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A Miyamoto design pillar: Forget characters, focus on experiences
A Miyamoto design pillar: Forget characters, focus on experiences
March 12, 2013 | By Frank Cifaldi

"We approach it not from, 'What is the next character?' But really, 'What is there within this structure of video games... from which we can create new play structures?'"
-Nintendo's irreplaceable Shigeru Miyamoto once again explains in a recent interview that he doesn't think of games in terms of IPs or characters, but in terms of how a player is feeling second-to-second.

I've been working on a side project these last few weeks that involves reading every interview with Miyamoto I can get my hands on, going back 25 years or so, and a recurring theme through all those years is just how little emphasis the man who is more often than not referred to as "the creator of Mario and Donkey Kong" puts on his characters.

"I try not so much to create new characters and worlds but to create new game-play experiences," he told Time in 2007. "If a new experience is better suited to a new type of character or world than one of our existing franchises, then we might create a new character or world around it."

And this, it seems, has always been true of his design philosophy. When Toshihiko Nakago, president of Nintendo's longtime programming contractor SRD, recently dug up the earliest design specs for what eventually became 1986's The Legend of Zelda, he found them in a binder called "Adventure Mario."

Miyamoto didn't start Zelda by coming up with an elf-like character and the princess he was trying to rescue, he started with the game itself, calling on his go-to "everyman" character to act in the starring role until he solidified how the game felt and then, by necessity, he designed a character that better suited it.

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Charlie Cleveland
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Carlo Delallana
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There's a treasure trove of knowledge that "legendary" designers could impart and I wonder if an effort to catalog them for posterity would be a good project for the Gamasutra team.

John McMahon
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Isn't this the reason we have so many bland white, male characters? The focus on gameplay over story?

Carlo Delallana
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No, the reason why we have so many bland white male characters is marketing.

Matt Spaulding
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No. Because there are so many bland white, male gamers.

Toby Grierson
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I don't think so. Once you devalue you the character, you're actually free in a way; if the character doesn't matter, the character can be anything. A glowering bird, for instance.

So why? I say: circular reinforcement.

People believe it's sellable and it feels like the default choice, so games come out with it... People then say "look at what's selling", see that it's default and maybe even blame the "bland, white, male gamers" and they'll repeat repeat repeat.

It may or may not actually matter. Anyone who isn't a white male with brown hair is enjoying games with people who don't look like themselves, so I don't buy that white males won't do the same.

Michael Branndofino
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I wouldn't say that marketing is the cause, in my opinion it would be more on the PR side. I say this because, in this day and age, when characters are created to represent anyone other than a white male, one has to be extremely careful of stereotypes. Unfortunately the least offensive, or at least easiest to defend, character is a white male. I love when games take chances on other characters. To me the whole point of playing a game is getting to experience things that you cant in reality.

But that is not the point of this article. I agree with the concept of experience first, but isn't the character part of the game play experience? If Red Dead Redemption had us play as an awkward, clumsy clown that cracked jokes every two minutes the experience would have been a little different.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Michael DeFazio
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Bland, white, male characters?

-An overweight plumber in overalls
-A family of gorillas
-A female space bounty hunter
-A pink gelatinous sphere with a mouth
-A space-bound fox

...I'm not always defensive of Nintendo, but to say their characters don't have character is not something I would levy against them... that's why characters in Nintendo franchises do so well in a game like Smash Brothers, since they are all distinct (in profile / size / shape / color palette) verses what happens when you have your standard "bland, brooding, bald, white male" Cole McGraths of the world)

Nick Harris
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No, the reason we have so many bland, white male human protagonists is because there are no innovatory gameplay mechanics forcing the orthodoxy to appear incongruous. Valve were forced to put a disabled person in one of their games due to the amount of falling involved in Aperture Science's test chambers, making her a light agile trapped woman is a natural step - Marcus Fenix would not have suited the role taken by Chell in Portal. I'm sure others can think of many fantastical characters like Kirby that couldn't even be human:

Hollywood marketing tends to rehash human male protagonists freeing vunerable females and the videogames industry tends to follow this low-risk formula. However, TV shows such as Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has had five strong female characters, with only two of them being human. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had another five, with the only human being from an ethnic minority and the space station run by a black man. So, maybe the trend is being led by Science Fiction. Uhura, anyone?

Nick Harris
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@Jerry Shamblin

Clicking on my name will provide a link to my profile. I am the Lead Designer of
the genre-fusing MMORTSFPSRPG 'Universe' (currently in production):

Although, due to the scale of this endeavour my focus has largely been on tools development so at present I am more of a Middleware Programmer. 'Universe' will encourage players to stay 'in character' by awarding them Kudos points for consistent role-play within its open world which can then be used to obtain roles that are more complex and demanding - kind of like how winning an Academy Award benefits your career as an actor. Unlike most games there won't be the orthodox pre-scripted story as much as a player history that is shaped by the
game to conform to an underlying theme through the manipulation of AI driven dramatis personae whose interpersonal relationships and machinations indirectly affect your character only as a bystander, before they entangle themselves with NPCs at the periphery of these organisations in order to build a web of trust and infiltrate their ranks. A lot of the technology depends upon the creation of some parameterized archetypes - so, just as you might create the appearance of your character through the adjustment of some sliders in Skyrim, this tool would deal with specifying their psychological makeup, childhood trauma, fears and desires so that simulation would generate convincing and gradually revealing emergent behaviour that was regulated by self-consciousness provided that they maintain their mental equilibrium. Obviously, there won't be pre-recorded speech unless I can get something similar to Douglas Adams' Spookitalk to work for me:

