Interview: Katamari maestro Keita Takahashi is still plenty playful
The phenomenon of the “one-hit wonder” doesn’t really exist in gaming. Generally speaking, gaming’s most successful auteurs go on to be looming figures in the industry, from the mysterious Suda51 to Metal Gear mastermind (and self-proclaimed foodie) Hideo Kojima. But Japanese game director Keita Takahashi has always been a little bit different.
In 2004, his game Katamari Damacy showed the world that as it turns out, rolling up junk into a giant star was something that we’ve always wanted to do. Takahashi’s next original IP for Namco, 2009’s quirky downloadable physics-based intergalactic eating sim Noby Noby Boy,was recieved by the critical community with friendly puzzlement, and the devloper began getting more outspoken about his disappointment with the title and eventually, with the industry at large. It reached a head last year, when shortly after retiring from Namco Takahashi infamously called Japan’s game-development community “a zombie”.
In the months that followed, Takahashi announced his next career move: He was forming a freelance company with his wife, composer Asuka Sakai, called Uvula. The nature of this new venture is still a bit nebulous, though it seems commendably ambitious in its intent to spread Takahashi’s whimsy into the physical world. Most recently, Uvula has been commissioned to design a playground in Nottingham.
I e-mailed with him over the past week to chat about how his new life as a freelancer has been going, what we all can learn from children, and why he doesn’t play videogames anymore.
How has your new career been going?
I have met many new people in Tokyo. They are not only Japanese but, overseas nationals as well. And I have been in communication with guys who live overseas, by e-mail. So, now I have some projects. Some projects are for clients and a few projects are mine. Freelancing is not easy about money, but it’s very exciting.What's the status of the playground you're working on?
I want to go to Nottingham as soon as possible because progress is so slow. Construction has not begin yet. Yes, I know U.K is in a depression now. I think that I have to endure it.
We are hoping to open it by the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012. The construction will begin at beginning of this year. However, it is construction only for restrictive areas because this whole plan will need many, smaller budgets. First, we make a few pieces of unique playground equipment, then we will look for a financial supporter. We try to raise funds by presenting the unique playground equipment to them. And if we get enough of a budget, we will begin the next phase of construction.
But, construction has not begun yet... In short, our planning is precarious day-to-day management. :) However, I think it can't be helped because the UK is in a depression.
Is there a theme or unifying concept to the playground?
It is very simple. Have a fun time with friends and family and dogs.
I want to spread my work range. I have to try to many things for that. For example, I want to move to overseas. I think that it will be a big change to me and my family.
You also said this playground project was an opportunity to start working on other things. What else are you working on these days other than playgrounds and music with your wife?
I have a few projects. One is a game for iOS, another is new internet service and the other is childcare. I'm sorry I can't say any more. :)
What other mediums are you interested in working in, and what do you think you specifically can bring to those fields?
I am interested in the architecture and design of kindergartens and schools. And also town design. I might be able to bring some fun element to our daily life.
Have you ever thought about doing an installation piece at a museum? Noby Noby Boy, to me, always felt a bit like an interactive museum piece.
This is not reliable topic yet, but NOBY might exhibit on US museum by one night game event. I look forward to that, if it is realized.
Speaking of which, it seems to me like you'd be great at designing an entire children’s museum. Has that ever occurred to you?
Of course I like museums. But as stated above, I am interested in kindergarten and school. I think museums are extraordinary things. I am interested more in daily life.
You've often celebrated the importance of people who play games being engaged and not just being merely "consumers" or "users." In other words, adults probably need to be more childlike. In that regard, what do you think we all could still learn from kids?
Imagination and making an preposterous story.
To dip back a little bit, do you remember when it first occurred to you that Katamari was a hit or that you had something really special on your hands?
I thought about the expression that only a video game could make. And the idea that I wouldn’t have to depend on words for. I always thought about those two things. Just then, the idea of Katamari fell in my head from sky. It was just time, when it got on a train. :)
You said Katamari got a sequel due to fans having so much fun with the original. What sort of word got back to you about its success from fans -- did people send you trinkets or homemade knick-knacks showing their affection for the game? Do you still get signs of appreciation like that from fans since you've left Namco?
I thought Katamari would not be popular because it had many bugs and many dissatisfaction for game play. But original Katamari was played by people of the world. "simple but fun!", "surprised!", "cute!” I was surprised when I read those words on web.
Do you know this exhibition? I visited Portland for this exhibition after I left namco. It is like a big present from players.
You haven't ruled out returning to the gaming industry. What sort of sea changes would need to take place for you to feel like a return to making games would be in yours and the public's best interest?
This is a hard question. I'm sorry I can't look around the future yet. However I will begin new project if I get a new wonderful marvelous superb idea. :)
Do you still play games? What series or titles have you been a fan of or think don't get their proper due?
No, I don't play games. Because I don't have any consoles. In childhood, I played Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest many times on NES.
In that case, what else do you like doing for fun?
Daily life. :)