At the 2007 Montreal Games Summit taking place November 27th and 28th, the keynote was given by veteran Nintendo game developer Yoshiaki Koizumi, who discussed the path taken from Super Mario 64 to Super Mario Galaxy, and how the development team, along with Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma, has continued to challenge themselves in the 3D game space.
During his 16-year career at Nintendo, Koizumi has worked as a scriptwriter for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and as an assistant game director for Super Mario 64. Later, he worked on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, as well as Super Mario Sunshine and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat as game director. Most recently, he headed development of Super Mario Galaxy as game director.
The Early Days
Began Koizumi, "The period between Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy was like the journey in a long road movie: sometimes fun, sometimes hard.”
He recalled learning about 3D technology, research and development during the Super Famicom period. In college, Koizumi said he mostly focused on how to create images, but did some 3D CG on his own time. Nintendo liked his work, and he was assigned to Miyamoto's group. He had the chance to put that background to use with the Nintendo 64.
His first step was Mario’s first step – it began with making the character walk. Koizumi created a Mario motion model and textures and worked out a few actions; controlling the character felt "new and fresh," Koizumi said.
Koizumi noted that Miyamoto is known for taking lots of trouble to get key elements just right -- Koizumi called his demands "numerous and exacting" -- especially important in this case as players around the world spend a lot of time in Mario's shoes.
Koizumi recalled one late night in the development room, about 1 or 2 AM, when most of the staff had gone home. Miyamoto approached Koizumi to ask about a Mario animation, and then ended up demonstrating the right motions himself by acting them out. Koizumi mused that despite Miyamoto's background in art and design, he must have thought acting the animation out would be faster and more accurate.
"We may look like we’re acting out sketch comedy, but it really does work well to get the point across," Koizumi explained, adding that players can judge a game harshly for a player character that doesn't "feel" right.
For example, Koizumi noted, if Mario couldn't jump, even the lowly Goomba would be unstoppable. But empowering Mario with the simple ability to jump, thereby breaking blocks and stomping enemies, opens up several new and connected possibilities just by offering the player one ability.
Koizumi calls it player-based design: the right balance of fun and complexity with the player first in mind. "That’s why it’s so important, and that’s why we have to be so particular about getting it right," he said.
Highlighting other areas the team focuses on, Koizumi said that according to Miyamoto, "the greatest appeal of working on 3d games is the camera.” He explained that cameras allow developers to provide several angles at the same time, opening up new opportunities over the days of NES and SNES.
The Miniature Garden
Koizumi continued that the more amazing factor is the ease and freedom with which the gameplay itself can be changed just by moving the viewpoint and camera.
He continued, "During Mario 64, we had to ask, 'what kind of camera is best suited for this gameplay?'" He explained the different types of camera angles considered for Mario 64: A parallel camera, which with its resemblance to 2D is easiest for the player to use without getting lost, or a tower camera, which allows the maintenance of a straight-on side view as in a true sidescroller. Lastly, the follow camera is exactly that -- it follows just behind the player. There are other camera types as well, for when Mario is flying and swimming. He added, "Thinking about the camera is game design, too.”
The different camera types allow player to explore the plains and mountains of a virtual world, said Koizumi, "much like I used to find so many surprises, as the miniature gardens one finds in boxes in Japan."
This aesthetic, he continued, was something he tried to carry over into Ocarina of Time, describing the aim of making that game into “a movie you could touch.” It featured scenery that changed with time and a setting that made you feel the natural rhythms of waking up in the morning, with creatures coming out only at night.
For Mario Sunshine on the GameCube, "we tried to create a big water park island that made you feel like you were on vacation... [bringing] out in every screen the fun of exploring the miniature garden."
But, Koizumi explained, even creating a miniature garden can have its own difficulties and battles behind the scenes. There are issues with 3D action, including problematic depth perception, getting lost, and even getting motion sickness. Those phrases, Koizumi said, are the keys the team worries the most about when creating a game in a 3D world.
But Koizumi also stressed a focus on the positive, like creating a sense of surprise so that the player can be astonished by the world. To do this, Koizumi explained, you have to completely eliminate all the problems that obstruct ease of play.
Problem 1: Depth Perception
One example is the difficulty of stomping Goomba enemies in 3D, a basic, typical activity in a Mario game. "On the TV screen, objects don't have the same kind of physicality," he said. "That’s what makes it difficult to make people grasp the physicality and depth."
One solution is adding shadow. "We decided to drop a shadow on the ground everywhere in Mario 64," said Koizumi. "That way, every floating object would have a reference point on the ground." Shadows are so effective at conveying depth, said Koizumi, that adding them has become an "iron-clad necessity," having shadows fall directly under the character regardless of the light source. "It might not be realistic, but it’s much easier to play with the shadow directly below," he added.
Mario Sunshine added a new kind of "hover" jump -- enabling the player to hover in the air a moment by shooting water. This resolved some ambiguity and depth problems, but even with these new ideas, resolving height and depth perception proved challenging -- something Koizumi's team never could have imagined working on 2D platformers.
But then, Koizumi had a thought: "Just because Mario has always jumped and stomped doesn’t mean that he always has to – what about making a game where it’s fun to just run around?" Sneaking around behind and grabbing Bowser’s tail, for example, is something players would never be able to do in a 2D game.
Sunshine added another departure from stomping by allowing Mario to spray an enemy with water, creating fun without the need to analyze depth as much.
Similar difficulties faced Ocarina of Time, where Link must be able to strike with a sword -- difficult without the ability to determine distance and direction. So the team devised a plan for the motion of the camera as if the two were on a single axis. This way, the player can keep an eye on the enemy and reduce frustration from losing line of sight and perceiving distance.
