Interview:Nintendo Power June 2005
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Part I of Nintendo Power's series of interviews with the development team of Twilight Princess. This first one is with Eiji Aonuma.
Nintendo Power's Introduction:
Legend of Zelda Producer Eiji Aonuma has become something of a legend himself to the many Zelda fans who have recognized his bold vision. Meet the wizard behind the curtain, and see what he's planning for Link's next Adventure.
The Vision Guy
I can still see the audience's reaction to our Zelda trailer at Nintendo's E3 Press Event last year. I'd been curious about how people would react to the realistic-looking Zelda, and the crowd's explosive cheer confirmed that we were on the right track! Since then, my team has continued development, which involved a lot of trial and error, and still does in some parts of the design. We've explored what a 3-D Zelda game is in Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and The Wind Waker, so it's been easy to come up with good, fresh ideas, but it's been a huge burden for my team to create something that exceeds those titles. In a Zelda game, essentially many small things build into an immense experience. Since many younger creators who weren't involved in the previous games are working on this one, it's been a bit of a challenge for them to understand that spirit of a Zelda game. As we've worked on it, they've learned and grown a lot, and at this year's E3 we'll finally present the result.
Growing with Nintendo
From a young age, I liked to draw and create things – and, actually, from a very young age, my dream had been to create a robot like Astro Boy. By the time I was in high school, I decided to pursue a career as some sort of creator, so I headed off to the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music to take on the challenge of learning at Japan' best art school. Though at first I studied modern design, I got turned off by al the repetition of drawing lines and thinking about how colors fit into those spaces, so I began to see craft work as more engaging, since the sense of touch was becoming very important to my art. In particular, I became extremely interested in creating mechanical dolls – you might call them "automatons" in western culture – and crafted many of those kinds of creations. After studying art for six years, I had to figure out what job I wanted, but I seriously couldn't figure out where I'd fit best, and turned to my friends for advice. About the same time, I had a chance to interview with Nintendo, which was rapidly growing with the huge success of the Famicom (later the NES in the US). I'd played arcade games on occasion, so I knew what video games were, and I thought that it'd be a fascinating opportunity. So off I went to the interview, where I met with Shigeru Miyamoto. I showed him the automatons I'd created for my graduate work, and it seemed he liked my pieces. I got the job. Long after I joined Nintendo, I found out that Miyamoto is a huge fan of puppetry.
From Pixels to Producer
I started drawing "dot art" for early Nintendo games; however I'd soon discover that all the art I'd created over the first year would go into a very small stonelike thing – a cartridge ROM, of course. I've always been very sensitive to the tactile sense in my creative world, so that was a huge culture shock for me, and very unnerving. But I continued on at Nintendo, deciding that I'd give myself more time to experience development. Luckily, I was put in charge of directing the development of Marvelous, a Super NES game released only in Japan, which turned out to be a great experience. But I found 2-D worlds to be creatively limiting, for me, and when I found myself as one of many people working on the Ocarina of Time project, my creative frustrations went away. In a 3-D world, Link could move around, touch things and interact on my behalf. Everyone was very excited by the project, and I tried many new ideas and grew confident about pursuing my own vision – a big turning point for me as a game creator. After Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, I directed the development of The Wind Waker, but at the close of the project, I seriously considered whether I had any fresh ideas for future Zelda games, and actually told Mr. Miyamoto that I didn't want to be involved in future Zelda development! Fortunately, he persuaded me to continue with the series, and I was put in charge of the upcoming Zelda game as the producer. Perhaps Mr. Miyamoto thought that my vision – creating a multiplicity of small things to create an enormous thing, which I'd done during Marvelous – would be a perfect fit for the new Zelda.
The Whole Production
As a producer, I bring the work of several directors together to form one big project. Communication is really important. Early on, once we've decided the overall direction for a game, separate teams start working on their parts, and we meet once a month to evaluate progress and test our gameplay, if possible. But soon we sync up once each week as things progress and eventually – like right now! – even that's not enough, as the number of people working on the game grows, and everyone's constantly working very late. So then I ask all of my people to send their reports, thoughts and questions by e-mail. We all work in one huge room, so we can chat face-to-face, of course, but to keep such a huge team on the same page as we race towards completion, it's essential to document everything.
Test of a True Visionary
At last year's Game Developers Conference, where I spoke about the challenges of Zelda development, I jokingly explained the "Miyamoto Test" in terms of "upending the tea table," a classic pop-culture reference in Japan in which an old-fashioned father overturns the family dinner table when he's upset. I said that Mr. Miyamoto will do that during the final stages of game production, but it's not chaotic, since he then kindly helps the team get on the right track and "picks up his own plate." Mr. Miyamoto has chided me a little for talking about it in those terms, since now everyone at Nintendo tries to plan for his tea-table upsets! But seriously, neither of us thinks that it is the producer's job to overturn his team's work. However, I face more and more situation where I need to judge staff ideas as good or bad, and to decide whether to do them or not, and I'm developing a strong intuition about making the right decision. But how to communicate that decision – that's so important. I'm still working on that talent. Mr. Miyamoto is a great communicator, and I could never hope to be as skilled.
Zelda at Large
I'm also in charge of managing Zelda as a franchise, where I need to keep an eye on the whole Zelda property – not an easy job. We collaborated with Capcom on The Minish Cap. Fortunately for me, Capcom's director was excellent, and his developers had a great understanding of what a Zelda game should be. And they were very sensitive about not tarnishing the world of Zelda. That made my job easy. The franchise may have various types of expansions in the future – if new concepts are solid, I'll keep my eye open in order to let Zelda's world continue to unfold with even more variety.
Being Schooled by Students
Once each week, I head to Tokyo to teach the Nintendo Game Seminar. It's a little tricky to find time to be out of town right now, but it's a precious chance for me to learn how to even better communicate my experiences to others, since they're not professionals, but students who hope to work in game development someday. They share their ideas, and I try to explain consequences. The interesting thing is that I might give similar explanations to what I'd say to my team, but students will react very differently. Even when students say "yes" they might mean something completely different! It's a very practical exercise – I'm glad that Nintendo's given me the opportunity to teach.
All Work and No Play?
When I'm not at Nintendo, I'm usually spending time with my family. My child is still young, so I'm not able to go to movie theatres, but I still watch many films. Action-adventures are my favorite, and Hayao Miyazaki's movies are the ones I love the most – Miyazaki has been one of the biggest influences on my life. When traveling, I try to read books as much as I can. Most recently, I read a bizarre novel in which a town spontaneously starts a war with its neighbor for some reason. Without any long set-up, the author immediately hooks the reader into its very strange premise – I'm really impressed by this technique. I'm really into music as well, and have been listening to a lot of '80s fusion music, like Matt Bianco and Japanese guitarist Masayoshi Takanaka, and I'm also the head of The Wind Wakers (Nintendo's brass band), though it's too bad that we're all really busy right now and don't have time to practice. We usually give four concerts each year, including a welcoming concert for new employees each spring, but we may have to delay that concert this year. We wouldn't want practice to get in the way of developing the new Zelda game! It's going to be extremely exciting – count on it.