[What does it take to become a Nintendo studio, and to make a Nintendo game? Producer Kensuke Tanabe, who works at the company's Kyoto HQ, and Retro Studios president and CEO Michael Kelbaugh discuss the mentality that has enabled the studio to deliver great first party games.]
Making a Nintendo game isn't easy, and it's not a skill most developers in the West are steeped in. There's a specific mentality the company engenders, a philosophy and way of working that it maintains. In this interview, Gamasutra tries to get to the root of that by discussing the development of Donkey Kong Country Returns with Nintendo EAD producer Kensuke Tanabe and Michael Kelbaugh, president and CEO of Retro Studios.
Tanabe has worked with Retro since the Metroid Prime days, and has been responsible for ensuring that the developer's games maintain both the publisher's and the series' signature feel. Both the Metroid Prime games and DKCR are beloved by the series' fan bases, so clearly, the process has worked.
The two also discuss making games accessible to children without making them insulting -- preserving a sense of discovery and challenge while maintaining depth that makes them enjoyable to adults as well, something else Nintendo excels at.
What do you find the most important notes to hit when reviving a franchise, or revisiting one?
Kensuke Tanabe: Well you know, the first thing you've got to look at is the what comprised the heart of the gameplay in the original, or the other titles in the series, and make sure that that comes across in the new game as well.
For example, you look at a game like Metroid Prime, which was in first person, unlike the previous games in the Metroid series. But despite being in the first person perspective, you still had those core elements of gameplay that made a Metroid, Metroid. You had searching these environments. Those kind of gameplay bits that really comprise the heart of what the game is need to be in there, and they were.
So for example, when it comes to the Donkey Kong Country series, I think a lot of fans remember the graphics of the original very fondly and so, while we're not doing exactly the same thing, the idea is still to meet the expectations, or perhaps exceed them, graphically, to give a lot of impact to the visuals.
And additionally you know I think a lot of people have very fond memories of the background music in Donkey Kong Country, so actually those melodies have made it over intact into Donkey Kong Country Returns.
So it's really about looking at what aspects of the franchise stand as representative elements -- the things that really stand out to people -- looking at those and making sure that they remain intact in the newest iteration of the franchise.
Today has been interesting, because prior to talking to you, I talked to Iwatani-san who did Pac-Man, and in his case they took the important elements of the franchise and then just drilled down into them, and isolated them from each other, to make a different experience.
It's a similar conceptual approach, but in this case Donkey Kong Country Returns is continuing along the same lines, whereas Pac-Man Championship Edition takes the existing Pac-Man maze game and hones it, and focuses even player interactions with it.
KT: Exactly like you're saying. You know blow it out, or drill down.
And how do you identify those points that you think should be blown out?
KT: We call them "memorable moments." It's the kind of process that really relates to your memories of the game, you know? If I was to ask you on the spot, "What was Donkey Kong Country 1?", you're probably going to see a trend if you ask several people. "I remember this about it," "I remember this about it," "I remember this about it." Those elements sort of naturally sort themselves, and you can see what people felt impacted by when playing the game.
Can you talk about those memorable moments?
KT: Sure, sure. I'll give you a play-by-play. One of our goals from the beginning was to create these memorable moments. They didn't have to be significant as related to the gameplay, but they needed to be diverse. For example, the octopus [in the level background] -- the first time you see the octopus you go, "Wow that's cool," and then as you progress through the level you actually interact with him.
One of the very first elements is the big ship carrying all the bananas away. When I first saw that I said, "Wow that's really, really cool." As grand as that is, that's a memorable moment from the first time you see it.
So the goal is to try to create, at some level, a memorable moment in every level. You want to surprise the player. You want them to go, "Oh wow, that was cool! I wasn't expecting that." So we tried to from varying techniques to offer that as much as we could in the game.