How Shigeru Miyamoto Designs A Video Game

How Shigeru Miyamoto Designs A Video Game

How Shigeru Miyamoto Designs A Video Game

This is Shigeru Miyamoto. If you’ve played video games any time in the past 30 years, you’re probably familiar with his work, Donkey Kong, Zelda, Star Fox, and then, of course, this guy. When Miyamoto makes games, he always tries to do things differently than other designers. Here he is back in 1998 explaining why he wasn’t focused on online gaming.
Shigeru: It’s a trend. And I try to avoid all trends.
And why he wasn’t adding small in-game purchases to Mario for iPhone in 2016.
Shigeru: Everyone was saying I had to do it, but I’m the kind of person that doesn’t want to be told to do something because “that’s the way you do it.”
Miyamoto has helped define a lot of what makes a video game great. How does he do it?
Shigeru: I think that first is that a game needs a sense of accomplishment. And you have to have a sense that you have done something so that you get that sense of satisfaction of completing something.
In 1981, one of Miyamoto’s first assignments at Nintendo was to design a replacement for a game called Radar Scope. It had performed really poorly in the US, leaving the company with 2,000 unsold arcade units. This is what he came up with. Miyamoto based the story on the love triangle in Popeye, between a bad guy, a hero, and a damsel in distress, but since Nintendo couldn’t secure the rights to use those characters, Miyamoto replaced them with a gorilla, a carpenter, and his girlfriend. In later games, that carpenter became a plumber, and his name changed from Mr. Video to Jumpman and then to Mario after this guy, the landlord of a Nintendo warehouse near Seattle. This is one of the first times that a video game’s plot and characters were designed before the programming.
Shigeru: Well early on, the people who made video games, they were technologists, they were programmers, they were hardware designers. But I wasn’t. I was a designer, I studied industrial design, I was an artist, I drew pictures. And so I think that it was in my generation that people who made video games really became designers rather than technologists.
That change and approach came at a key time for video games. When Donkey Kong was first released in 1981, the video game market in North America was on the verge of collapse. It was saturated with a lot of different consoles, and the boom in home computers made a lot of people question why they would want a separate device just to play games. The storytelling in games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, which you could only play on Nintendos on hardware helped set them apart as bestsellers.

“…being able to feel like it’s a game you’re immersed in, that you’ve become a hero. That you’ve become brave. Even if you’re actually crying.”

Shigeru: When I approach the design of my games, what I have to think about is how I’m showing a situation to a player, conveying to them what they’re supposed to do. In Mario you keep moving to the right to reach the end goal. In Donkey Kong you keep climbing up to rescue the captured princess.
A lot of Miyamoto’s genius can be seen in the first level of Super Mario Bros. This is probably the most iconic level in video game history. It’s designed to naturally teach you the game mechanics while you play. If you look at a breakdown, there’s a lot of really subtle design work going on here. Though Mario is usually at the center of the screen, in this first scene, he starts at the far left. All the empty space to the right of him gives you a sense of where to go. Now this character’s look and movement suggests it’s harmful, but don’t worry. If you run into it, you’ll just start the game over without much of a penalty.

Next you see gold blocks with question marks. These are meant to look intriguing. Once you hit one, you’re rewarded. That then encourages you to hit the second block, which releases a mushroom. Even if you’re scared now of what this might be, the positioning of the first obstacle makes it just about guaranteed that you’re going to run into this thing. Once you do, Mario gets bigger and stronger. Just like that, you’ve learned all the basic rules of the game without having to read a single word.
Shigeru: What else is there? The last is the immersive quality of the game, being able to feel like it’s a game you’re immersed in, that you’ve become a hero. That you’ve become brave. Even if you’re actually crying.

Immersiveness in a video game has a lot to do with the controls. The more precisely you can move your character, the more you feel like you’re part of the story. Nintendo has always been a pioneer with controllers. It was the first to have the classic setup of the directional pad on the left and the buttons on the right, the first to have left and right shoulder buttons, the first to have a 360 degree thumb stick, and the first to bring motion control to the mass market. With 2016’s Super Mario Run, Nintendo for the first time made a game for a controller it didn’t design, the iPhone.
Shigeru: Over time, not as many people have been playing Mario games. And we ask ourselves: Why have people stopped playing Mario? And for people who played early on and then stopped playing, oftentimes it’s because the controls got too difficult.
The Wii U flopped when it came out in 2012, and Nintendo 3DS sales are far below those of its predecessor, but the number of American gamers playing on mobile phones has doubled to more than a 164 million between 2011 and 2015. You can kind of think of Super Mario Run as a shift from immersiveness to accessibility.
Shigeru: I think the end result is a game anyone can play, from first-time players to the most experienced ones.
That’s kind of been Miyamoto’s design philosophy from the very start. Make fun games that everybody can play. The rest is in our hands.
These controls direct the characters. The better your eye-hand coordination, the better you do.

