Interview:Edge February 6th 2008

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Miyamoto might be the world’s most famous game designer, but Super Mario Galaxy director Yoshiaki Koizumi is one of Nintendo’s brightest lights.

In fact, it’s amazing to consider the influence he’s had on some of the best games ever made, even from his very beginnings at Nintendo, 16 years ago. “Before I worked as a game director I worked as a script writer on Link’s Awakening,” says Koizumi. “In that game I was responsible for the entire story. So the entire idea of the island in a dream, the interactions with the villagers and the boss behaviors were all my concepts. I’ve continued to do that kind of work on following games even though my title is director. On Majora’s Mask, for example, I wrote a lot of the events that you have with the villagers, and with Super Mario Galaxy I was heavily involved in the creation of the story.”

moscalloutMiyamoto excitedly tried to describe how he felt Mario should swim – by swimming around his office “I began swimming around with him,” laughs Koizumi. /moscalloutBut it’s not that Koizumi has demanded that he have his input at Nintendo recognized as comparable to Miyamoto’s. He’s nervously twitchy in an interview situation, and it’s not until he begins to talk about his experience of working with Miyamoto that he begins to relax, and indeed it’s to Miyamoto that he attributes the quality of the titles.

“Mr Miyamoto is known for taking lots of time to create the best player experience. His demands are numerous and exacting, but I actually really like that. He’s effortless in explaining what he wants,” Koizumi explains, recounting a moment during the development of Super Mario 64 where Miyamoto excitedly tried to describe how he felt Mario should swim – by swimming around his office. “I began swimming around with him,” Koizumi laughs. “We get along well together, and time files by when we’re working. Before we know it, sometimes, it’s 2am.”

Even-handed in his praise, it’s not only Miyamoto whom Koizumi feels is important to Nintendo’s game development. “I don’t only work with Miyamoto,” he points out. “As a whole, Nintendo tends to place the customer first. We all spend a lot of time thinking about how players will react to things and trying to cater to them.”

Indeed, Koizumi’s influence is focused on player experience. “In all of the games I’ve worked on, I’d say I spent most of my time working on the player character,” Koizumi says, but he can’t help but note Miyamoto’s role once again. “Miyamoto has taught me that if the player does not feel right, this can affect the whole game. The more things a player can do, the more possibilities are available for the game. A great example is Super Mario Bros. What if Mario couldn’t jump? Even the lowliest Goomba would be unstoppable. But when he can jump, breaking blocks and stomping enemies becomes possible. So several new possibilities can open up from only one new ability. But of course, complexity can become higher. At Nintendo we call it ‘player-based design’. It’s all about the balance between fun and complexity.”

Clearly, this balance is finely nuanced: “If you think about games only as a thing that you interact with, you’re missing the possibility of immersion. The inspirations that I tend to draw on for that all come from real life itself. Hiking on a mountain and seeing a cave and thinking about what’s inside – it’s that sense of wonder and excitement I want players to feel.”

It’s the joint importance of surprise and ease of use in the player experience that Koizumi considers the core of his development philosophy: “I think of the two as a set. For example, if you’re designing a world, you have to give both to the player. You can create a world in which when they turn a corner they are amazed at a vista, something that would surprise them, but at the same time the world can’t confuse them, or get them lost. Any time that you’re trying to surprise them or do something hard or difficult in the environment, you also have to balance that with ease of play.”

Koizumi likes to ensure that the aspects of ‘ease of play’ thematically fit the projects that he’s working on. “If you want to stop players getting lost, you could include a map, but in Mario games, one of the most important things is tempo,” he explains. “In the early Mario games the levels were laid out so you’d achieve a kind of rhythm if you kept running. And we never want to break that rhythm by making someone pause to pull up a map.”

But it’s different for Zelda. “Legend Of Zelda games are all about anticipation,” he says. “You think about what’s coming next. Each room ahead of you holds a different kind of challenge and sometimes you can even imagine what it might be, based on the shape of the room if you can look at it on a map. Maps just aren’t appropriate for Mario, but they’re very appropriate for Zelda.”

Koizumi also headed the group that created Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, one of the GameCube’s most idiosyncratic, if overlooked, games, which had rhythm at its heart. Its 2D perspective was a product of a period in which he questioned the nature of 3D games.

“After working on titles such as Super Mario Sunshine I began to wonder if it was possible to continue to implement the themes of surprise and ease of play with the increasing complexity of camera controls. Until I could find a solution I decided to close off the idea of any future Mario games. I changed my base of operations to EAD Tokyo [Nintendo’s Entertainment and Analysis Division] and we decided to make a 2D action game using the bongos as the controller.”

Although it might seem divergent, the project resulted in many design ideas that were expressed in Super Mario Galaxy: “For example, when you’re moving quickly through a stage, the tempo of the music will change to match your pace. This is a musical effect matched to the user experience. Every single time you play it might feel slightly different.”

But more than just the music of Super Mario Galaxy benefited from his work on Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat. “Jungle Beat was a remarkable game – even just watching someone play it was fun,” Koizumi beams. “And I learned that the whole family had to be able to enjoy Super Mario Galaxy. I see our games being played in the living room on the big TV, not alone in the bedroom.” Co-Star mode, in which one player controls Mario and another a pointer that can interact with Mario’s surroundings, was the result – one part of Super Mario Galaxy that Koizumi is especially proud of.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Super Mario Galaxy – running around its spherical planetoids – didn’t come from Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, but is an offshoot of the same discomfort with the 3D camera that inspired it.

“We didn’t do it just because they were visually novel,” Kozumi notes. “No matter how large you make a playing field, players will reach the end and have to turn around. And the camera will have to turn around, too, increasing the chance the player will get disorientated. The best thing about spherical worlds is the unity of connected surface, which lets you run around forever. It’s hard to get lost and players don’t have to control the camera! We gained more than just a spherical playfield – we removed the need to move the camera and solved our problem of too-difficult controls.”

Did they know while they were creating Super Mario Galaxy that they were creating something so groundbreaking? “Whenever we make a game and approach a new element and begin to flesh it out, we always think: ‘Oh, this is totally new!’ and that excitement builds as we layer all of our new elements together,” Koizumi begins. “The real difficult part comes when you’ve pulled a lot of new elements together and you actually have to see how the game plays. But I try to stay on that track where I always feel like I’m doing something new.”

Koizumi remains coy about what he will work on next. He evidently enjoyed working on Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat: “A sequel, you mean?” he asks. “Oh, I can’t really talk about that…” But it seems unlikely that he will do anything other than continue to work on games that boldly shape new principles for such fundamentals as player experience, interface and the 3D camera. But now, perhaps, a little less quietly.