I love listening to artists talk about their work. Not to hear them "explain" it (in fact, I hate it when they do that), but to discover how the "big idea" was born. Artists willing to share their process--even when it's as mundane as "I get up every morning at 5am and write for three hours before breakfast"--never fail to make me sit up and pay attention.
Working in the theater surrounded by collaborative artists, I have found that it's process--the meat and potatoes of work habits and production methods--that we learn from our mentors. The creative stuff emerges from this gristmill in mysterious and personal ways. So when an artist can articulate his or her work methods and also pinpoint when and how that big idea clicked, I'm like a schoolboy in love with his pretty teacher.
Just listen to that school bell ring:
The concept was to play with Mario running around on spherical objects – something Miyamoto had come up with 5 years before, and something I came up with too. Why spherical worlds... What distinctive features attracted us to spherical worlds? Was it just because they were novel?
Game director Yoshiaki Koizumi explains the germinal idea that eventually led to Super Mario Galaxy. The big idea was the sphere. Thinking hard about what makes a sphere special unlocks what will make the new Mario game special. The right questions lead to pivotal answers.
No matter how large you make the playing field, if you walk long enough you will run into a wall, and that will make you turn around, which makes the camera turn around and runs the risk of making the player lost.
Koizumi and team examine the existing paradigm of 3D Mario games and consider its limits. This model works, as Mario 64 proved, but it introduces nagging issues the team wants to overcome. The problem of the camera in a 3D environment has eluded designers' attempts to make it feel as tight or elegant as a 2D Mario game.
With a sphere, Mario can run all he wants without falling or hitting a wall... a useful concept for getting players totally absorbed in the moment...The best thing about spherical worlds is the “unity of surface," and the “connectedness.” Neither will the player get lost easily, or need to adjust the camera – by using spheres, Koizumi said, they had created a game field that never ended.
The designers discover that the solution to an identified problem can be more than simply a fix. The sphere becomes a new design paradigm upon which the old play mechanic can be joined with a new improved one.
This became the overall theme of development – "we should tune the game so people can play without ever having to think about the camera," Koizumi said. "Frankly, it took a very long struggle, but we finally found the direction we needed."
Bingo. Koizumi takes us from the big idea, through the deliberative process, to the team's arrival at a solution that finally defined the entire game experience. A big idea indeed. Man, I love this stuff.
Koizumi's keynote presentation at the Montreal Games Summit, including more details on the evolutionary design path from Mario 64 to Galaxy, can be found here. Thanks again to Gamasutra for being everywhere at all times.