By Fernando Dutra, Wilson Dutra Co-Founder, Trademark Attorney & Branding Rancher
Every hurricane season, the thought of hunkering down at home always reminds me of doing the same in the farm simulation video game series Harvest Moon. In the Harvest Moon series, originally released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in the United States in 1997 and in Japan in 1996, there was a randomized mechanic where, during “Hurricane Season,” a player is stuck indoors with nothing much to do except listen to howling winds outside.
Fans of the game who have been raised on Harvest Moon games since the Super Nintendo era can still play the latest iterations, available for today’s video game platforms. However, it may come as a surprise that the beloved series once known as Harvest Moon is legitimately now called Story of Seasons. It may be even more surprising considering there is a completely different Harvest Moon game currently available as well, often on the same platforms (such as the Nintendo Switch).
You see, it’s a cautionary tale of trademarks — or lack thereof. Here’s what happened.
Video Game Trademark Trouble
Harvest Moon was one of the original farm simulation role-playing games before the likes of Stardew Valley (and, for a time, Farmville) replaced it as the pinnacle of what that type of game could do. In Japan, the game was called Bokujō Monogatari, which literally translates to “Farm Story” or “Ranch Story.” At the time, the thought of a farm simulation game being a form of entertainment was far-fetched. Look how far the video game medium has come!
Originally, the series was developed by Victor Interactive Software, which was eventually acquired by Marvelous Entertainment in 2003 (now Marvelous Inc.). The Bokujō Monogatari series was translated into English in the West by a company called Natsume (a process known as “localization”).
Now, here’s where things get tricky. Natsume filed for trademark protection for the brand name “Harvest Moon,” which was the name of the series for Western audiences. But in 2014, Marvelous decided to have the Bokujō Monogatari series translated by a company called XSeed Games instead.
Once the companies parted ways, the trouble began. Since Natsume owned the brand name “Harvest Moon,” Marvelous was forced to release their games under a new brand, now renamed “Story of Seasons.” In reality, today’s Story of Seasons brand is the one with a lineage reaching back to the original Harvest Moon series.
The Power of Trademarks for Brand Names
Natsume didn’t own the games, but they did own the trademark on the brand name. They decided to start developing their own games, continuing their use of the “Harvest Moon” brand. It isn’t hard to imagine that many people continued to buy the Harvest Moon games, believing it to be developed by the same developers and expecting those games to resemble the series they knew and loved.
Both series still continue to this day, with varying levels of success (the latest Harvest Moon game, Harvest Moon: One World, released in March, 2021. The latest Story of Seasons game is Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life, announced for Summer 2023).
It just goes to show that a trademark is a powerful shorthand to establish and set buyer expectations. The first time someone bought a Harvest Moon video game, they probably didn’t know what to expect (a farming simulation role playing game? That would never work!). Over time, people equated a certain type of game, and maybe even a certain level of quality game, from future Harvest Moon titles.
It doesn’t matter that the developers of the game are now different — the brand name in and of itself is a shorthand to get people to pay attention to a newly announced title. (I personally still do, despite not having played a Harvest Moon game since A Wonderful Life on the Nintendo GameCube). Only an incredibly informed video game player might know that Story of Seasons is actually connected to the old Harvest Moon games they played in its heyday almost ten or twenty years ago.
A Branding Nightmare & Consumer Confusion
Meanwhile, despite keeping the same developers for its new titles and maintaining the pedigree from previous Bokujō Monogatari games, Story of Seasons had a new marketing conundrum for its Western audiences.
How do they indicate the continued lineage despite no longer having the Harvest Moon brand name to use during launch? How do you bring over the people who played the Harvest Moon titles into the Story of Seasons franchise? What if the other Harvest Moon games weren’t great? Would that affect a consumer’s impression of the franchise and dissuade them from trying Story of Seasons? (Note that the style of game — farming simulation — wouldn’t be something either party would enforce on each other in the trademark/branding realm, since that is an entirely different intellectual property question.)
Brands can resonate strongly with a consumer and build a strong connection with them, keeping them coming back over time. When brands achieve that connection, the brand itself holds a certain tangible worth. A company can point to sales, impressions, word of mouth, and so on, to show how their brand resonates in the market. Some companies then work hard to protect and build that brand, trying to prevent others from misusing a name or profiting from a brand’s goodwill.
This is how, despite being with a completely different developer, Harvest Moon can continue on and still drum up interest, quality of the current games aside.
A Difficult IP Lesson Learned
Trademarks are a form of consumer protection limiting the risk that a purchaser will accidentally purchase a product from an apparent but incorrect source. Intuitively, allowing Harvest Moon to continue as a brand for a different game company seems counter to this purpose. However, the game seems to have been sold under the Natsume brand, as seen on the game cartridge, without mention of Marvelous. So, technically, continuing the Harvest Moon brand without Marvelous is not misleading.
At the very least, Marvelous seems to have learned from their mistakes with Harvest Moon. This time, they made sure to file the Story of Seasons trademark under their company, as opposed to having someone else have ownership over the brand name like they did with Harvest Moon.
Plus, after reading this cautionary tale, you don’t have to make the same mistake. If you have a brilliant idea, brand, or other form of intellectual property, it’s worth protecting. Schedule a consultation with our team at Wilson Dutra, and we’ll help you make it all the way to the boss level. Or, in the case of Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons, to be able to till the soil for many seasons to come!
Standard, hopefully familiar-sounding, disclaimer: Any opinions expressed here are of the writer’s. Any information provided is for educational or informative purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.