GDC Panel: Keita Takahashi - new kid on the block

Katamari Damacy designer analyzes self, industry, and games in general.


"In a sense, games are an unnecessary thing."

This is a strange sentiment, perhaps, from a highly anticipated Game Developers Conference speaker...a speaker not even one day removed from his 2005 GDC Choice Award in Game Design. Yet in Keita Takahashi’s Thursday talk, this sense of critical self-questioning recurred as a major theme.

Takahashi, the creative brain behind Namco's sleeper Katamari Damacy, addressed a range of topics both serious and lighthearted in nature, always speaking with a distinct air of humility. The one-hour lecture, entitled "Rolling The Dice--The Risks and Rewards of Developing Katamari Damacy," was given in Takahashi’s native Japanese and simulcast in translated English.

"I would like to do something that makes people happy," Takahashi revealed. Betraying a clear sense of progressive-minded idealism, Takahashi wondered aloud if making people smile, even if only for brief periods of time, could help prevent negative behaviors, such as fighting and racial discrimination.

Takahashi recounted his long path to success, constantly thanking the "unprecedented, miraculous" opportunity presented to him. The story goes that Katamari Damacy began when, after several years of working at Namco without finding a project that interested him, Takahashi finally reasoned, "Perhaps I should come up with a project myself."

According to Takahashi, his big break came in the form of a certain computer design curriculum that decided to adopt his idea for a student project. Creating a prototype that would ultimately sell the game’s potential, about a dozen students worked on game art while Namco took care of the level maps and programming framework. After roughly three years of prototype and development, Katamari Damacy was finally released. The rest, of course, is history.

Citing his inspiration from Japanese children's ball-rolling games, Takahashi expressed his opinion that "It's fun to roll something," further asserting that rolling a huge ball around the streets would be "hands down more fun than playing games." Despite initial criticism of his idea as overly simplistic, Takahashi decided to "proactively ignore" the voices of dissent, in large part because he "really enjoyed" rolling the Katamari around using the two analog sticks.

As for the process by which the specific design arose, Takahashi remarked, "... I just basically came up with this idea," and apologized for his lack of a better explanation. He did, however, underscore his "desire to do something new, something that is easily understood, something enjoyable ... something you could only do in a video game."

And although he admitted that Katamari Damacy "is not that sophisticated a game," Takahashi qualified, "I do not mean simple is best." In fact, Takahashi claimed that the simplicity of his design was more the result of necessity, lamenting that he lacks the skills to explore more complex subjects such as love.

Takahashi also noted the connection between Katamari Damacy and his sculpture education at art college. In particular, he looked back on his experiences in which he was forced to focus on the tactile rather than the visual, as well as the enjoyment he got from "being able to feel things with one's hands."

Takahashi did, however, describe a major art philosophy dilemma from which he struggled (and continues to struggle), openly musing, "I often wonder whether [artists] are contributing anything to society." He expressed his fear that artists are only relevant to themselves and remarked that the thought "never sat well with me." Nevertheless, Takahashi did share that he has been able to find self-reaffirmation in the fact that "those who touched my least they smiled."

But Takahashi questioned more than just art. He challenged the very cultural value of video games. "Children would be better off playing outside," he asserted, arguing that video games can potentially waste away the precious and limited time of childhood. "I’m not trying to help people escape reality," Takahashi explained, and clarified that he would rather "make daily life more fun by giving people a fun game to play once in a while."

Takahashi was also harsh with respect to the general video game industry. "I don't think technology has played a huge rule in increasing game content," he stated, dismissing better graphics and sound as "minor improvements." He argued that "as one form of expression, the [video game] field seems to be really narrow," and therefore proposed that we focus on making software richer instead of trying to design the next-generation console.

But the panel wasn't all serious criticism and analysis. Takahashi made the audience laugh more than a few times with his humorous slides. And he even began the lecture by placing a Katamari stuffed doll on an empty speaker pedestal.

Highlighting some of his core design principles, Takahashi stressed that video games need to be stimulating. He stated, "[A video game] sometimes has to be 'rock'; sometimes [it] has to be 'punk' ... if not, [there is] no meaning for its existence." Takahashi also pointed out that stimulation "doesn’t have to take the form of shooting things, killing things." For Takahashi, the "peaceful, mellow atmosphere" of Katamari Damacy stands as one such example.

Takahashi also speculated that if violent games do indeed have tangible negative effects, as some speculate, other types of games might potentially have positive impacts. He did seem to doubt that Katamari Damacy accomplishes anything similar though, admitting, "I’m not sure how much I have achieved my goal."

The audience, in contrast, seemed quite confident of Takahashi's achievement and treated Takahashi to a hearty standing ovation at the lecture’s end.

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