initial release, held a distant second place at close to 33 million lifetime sales, boasting a number of popular first party titles but failing to attract as many third party developers.
The Nintendo 64 had nevertheless “truly brought developers into the era of 3D,” said Nintendo president Shigeru Miyamoto in a 2000 interview. The technology of the N64 allowed them to work in “real 3D” as opposed to the “pseudo-3D” of the PlayStation, in which developers had to write their own code to bring 3D objects to the screen and didn’t have the ability to easily display textures in the correct perspective.
However, it had been tough for game-makers to develop for the Nintendo 64 because of difficulties with using its hardware and delays in Nintendo’s release of development software libraries.
With this in mind, the next Nintendo console, the GameCube, was designed from the beginning to be developer-friendly, with new architecture and a more powerful system. “We thought about the developers as our main customers,” said GameCube chip developer ArtX’s Greg Buchner in a 2001 interview with the Gaming Intelligence Agency.
As the GameCube was being developed, Sony was working on the PlayStation 2 (PS2). They released specs for the console, which introduced its new CPU (central processing unit), the “Emotion Engine.”
As with all consoles at the time, the PS2 CPU was designed for a specific task—in this case running 3D games—as opposed to consoles today, which use operating systems and perform a variety of tasks, and must therefore be more flexible in their processing capabilities.
But the PS2 documentation and development libraries were outdated, and Sony didn’t provide a development kit or software tools to make the process of creating games easier for potential developers. Instead the company assumed that the developer would just figure out the new hardware, perhaps hoping that the resulting games would be better for having overcome the struggle.
Although it’s since gone down in history as the best-selling console of all time, the PS2 maintained a reputation of being extremely difficult to develop for.
Between Nintendo’s developer-friendly outreach and the released specs for the PS2 indicating it would be a difficult path for even experienced game developers, the choice was clear to the Katamari team: Even though they wanted to release the game on the PS2, they needed to use the GameCube platform to develop the prototype.
“Our engineer didn’t have much expertise, and neither did I, and the schedule was tight,” Takahashi said. “So for these reasons we picked the Nintendo GameCube platform for prototyping. I wanted to use the PS2 controller though.”
Once the game prototype was in progress and the choice of development console locked down, the team needed to figure out how to actually make the game, given their relative lack of experience.
“I had been working as director of this prototyped project even though I didn’t have any experience as a designer or director,” Takahashi said. “Of course Ozaki-san helped me a lot, but basically he trusted me.” Ozaki believed in Takahashi’s vision enough that he signed on to personally work on the game as a UI Artist.
Takahashi’s role as director stretched his imagination and forced him to develop new skill sets.
“This is a very obvious thing, but I had to think up everything about the game,” he said. “The music was one of the [more] important things, and we had tried to make a music system that interacts with the size of the katamari for this prototype. That means, the music gets richer as the katamari is getting bigger – and we actually made it. But it felt like there were many restrictions to making an interactive music system, and it made the composing very hard.”
Takahashi identified two problems with the interactive music system. First, the music was very basic at the start of the game, which makes it noticeable when it becomes more complex as the katamari grows. But once the tunes hit a certain level of saturation, it was difficult to recognise differences in the music. Second, a technical issue prevented the implementation some of Takahashi’s original game design ideas, which also affected the music.
Part of Katamari’s gameplay involves ramming the katamari into objects or parts of the environment, which can sometimes knock pieces off of the current ball, reducing its overall size. “I hoped making the katamari [shrink] by failing would also be kinda fun,” Takahashi said. In his original plan, as the katamari got smaller, the music would also return to its more simple form.
According to a 2015 interview with the entertainment website Games Radar, Takahashi wanted hundreds of items in each of the gameplay areas, which “meant each object had to have the lowest possible polygon count so as to not overload PS2’s limited system memory. The team looked for things that were simple in shape and that had some heft to them, but that wouldn’t look awful without anti-aliasing.”
But even at these low polygon counts, the memory capacity of the PS2 simply wasn’t large enough to store every single item that the katamari had rolled up since the start of the level, making it impossible to shrink the katamari beyond a certain size.
This technical problem would turn out to be an unexpected boon to the quality of the gameplay. “Almost all the players didn’t feel that [becoming] small again was fun,” Takahashi said.
“That meant the music would just be rich and gorgeous intentionally, and we wouldn’t make it interactive. So we changed the plan of music from this interactive idea to [the now-]familiar music direction.”
The team completed the prototype, and Takahashi reported that internal satisfaction with the product was high. Excitement over the project continued to grow.
“The students of Digital Hollywood were happy with what they made, and we exhibited [the prototype] at the Japan Media Arts Festival,” he said. “I think it went very well. And we did a presentation internally. Many employees of Namco came and played Katamari, and they liked it. Also Ozaki-san had some meetings with executives.”
The prototype had done its job. Katamari Damacy would become a larger game, to be released by Namco for the PlayStation 2.