In a lecture that Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario, Zelda, Nintendogs, etc) gave to Toyko University in 2003, he talked about how he gets a game completed:
First you have to decide what to complete the game around. “This is what the game’s about!” You have to fish out the core, the fun part of the game. However, the director has his own desires; he wants to put this and that into the game. Plus, if everyone in the project is just trying to get along with each other, then it could all fall apart. You fall into the dilemma where the guys up top are like “Are you working, or what?!” and the guys down below are like “See, it’s the people up top! What can you do?”, and the project begins to go haywire. When it gets to that point, I bust it all out in a conference. People refer to that point as the time where I “knock over the table”. I’m not a nice guy; if I was a nice guy I’d just sidle up to people and say “Why don’t you do this?”, but no, sometimes you have to bite down and show that, like, “I’m stroonng!” (laughs) When I flip out, it’s because I’m being sincere in my desire to get something done with the project.
The first time I read this, I had this wonderful image in my mind of Miyamoto literally storming into a room and upending a table in front of dozens of developers. I really thought that was what happened, until earlier this evening, when I read an interview on Nintendo.com about the development of Wii Fit, a fitness game.
Most interviews on corporate websites tend to be self-congratulatory, anodyne, and devoid of any useful insights; and the bigger, the company, the worse the interview. So, with Nintendo being an enormous company, and the interview being conducted by the CEO, you would expect it be approaching the informational equivalent of absolute zero. And yes, the interview is somewhat self-congratulatory. Then again, Wii Fit is a completely original game and it sold a million copies in Japan alone, so maybe they have some reason for that. However, it certainly doesn’t lack insights.
What struck me about the interview is the perverse delight that both Satoru Iwata (CEO) and Shigeru Miyamoto (game designer) take in tearing up schedules, changing decisions at the last minute, and providing apparently useless feedback:
Miyamoto: At first, I’d have them bring me what they’d made, only to repeatedly send them away again, saying things like “No, that’s not quite it”.
Now, this occasionally happens to me, and I just hate it. I suspect the people who Miyamoto talks to hate it as well. The difference is, it seems, is that Nintendo appear to have all the time in the world to let Miyamoto keep on saying “No, that’s not quite it” and eventually they’ll come up with some multi-million unit-selling game.
Then we come to my favourite part in the interview, where they revel in the whirlwind of chaos that ensued later in development:
Iwata: Early revisions of the Wii Balance Board [a custom accessory that comes with Wii Fit] would only let you balance left and right. But with four sensors, you could balance left, right, forwards and backwards, and not only did the specifications change greatly because of this, but it seems the design also underwent a long process of trial and error.
Miyamoto: Since the basis of this plan originally began with a scale, the first Wii Balance Board concept was almost perfectly square like a bathroom scale. I tried getting on it and doing a few exercises, but it just didn’t feel right. After I tried doing push-ups on it, I told the staff that I wanted them to change the dimensions to make it roughly shoulder-width, but they immediately responded with excuses like “it’ll cost more if we make it bigger, you know.”
Iwata: Since it comes bundled with the software, there must have been a strong desire to reduce the cost wherever possible, even by a single yen.
Miyamoto: Well, it was me who was telling them to reduce the costs in the first place, so I can’t really blame them! Though the square version of the Wii Balance Board really did feel uncomfortable, the design had already come pretty far, so we knew really we had to pull our socks up… (wry smile)
Iwata: Ah, here it is – your last resort, upending the tea table! [also known as ‘Chabudai Gaeshi‘, and described as “Don’t like what’s for dinner. Upend the table and get a new dinner made. Action of Old-Fashioned Japanese Fathers. Doing So Now Would Destroy the Family”]
Miyamoto: (laughs) When I asked them “Can’t you choose a size based on the width of a person’s shoulders?” they told me “But if we do that, the strength will change and it’ll end up making things very difficult.”
Iwata: I remember the stunned look on the face of the hardware planner when the size of the Wii Balance Board changed.
Miyamoto: Well, I was hoping he’d start to smile in the end, but… I am truly sorry about that, though.
It was here that I realised that Miyamoto didn’t actually upend any tea tables. Another childhood dream shattered.
The thing that impresses me about this exchange is the off-hand acceptance that last-minute changes in fundamental game design are simply unavoidable. You will inevitably come up with new and better ideas later in the design process, and that presents two choices – you can either ignore them because you want to release the game on time and you don’t want to piss anyone off, or you can incorporate them, piss off a whole load of people, and make a better game. Evidently Nintendo don’t even feel that this is worth debating, opting for the latter wherever possible. At least they feel bad about it when it happens.
Lest you think this is some one-off incident that is only being recounted to show how cool they are, it comes up again later on, this time with Iwata being the culprit:
Miyamoto: …By the way, didn’t you upend the tea table this time as well?
Iwata: We’ll get to that later… (laughs) Originally, the Wii Balance Board had a cord that connected to the Wii Remote, which it used to send wireless signals to the Wii console. With this setup, the costs were kept down.
Miyamoto: Well, I’m quite frugal that way! (laughs) Also, attaching new peripherals to the Wii Remote is one of the Wii concepts, so I was hoping to do something like that, until you told me it would be awkward …
Iwata: I just couldn’t see myself kneeling down to plug it into the Wii Remote just to measure my weight. I also thought it was better not to force our customers to do so, either. That’s why I insisted on this point. You could probably say that was the extent of my influence on the specifications of Wii Fit. (laughs)
Miyamoto: Indeed. But thanks to that influence, we ended up with deluxe specifications! (laughs) When we made it so that you plugged the Wii Board into the Wii Remote, we also had an additional safety concern of what would happen if you accidentally stepped on the Wii Remote. So that issue was resolved, and the appearance of the Wii Board became much more streamlined as well.
Iwata: This way, it really is easy to weigh yourself every day. I think if you had to attach or remove the Wii Remote every single time, it would detract from the simplicity.
I think that in countless other companies, the decision here would have been simple – have the Wii Remote connect to the Balance Board and save a bunch of money. Who cares about the user having to kneel down?
Often, the process of development trumps any other considerations. If you have a good idea late in development, tough luck – you should’ve mentioned it earlier, when we had time to implement it. And unfortunately I think this is really tough for many companies that have to work to external deadlines – they often don’t have the money to keep things going, to change the shape of the Balance Board at the last minute. The ones that can really afford to get things perfect – the Nintendos, Apples and Pixars of the world – are all extremely independent, wealthy companies. We all know how they maintain high quality, simply by their unswerving focus on excellence, no matter the time. The question is, how did they get there?