The Structure of Fun: Learning from Super Mario 3D Land's Director
April 13, 2012 Page 4 of 4
I wanted to talk about the level design. In my impression, each level has a core gameplay concept that it's about. And you do that, and you enjoy that, and then the level's over. I was wondering if that's really the mentality you had when creating the game, or if that's just something I was thinking.
KH: Yes, I do think it's really important to decide on a core concept in level design. When I think back in my own career, as to when I might have realized that this was important, I have to look back maybe first at Super Mario Galaxy 1, when I wasn't quite sure I had wrapped my head around that concept.
So you would be going through a galaxy, and every time you get to a new planet, there would be some new thing to play with there -- some new concept. So you would end up with lots of different gameplay concepts in a single stage.
Whereas, when I moved onto Super Mario Galaxy 2, I was starting to get a little clearer idea of how this level design philosophy should work: that is, we would start with a very clear concept on a stage and it would be maintained through, I think, the rest of the galaxy more consistently.
But it wasn't really until Super Mario 3D Land that I think I really became a lot more rigorous about enforcing that in level design, where you have a clear concept in the beginning, and that's carried through absolutely all the way.
Why do you think that that's important?
KH: Well, I think it has a lot to do with the acquisition of a skill, which is something that often appears very similar to the way that a narrative can develop. So, if you take a single gameplay element, let's think about the steps that happen.
First, you have to learn how to use that gameplay mechanic, and then the stage will offer you a slightly more complicated scenario in which you have to use it. And then the next step is something crazy happens that makes you think about it in a way you weren't expecting. And then you get to demonstrate, finally, what sort of mastery you've gained over it.
It's very similar to a narrative structure that you find in four-panel comics. Something that's talked a lot about in Japanese manga, for example, is a phrase, kishoutenketsu, where you introduce a concept, and then in the next panel you develop the idea a little bit more; in the third panel there's something of a change-up, and then in the fourth panel you have your conclusion.
So that's sort of what we try to do with the way people relate to gameplay concepts in a single level. We provide that concept, let them develop their skills, and then the third step is something of a doozy that throws them for a loop, and makes them think of using it in a way they haven't really before. And this is something that ends up giving the player a kind of narrative structure that they can relate to within a single level about how they're using a game mechanic.
Did you actually seek to take that concept from manga and apply it to games, or did you just coincidentally realized that it fit after you'd already developed the concept in parallel?
KH: Well, this is something that Mr. Miyamoto talks about. He drew comics as a kid, and so he would always talk about how you have to think about, what is that denouement going to be? What is that third step? That ten [twist] that really surprises people. That's something that has always been very close to our philosophy of level design, is trying to think of that surprise. But this realization, I have to admit, was something that occurred very recently for me. As I was describing earlier, even during development of Super Mario Galaxy 1, I don't think I had fully realized this concept yet.
During your talk, you talked a lot about the earthquake, and what meant to the development of the game, and I found that your talk was very moving to me personally. But what I found really interesting is you talked about at some point you lost track of what it meant to enjoy making something -- and if you do, how it will become enjoyable.
Was it just the earthquake that made you lose track of that, or was it something that you'd felt that you had slowly lost track of and then that moment, that insight, allowed you to regain that?
KH: So, maybe I should offer a little of background about my thinking about this entire process, instead of feelings. Mr. Miyamoto sends out New Year's cards which are always kind of interesting. One of the things that you can see in the cards that he sends out is that he's rather severe with himself about his enforcement about the need to find fun in everything. And that's something that's expressed even in his year-end cards.
And I don't know that I fully understood this myself to the same depth, but as the team leader, I felt like it was important for me to make sure that everyone had good morale, and keep up our levels of fun and interest in making games. And, of course, I myself was interested in making games, and I've always thought it was fun, but I never really dwelled on the importance of why that fun made a difference to our work.
And so it was in that one moment, when my colleague gave me the answer that he got into this line of work simply because "making games is fun", that I was taken aback. I mean, his answer was so simple, and I thought to myself, "How can I convey this to the team? I really want to tell them all about this in a way that they understand." I think that's the moment when I had that realization of its importance.
So, you can try and convey this to people in a number of ways: You can tell them a very detailed story about how turning swimming into a kind of game is a really good example of why enjoying everything is important, but it still might not sink in for some people. And I certainly know that, because that was the case for me.
I didn't necessarily apply that same rigor to finding fun in the detail of every little moment of life until that moment, when my colleague gave me that answer. I think that was a much deeper realization for me.
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