Interview: Natsume’s Vice President of Operations Graham Markay

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When most videogame enthusiasts hear about Natsume, they think one thing: Harvest Moon. The farming franchise is certainly one of the company’s biggest titles, but over the years they have also published the successful Reel Fishing series and even quirkier fare such as Chulip for the Playstation 2, a game about boosting your reputation as a good kisser before landing the girl of your dreams, and the photography game Afrika for the Playstation 3.

These days, though, it seems like every week or two another videogame company is hit by layoffs. All it takes is one poorly-received game to disrupt the entire operation. So what helps keep smaller publishers like Natsume churning? Nerd Mentality had the opportunity to sit down with Graham Markay, Natsume’s Vice President of Operations, to discuss how the company has dealt with the changing economic times and their upcoming line-up of games, which includes a re-imagining of Lufia II and their new IP Gabrielle’s Ghostly Groove.

We also discuss Harvest Moon and the rise of Farmville, the Nintendo 3DS and Playstation Move/Microsoft Kinect, and we find out if Harvest Moon 64 is ever going to hit the Wii’s Virtual Console.

Nerd Mentality: You mentioned to me that you guys were kind of “riding out the storm,” financially I took it…

Graham Markay: No, no, not in terms of us financially, but in terms of the industry as a whole. Financially Natsume is extremely sound. We’re not a publicly traded company, you know, we’re privately owned, so that’s nice too so we don’t have to make shareholders happy. Our focus is to make consumers happy, and it’s always been that way. Natsume’s key philosophy, by our President Yasuhiro Maekawa, has always been A.) to make everyone happy. And it sounds kind of, you know, ah that sounds kind of farfetched but it’s pretty simplistic. Make everyone happy: make the vendors that we deal with happy, make the retailers happy, make the consumers happy, and then everything kind of trickles down.

And in doing so, you know, we’re smart, we understand what’s going on with the economy right now, so we have three well-known franchises: Harvest MoonRune Factory, and Lufia. Those have been around for years, they’re established, consumers know ’em, retailers know ’em, so that’s kind of a smart move. Gabrielle’s Ghostly Groove, new IP, we’re trying to get something in there in regards to that. But you don’t see us coming out with, you know, 10-12 titles. Instead we’re trying to pick and choose and ride out this economic situation. And basically it boils down to: consumers aren’t spending money, retailers don’t want to buy a hundred different titles; instead they want to buy the sort of for-sure things. And then once money starts flowing into stores they obviously want to start getting more selection, and then it makes it easier for niche titles, regardless of which company’s doing them, to get them in there. So that’s what I was talking about in terms of riding out the storm.

So then it seems like you guys have adapted pretty well. Is it just a matter of picking and choosing the right kinds of franchises that will make money at the time?

GM: Exactly. Well, once again going back to our president’s philosophy: we do what we can do and what we can do best, and at the same time, we outsource other things, like packaging that you might see on a Harvest Moon game. We don’t do that internally. We give direction, kind of lay out that stuff, but the guts of the manual is outsourced to our design company [99 Lives] that we’ve been working with for 15 years.

Bottom line: we try to stay small with people that can do a lot of different jobs so we can always ride out whatever situation we’re in. With a lot of other companies, in good economic times they build up, and when things go bad: layoffs. We avoid that by finding people that are good at what they do, we make good connections, we find people that understand us and we understand them, and we keep these long-term relationships going.

You guys work with Marvelous Entertainment, and recently they announced that they halted the development of new ip’s for the time being.

GM: Right, I read that article as well.

Yeah, because they did not want to risk going under. They worked with Cing on Little King’s Story, which didn’t perform as well as they hoped, which led to Cing going out of business, and Marvelous did not want to risk doing that. So my question is generally: what is it like for smaller publishers and developers like you guys to get into new ip’s at this time?

GM: At this time it is extremely difficult. You know, Little King’s Story was probably in development for quite a while during different economic times, so it’s just… rotten timing. Because the game was good, it was innovative. The staff that they had working on that game had decades of experience and solid games. I just think, unfortunately in that situation, that a lot had to do with timing: finishing up at a time when the world economies are just bad and everyone’s in a recession.

