Nintendo – Putting Play First | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Nintendo – Putting Play First | Game Maker’s Toolkit


So let’s say you want to make a video game. Where do you even begin? Some developers start with a story
they want to tell, or a premise they want to explore. Others start with some emotion
they want the player to feel, like terror or accomplishment. Others still start by using the technology
to simulate something, like a planet, or a universe. And, of course, plenty of developers
start by taking a game that already exists, and adding in a few extra features. But Nintendo is, predictably, quite different. Whether it’s making a brand new game or the
latest entry in the long-running Super Mario series, Nintendo always starts with the same
goal: coming up with a new way to play. So what you do in the game, and how you do
it, is used as the catalyst to drive everything else – from the design of the main character,
to the way you deal with enemies, to the genre of music on the soundtrack. “That’s how we make games at Nintendo,”
says Shigeru Miyamoto – creator of Mario, Zelda, Pikmin, and more. “We get the fundamentals
solid first, then do as much with that core concept as our time and ambition will allow”. And so, in this episode of Game Maker’s Toolkit,
we’re going to look at how one of the world’s greatest game developers finds success by
prioristing play. In many of its games, Nintendo starts by coming
up with some interesting new action for the main character to perform. The late Gunpei
Yokoi, said “I first take the character which you’re
going to control and replace them with a dot as a placeholder, then I think about what
kind of movement would be fun”. The most famous outcome of this way of thinking
is this guy. You might know him as Mario, but when he arrived on the scene he was simply
known as Jumpman because this portly Italian plumber is defined by his leap. Not only does he have the most dynamic and
expressive jump in all of gaming – 2D or 3D – but his breakout game, Super Mario Bros,
is all about the jump. Mario leaps onto platforms and over pipes.
He jumps into bricks to break them and blocks to unleash power-ups. And that includes the
fire flower which shoots at an annoying 45 degree angle meaning you have to jump to get
a good shot. And the flagpole is always one brick off the ground, so you have to jump
to finish the level. Miyamoto toyed with other ideas, including
a shoot ’em up stage, but dropped them because “we wanted to focus on jumping action”. Oh, and don’t forget about jumping on enemies
to kill them. That might seem like an obvious way to dispatch foes as that’s how Sonic,
Aladdin, and scores of other platformer heroes do it but – get this – no one did it before
Mario. Miyamoto came up with that by asking: what
is the logical way to defeat an enemy in a game about jumping? There’s a real advantage to forging a game
around a strong main mechanic. When you can interact with almost everything
in the game by using this mechanic, Nintendo can make a game where the player’s range of
actions is very small and easy to learn – but the number of things they can interact with
is huge. When talking about Pikmin, Miyamoto said “the
basic action that you conduct is very simple. It’s a matter of simply throwing the Pikmin
at tasks and calling them back. And yet with the Pikmins’ abilities and the breadth of
strategies available, it opens up broad possibilities of how you can approach the gameplay”. Other examples of unique actions include shooting
a water gun, firing ink, turning into a painting, plucking things out of the ground, and using
a vacuum cleaner. In Luigi’s Mansion for Gamecube, Luigi interacts
with the world almost exclusively through his vacuum cleaner. He can’t even jump but
where his brother overcomes every challenge with a big springy leap, Luigi uses his hoover
to solve puzzles, suck up ghosts, collect loot, check for booby-trapped doors, and more. So while some developers might say their game
is about prejudice or ideology or the decline of the American frontier, how many games are
literally about using a vacuum cleaner? And when Nintendo needs to add in extra mechanics,
it can attach them to those main actions. For example, Splatoon is primarily about shooting
ink and swimming in ink – and so, you can reload your gun or climb up a high wall by
shooting ink on the floor and then swimming in it. No extra buttons required. God that’s good. Of course, not every game is built around
some brand new mechanic. Nintendo is, after all, not exactly known for making entirely
new games and characters – or new IPs as the industry calls them – and there are only so many things you can strap to the back of a Mario brother But Nintendo games are still driven by new
ways to play and so sometimes it’s about putting a new twist on an already established mechanic. That might involve reinventing 2D gameplay
in a 3D world, as we saw in Mario 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It might be about putting
those old mechanics in an interesting new context, like Super Mario Galaxy which is
still fundamentally about jumping – but now in micro gravity. Or how Pikmin 3 is still
about commanding Pikmin, but now with the added stress of juggling three heroes. And sometimes, Nintendo looks to come up with
an interesting new system that governs how you play – like the three day timer in Majora’s
Mask or the interconnected map of Metroid. Whatever the case, there’s got to be some
new gameplay that can help drive things – or, Nintendo says there’s no point making the
game. When Miyamoto was told that fans wanted to