Super Mario 3D World’s 4 Step Level Design

Super Mario 3D World’s 4 Step Level Design

The 4 steps of level design in Super Mario's 3D World!

I want to talk about Super Mario 3D World, a game that is bursting at the seams with ideas. This is a game with conk doors and flip switch panels, double cherries and cannon boxes, switchboards, ant troopers, beat blocks, trapezes, grump lumps, foot lights, and piranha creepers. This game has innovation in abundance.

How does Nintendo manage to cram so many mechanics into the game without making it bloated or incomprehensible or stuffed with tutorials? You best ask this guy, Koichi Hayashida, who is co-director of 3D world and has, over the course of a few games, developed a level design philosophy that allows for rapid fire invention. Essentially, stages are four part, self-contained showcases for new ideas, where a mechanic can be successfully taught, developed, twisted, and then thrown away in about five minutes flat.

Each level starts by introducing its concept in a safe environment. Cakewalk Flip has panels that switch from red to blue when you jump, and you’ll see that as soon as you hop up to this platform. The first batch of panels are hovering over a lower level, so if you fall, you don’t lose a life. The concept is then established further. In this section there is no safety net, and here you’ll have to deal with the flipping panels as you climb up the cliff face.

“What it means is that Nintendo has developed a handy reusable structure that allows for inventions to be taught, developed, twisted, and thrown away.”

Then comes the twist. Towards the end of each stage, the concept is turned on its head in some way, to either challenge your mastery or to make you think about it for a fresh perspective. In this case we have to deal with the flip panels while also dodging the blast radius of this bumper enemy, which we fought a little earlier in the stage. Finally, we get the conclusion. Each level gives you one last chance to show off your skills with a suitable flagpole sequence.

Hayashida has explained in an interview with Gamasutra, that he’s inspired by a narrative structure called Kishōtenketsu, which is used in four line Chinese poems and four panel Japanese comics. Each of these stories introduces a concept, develops it, hits you with a twist that changes things, then offers a conclusion. Similarly, each Mario level has a satisfying arc of introduction, development, twist, and conclusion. Optional collectibles, like green stars and stamps, offer even more twists and even tougher challenges. Nintendo can swap out the flagpole conclusion for a boss fight, like in Bowser’s Highway Showdown, which introduces and develops explosive footballs in preparation for a battle against Bowser. It can also reintroduce mechanics from earlier in the game at a moment’s notice, confident in the knowledge that if you’ve got all the way to The Bowser Express, for example, you’ll know about swinging spikes, conk doors, bullies, and ant troopers from your run-ins in previous stages.

It’s interesting to see how this design changed over time. You start to see it form in Super Mario Galaxy, where Hayashida was level design director. The game’s galaxies are more often a hodgepodge concoction of gimmicks, rather than a single concept which is seen through from introduction to conclusion. Take Gusty Garden Galaxy’s Bunnies in the Wind, which is initially about these floaty fluffs, but then it’s about beanstalks and it concludes with a footrace with a rabbit. Don’t get me wrong, this game is brilliant in its unpredictability and offers a very different feeling to 3D World. But it also means that mechanics aren’t always given the time to mature, and you’re not always given the chance to learn properly. The game can throw too many concepts at you at once, like in Flip Switch Galaxy. It relies on standard DT mechanics, like in Bubble Breeze Galaxy.

In Mario Galaxy 2, on which Hayashida was director, levels are more often about single concepts and that familiar narrative structure can start to be seen. Beat Block Galaxy introduces the levels concept in a safe way, develops it over the course of the stage, and offers a twist with a madcap silver star dash. In Super Mario 3D Land, Hayashida seems to enforce his philosophy much more rigorously. World 2-2 is all about snake panels, 2-4 is on reversible platforms, 3-4 is about falling blocks, and so on. By 3D World, the philosophy is in full force, and the ideas are also used at times in the spin-off Captain Toad Treasure Tracker. Concepts can be introduced, developed, and twisted, though it’s often a little less focused because the stages can be more open-ended.

This is not the first time that Mario games have taught you in an organic way. In the first Super Mario Brothers, Shigeru Miyamoto needed to find a way to let you know that mushrooms are good, whereas the mushroom-shaped Goombas are bad. When you unleash the first mushroom and watch it bounce off the pipe and start to close in on you, even if you try to hop over it, you’ll hit your head, get bounced into the mushroom and see that it’s not an enemy after all. It’s definitely not the first time that Mario has had throwaway ideas and one time snippets of fun. Way back in Super Mario Brothers 3, the Goomba’s Shoe power-up only appeared in a single level. After 5-3, it’s was never seen again.

What it means is that Nintendo has developed a handy reusable structure that allows for inventions to be taught, developed, twisted, and thrown away. It’s something that you can use too, you’ve just got to come up with some clever ideas and interesting twists. Good luck.