I’m sure you know that the videogame industry back in, what, 2008? Everyone else was getting hit, and with the whole “staycation” thing the videogame industry was doing fairly well because gas prices were high, people didn’t want to travel, but I’ll buy my son a game or two games. So, you know, we didn’t truly feel that recession until late 2008 or 2009. I think it’s just rotten timing.

For us, you always gotta look farther ahead and you try to do the best that you can. You try to latch onto an idea or a concept that you think is going to be good, that’s going to work as a videogame, try to keep costs down, and you try to get it out as quickly as possible. Or at times you kind of hold it and hope that things get better.

I noticed that all your upcoming games are on the Nintendo DS.

GM: Yes.

Is there a deliberate move towards the DS or handheld titles as opposed to console titles?

GM: Not at all. We definitely represent Sony and Nintendo equally. It just so happens that I released my last PSP game, Harvest Moon: Hero of Leaf Valley, before E3, so there was really no point in showing it because it’s readily available. So these four games here are the games we’re kind of finishing out our year with. I had four other games, Gabrielle’s Ghostly Groove: Spooktacular Edition which is WiiWare. Unfortunately it’s not ready to be seen, but it’s coming out later this year, and the other three are two Virtual Console games and another WiiWare game but all three of them just released. Definitely, we like PSP and we like PS3; we had our first PS3 title last year, and it’s not our last PS3 title.

Afrika, right?

GM: Afrika, yup.

Speaking of your new IP Gabrielle’s Ghostly Groove, was it difficult to greenlight an original game at this time?

GM: Yes and no, meaning that we know introducing new IPs [is hard], but we really liked the design, the character. She seems really marketable; we liked who she’s aimed at in terms of the growing percentages of the DS fanbase. Obviously the DS is predominantly more female. What did they [Nintendo] say, 54% at their press conference? 55%? So it’s not specifically for females only, but, you know, 55% of DS owners are female and they skew younger so this kind of aims at them. We’ve been trying this lately with Princess Debut and, now, Gabrielle’s Ghostly Groove.

Would you say they’ve been pretty successful for you guys?

GM: Well we weren’t disappointed. You could always want more and hope that it’s better. We’re here to make money, but we’re not here to make a ton of it and be done with it. As long as the title does what it needs to do, we’re more concerned with trying to get the IP out there and getting people excited about it and going from there.

We have some huge fans of Harvest Moon 64 on our website, and we are wondering if it will ever come out on Virtual Console?

GM: It will not. It will not. And it’s not from lack of trying. Unfortunately, the code of the game is not… it’s not an easy transfer. It would be really time-consuming and long, and we’ve looked into it, and we’ve tried to see if there’s any way around certain things, but the conversion to virtual console, it’s just… I shouldn’t say it’s never going to come out, but there’s just a really, really, very small chance that it would ever come out. Which is unfortunate because we know that for a lot of dedicated, die-hard fans, that’s their favorite.

So it’s only the technical issues holding it back?

GM: Oh yeah. Just the technical issue.

You guys have been publishing Harvest Moon for years and years, and all of a sudden Farmville on Facebook just explodes. Have you seen any crossover or have you been influenced at all by what’s happening online?

GM: It would be fantastic to say yes but, you know, you’re really looking at two different demographics. I’m sure that there’s some crossover, but you’re looking at someone who has easy access to a computer opposed to actually having a hardware necessary to play Harvest Moon, like a DS or Wii. You’re also looking at a game that’s free, technically free until you want to move forward in that. Obviously you can see a lot of similarities between the two, but it’s cool that they’re having success with Farmville.

It’s just interesting because last time we talked you mentioned how difficult it was to bring Harvest Moon over to America. No publisher wanted to deal with it because it’s farming and no one wants to do it…

GM: … It’s funny ten years later how things have changed. More than ten years. What was it… 1997, so 13 years ago. Hiro [Natsume President Maekawa] had the hardest time trying to sell this good-natured farming game and everyone said “No one wants to farm, no one wants to farm.” 13 years later, I don’t know the statistics for Farmville but what, 71 million or something like that? [Edit: As of publication Farmville has hit 81 million users]. So I guess people do want to farm. And the Harvest Moon series has been around for 13 years and it’s been on a variety of different platforms and it continues to grow in fanbase. Our dedicated fans grow older in age and hopefully we get younger ones.

Do you think there are possibilities in the future for more social aspects to Harvest Moon or more online capabilities or things of that nature?

