Many players will already be aware of Katamari Damacy... The rather odd name translates literally as 'Clump of Souls', which is a lyrical way of describing the core gameplay - rolling up stuff that is lying around into a giant clump. 'Souls' may seem slightly out of place, but the name is also a visual pun. It is comprised of two kanji (Japanese ideographic characters) which are each composed of two radicals ('mini kanji')... They share the larger radical in common, and it resembles (in broad pictographic terms) the katamari themselves, while the smaller radicals almost represent the little avatar character (the Prince of All Cosmos) who rolls the katamari around. (In fact, the first kanji's left radical is the radical for a person). The name doesn't even quite make sense in Japanese - the pun is more important than grammar. It's the kind of subtlety that requires some knowledge of Japanese to appreciate, and although my Japanese language skills are not great (nihongo narate imasu ga mada mada dama desu...), I can make do.
The game has made a name for itself among the hardcore in the US, where it appears to have sold some 200,000 copies. These are relatively small sales figures for most games - but this game was obviously built on a much smaller budget than the top end market. In this regard, I believe that Katamari Damacy is an example of what can be achieved by diversifying where we put our game development resources. Targeting just the AAA top budget games is borderline commercial suicide, in my opinion... We need to find profitable options at all scales, and at the mid market in particular looks viable.
Why make one game for $3 million and gamble that it can sell 500,000 units, when you can make 15-30 games at the same price, have each one have a good chance of breaking even and a chance that one will sell 200,000 units. Suppose 80% of games break even, 10% make a small loss and 10% can hit 200,000+ units. The economics suggest that your upper end sales are equivalent to the larger project, but your risk is distributed across multiple projects. Why hasn't this worked in the past? Because small projects need good game design, and most of the good game designers are either tied up in doomed AAA projects or providing consultation services. I really think there's an opportunity here to create interesting and artistic games, and still make a profit.
Which brings me back to Katamari Damacy. I first saw the game in a department store in Kyoto, Japan. Kyoto is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and the place where I have had the most incredible vegetarian meal possibly of my whole life (many thanks to my good friend James McLaren, whose birthday it is today, for taking my wife and I for that meal). I don't remember the name of the department store we saw the game in, but the mannequins had scary round eyes. Anyway, the game. The game is immediately fascinating, because it's immediately unlike anything else that you see around on the market.
The Western game market is addicted to games whose base formulation is 'Run-Shoot'. This appeals to (for instance) the C1 audience (Casual Conquerors), which is the largest single audience cluster at the moment (we think). Katamari Damacy has a base formulation of 'Roll-Absorb-Grow'. We know this, because Keita Takahashi (the game designer slash conceptual artist behind the game) freely admits that this was the base concept for the game. This is a very Japanese approach to game design - defining the gameplay in terms of the verbs that define the activities of the player - but it's a solid, first principles technique, and one that we are experimenting with ourselves.
Takahashi-san is not your typical game designer. His talk at GDC 2005 was the highlight for me this year (last year, it was a tough call, as Eiji Aonoma gave a good talk - but Toru Iwatani's session really moved me; score two for Namco). Part of this talk was how Katamari Damacy came into being, part was his own background. I loved his astonishing art installations, which included a robot that transforms into a coffee table ("It takes two people to transform it," Takahashi-san explains, "so it promotes unity"), and a goat flowerpot which urinates. His game design goals were expressely not to build a super-addictive game, because he would prefer that children (for instance) go and play outside. I share his view that video games are perhaps more suited for adults (although the educational power of video games warrants harnessing). I believe that adults don't get enough play (and that this adds tension to the world), and it seems that Takahashi thinks along similar lines.
The game embodies what we mean when we talk about the Type 3: Wanderer play style, which we associate with a desire for new and unique experiences. Katamari Damacy is arguable the most Type 3 game on the market at the moment, and the fact that it can sell 200,000 units in the US is very encouraging (especially since it's inherent wierdness mean that most if not all of its sales come from the H3 - the Hardcore players preferring Type 3 play). Oh, I'm sure players who prefer other play styles played and enjoyed it too... We all enjoy a little variety in our play, and we don't always gravitate to just our preferred styles of play.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the game for me, as a designer, is that while the short term goals are explicit, the long term goals are left, to some extent, ambiguous. Yes, each time you start rolling your katamari around, you are trying to hit a certain size (the minimum pass mark for the level, if you will), and there are also presents around that might require some ingenuity to find, but when the time comes to determine if your katamari is 'better' than the katamari's you have made before, the decision is left to the player. You can either replace the old 'best' katamari with your new one (Make a Star) or smash your new katamari (Make Stardust).
The katamari are described in terms of three factors - size, in metres, centimetres and millimetres; time it took to hit the goal; and number of objects rolled up. It is quite possible - indeed, it happens often - that the player will exceed their previous 'best' on one account, but not in the other two. This allows the player to decide what is 'best'. What's more, it allows the player to change their mind as to what is best. At the moment, my wife and I are preferring to save katamari with faster times. But if we made a super-big katamari in a slower time, I suspect we would prefer it. Although some people in the Casual audience would probably feel slight anxiety about having control of this mechanism (uncertain what to do - especially Type 1 and 4 players, who generally prefer clarity of purpose), it is suprisingly liberating.
Another intriguing aspect of play is that the number of options presented to the player at all times is very high, but the implication of choices is (for basic play, at least) quite low - or to put it another way, you can play however you want, and you can still win. Expert play becomes more directed by necessity - the 'best' objects for any given size of katamari are clustered somewhere, and if you know where they are, it is usually a dominant strategy to go there. But even at this end of the scale, every game plays just a little different, in part because the katamari has been made slightly hard to control.
Making the avatar hard to control sounds like a disasterous situation - but the dimensionality of control for the game is kept low (somewhere between two and four dimensions - compared to more than ten dimensions in many FPS games). It is not hard to control because you are given a bewildering volume of controls (although there are plenty of advanced control options for the dedicated player), but because the central control mechanic has been kept 'fuzzy'. In the context of this particular game, it works, although it's not a general solution.
Katamari Damacy is the quintessential art house game, and I believe may help point the way for how art house games can move up from the quiet allure of games like tranquility and into a more stable niche. Available on console, and therefore available to a larger market, built to deliver a new and unique experience, and based around low dimensionality of control, this is a game which I hope will inspire a new generation of game designers to step outside of the box of AAA thinking and start exploring other ways for games to reach a viable audience. And by viable, I mean an audience it does not cost money to make games for - art is a wonderful thing, but it is easier to encourage when it can pay its own way.
I will close with a sad point. The game is not available in Europe at all. Thankfully, Namco have decided to release the sequel in Europe. The new game will be called Minna daisuki Katamari Damashii which translates literally to 'Everyone's Crazy about Clumps of Souls' or 'Everyone Favourite; Clumps of Souls' - which Namco are rendering more neatly as We Love Katamari (which is strictly 'We Love Clumps'). Isn't language wonderful.
Minna daisuki Katamari Damashii is out in Japan now, with a US release expected in October, and Europe to follow - hopefully without too much of a delay. Happy rolling!