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The Structure of Fun: Learning from Super Mario 3D Land's Director
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The Structure of Fun: Learning from Super Mario 3D Land's Director

April 13, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

It's hard to pinpoint the most interesting thing about last year's release of Super Mario 3D Land for the Nintendo 3DS. Was it its successful proof-of-concept for stereoscopic 3D gameplay? Was it the fact that the game was the first portable Mario developed by the main Mario team?

These things are important. But it might well be that the most interesting thing about the game is that it started over from scratch on the concept of what a 3D Mario game is. Director Koichi Hayashida, who works at Nintendo EAD Tokyo, developed the game as though it were the first 3D Mario game ever made, jettisoning much of the legacy of the series post-1996.

At this year's GDC, he spoke about that process, and how developing the game during the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that shook Japan in 2011 helped him find the fun in making Mario games. In this interview, he discusses that, and explains how Nintendo draws on Japanese narrative tradition to structure its levels, as well as what he focuses on during play tests.

You've worked at Nintendo since, I guess, the tail end of the NES days, but Super Mario Galaxy 2 was your debut as a director. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your path, and how you rose to become a director.

KH: So on Super Mario Sunshine, Mr. Koizumi was the director. But when I look at my early beginnings, it was actually when I was working on the early Gamecube dev boards. I was creating the 3D library with EAD, and working on that kind of very foundational development there.

The main programmer of Super Mario 64 was a Mr. Nishida, someone who I really respected. You may also have seen his work in the Super NES Zelda game, where he did the polygon Triforce that appeared in the opening screen. That was something that he had made.

So he was studying the Nintendo 64 hardware, and became the main programmer on Super Mario 64, and I had been doing some work on that system at the time, and then became the programmer on Sunshine.

I am a programmer at heart. I always have been interested in programming. Ever since I started making games on a Commodore VIC-20 when I was in fifth grade -- I guess that would be the start of my interest, but my interest in programming was always to the end that I wanted to make games, not that I was interested in programming for its own sake necessarily, so I guess that was the beginning of my career. And that takes us up to my work as main programmer on Super Mario Sunshine.

And so after Super Mario Sunshine, I worked on Donkey Kong Jungle Beat as the assistant director, and I also did some level design on that game. After Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, I was the level design director on Super Mario Galaxy 1. On Super Mario Galaxy 2, Mr. Koizumi became the producer, and I took the lead, with another -- Mr. Motokura, who was in charge of program design, while I was the director. And then on Super Mario 3D Land, I was the director.

I was interested to hear in your talk that you tried to imagine what 3D Mario would be like if you left behind the rules that had been established, because that's exactly what I thought when I played Super Mario 3D Land. Why did you decide to do it that way?

KH: Well, every Mario game is, of course, made with all of the learnings in mind from the Mario games that preceded it. So, for example, we made Mario 64, and then Super Mario Sunshine. We were thinking what we had learned in Super Mario 64.

And when we made Galaxy, we were thinking about what we had learned in Super Mario Sunshine. So, one example might have been taking some of the camera control out of the hands of players, so they wouldn't have to worry about that quite so much, when they were playing the game in Galaxy.

But each time we see a little bit of innovation. And it's wonderful to have all of those elements to draw from, and choose from, to make a new game. But over time, some of those elements can develop their own demerits, such that you can't carry them forward consistently throughout, and just keep adding to a pot indefinitely.

What you have to do is make an investigation at every new stage and say, "Okay, which of these elements is working well for us, and which of them do we need to think about minimizing, or removing entirely?

And, when you think about the fact that we've made five games, starting with Super Mario 64, in the 3D Mario game series, but this is the first that's portable. Then that represents, at least to me, a really good opportunity to change things up a little bit.

So, did you really start with a similar template to the Galaxy/64 lineage and then start removing elements, or did you actually start from scratch and add elements, and then see how they worked?

KH: Well, we certainly tried a lot of things, and if you were at the presentation, then you must've seen that Mario 64 level that we tried to play through using a stereoscopic display to see if it would work or not.

We tried other things involving Galaxy as well. For example, we played Super Mario Galaxy 2 on a very small TV, and what we noticed, of course, was Mario was very, very tiny on the screen, so it was difficult to play the game when he's that small. We realized we have to make Mario a little bit bigger. And that's just more of the technical side of things, I guess, that we were investigating.

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Bob Johnson
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Good read!

Russell Carroll
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Lots of interesting thoughts.

I found it notable that their play-testing process lacked the stats and formality that I'm familiar with. They seem to be doing a lot of it by 'feel,' as the interviewer pointed out, which I believe is very abnormal today. It's perhaps a testament to how good Nintendo is at 'feeling the fun,' which was noted in the interview specifically as a learnable skill. That sort of gets back to what many see as the old guard in game development, the more 'artistic' approach relying on instinct.

Lots of interesting thoughts here, I appreciated being able to read them :).

David Lee
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Yes, definitely a great read. I really enjoyed their less "metrics-based" approach that relied on interpreting human emotion rather than statistics. Human beings (if raised properly) are VERY good at reading emotion and it's wonderful to rely on those skills rather than submitting to the power of analytics. Analytics have their place but at the end of the day, games are about creating fun and joy for players. If you're purely looking at the results that generate maximum fiscal return, you're missing the boat in my humble opinion.

Abel Bascunana Pons
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An amusing reading and good questions from a game design point of view!! Thanks for the article =)

Lars Doucet
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His method is very much like Steve Krug's in _Don't Make Me Think_, but applied to Video Games.

The idea is that the biggest problems will be very obvious when you just see a human try to play your game, so you don't even need to be super rigorous with it just as long as you do it often and with fresh testers.

Joe McGinn
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Great article, particularly appreciated the bit on Kishōtenketsu.

Sam Stephens
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What a great interview. I love the way Nintendo games develop conceptually, how they introduce a new gameplay element, employ a scaffolding-like method of teaching, and then subtly turn it on it's head only to bring everything together in the end. It's the reason why I feel Nintendo is one of the few developers who actually understand people, how they play, and how they learn.

I am also grateful for the more bite sized games they make for their handhelds. Sure, us Americans aren't familiar with the transit-oriented lifestyle that Japan and much of the developed world knows, but there's still so many perfect moments for a quick Mario stage or a Pokemon battle in our daily lives. Sony has taken the opposite approach by inaprropriatly trying to replicate their console IPs on a handheld device as a selling point. That hasn't turned out all that well for them.

Juan Fernandez
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Great interview. I believe Nintendo's way of development is the best way. They not only make great games, they make games that feel different.

That's what I'm trying to do too, I hope I am half as good as them as that would be enough to make a great game.

Eric Harris
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I always enjoy wisdom from Nintendo developers. Thank you Mr. Nutt.