2. Combining the Strengths of the East with the Strengths of the West
Combining the Strengths of the East with the Strengths of the West
Nintendo’s partner, Retro Studios, was in the beginning a company of various possibilities. In 2000, Miyamoto-san decided to concentrate all of the studio’s development power on one title: the original Metroid Prime, which eventually led to the development of an entire trilogy. When discussing the development of these titles with Miyamoto-san, it was agreed that the West and the East have their own strengths, and it would be best if we could combine them. But in practice, when it came to defining these strengths, at the time, we really didn’t have a clear idea about what they were. Tanabe-san, since you have been travelling to Texas for so many years now, how would you yourself define these strengths?
Well, first of all, when it comes to Western developers, they hold very high standards when it comes to graphics. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is also their preference for realism, so for example, even when you have a simple scene where “a door opens,” they really strive to make it look cool. Their good visual sense and great ideas are hard to imitate.
Yes. When you work with a Western studio, you begin to get a feeling why Hollywood films look so great. In addition, it’s not just the visual style, but also the technical side which tends to be of excellent quality. The physics etc. are also very tightly coded. When Samus turns into the Morph Ball, or when she shoots with her cannon, things like reflections move very naturally.
On the other hand, the strength of Eastern developers is in their attention to very minute things. For example, If you have to choose one over the other, it is Japanese developers who are good at composing chronologically coherent stories. That’s why we asked them, among other things, to make a proper chronological table of the events, and to update it regularly. And then there are things to which Nintendo specifically pays much attention to. This is specifically to do with the development of the original Metroid Prime. Originally, because Metroid Prime was an FPS game, the playable character was never seen on the screen. That’s why we demanded they give the players the opportunity to have a good look at the character. We told them that, for example, when you turn into the Morph Ball, the camera should zoom back and show you Samus during the transformation. Even though it took a lot of effort, in the end, they managed to do it beautifully. However, at the time, if players wanted, they could skip this animation entirely. This may have been done in order to make the game play more efficiently, to save even a little bit of the player’s time, but we felt, “If the player can just skip the animation, the original objective we gave you won’t be fulfilled, will it?” This is why we requested they make the animation unskippable.
During my time working on the series, I have come to learn how videogames are made. I think that from all the things that I have learned, something very important in game design is imagining how the players will feel in different situations. Accordingly, when we had meetings with Retro Studios, I noticed they didn’t want things to just look cool, but they really let me know how important it is to also think about what the player would feel in any given scene and what we as the creators would want them to feel.
I can imagine that you must have had many hardships trying to explain things about games in English.
At college, I majored in Chinese, so I hadn’t used English for a while. In the beginning, I really had a hard time trying to express myself. But anyway, because of the circumstances, there really was no choice but to steadily get better at it.
Although our English may have improved, thanks to our work, our vocabulary has become really one-sided. For example, words like “invulnerable.” (Laughs)
That’s so true. That’s why we might even have trouble ordering food in restaurants. Even though we’ve used English at work for all these years, all the English words that come to mind are violent, like “to shoot.” (Laughs)
There is a lot of special vocabulary related to the world of gaming, but what do you do when you want to communicate “something like this” about the more delicate nuances of game making?
In those cases, we use body language. For example, when you are explaining the movement of a character, it is faster to just get up from your chair and show them approximately how a character should move by doing it yourself. In addition, we made use of the whiteboard a lot, too. Rather than trying to explain everything verbally, it can be much easier to get your meaning across by drawing. Of course, we also had interpreters to assist us, but relying on them brought its own problems. Even though we may be motioning energetically how, “This thing should launch up like this,”* the translators might still translate that to, “In this scene, this object starts to move upward.” Avoiding this kind of miscommunication was difficult.
In English, you don’t have as many imitative (onomatopoetic) expressions as we have in Japanese. It must have been quite hard for the interpreters as well.
When we didn’t know how to express something in English, there wasn’t anything else we could do but to try and say it in Japanese with feeling: “And then, this thing goes like, gu gu gu!” Even so, usually it seemed like they could understand what we were getting at. Usually, they just smiled pleasantly and said, “Yes, we understand!” but when it comes to e-mails and other written communication, it just doesn’t work that way. You can write “GuGuGu-!” all you want, but the reply that you will get is inevitably, “We don’t understand!” (Laughs)
If I remember correctly, your business trips to Texas began with Metroid Prime 2?
During the development of Metroid Prime 2, there was a period when we were a bit behind schedule. Three months before the deadline, I asked the staff about how far along the game was, and they told me that it was “thirty percent ready.” My face went ghastly pale. (Strained laugh) I had been told from [Nintendo] headquarters that “The game must be ready for the sales war this Christmas season. It can’t be delayed.” So there really was no other option for me but to confine myself in Texas to work with them!
Even so, 30% ready, three months before the deadline? That must be essentially impossible.
I think that the people at Retro Studios must have felt there was still a lot to do on the game.
I feel that one of the key differences between the West and the East is that while Western games have very charming graphics, bold and flashy structures, and elaborate and advanced programming, when it comes to bits where you would think, “If you polish this just a bit, it would be better,” surprisingly they are left as they are. Maybe you could say this is due to differences in game development culture.
Western developers make a proper blueprint in the beginning, and then they proceed to make the game exactly according to it. And then various staff members focus on their specialties, producing the game in an efficient fashion. I think this is part of their culture. But at Nintendo, it is only after we have a working prototype of the game that the actual game development process begins. This is an aspect where our approaches differ greatly.
If your team believes game development should proceed exactly according to the original blueprint of the project, it may be harder to convince them to make a sudden change at the very end of a game’s development. Even so, when it comes to Western methods and Eastern methods, you can’t easily say one is better than the other. In the first place, there is no way a game like Metroid Prime could have been made in Japan, but equally, if it had been made by a Western company alone, I don’t think it would have had quite the same flavour as it does now. It might be the age of video conferences, but to have the same “Oriental seasonings” as the game does now, it seems to me that your frequent trips from Kyoto to Texas were necessary. By the way, how long does it take to go from Kyoto to Retro Studios’ headquarters in Austin, Texas?
Because there is no direct flight from Japan to Austin, I think it takes about 25 or 26 hours.
So all in all, it takes more than one day. Thank you for all your hard work!