Are game reviews culturally biased?
Another bad day for little girls

Behind the pixels: Nintendo and Bizarre Creations

Wii_super_mario_galaxy It's all about game design today. The first part focuses on Nintendo. The second part is a follow-up to my post yesterday on PGR4.

Nintendo is notoriously secretive about its game design process, so it was a a pleasant surprise last year when the president of the company, Satoru Iwata, began a series of interviews with Nintendo designers called Iwata Asks. I confess to being rather skeptical about this. How forthcoming could these designers be with their boss asking the questions? Well, either Iwata is a really nice guy or these designers have spines of steel because these interviews are informative and quite revealing.

The first Iwata Asks segment focuses on the design process for the Wii and its user interface. This is followed by interviews with the teams behind Wii Sports, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and WarioWare: Smooth Moves. The Zelda interviews are especially candid. Iwata begins with six young staffers, all first-time team leaders on the project. In subsequent interviews he talks with the director Eiji Aonuma and, finally, Zelda's creator Shigeru Miyamoto. The following exchange is indicative of the style of these interviews and Iwata's approach. He asks one of the young team leaders what he considers to be the essence of a Zelda game:

Iwata: Miyagi-san, what do you think is the essence of a Zelda game?

Miyagi: This is a question that I have also struggled with. I even once asked this question to one of the most senior developers in the company who has years of experience with Zelda. You know what I got for an answer? "If the Zelda staff made it, it's Zelda!" (laughs)

Iwata: It's like a Zen riddle! (laughs)

Miyagi: I remember being very perplexed! (laughs) When I re-played all of the Zelda games starting with the first one, I realised that although what was just mentioned about meeting the expectations of the user is certainly a core part of the Zelda experience, so too is cutting out all of the unnecessary elements. Something that is all too common with games nowadays are movie scenes that the user can't interact with. In Zelda, these are removed to the greatest extent possible in order to allow the player to do what they want. In this respect, Zelda games have a very high level of quality.

So when I approached the development of this title, rather than thinking about what Zelda is or means, it was more important for me to preserve the quality of the Zelda series. Rather than thinking about what Zelda is, I thought about where the real quality of Zelda games should lie. For example, the story in Ocarina of Time starts when a small fairy called Navi flies from far away to find Link, an innocent young boy. Then, rather than just watching a movie, the player learns what kind of boy Link is by actually becoming him in the game, and the player is actually introduced to the town when Navi is flying around and bouncing from place to place. These were very effective devices in the introduction to that game.

Zelda1 Iwata: There's nothing unnecessary in there, is there?

Miyagi: Nothing at all. There is no waste in terms of time or data. I learned a lot from that and tried very hard to reach that level of quality during development, but there were a lot of questions for which I wasn't able to find answers. For example, I wasn't able to find satisfactory answers to questions such as whether or not it's still necessary to allow the player to cut the grass in Zelda games.

Iwata: So, drawing the line between objects the player can interact with and which elicit responses, and those that don't, is very difficult. If you leave too much out the game world won't be realistic enough, but if you try to put too much in it will turn into an endless task.

Miyagi: That's right. I'm ashamed to admit it, but when I wasn't able to find the right balance I had to seek support from Miyamoto-san. This made me realise how little experience I have! (laugh)

In the Miyamoto interview, Shigeru turns the tables on Iwata, posing a provocative question:

...When Zelda became the biggest project in the company, some people started to say half-jokingly: "We could probably make five other new games if we didn't have Zelda." It would be going too far to say that making this kind of huge game is somehow obsolete, but there are trends even within parts of Nintendo to move away from this approach. During development, wasn't there any sense of melancholy in the team, a feeling that the days of enormous projects like this were numbered?

The latest installment of Iwata Asks focuses on (Monday can't come soon enough!) Super Mario Galaxy. For some reason, this segment is only available on Nintendo's UK site, but it is no less interesting or revealing. If you pay attention to game design, particularly as it relates to engaging players and keeping them engaged, I think you will enjoy these interviews:

Thanks to Stephen Totilo for the heads-up on the new Mario interviews. By the way, does anyone else find it disconcerting that Nintendo's home page contains barely a mention of Super Mario Galaxy? Same thing on their Wii site. This is the biggest Nintendo game of the year. I don't get it. Maybe by the time you read this the site will have been updated...but in the meantime, I'm scratching my head.

Pgr42 My post yesterday about Project Gotham Racing 4 generated a useful discussion in the comments section, and I received a fair bit of email from fans of the series, so I thought I'd follow up today by linking to a terrific story published in The Independent (UK) detailing the two-and-a half year design process behind PGR4.

Once a location has been chosen to appear in the finished game, the hard work begins. "We take about 30,000 to 40,000 photos per city [there are 10 cities in the game] and we'll take pictures of every building on both sides of the road for the entire city," says Talbot. "Then we'll have to take pictures of the lampposts, because every city has different lampposts. Bins, railings – every city has details like that that are slightly different from anywhere else. We even take pictures of the Tarmac to get the colour right, and all the road markings – even if we change them in the game, we need to have a record of the original road markings. We have to take pictures of the whole city, including the sky, to capture the ambience."

The article goes on to discuss the challenges of creating a new IP with Geometry Wars, also designed by Bizarre Creations. You can read the full article here.