The Harvest Moon series almost never made it to Western players: According to Natsume president and CEO Yasuhiro "Hiro" Maekawa, his friends said the game, created by series designer Yasuhiro Wada, was too boring to do well in North America.
"I came across the first Japanese farming simulation game in 1996," Maekawa told Polygon of finding Wada's first Harvest Moon. "At the time, I was operating Natsume Inc. all by myself, and I had a chance to publish that farming simulation game in America. Because I was a newcomer to the big video game industry at that time, I wasn't too sure about which games [to publish]. So I decided to check with my friends to see how they thought about the game."
Maekawa brought the game to his friends working at other video game companies in Japan. The response was not quite what he expected.
"To my surprise, everybody said, 'This is such a boring game!'" he said. "'Don't bring this boring game to the American market, if you do it, it will be a certain mistake!' But I said to myself, America is a huge farming country, so there might be potential to grow. And at the same time, for some reason, my instinct told me it might be a good idea."
The name of the series itself, Harvest Moon, was inspired by what Maekawa feels is the core of the game: hard working people being rewarded for doing so. This is the embodiment of the series for Maekawa, who wanted to develop games that showed people how success and good fortune comes from working hard. Hardworking people should be rewarded, he noted, and what better way to take this idea back to basics than using it for a farming simulation?
Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley is the latest iteration in this series, a game that Maekawa says preserves what fans already love about the series but evolves it to allow deeper customization. In Lost Valley, players are tasked with helping restore the coming of the four seasons to the the titular vale, which has been shrouded in snow.
According to the game's developers, Lost Valley mixes familiar old mechanics — like basic harvesting and developing relationships with other villagers, for example — with a handful of new ones. Players can customize not only their fields, but their entire swath of farmland, picking and choosing what crops and animals to raise. This game will offer players "the greatest amount of freedom ever in a Harvest Moon game," according to a short presentation we were shown during E3.
New mechanics include the ability to dig wells — and then dig lakes and waterfalls as deep and wide as players want. There is also the ability to build hills and mountains, customizing the layout of the valley. The farming system, which has been redone to give players more tools and more opportunities to use them, will move and shape the layout of the environment as players cultivate the land. Additionally, players no longer need to rummage in a rucksack to find the items they need; the game will now automatically call up items players use in the situations where they will need them. For example, when approaching a tree, players will automatically equip an axe to chop it down.
Lost Valley is also structured to give veteran players the same task-packed experience without alienating series newcomers, according to producers Yasutaka Maekawa and vice president of operations Graham Markay. Not only has Natsume made it easier for players to jump into the game and build whatever they want — bridges connecting mountains, bottomless well and so on — but they've also reworked the control scheme to smooth out the game's user interface and give players an easier, more comfortable set of button commands.
"The button system was one of the things that was mainly looked at for the 3DS - how can you use these buttons and each of these functions so that not pushing one button for a variety of different functions and getting lost?" Markay said. "Certain buttons are dedicated to certain things so players can develop a memory map."
"You won't be lost in this game," Yasuhiro Maekawa added. "You will know exactly how to play, we've made it very user-friendly."
As for the game's lasting popularity, which has allowed the series to grow by more then 30 games in 18 years, Yasuhiro Maekawa said that although not everyone spends all their time in the field, players of all walks of life can relate to the idea of working hard to achieve something. Farming is also one of the most important industries in the world, so the idea of getting your hands dirty raising crops and working the land appeals to human nature on a basic level.
"Harvest Moon actually touches on a common world — farming," Yashiro Maekawa explained. "This game has something in common worldwide, farming simulation and relationships. Those concepts are accepted in both markets."
"Not everyone farms, but it's that idea of hard work that gets rewarded that appeals to people," said Markay. "That applies to anyone anywhere in the world."
"These games are non-violent, family-oriented, peaceful and slow," Maekawa added. "They show a slow lifestyle. That kind of thing is appealing to everyone. Some people like fighting games but maybe other people don't like them. But these peaceful games appeal to an audience worldwide because they are just that."