Nintendo place emphasis on new hardware - but innovation is still key
28th Apr 2012 | 18:30
Japanese developers are falling behind, according to former Capcom boss and Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune. At this year's Game Developers Conference he accused his colleagues of "trading on past glories" and doing little more than "maintaining and sustaining brands" while the west embraces innovative designs.
Harsh words, but countered by two superb talks on 3DS games that followed at the same event. First, Nintendo's own Koichi Hayashida gave a presentation about the making of Super Mario 3D Land; then Masachika Kawata spoke about Capcom's new approach to Resident Evil Mercenaries and Revelations for 3DS.
Hayashida dismissed Inafune's criticism, not verbally, but by example. Though Nintendo are reusing old characters and worlds rather than coming up with new ones, they're proving endlessly experimental, in the old spirit of Mr Miyamoto. Kawata, on the other hand, showed how technical innovation and tighter budgets led to design innovation in the making of the two Resi 3DS games.
MANY MISSING MARIOS
Worried about a lack of Japanese innovation? Hayashida's joke ideas for 3D Land, illustrated by his own hand-drawn sketches, hardly stem from the conservative thinking Inafune describes. First, there was Huge Mario - or "Huuuuuge Mario", as Hayashida pronounced it: "He's so huge you can only see the lower half of his body on the screen." Then there was the uncomfortably spidery Long Mario, with gangly legs and arms, (Hayashida joked about giving him over to the Luigi's Mansion 2 team). Finally, there was Pro Skater Mario.
And it wasn't all variations on a plumber. Hayashida also showed an idea for a 3D cockroach, threatening to jump out of the screen at you unless you quickly slammed the lid to splat it. The final wacky idea he offered was a Princess Peach replacement tool, enabling you to swap out Peach's in-game face for your girlfriend's. "We always consider ideas outside the normal range of what people expect from a Mario game," said Hayashida, "to make others laugh and keep a feeling of joyin the process."
Contrary to Inafune's doom-mongering, Hayashida's design ethos seems more focused on keeping in step with hardware than honouring brand prerequisites. Early in development, Hayashida realised he had an opportunity to do a complete reset for the 3D Mario games, which previously hadn't been able to cope with objects floating freely in 3D space. But as with the earlier games, the move to stereoscopic 3D presented problems. Hayashida demonstrated how short-sightedness blurs the 3D effect, making depth differences harder to spot. Similarly, if objects get too close to the player's viewpoint, they cause a headache-inducing "stereo window violation."
THE LEGEND OF MARIO
Hayashida's solution drew from Miyamoto's point that the entire development staff - design, sound, director, programmer - needs to know the specifications and limitations of the hardware they're working on. Thinking about this, the team removed the player's ability to rotate the camera at certain points to prevent objects getting too close, and reduced the strength of the 3D effect. As a bonus, this also stopped players getting lost in the levels so easily.
Once they'd ironed out the technical difficulties, the team had to work out when stereoscopic 3D worked best, to make the most innovative levels. "It looks really good when going down stairs," said Hayashida, "which led us to world 1 - 3 [a series of cloudy plummets]." Similarly, it looks very good in small square rooms with high walls, which led the team to create world 5 - 2, which they call 'the Zelda dungeon': "If you get to this stage, get on this block in the middle and jump, Mario will pop right out of the stage."
To embrace the hardware, Miyamoto himself challenged the teamto take another approach to stereoscopic 3D - optical illusions. No one on the team had ever tried to make one before, let alone in a game, so Hayashida himself took on the task of making an illusion that was resolved when the 3D slider was on. He ended up using this to create many of the MC Escher-style staircases hidden down the game's multiple warp pipes.
With all these new concepts, the team had to consider how difficult they were making the game, which led them to the P-wing level-skip device. "The developer isn't the one who decides what is fun in a game," said Hayashida. "If someone wants to skip a hard stage and go straight to Bowser, they should be able to. Our challenge is to get players to come back and complete the levels they skipped." For this reason, the game's ending is earlier in the level structure than normal, allowing better players tobeat the game easily, but also encouraging them to explore the advanced levels further.
To make sure the game was still accessible, Hayashida tested it on his six-year-old son. Clever design won out again: "He got game over after 30 minutes. He spent an hour clearing the first level. But he told me: 'Collecting coins is fun, dad!' I understood that while he missed the intended objective of the game, he still enjoyed it."
Later, Capcom's Kawata addressed Inafune's challenge about Japanese game development more directly. "The social games market is doing well, so as a business the games industry is fine," said Kawata. "We should be researching what the world wants. Ithink the stuff that sells overseas has hit a level of quality that matches the stuff that sells in Japan - but there are differences in cultures that need to be taken into account."
Kawata's talk showed how technical innovation led to the design creativity Inafune demanded. Fascinatingly, his team revisited a millennia-old farming technique called nimousaku in Japanese - "cultivating two different crops on the same land at different times in one year".
For 3DS Resident Evil, this meant that the team created the basic MT Framework engine and mechanics ofthe game first, then split into two teams to work on the designs for Revelations and Mercenaries separately. "We decided to make Revelations horror-focused, built around closed-in spaces and slow-paced," said Kawata. "Mercenaries, meanwhile, was an action-focused experience, with wide open spaces and a fast pace. This way, not only were we hedging our development costs, but also our design focus."
A second Japanese concept inspired the huge variety of gameplay styles in the game: Makunouchi Bento, or the Japanese train station boxed lunch. "They're popular with people who travel long distances because there's a lot of variety and it's all packed into a tight space. We packed this variety into this pretty packaging," said Kawata. So, essentially, Revelations is very much the packed lunch of game design: a chunky story (the sandwich), Raid Mode to dip into (crisps) and loads of Dairylea-grade dialogue (er, Dairylea), all contained in a perfectly designed bento container (the 3DS itself!).
Both developers demonstrated that technical and design innovation are clearly still present in Japan. Japanese developers benefit from the constraints and features of the hardware they're working on: Kawata's Revelations was all the better for being developed in contrast to Mercenaries, while Hayashida thrived on the new mental horizons presented by 3D technology.
It's going to be fascinating to see what developers of this calibre do with the Wii U. Whatever Inafune says, Nintendo's pursuit of fun and the quest for innovation are one and the same