Katsuhiro Harada's Fight To Keep Tekken Relevant
Like Ed Boon and Mortal Kombat, Katsuhiro Harada is synonymous with Tekken. Loved by the community for his sense of humor and relentless trolling of fans, he's been involved with the storied franchise since 1994. Working his way up from a project producer on the first Tekken – while also voicing Yoshimitsu, Marshall Law, and Kunimitsu – he now sits at the helm of the Bandai Namco's flagship fighting series.
In the lead up to Tekken 7's home console release, through his long-time translator Michael Murray (himself an accomplished game designer), we spoke about the evolution of the franchise, the future of arcades, and whether the Street Fighter and Tekken universes are canonically linked.
Interview by David Milner.
Tekken 7 first launched in Japanese arcades more than two years ago. This is increasingly rare for modern video games. How important is the arcade scene for Tekken?
For fighting games, it's kind of a natural progression. They come out in arcades first, they're polished, and then they come out later on the home consoles.
This is something Tekken has continually done for years, but other fighting games ceased to be able to release an arcade version. Most of them would probably like to because it's still viable if you can sell your game.
It's actually very important for our business model because it allows us to gain a certain amount of revenue, which is then used to create the console version, add in content, et cetera. It's still important to us.
It's also important to our fans because, at the same time as funding this console version, it also ensures [quality control]... It is very important for Tekken still, but how long that will continue is hard to say, because of the state of the arcades.
I heard that your parents wouldn't buy you a console when you were young so you used to sneak into the arcades to play. Are they an important place for you personally?
Of course, there are a lot of memories, fond memories of the arcade and the formative experience that it had. But that can be said for a lot of people of the same age, roughly in their 40s – arcades were the root of their experience with video games.
That said, from the perspective of a business man, it's more and more difficult to continue to release in arcades because of their decline. At the same time, there's the rise of a large group of the Tekken community in Western countries that no longer have arcades. It's something that I'm continually thinking about.
But if we released straight to the console, I'm not sure that we could have maintained the same level of quality. For the arcade, Tekken 7 was one of the first fighting games that actually allowed players to play against an opponent online in another arcade location – since you're paying a dollar each time you play and there's no way to refund it if something goes wrong, we had to assure the players that there was a high level of quality in the online matches. Whereas if we started on console, that would've been the starting point and we can patch it whenever you like, so there isn't so much urgency in providing such a stable experience from the start.
You're including a cinematic story mode for the console release. Street Fighter V launched without one and was met with disappointing reviews. Do you think a story mode is crucial for a fighting game's home release nowadays?
Actually, the importance of the story mode to us isn't anything to do with current market expectations or the reception of Street Fighter V. It's more that it's something that made Tekken successful throughout the franchise.
We've always had CG movies for the opening or character endings, et cetera, so it was really important to provide that deep story experience. We were doing that from so long ago when other franchises were focusing solely on the competitive fighting element of the game. We had had this story element from early on, and that was one of the reasons for our success with a casual audience. It was just natural that we improved upon that for Tekken 7.
Speaking of casual audiences, you're including a comeback mechanic for the first time in Tekken 7 with Rage Arts. What was the thought process behind that? Why did you decide Tekken needed it?
There were actually several reasons for implementing the Rage Arts. As you said, one is that it allows the user to come back from behind if they're losing. But another major reason is that we wanted to make people spectating more easily feel what the players who are playing the match feel, and to more easily understand the point of the match where it's, "Hey, this guy has a chance to come from behind!" Or knowing something dramatic is happening.
So this, in addition to the super slow motion or the Rage Drive, is to make the match more exciting all the way to the end, while making it more of a spectator-friendly experience.
I'm guessing esports is naturally a part of this consideration?
Well, you know, esports is a word that became popular more recently. But fighting games have always had tournaments where people gather, whether it's in the arcade or in a gymnasium or a sports center somewhere, to enjoy the game and watch the competition.
And then we also recognized the shift that people are not only enjoying playing the game, but they were also enjoying watching streams and other things, like on Twitch. And this was an element that made the tournaments very exciting to watch in person but also even on the stream. So, rather than just esports, this was a game design choice to make the spectator experience more enjoyable as a whole.
Up Next: Find out about Akuma's role in the Tekken universe and what needs to be in every Tekken game...
Tekken has gone through a number of iterations since 1994. What things always need to stay the same? What is the core DNA that you can never change?
