What Nintendo Can Teach Us About Game Design

August 10, 2018

By Scott Rogers – Instructor, New York Film Academy Game Design

Nintendo recently celebrated its 46th year of creating video games, and with the exception of a few growing pains, the Japanese company has been an industry leader since the 1980s. How has Nintendo lasted so long in a very competitive market?

One important key to their success is great game design. And great game design begins with great designers.

The Entertainment Analysis and Development (EAD) is the team that creates Nintendo’s great game design. The team is staffed by “planners” — a position which combines game design with a secondary discipline such as programming or art. It is Nintendo’s belief that all game designers should possess a variety of skills, not just in game design.

When the New York Times asked “what kind of person would Nintendo hire,” EAD leader and legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto replied, “I always look for designers who aren’t super-passionate game fans. I make it a point to ensure they’re not a gamer, but they have a lot of different interests and skill sets.”

Miyamoto knows this from experience. It was his skill in art and love of classic cartoons that led to Nintendo’s first hit video game: Donkey Kong.

Nintendo’s design philosophy is simple; start with a unique idea, concentrate on the “primary action,” go for an emotional experience, teach as you play, and repeat what works.

Start with a unique idea.

During the ‘90s, Nintendo was engaged in a battle with Sony PlayStation. Sony was producing games with expensive pre-rendered cut-scenes that felt like movies.

When Miyamoto was asked if Nintendo should follow suit, his answer was “No.” Instead, he created Pikmin; a real-time puzzle game about a miniature astronaut who recruits an army of aliens to help him fix his spaceship. It was unlike all of the other fighters, shooters, and platformers on the other game consoles of the time. Pikmin was a huge success on the GameCube because of its unique concept.

Concentrate on the “primary action.”

Before he was named Mario, the hero of Donkey Kong was called “Jumpman.” It’s pretty much all Mario does in the game, and as the games evolved his jump became more expressive and flexible. In the classic Super Mario Bros., the jump became an essential part of the design. He can only defeat enemies by jumping, can only break blocks by jumping, and can only finish a level by jumping.

Jumping in the Mario games is what is known as the “primary action” of the game. The “primary action” is the player action from which the rest of the gameplay flows. If a hazard, enemy, or obstacle can’t be overcome by jumping, it doesn’t belong in this game.

Repeat what works.

The classic Super Mario Bros. level 1-1 only uses nine gameplay elements: Treasure Blocks, Breakable Blocks, Goomba, Pits, Pipes, Platforms, Mushroom, Coins, and Piranha Plant. By combing and repeating these elements in a variety of configurations, Miyamoto creates the greatest level in gaming history. These mechanics are so successful that they are used to this day in the most recent Mario games, where they form the foundation of the vocabulary of gameplay.

The lesson is simple. Use a limited amount of gameplay elements and see how many times you can combine them. You will be surprised by the amount of gameplay even a few elements will create.

Go for an emotional experience.

“When I create a game,” said Shigeru Miyamoto, “I try to focus more on the emotions that the player experiences during the game play.”

Whether it is the wonder found in epic vistas like in the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, fear of the unknown as in Luigi’s Mansion or the pleasure of discovery experienced in Pokemon, all of the Nintendo games strive to capture a core emotion within the player.

Ask yourself, “What emotion do I want the player to experience?” Then, drive rive all design decisions towards achieving that emotion. If you need some help, just recall your favorite games or movies and the emotions they aroused in you.

Teach as you play.

Even back in the day when video games had manuals, players often didn’t read them. Players preferred to learn the game as they played. Nintendo was well aware of this fact and strived to create games that taught as they played.

Miyamoto has often said about World 1-1, “within that one section … the player would understand the concept of what Mario was supposed to be and what the game was about.”

Each new mechanic, hazard, and enemy is introduced in isolation, which allows the player to recognize it and understand its behavior. As the game progresses, new mechanics are introduced along with the opportunity to learn how it operates and combines with the rest of the gameplay.

By repeating this design system of “introduction-combine,” the players won’t need to stop playing the game in order to understand how all the elements come together.

While you might not design a blockbuster hit like Nintendo with your first game, using their design principles will give you some great tools that you can use for the rest of your game design career.

Learn the fundamentals of video game design, artwork, and storytelling with our variety of hands-on, intensive game design programs. Visit our Game Design Discipline page to find a program that suits your interests and schedule.