What Nintendo Can Teach Us About Game Design

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.

At the New York Film Academy’s Game Design School, the programs are built around providing a well-rounded experience, where students learn to master all disciplines of game design. Learn more here.

E3 2016: Predictions for Nintendo

Tatsumi Kimishima

Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima

It’s been a rough generation for Nintendo. Plenty of amazing titles have graced the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, but the latter has definitely left gamers wanting more. Great experiences like Pikmin 3, Splatoon, and Super Mario 3D World were superb experiences, but the lack of third party titles meant Wii U’s were left to collect dust for long periods of time.

Nintendo fans, however, are quite resilient. There’s always a high level of optimism that has them positive that their beloved game developer will soon give them what they want. From new Metroid and F-Zero games to a new console as powerful as the competition in the shape of the NX, hopes are always high.

Unfortunately, Nintendo released a wave of news recently that all but crushed most of those hopes. Not only will the NX not be released until March of 2017 but the next The Legend of Zelda title will also be pushed back to make a simultaneous NX and Wii U release possible. As if that weren’t enough, Nintendo announced that they’ll only be showing off Zelda at E3 2016—the same game we were promised to see release at the end of the year.

But as dire as all this news sounds, here’s why these decisions will help Nintendo succeed during the next console generation:

1. Good Launch Lineup for NX

If there’s one thing that Nintendo didn’t get right with the Wii U, it was preparing a launch lineup that would’ve made it irresistible from the start. To be fair, even Sony and Microsoft released their latest consoles with a less-than-stellar collection of games to play. The difference is that previous Nintendo consoles have released fantastic (and innovative) titles like Wii Sports, Super Mario 64, and Super Mario World.

Wii Sports screenshot

Pushing the NX’s launch from Holiday 2016 to early 2017 means Nintendo will have more time to prepare good games to release alongside it. We may be despondent now, but it’ll be worth the wait when the NX goes on sale with not just the next Zelda but other intriguing titles as well.

2. More Time To Get the NX Right

Nintendo took a massive risk with the original Wii. Instead of a standard gamepad and high-definition graphics, they pitched a low-spec machine with motion controls. The risk paid off as the Wii went on to sell like hotcakes and become one of the most successful consoles in gaming history.

The Wii U was a whole other story. Although the gamepad seemed interesting on paper, it’s clear that developers didn’t really find ways to make great use of it. Worse still, even Nintendo seemed like they struggled selling their two-screen concept. The extra months will no doubt help Nintendo (and other developers) figure out if whatever the NX’s big feature is will actually work.

3. Little E3 Presence, No Problem

E3 is easily the most anticipated video game trade fair. It’s the biggest opportunity for developers and publishers from all over the world to show off what they’re developing. The problem, as you can imagine, is trying to stand out when so many devs have something to show.

Star Fox puppets from E3 2015

While Nintendo always used to find a way to get people talking at E3, it seems they got tired of trying to fight for the spotlight. This is evident by their Nintendo Direct approach instead of a live conference. This year they’re apparently only having The Legend of Zelda on the show floor, which means they can use their online presentations for their big reveals.

4. More Time for Third Party Support And Mobile Growth

As we already mentioned earlier, the Wii U’s third party support was pretty sad. The fact that the Wii U’s technical specs didn’t match those of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 meant that developers didn’t feel like spending time and money to make ports. Hopefully the extended development time will give other studios the opportunity to understand the NX and make something great early in its life.

But while the Wii U loses what little steam it had and only a few worthwhile 3Ds title releases, all eyes will be on Nintendo’s mobile efforts. The success of Miitomo, which barely passes off as a game, is proof that people are excited to play Nintendo titles on their smartphone. Hopefully the reveal of a mobile Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem is only the beginning of a great 2016 for Nintendo’s mobile efforts.

The CEO With The Heart Of A Gamer: Remembering Satoru Iwata

Perhaps by the time you’re reading this it has finally started to sink in that Satoru Iwata, one of the most beloved figures in the gaming industry, has passed. It is also possible that you’ve already seen the following quote a thousand times recently:

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. In my heart I am a gamer.”

This was said by Mr. Iwata in front of thousands in 2005 at the Game Developers Conference held annually in San Francisco, California.

A loud applause echoed throughout the room upon hearing these powerful words that might have sounded empty if said by any other CEO in the industry. To everyone who knew of Mr. Iwata, whether you worked with him closely or simply enjoyed his presence in Nintendo Direct streams, it was obvious that although he led a multi-billion dollar company, he still genuinely cared about only one thing: making great games.

This passion already showed at a young age when Mr. Iwata was still a student at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Here, he worked on several Commodore Japan titles as an unpaid intern before being hired by HAL as a programmer. There he played a large role in the creation of titles still considered classics today, including Kirby’s Adventure and Earthbound, before becoming president of HAL Laboratories. In this role he saw many more great titles released, including the first entry in the very successful Super Smash Bros. series.

When Nintendo’s long-time president, Yamauchi, retired in 2002, Mr. Iwata was handpicked by him to lead the company his family had worked hard to build up since 1889. Although a great honor to be the first CEO that wasn’t directly related to the Yamauchi family, the new president knew the difficulties that were ahead. The most recent console release, the GameCube, was being pummeled in terms of sales by its competition.

However, if there was one man that had enough vision to see Nintendo pull itself out of its poor situation and rise back to the top, it was Mr. Iwata. In the next few years he succeeded by guiding the release of two of the most successful video game devices ever created: the Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii. And like most innovative ideas, Iwata and Nintendo would receive plenty of criticism upon the unveiling of both these products.

For the Nintendo DS, having two screens working in tandem while playing a game sounded confusing and tedious. Who wants to look up and down between two screens to enjoy their game?

The Wii was also predicted to be a failure simply because it lacked the specs of its competitors and did away with classic controls in favor of motion. But as both devices continued leaving others in the dust, the industry began to respect the visionary mind of Nintendo’s young new president.

Even when Nintendo began falling behind in 2011 and onward, Iwata continued showing us that he wasn’t in it for the money or position. He voluntarily cut his salary on more than one occasion to avoid having to fire other employees. His frequent presence in the Nintendo Direct series and Iwata Asks interviews gave people the ability to see a very busy president take the time to show his personality, sense of humor, and genuine adoration for the things he and his company develop for us to enjoy.

It was also in these hard times that Iwata gave an inspiring speech at the 2011 Game Developers Conference:

“Trust your passion, believe in your dream… For 25 years, game developers have made the impossible possible. So I ask you, why would we stop now?”

Although Iwata would live to see Nintendo finally turn a profit in 2015, no one can deny that Iwata still had much more to give. Satoru Iwata will always be remembered as the perfect example of just how far patience, dedication, and the courage to innovate can take you in our industry.