Localization is such a nuisance that it may just be easier to leave it all as text, although it may be something that could be retrofitted by an international group of modders if coded the right way. Cyberpunk 2077 looks to be multilingual:

Another interesting thing about character is that objects can be imbued with it. I recently saw one of the developers of Bioshock: Infinite talk about how they took a gameplay mechanic intended to swarm, distract and attack enemies and give it personality by representing it as a drinkable Vigor which enabled you to unleash a "Murder of Crows":

Which looks like this in gameplay footage:

This was further reified into a object for a charity auction:

So, I would argue that developers should try to inject personality into everything around the player, to think about the backstory behind the cause as much as the gameplay effect, to imbue objects and environments with history and character.

Christopher J
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Not necessarily. I think creators only have personal and cultural experiences to pull from. It’s sort of an “exposure bank”. So if you only have the same types of people who have, for the most part, all had the same life experiences growing up and similar tastes. It’s going to show in their products.

It’s really no one’s fault. But, most of the decision makers in the gaming industry are all the same and have roughly similar life experiences to pull from, which is (IMO) why there is a lot of similarity in most of the games that come out.

This is why it’s important for the decision makers to step out of their comfort zone and experience new things, like new foods, new cultures, read a different genera of book… or simply learn the art of creativity. It’s also important to know that if you want more authentically diverse products, there needs to be more diversity when it comes to the types of people making the decisions.

Good artists are always trying new things and searching for new inspirations to pull from. They understand how it enriches their product. Design is no exception… Suits and Decisions makers sometime don’t understand the importance of that concept.

Uzoma Okeke
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@Michael DeFazio

You named a few characters out of a vast majority of characters out there. The truth is that game characters can be separated into three main types: bland white males, non-human, and every other type of human (non-white males and white females). When you separate it into those three MAIN categories, which one is the larger percentage of what you see/remember in games?

Joe Zachery
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I really hate when this site post comments from Miyamoto here. I always have this dread of reading comments from people in the industry. Who feel his way of creating games is old, and needs to be replace. With most wanted and feeling David Cage vision is the future. While the truth to a great game is some where in the middle of the both points of view. Glad I was wrong this time.

Jerry Shamblin, I agree despite having the same characters in each game. Each new game in a character franchise always feels like a new game or a re imagining.

Chris Hendricks
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This explains, among other things, why Nintendo characters feel so well-suited for Smash Bros.

Nathan McKenzie
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To abstract this a bit, I think Miyamoto is brilliantly gesturing at understanding which constraints you let drive your project. Every project has constraints, but which constraints can't bend and which constraints can be subordinated determine what you can make, or even imagine.

I've had friends who have worked on various comic book licensed games and Star Wars and Star Trek licensed games, and the narrative space and characters MASSIVELY shrunk what style game play could be explored. It's the "Spiderman doesn't die in the comics, so he can't die in the game" thing. Not wrong, per se - maybe even right for financial reasons - but it boxes in your possibilities.

Or, more simply, start with the world / narrative space of Grand Theft Auto, and you won't have the game play interactions of Katarmi Damacy emerge out the other side. Start with the game play interactions of Katarmi Damacy, and you won't end up with the world and narrative space of Grand Theft Auto.

There's no one answer as to what focus should drive a project. But there are consequences to not asking the question and weighing the trade offs.

fabr IQ
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In all forms of design there is something to picking one element and perfecting it - or at least focusing on the essentials - whatever you determine it/them to be. Depth not breadth.

Kale Menges
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I still think it's a bloody shame this man hasn't been free, himself, to make games for the iOS/Android space...

Carlo Delallana
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I would argue the opposite. Miyamoto is a designer unlike any other because of the unique situation he is in. It's rare for a game designer to be so influential in the development of game hardware. Miyamoto may very well be the "last" of this kind of game designer.

Merc Hoffner
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Exactly. Being on iOS/Android wouldn't be freeing - it would be a constraint. Touchscreen-only interfaces as the de-facto final standard would forever limit the range of game types this man can produce, whereas at Nintendo he's almost single handedly able to shape the interface paradigms of the future. And what's the future of our interactive medium if the evolution of man/machine interface is relegated to an afterthought?

Val Reznitskaya
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I agree that when building a game, it is most important to focus on the experience. Ultimately, the game itself is just a means of delivering that experience. The various elements of the game, including any characters it might have, should work to reinforce it.

However, I think Miyamoto seriously under-emphasizes the importance of characters to that experience. I feel like instead of asking "can I do this with existing characters?" and creating new ones when the answer is "no," the better question to ask is "even if I can get away with using existing characters here, can I make this experience better by using new ones?"

