Oct
19
How the inventor of Mario designs a game


This is Shigeru Miyamoto. If you’ve played video games any time in
the past 30 years, you’re probably familiar with his work. Donkey Kong. Zelda. Star Fox. And then, of course, this guy:
It’s a me, Mario! When Miyamoto makes games, he always tries
to do things differently than other designers. Here he is — back in 1998 — explaining
why he wasn’t focused on online gaming. And why he wasn’t adding small in-game purchases
to Mario for iPhone in 2016. Miyamoto has helped define a lot of what makes
a game great. So how does he do it? In 1981, one of Miyamoto’s first assignments
at Nintendo was to design a replacement for a game called Radar Scope. It had performed poorly in the US,, leaving the company with 2,000 unsold arcade units. This is what he came up with: Miyamoto based the story on the love triangle
in Popeye between a bad guy, a hero, and a damsel in distress. But since Nintendo couldn’t secure the rights
to use those characters, Miyamoto replaced them with a gorilla, a carpenter, and his
girlfriend. In later games, that carpenter became a plumber. And his named changed, from Mr. Video, to
Jumpman, and then to Mario, after this guy, the landlord of a Nintendo warehouse near
Seattle. This was one of the first times that a video game’s
plot and characters were designed before the programming. That change in approach came at a key time
for video games. When Donkey Kong was first released in 1981,
the video game market in North America was on the verge of collapse. It was saturated with a lot of different consoles,
and the boom in home computers made a lot of people question why they’d want a separate device
just to play games. But the storytelling in games like Super Mario
Bros. and The Legend of Zelda — which you could only play on Nintendo’s own hardware — helped set them apart as best-sellers. A lot of Miyamoto’s genius can be seen in
the first level of Super Mario Bros. — probably the most iconic level in video game history. It’s designed to naturally teach you the
game mechanics while you play. If you look at a breakdown, there’s a lot
of really subtle design work going on here. Though Mario is usually at the center of the
screen, in this first scene he starts at the far left. All the empty space to the right of him gives
you a sense of where to go. This character’s look and movement suggest
it’s harmful. But don’t worry. If you run into it, you’ll just start the
game over without much of a penalty. Next, you see gold blocks with question marks. These are made to look intriguing — and
once you hit one, you’re rewarded. That then encourages you to hit the second
block, which releases a mushroom. Even if you’re now scared of mushrooms,
the positioning of the first obstacle makes it just about guaranteed that you’re gonna run
into this thing. When you do, Mario gets bigger and stronger. And just like that, you’ve learned all the
basic rules in the game without having to read a single word. Immersiveness in a video game has a lot to
do with the controls — the more precisely you can move your character, the more you
feel like you’re part of the story. And Nintendo has always been a pioneer with
controllers. It was the first to have the classic setup of the directional pad on the left and buttons on the right, the first to have left and right shoulder buttons,
the first to have a 360-degree thumbstick, and the first to bring motion control to the
mass market. But with 2016’s Super Mario Run, Nintendo,
for the first time, made a game for a controller it didn’t design: the iPhone. The Wii U flopped when it came out in 2012,
and Nintendo 3DS sales are far below those of its predecessor. But the number of American gamers playing
on mobile phones has doubled to more than 164 million between 2011 and 2015. You can think of Super Mario Run as a shift
from immersiveness to accessibility. And that’s kind of been Miyamoto’s design
philosophy from the very start: make fun games that everybody can play. The rest is in our hands. “These controls direct the characters, the better your eye-hand coordination, the better you do.”