GM: You know that’s always something we’re looking into. Nothing’s been concrete or finalized but we’re always looking around and saying, “how can you make a game better?” A lot of thought and time has always gone into the Harvest Moon series so it’s not just like, “‘Let’s add ten more crops or an exotic animal’ and there it is: Harvest Moon 58.” Grand Bazaar is a good example. It does have a social aspect to it, locally and wi-fi. You can actually go over and help your neighbor or your friend take care of their crops. So it’s got a little bit of the social aspect. Sometimes it’s a little hard if you really look at Harvest Moon. Things would have to be thought out, but it’s always been that solo game. I mean, you’re always going and trying to woo that particular girl or guy that you want, so trying to work in social aspects and different players so that everyone is actually having a good time is a little bit of a challenge, but it’s always one the forefront of how to make the series better.

What are your thoughts on the 3DS?

GM: It looks exciting. I mean, from everybody’s aspect whether it’s television manufacturers, Sony, Nintendo, it seems like 3D is the next thing. Speaking for myself and the company, yeah, it’s exciting. Speaking for myself personally, I wear glasses. So putting glasses on top of glasses is always a bit… when I take my kids to see a 3D movie, they enjoy it a little bit more than me because I always tend to not see it as well as they do because of the glasses. But it’s exciting; we are a supporter of the 3DS.

You said you don’t enjoy 3D as much because of your glasses, so you must be a fan of the fact that there are no glasses necessary.

GM: Right, that is pretty cool, and the fact that you can adjust the sensitivity and whatnot so you can knock down to 2D or you can kind of adjust it,� because everyone’s eyes are a little different or the way you hold it or the way you move it.

What about the Move and Kinect?

GM: The Move could definitely work well with another one of our franchises that’s been around a long time in Reel Fishing. So when you think of anything that moves, fishing seems like it goes hand in hand [with Move], and something like baseball and things of that nature. So we’re definitely looking into the Move.

So you’d say Reel Fishing is a possibility for the Move?

GM: Well, I’m just saying that Reel Fishing would fit with the Move. You know, would a Harvest Moon game fit with the Move? It would really depend on how it’s done. I mean, if you have 56 crops do you really want to do this 56 times? [Makes hand movements for planting and pulling crops]. But with fishing, you cast out, it’s not a lot of exertion. It’s mild exertion, which is what I think makes fun games. If you have a lot of exertion, then it’s up to the development team to get creative so you’re not winded or tired after half an hour of gameplay.

And with Kinect? Do you work with Microsoft at all?

GM: No, as of yet we have not released any Xbox or Xbox 360 games, but, you know, there’s no company stance like we don’t want to work with them. We’re just looking for the right fit. You know, their demographic, Sony’s demographic, Nintendo’s demographic, they’re all a little bit different, so we’re always looking to see if we can get a franchise that works with the hardcore Xbox 360 user. Me myself, I play it, but from a company standpoint we’re just looking to see what fits and how it fits.

You mentioned Reel Fishing; what’s going on with Legend of the River King? Anything?

GM: As of right now there’s no… no new… information in regards to a release of River King or Legend of the River King.

You guys have the Lufia revamp…

GM: Yup, re-imagining. Because it’s not a port…


GM: … It would be unfair to call it, you know, like it’s just like the SNES version.

Right, but it has the same story and the same characters?

GM: No, the story’s a little bit different. Characters are similar and story, but it’s different. It’s not just the same text that you would see in Lufia II for the SNES.

Right, the dialogue is completely new.

GM: That’s right. And we know that there are die-hard fans and that they’re watching what we do, so we’re actually spending a lot of time on the VO as well as the script itself to make sure that we hold true, but at the same time try to bring in new Lufia fans and introduce them to the series.

Originally, Square-Enix was the publisher in Japan…

GM: Yeah, in Japan. It’s a Square-Enix title.

… So, is there a reason they didn’t want to bring it over here [Stateside]? How did you guys get involved?

GM: Truthfully, you’d probably have to ask Square-Enix about that. I don’t really know the reasons; we just actually heard through the grapevine that Lufia might be available. We have some history with the series, so we talked to Square-Enix and it seemed like a pretty good fit for whatever reason and we moved on from there. Which is fantastic because Natsume released Lufia II and Lufia: The Legend Returnsfor the Game Boy Color.

Well that about does it for my questions. Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us.