see a new F-Zero game, he said “I’d like to ask those people: Why F-Zero? What do you
want that we haven’t done before”. To Miyamoto, the thought of just making another racing
game with more attractive graphics is unfathomable. Nintendo designers are big fans of the design
principle “form follows function”, which basically means that how something looks is determined
by how that thing works. It’s something that Miyamoto likely picked up when studying industrial
design at college. And it’s why boos blush when you look at them,
and why enemies that charge at you in Super Mario World look like quarterbacks, and it’s
why whenever Nintendo re-releases the original Mario Bros it swaps turtles for Spinies because
everyone keeps trying to jump on the damn turtles. But Nintendo goes further than that, and uses
the new gameplay at the heart of a game, to determine almost every aspect of the presentation. Once Splatoon’s mechanics had been developed,
producer Hisashi Nogami says “we then conceived the characters and the world vision to match
perfectly with the gameplay”. So if you ever got to play Splatoon during
the prototyping phases, you would have controlled a big white block. The designers came up with
the squid kids afterwards, when they needed to find a character that could swim in ink,
and would clearly separate the inking and swimming mechanics. And entire characters can come about as extensions
of the mechanics themselves – like Navi, who is a personification of the z-targeting system
in Ocarina of Time. Or this Lakitu, who carries the new-fangled camera in Super Mario 64. Or the Luma who hides in Mario’s hat and shows the player when Mario’s spin move is recharged. In this way, gameplay needn’t be abstract systems but organic parts of the game world. Splatoon’s producer also revealed that because
shooting ink is a bit like spraying graffiti, the game got its punk rock music and 90s aesthetic.
Similarly, the only reason Super Mario Sunshine is set on a tropical island is because the
water pistol gameplay made the designers think about summer. The mechanic can even drive the narrative.
Sorry to burst your bubble but the story in the Zelda games isn’t part of some grand overarching
narrative but it’s simply there “to bring out the best of the fun and interesting gameplay
elements”, according to late Nintendo president, Satoru Iwata. A Link Between Worlds has a mad artist for
an antagonist because Nintendo needed some reason for why Link can turn into a painting.
And even Ocarina of Time’s beloved story came from a process like this. Miyamoto wanted
both young and teenage Link in the same game so the writers had to come up with a time
travel plot to make it happen. This might seem like a crazy way to come up
with a story, but it can help ensure that there’s a deep connection between what you
do in the game, and what happens in the story. Consider Yoshi’s Island, which has a narrative
about protecting baby Mario, and gameplay mechanics about protecting baby Mario. Most developers come at the other
way round. They dream up stories, characters and worlds, and then work backwards to figure
out what gameplay mechanics might fit. It’s no surprise that they’re rarely very successful. But, okay, I shouldn’t paint Nintendo as some
game design gods and every other developer as just getting it completely wrong. Though,
maybe… No, no. Nintendo gets it wrong sometimes.
And other developers get it oh so right – indie developers, for example, are particularly
good at building their games around unique gameplay. And I loved how the new Doom completely
orbits around the melee mechanic – it’s at the heart of the combat system, it gives you
health, and it ties into movement. You even use the melee button to open doors, just like how Samus
opens doors by shooting them. Doom might be the most Nintendo game that Nintendo would
never, ever make. And then you get a game like Portal, which
is so beautifully built one super smart bit of interactivity that it’s no surprise Miyamoto
has said that game was “amazing”. Because for Nintendo, the way you play a game
is simply more important than anything else. So it’s not just the jumping off point for
a new project, but every other element – the enemies, graphical style, locations, music,
stories, and characters – are picked and produced to frame the most fundamental aspect of a
game. And when every aspect of the game is suggesting
the way you play it, it becomes effortless to pick the game up and get stuck in. And
so this is one big reason why Nintendo’s games often feel quite different to everything else
on the market. They’re more playful and toylike than most other games.
They’re more accessible and inviting – but no less complex. And, quite frankly, they’re some
of the most elegantly designed games ever made. And so, even after missteps and miscalculations,
we’re there. Ready and waiting for whatever this iconic Japanese developer comes up with
next. Hey there, thanks so much for watching. This
episode was a pretty big undertaking but I hope it sheds some new light on what makes
Nintendo such a fascinating game developer. I wanted to say a huge thank you for helping me reach
100,000 YouTube subscribers, and extend another thank you to everyone who has taken the time
to translate the subtitles on these videos into other languages. Game Maker’s Toolkit is proudly funded by
its fans, over on Patreon. Who don’t just get a fuzzy feeling in their tummy for helping
support independent games criticism but also tonnes of goodies like bonus videos, video
recommendations, game reviews, and more. And those donating 5 bucks get to see their name
at the end of the video like… this!

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