Problem 2: Getting Lost
Koizumi mentioned that he'd heard talk about how some people can read maps and some can’t. In a 2D Mario game, the sky is up, the ground is down, and everyone goes right on their way to a goal. Mario 64 also sent players after a goal, but things weren't quite as simple back in the time when few had yet gained experience with rotating a camera.
Why not just give the player a map? According to Koizumi, if you want them to stay in the action without pausing, there’s no time to look at a map – "that’s why we included large landmarks so players could orient themselves without stopping," he explained.
Just as many famous cities have their own landmarks, Mario Sunshine has a large floodgate in the middle of town, for example -- and to make things even easier, Koizumi dropped in arrow signs as guides.
Problem 3: Motion Sickness
In Mario games, players press a button to jump and camera follows. Koizumi noted that this camera pitch can make some people ill. There are various theories, he explained, about why this occurs -- for example, a disconnect between the sense of motion and the lack of motion sensed by the inner ear.
In the case of Mario, Koizumi continued, rapid and repeated screen scrolling was most likely to cause this discomfort, so he thought of ways to minimize this.
Nintendo's solution was to implement a "vertical shake cushion” -- when Mario’s in the center of the screen, the camera won’t pan, but if he’s about to go off, it will.
Nonetheless, Koizumi noted it’s extremely difficult to create a perfect control environment. "That was why we allowed the player to control the camera freely in Sunshine and OOT -- but when they did, the overall control scheme became too complex."
He continued, "As a result, we divided the group of people that might have enjoyed the game – that might have been when some people decided that gaming in 3D was too difficult."
At a Crossroads
At this point, Koizumi said, he wondered, "Could I really continue to find and implement surprise and ease of play in these types of games?" He decided to just close off possibilities in his mind for future Mario games.
Then, in 2003, Koizumi changed his base of operations to EAD Tokyo. While there, he started planning a new Donkey Kong game, Jungle Beat. The team decided to make a 2D action game using bongos, featuring a new clapping sensor, and only 3 buttons total.
With this very simple control scheme -- no control pad, and only three buttons -- they set it up so that when the player encounters an enemy, the screen switches its vantage point and changes its control scheme – they called it “contextual binding.” Explained Koizumi, "Changing up player abilities and actions allowed us to create varied and striking player actions with a few buttons."
But the controls weren't going to be enough, Koizumi said -- they had to motivate the player to really want to hit things. So they made the presentation "over the top." Said Koizumi, "These new concepts allowed me to get back in touch with my earlier thoughts about surprise and ease of play."
He continued, "Through this I found to get the player to enjoy a game with real ease of play, the developer has to be thoughtful, and there are no shortcuts."
He continued, "Jungle Beat turned out to be a really remarkable game, even just by the appearance of someone playing it. I aimed to create a game that would make even bystanders giggle and enjoy themselves."
So successful was the team that Nintendo received letters saying, "When I get carried away, my family complains the bongos are too loud" -– "At least the person playing was having a good time!" Koizumi joked.
The takeaway lesson for Koizumi here was that the family needs to be able to enjoy the game too – "This became a new theme for me to pursue," he said. Gaining the good will of the family toward gaming systems became the team's new goal.
A New Theme
So in 2005, a spec sheet was created for “Super Mario Revolutions”. Koizumi explained, "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?"
He explained that 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.
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. Koizumi added that 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.
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."
The Planet Camera
Mario Galaxy's "planet camera" also provides a sense of gravity, Koizumi said, demonstrating the difference in field when walking on a planet's underside. The camera depicts Mario walking over the planet -- even though he's changing position all the time, he never has to move. Because of this, Mario can even play upside down, and avoiding large camera movements also means less motion sickness and fewer players getting lost.
Galaxy also adds two new actions only possible with Wii -- one is the spin attack, and the other is the use of the pointer to gather stars. The spin attack provides an alternative for players for whom mis-perception of depth makes it a challenge to stomp Goombas. The spin fulfilled other roles as well, like launching coconuts or twisting a screw. "You could use the spin for almost any interaction where you didn’t know what else to do," Koizumi added. "The spirit of simplicity we used in Jungle Beat comes out very well here."
And the Wii system, according to Koizumi, also helped achieve the earlier goal of bringing families together in the living room. This extended into the co-op play mode, so that with one extra Wii remote, family and friends could join in the game.
"I hope I’ve impressed upon you that Galaxy came not just from one idea, but [from] 13 years of dealing with these challenges," He said.
Beyond The Galaxy
"I know I said that development was like the journey, but perhaps it’s like a series of episodes that call out different staff members like Mr. Miyamoto -- but don’t get the impression that the journey is over," said Koizumi. "There’s a long way to go before we reach our destination."
He continued, "The journey goes on, and everything we learned is like another sign post – when I get back to Tokyo I have to start planning again
So what's next after Galaxy? Said Koizumi, "I imagine all of you are as drawn to the long journey of development as I am. But as on any long journey, not every step is pleasant, some days you can’t get the ideas to get out right, and you might be distracted by family, boss, or relations with co-workers."
He continued, "What do you do when you find yourself stopped there at those crossroads? What I do is try to increase the number of choices I can make – if I can’t do it alone, I look for someone that can help broaden my options. Then I do my best to follow our chosen path – it might be uphill but I try to walk that path proudly."
Concluded Koizumi, "I’m sure some of you here are on a journey right now, or getting ready to start one. Please – enjoy the journey. Believe firmly that games that are fun to make are always fun to play when they reach the consumer."