I realize Mario is iconic and all, but tacking "new experiences" onto an existing franchise means dealing with all of that franchise's baggage, and that ultimately influences design. Constrains aren't a bad thing, but I think Nintendo's portfolio could be much stronger if they took a risk with a new IP once in a while.

Jonathan Jou
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I'm inclined to say that Nintendo takes risks with new IPs more than once in a while. More recent IPs would be Pandora's Tower, Xenoblade, Steel Diver, Pushmo, Mario vs. Donkey Kong, Chibi Robo, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Rhythm Heaven, Luigi's Mansion, Pikmin...

I'm almost inclined to say that Nintendo takes many chances with new IPs, and they're not all massive successes, even. Maybe people just remember the successes, or forget that Pikmin, Metroid Prime, Smash Bros, and many, many other things were all "new IPs" once.

That said, your point is certainly well taken. I would sooner point to Star Fox Adventures and Kirby's Epic Yarn as cases where a game idea was heavily influenced by franchise staples. It would be more productive for the Nintendo internal development teams not to assume that every platformer should star Mario, or that every action adventure idea is automatically going into the next Zelda game. I'm of the opinion that they don't actually go about it that way, but I certainly can imagine they scrapped a lot of ideas which might have made for wonderful new games in their own right.

Val Reznitskaya
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Funny you mention Star Fox Adventures, seeing as that game was pigeonholed into an existing franchise a good way into its development. And as Anita Sarkeesian has demonstrated in her latest video, there were some unfortunate consequences.

Also, does it really count as a new IP if it has "Mario," "Luigi" or "Kirby" in the title?

Merc Hoffner
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I think he's being gentle here because Nintendo's created some monster new genre owning IP's that hardly get recognised as games at all. Wii Sports? Wii Fit? Brain Training? Animal Crossing? Nintendogs? A lot of the time this stuff gets swept under the carpet by the 'core media', but the numbers and influence are staggering. It's true that Nintendo doesn't make new IP if you ignore all the new IP they make - it's just that the new stuff they make doesn't conform to the expectation of what 'new IP' has to be - universes with narratives. Again, this is a microcosm (or rather a macrocosm) of exactly what Miyamoto is talking about. Which do we better recognize as a clear new IP this gen? Wii Sports or Dead Space? But which is actually more important?

Still, the point has weight, and it ties back to what I think is Nintendo's greatest weakness: they only have 5000 employees! They need to make more stuff and faster, so that they'd have the schedule to make new experimental games on the backs of fresh IP, parrallel to experimental stuff with existing IP (they actually do this, but not enough of it), as well as, you know, reduce the dry spells. To increase their capacity they need more hands on deck, but unfortunately they can't grow their studios while maintaining their craftsman like quality in short order. They could have bought studios in in 2008 when they were flush with cash (and they did make a few purchases - the loss of Cing was a terrible missed opportunity), but as we've seen so many times, buying studios doesn't effectively translate into buying talent.

Val Reznitskaya
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That's fair. I probably shouldn't have used the term IP - I did mean it in the "universe" sense.

Nick McKergow
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I much prefer Miyamoto's method of character design. I don't need or want emotional depth for every character. Just make them iconic and appealing. Let the experiences determine how connected or disconnected I am to that character.

Luis Guimaraes
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Agreed. But world and NPCs are core parts of the experience. Bowser, Kremilings and King Rool are important!

Kujel Selsuru
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Mr. Miyamoto is an incredible desinger and one of my personal heroes.

Mike Murray
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Mine too!

Daniel Munoz
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I agree 100%. however I think the title of this article is misleading for the reader. because some of the comments favor characters being important and others favor the experience. His quote was "I try not so much to create new characters and worlds but to create new game-play experiences" i don't think this means forget about characters and focus on experiences, but to make experiences more memorable then the characters itself.

Nick Harris
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I totally agree with this, just the other day I was saying that games should focus their development on their controls and only once this was perfected think about an appropriate character to possess those attributes for the purpose of marketing the concept.

GLaDOS made Valve's game a marketing success, not the innovatory concept of the portal gun even though the puzzles depended upon this. The only exception to this rule of a game that has proved to be a success solely on its gameplay mechanics is Tetris - and I hate Tetris...

Joshua Darlington
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Masks and costumes are fun toys that can be instrumental to fun games.

Actual role playing is fun. Taking on a dramatis personae is a type of advanced mask or costume play.

Mass produced ANYTHING creates a degree of alienation. Limiting personalization (limiting dynamics) can increase alienation.

Bob Satori
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The only reason for having characters is brand identity. Hence "Adventure Mario." It would be nice if games could forego the characters entirely, perhaps in favor of empowering players to tailor as much of their experience to their own taste as possible (hence, better games, IMO). But in a world of brand identity it seems characters are more important than the game(s) they are in.

So designing more interesting characters is a worthy endeavor, but designing the game first is definitely the CORRECT process order, at least in anything that isn't a franchise tie-in from the ground up.