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Going Inside The 3DS

Griptonite Games studio head JC Connors discusses his experiences with the Nintendo 3DS hardware as one of the first external developers to work with it, and how the new handheld is best served from technological, design, and art perspectives.

As the studio head of Griptonite Games, Foundation 9 Entertainment's go-to studio for handheld projects, JC Connors has been working with the Nintendo 3DS for some time now.

The studio, which has almost 200 developers, has produced over 30 games for the original DS, including titles like Age Of Empires: Mythologies, Bionicle Heroes and Neopets Puzzle Adventure, and and has had its hands on several different revisions of Nintendo's newest hardware.

His studio has more than a few projects for the handheld in active development for multiple publishers, and has spent time researching the best ways to take advantage of Nintendo's new handheld both from a design perspective and technologically.

Here, Connors shares some of the insights that his studio has uncovered as it has explored the hardware, including his thoughts on how to best handle the 3D technology from design, art, and technological perspectives, and also in terms of appealing to the likely audience for the handheld.

How did you come into 3DS development, and when did you find out about the hardware?

JC Connors: Griptonite and Foundation 9 as a whole has always been one of the biggest, baddest DS developers. Just in this studio, I think we've done over 30-something games now. Our sister studios like Backbone and Sumo have always done a lot of games.

So, when it came to working on this new hardware, we were kind of like a no-brainer choice for folks to contact us and kind of start to talk to us about it and leverage our handheld expertise on it.

So, about six months ago, we got contacted with the opportunity to start thinking about the next hardware even as the hardware itself was still kind of getting defined and formed into what everybody would see at E3.

Can you give me a little behind-the-scenes of how Nintendo revealed this to you? I've heard that the 3D wasn't a sure thing at first, and that some developers learned of the 3D capability later than they learned of the new hardware itself.

JCC: Yeah. We were contacted through a third-party publisher about the hardware, and so we would kind of hear things second-hand for quite a while. And like anything, we've done so many launch titles for other platforms, and it was very similar, where the hardware does keep changing.

You know, you keep finding out new information on it every couple weeks, and we did find out about the 3D after we had started looking at the specs of the hardware, so yeah, that's definitely true.

The 3D was a big surprise -- a very pleasant surprise, too. We always kind of felt like, when we were looking at the original specs without the 3D, that, you know, we've worked with Nintendo for so long, we knew something was coming. Nintendo's always that company that tries to surprise you with some feature.

We had an inkling that Nintendo wasn't quite done yet, and so when we found out about the 3D, of course we were really excited. And that was the impetus for kind of rebooting our entire approach to the platform and to the tech, because we knew once that 3D was revealed, that changed the way we had to treat the development of games.

Can you explain what you mean by that?

JCC: Yeah, absolutely. Every discipline has to really sit down and figure that out. So, for the tech guys, it was, "Okay, how are we going to support this new feature engine-wise," because it was something that not any other hardware has really done. So, we had to think about, you know, what it meant for the engine. I mean, you're rendering a lot more now. You have to figure out how to get that to work in a way that makes it really suit the game.

Art-wise, you know, suddenly art direction was absolutely critical. I think this is stuff that the movies have discovered where when you're dealing with 3D, you can make a lot of art direction choices, some which will look really great; some of them won't look as good. And so all of our artists had to start experimenting and figuring out how to make this really pop off the screen and look great.

And of course, you know, the hardware is powerful enough now, unlike the original DS, which was sort of like the Nintendo 64, where you were always limited. The gloves are off with this piece of hardware. You can actually really push it and do things that some of the next-gen consoles are doing. So, for art, it was absolutely a big reset.

And then design-wise, too, it's like, the 3D is cool and all, but the real trick is how do you use the 3D in combination with the hardware's other features to make something really unique? Because the 3D gives opportunities for gameplay, with things kind of coming both in and out of the screen, which you can never do before.

We kind of went into this big mode of experimentation, which we were really happy to do because for handheld games, we haven't had to do that a lot in the last few years. And everybody was comparing notes and trying out new things. Everybody was just super excited about it.


At E3, one of the main points that they were making was that there were a whole lot of third party developers on board, creating titles that you wouldn't necessarily expect to see as launch titles for a Nintendo handheld.  Do you sense that Nintendo is trying harder this time around than with the DS to get third parties on board right away?

JCC: I think so. I can't comment really on Nintendo's strategy at all here, but I think the third-party publishers are taking this a lot more seriously. Certainly, the video game market has changed a lot over the last year.

You know, a lot of the casual games that really bombarded the DS marketplace have now moved onto other platforms like the iPhone, so I think everyone looks at this as an opportunity to kind of bring something special back to the gamers.

As the DS became more and more casual... Everyone looked at the 3DS with just how powerful it was, and the new features, the analog stick and the 3D, as an opportunity to bring almost console-level quality games to this handheld because they could. On the DS, you really couldn't.

And that's something that, you know, we've learned over the last six months. You can't treat this machine as just a DS plus. You almost have to treat it like a console, because many of the things it can do are things that consoles can do. So, you know, why not bring a more "gamer" experience to that platform, if it can do really well with it.

You had mentioned some of the design opportunities that you have on 3DS. How have Griptonite's designers been approaching 3D from a design standpoint? How do you take 3D in games from just a cool-looking effect to something that's actually integral to how the game is played?

JCC: Yeah, I think there are two big areas... The first is the character's, or game's, point of view, the perspective.

All the designers have to take that into account, because there are certain things in 3D that you really have to respect -- what the viewer is looking at. They're not looking at the whole screen. They're looking at parts of the screen. So, you kind of direct the player's attention a lot more in 3D.

It brings new design challenges, but also new opportunities, because there's more chances surprise players with events or camera changes or things that characters can do that they've never seen players do in games before.

Because I think, for us, we're really focusing on, "How do we surprise the player with this feature? How do we give the player those moments of pleasure where they see something they haven't done before, and they can do something they haven't done before?" Whether it's going into the depths of an area where they've never been able to [that, or] integrating it all into the mechanics.

Even the basic things like climbing, in 3D. That gives you such a better perspective for the world than it does in 2D. And so that lets you do whole new moves and different kinds of character abilities that maybe haven't been seen in video games. And when I talk about experimentation, that's a lot of what we've been doing, setting up scenarios in our engine and letting designers play with them, really just trying to get ahead.

And some of these features may get into games and some of them may not, kind of just trying to find little moments that can really surprise the player and make them go, "Wow. This is really new. I haven't done this before."

It's more complicated hardware than the DS. Is there any concern on your part about the rising costs of development, that these games could cost as much or maybe more than a Wii game?

JCC: You know, I think that's pretty much in line... There's certainly no concern for us on that at all. Griptonite itself, and this is true of all F9, too, we all scaled from very small, tightly scoped DS games all the way up to big bad hardcore console games. And so, there's always a place for that.

Even on the DS, we've seen pretty big ranges in terms of dev cycles, timelines, expectations, and the staffing resources that a game may have. So, we're actually really encouraged by it.

I think Mr. Iwata said that the cost may approach a Wii game. That's our conclusion, too. We've known about that for a while, so we're happy to see it go that way. We think that gamers are going to start demanding higher quality on this platform. I think that will be great for the market and the industry in general.

Now you can tell me exactly what you're working on for the 3DS. [laughs]

JCC: [laughs] No, no. Unfortunately, I can't. