GDC 2012: Super Mario 3D Land: From adversity to joy
In a moving talk, Koichi Hayashida, the director of the first true 3D Mario game, explained how last year's earthquake helped him understand what's truly important when developing games.
"At the moment, I thought, 'This is it, I could die," said Koichi Hayashida, the director of Super Mario 3D Land, recounting his experience of the massive earthquake which hit Japan on March 11, 2011.
At the time, he and his team at Nintendo EAD Tokyo were developing the game -- and, in fact, he recalls, he was explaining the design of one of the levels of Super Mario Galaxy 2, another game he directed.
"The office was closed for a week," he said. "We weren't sure whether we would be able to continue development in Tokyo at all. No one knew."
Developers, he said, can understand "how damaging the loss of even one week could be" to a schedule, and that alone caused him stress.
But beyond that, he said, "I didn't know what to do with myself at the time."
When the office reopened, he told the development staff, "We're all asking ourselves what we can do to help right now. I think that bringing smiles to the faces of people with a fun game by the end of this year is maybe something only we can do."
Still, he said, he lost sight of this in the face of the uncertainty after the quake.
"I had to ask myself, 'Is it really possible to enjoy your work under these conditions?'"
"About a month after that, I asked one of our team members why he had gotten into this kind of work. The reason he gave was 'Because making games is fun'."
This statement reminded him of working on his first game in 1991 -- a Japan-only NES game called Joy Mecha Fight, which he began developing during a game seminar taught by Shigeru Miyamoto.
This helped him realize, once again, that "making games is fun in and of itself," said Hayashida.
He originally had thought of the project as a way to build on the legacy of the 3D Mario games that came before -- but after that experience, he began to realize the true importance of joyfully creating.
This led him to bring the team closer together, making a more tight-knit style of development the norm for Super Mario 3D Land.
For example, "I don't normally do this kind of thing, but I thought it would be fun to get a group picture of our team," said Hayashida.
"I am so very proud of our team," he said. "Enjoying work was a great source of strength for me after the earthquake."
The team started having weekly group playtests 3D Land, where all the developers sat in the same room and played together, instead of working at their desks alone. This "felt sort of like playing games at a friend's house while we were kids." In turn, "thinking about how to have fun made a real difference to us here."
"It became very important, more than ever, to think about the need to enjoy everything, from the point of view of team management, even," he said.
"Enjoy Everything," as it turns out, is a mantra handed down by Miyamoto to Hayashida, and though it wasn't Hayashida's original concept for the development of 3D Land, it took over by the end of development.
"Enjoying making something leads to making something enjoyable," said Hayashida.
After the game was released, a Japanese player wrote a letter to the team, thanking them for the game:
"This game has been like a light finally shining into what has been such a depressing time. I feel like this game has given me the power to go on living," the player wrote. "It's something like a miracle. It's helped me remember pure feelings from a more innocent time. I want to thank the development team."
"As game developers, our work is special," said Hayashida. "All of us here can put smiles on very many people's faces with our work."