The name Katsuhiro Harada carries enormous weight for fighting game fans around the world. As the long-serving producer and director of the Tekken franchise, he is known for his sense of humour and deep passion for martial arts, which shines through in the quality and attention-to-detail of the games he creates. His upcoming title, Tekken 7, is shaping up to be one of the series’ strongest releases in several years and has already begun to make waves in the competitive fighting game scene. I sat with Harada-san to talk new features, the state of the franchise and his plans for the future before Tekken 7’s worldwide release on June 2nd.
I found the game very accessible for a newbie like myself, particularly the combo-assist feature in Story Mode. How did you approach making the game accessible to newer players but still complex and deep enough for returning players and competitors?
I’m glad you noticed that little detail in Story Mode. The overall game design has been revamped, taking some things that were overly complex and simplifying them a bit. Typically, with Tekken, we add new things without changing existing systems too much. This time, though, we’ve been willing to change the way things have worked for a long time.
For example, getting off the ground; that’s an area that a lot of beginners had trouble with. If you make the wrong decision, you might get juggled. So to streamline that a bit, everyone gets up really quickly now, because people said they didn’t want to do the guesswork on the ground anymore. So that was kind of cool for advanced players, but also impacted newer players.
On top of that, Rage Arts is another gameplay mechanic that was added to make the game more interesting for everyone, and it gives the player a chance for a comeback from behind. It also makes it really exciting for spectators to watch. So these kinds of improvements and additions were made to make the game more accessible.
The Rage Arts mechanic (which allows a player on low health to unleash a devastating combo) makes it possible to swing the outcome of a game at the last second. Professional players are saying that it had affected the meta of professional performance, and they’re seeing their audiences grow from that new excitement. Do you expect that Tekken 7 will have a greater streaming and tournament presence than previous games because of this renewed tension in the fights?
Of course, we want to see more people streaming the game and enjoying it both as a streamer and a spectator. So we’ve added things like Rage Arts and also the super slow-motion effect when someone is close to a knockout.
These elements cater not only to our hardcore fanbase but also the other Tekken fans that have supported the series over the years; people who aren’t tournament level players, but if they can beat their friend or their brother they’re happy. The slow-motion is as exciting for these people to watch as it is for someone watching a tournament on Twitch. These kinds of mechanics, I think, will lead to an increase in people streaming and watching the game.
What came first, your passion for fighting games or your interest and study in martial arts?
Definitely real martial arts first, because, from maybe elementary school up through junior high, my father and I would battle for an hour after dinner. You couldn’t punch in the face or anything like that, but we used wrestling and judo-type techniques. Obviously, there was no way to beat my father because I was small, but sometimes I could make a technique work against him, so that kind of led me to have a strong interest in Judo and also Karate.
I learned fairly early on that, without a long reach, this kind of striking art is something that’s very difficult. No matter how good you think you are, there’s always someone better, or bigger, or stronger. So if you want to be number one, you first have to be born in a body that’s capable of achieving that, but then, also, train extremely hard. So I learned right away that martial arts weren’t something I was geared towards. Later, I gained an interest in video games.
You’ve said in the past that the manga Ashita no Joe was an early inspiration for Tekken. Is that still an inspiration that exists in the game, or do any other films, shows or manga have an impact on your design decisions on Tekken 7?
Well, it kind of depends on the different eras of the franchise. The first being what kind of character models would look best as polygon models, then shifting to a game that featured battles between different martial arts and what that would be like. Later on, when we had more freedom of design, we would focus more on character styles that might appear in a movie or a show.
For Tekken 7, we focused more on the communities involved in Tekken, like communities in certain areas that really enjoy the game but haven’t been focused on before. So we took feedback from them on what they would like to see. Since the internet is so prevalent today, it’s so much easier to gain more insight into those player bases and what they hope to see from the game.
Now that games are generally becoming more cinematic, do you find that more development time and resources go into things like plot, voice acting and cutscenes than used to be the case on, say, the PS1?
Before, due to constraints of the hardware, you couldn’t really have a lot of spoken lines because of the size of the data, so you had to cut down on that. Languages, too. For example, we didn’t have localisation teams so I would implement the English myself. Now we have such a volume of spoken lines, and the game is released in many more languages, so it is really a lot of work that goes into those cinematic elements.
This is the end of an era; the story of the three main Mishima Clan characters is coming to an end. Will future Tekken games take the story in a significantly different direction?
To be clear, it’s not the three Mishimas. As you can see in the poster, Jin isn’t included because he’s a Kazama. So you’ll see a conclusion between Heihachi and Kazuya, but, that said, it doesn’t mean that everything will be tied up neatly. There’ll be some things left unresolved, so that may continue into another storyline, or it might be kind of cool to focus on a story between new characters.
Everything depends on how this game does. Tekken has been going for twenty years, and that’s something I never envisioned early on, so it depends if people still want to see more of these characters.
Should we expect Tekken X Street Fighter to share canon with the Tekken franchise, or will that be a completely separate story?
It’s kind of tough because Capcom is still working very hard to push Street Fighter 5 and elevate the game. Tekken 7 still isn’t released yet, and we’re still working very hard to get the game out, and also to make it what the fans expect it to be. So to throw another game in there is not something we wanted to do, which is why the game is currently on hold.
That said, what’s going on with the story will really depend on what Capcom expect. With Akuma, we had a very fleshed out idea of what we wanted to do with him early on, and Capcom was even looking forward to it once they heard that idea. They were pretty confident we could do something really cool with their character, both gameplay-wise and story-wise.
So in the case of Tekken X Street Fighter, it really depends not only on what we want to do but also what they’re comfortable with. But that’s not happening at the moment.
What do you think of the emergence and success of other Bandai Namco titles, such as Dark Souls and Bloodborne, that focus on extreme difficulty instead of fun and reward? How do you think that development philosophy differs from what you guys do?
Well, the game Dark Souls is kind of like the old time video games from the ’80s, where the base pattern is that the player is against the CPU. It’s more trial and error about how you can get through the stage, or clear through the last boss, trying and repeatedly failing until you find the proper way to proceed. Dark Souls is something in which that pattern has been well translated to the current generation of gamers.
Fighting games are quite different because it’s not the CPU that you’re facing. For the most part, it’s another human opponent. As soon as you’re able to defeat that one person, your rival, that’s your goal achieved. The other thing is that because it’s a human opponent, they’re going to continue to improve as well. So that balance always shifts.
For Tekken, it just depends on what your end goal is. Kind of like real martial arts, it’s about what you’re seeking in all this training. So it’s quite a different design goal to those classic games against a CPU opponent.
What do you think of the Tekken community in Australia? Is there anything you’d like to say to them before Tekken 7 comes out?
This is our third time in Australia, but we hope to come again soon. I hope my next visit is a longer stay so I can see some of the nature of Australia, or just more of the country. We’ve only seen the office and a few other places in Sydney.
Australia is unique in that you have a similar arcade culture to Japan. So there’s always been a strong community of Tekken fans in Australia, and they’ve always been very helpful and constructive with their comments in regards to the series. We’ve always listened in the past, and we hope to continue to have a good relationship with them.
Be sure to check out Tekken 7 when it officially launches on June 2nd for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.