The satisfaction of the game – the feeling of each input – is something that's very important to the core game. Often you'll hear people talk about the game balance. We always try to maintain the balance at the start, but then you have to kind of break it at one point to make something interesting.
For example, Paul's Death Fist, which is a quarter circle forward and a right punch – he does this punch that on a clean hit with a counter will take off a huge amount of your opponent's health. That might not necessarily be balanced if you look at someone's very fine definition of balancing, but it's what makes the game exciting and thrilling. Plus the fact that he just knocks his opponent so far away. If you're going strictly by balancing choices, maybe it's not good, but it's one of the things that makes the game crazy and entertaining.
Also, when we made the change to Unreal Engine, for some reason Kazuya was ported right away, but something felt off about his Electric Wind Godfist. With the game designers, we sat down and we kept asking, "Is it the way it's flashing?" Or "Is the crunching sound not enough?" Or "Is it the feeling?" "What is it that makes it not feel up to par for our normal Electric Wind Godfist?"
And so, we actually spent a whole lot of time on that because that's part of the feeling, that kind of thrill that adds to the game. That's really important – one of those things that we need for each and every Tekken.
Did you eventually work out what was making it feel off?
It was a combination of all of those things. I think the sound was the biggest one, though – that kind of crunching noise and the crackle of electricity. [The other factor was] because of the jump in the resolution and the detail of the graphics and the motion – even though it was [ported across] exactly the same, it felt different. So we even had to adjust the speed and timing, too, because of the increased amount of the information on the screen, to make it feel as quick and nimble as it normally was.
Lore question. Akuma is not just a guest character here. He's incorporated directly into the storyline of Tekken 7... Does this mean that Street Fighter and Tekken happen in the same universe?
That's really a tough question because maybe Capcom would have an issue if we said the whole universe was linked. And then the Dictator [M. Bison] – what would happen with him if he were in the same universe?
So maybe it's not something to really think about. It's just that Akuma was one character that stood out that we wanted to link to our story. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they both exist in the same kind of time-space continuum, I guess you could say.
If you put that much effort into thinking about it then that would mean Tekken and Soulcalibur are linked [laughs]. You know, Yoshimitsu and Heihachi are there. Soulcalibur is in turn linked to Star Wars because [Yoda and Darth Vader] appear in Soulcalibur IV. And then with Tekken linked to Street Fighter and Street Fighter linked to Marvel in Marvel Vs. Capcom and then even... Soulcalibur and The Legend of Zelda are linked as well, because of Link. And Ezio Auditore, so Assassin's Creed is also linked to all of these [laughs].
So you're saying every single video game happens in the same universe. Got it. Speaking of crossovers, you announced last April that Tekken X Street Fighter was on indefinite hold. Has development on that game continued at all between now and then?
No. The timing isn't right yet. It's still on hold.
Can fans still expect to see it at some point?
Marketing-wise, it'd probably have the most impact if we put it out when everyone's already forgotten about it...
Ed Boon is on record as saying Tekken is his favorite fighting series. Of all the other fighting franchises, not ones you work on, what is your favorite?
Ed Boon said that? Wow, I never hear these things... Definitely Samurai Spirits, known as Samurai Showdown in the West. It's the tension that results in the matches, because of that fear of bladed weapons.
You can feel that in the game because you know, you're going back and forth with small attacks but then one mistake and a heavy attack landing on you could just drastically reduce your health. They really did portray well that kind of scariness of weapons and what they can do.
A lot of developers say you don't need to be very good at your own games in order to make them. How good are you at Tekken? Could you challenge some of the pros?
I was very strong for the first couple of installments, until Tekken 5, but not so much from Tag Tournament 2 and the recent ones, because there's just some stuff you can't cover with knowledge. It's reflexes. Those kinds of things you can't keep up with. [At this point, translator Michael Murray calls Harada out on his knowledge, saying, "But you don't even know the max damage combos for your characters." Harada's response: "I'm too busy!"]
Of all the games that you've made in your career – and maybe don't include Tekken 7 – which are you most proud of?
The correct answer is probably Tekken 3 because it just performed so well and was popular and sold so much... But personally, probably Tekken 4, even though I hate it and it failed from a user's perspective [laughs]. I mean business-wise it sold fine, but it's just because there was so much that I learned on that game. It was a big turning point for me and the series. It was quite important.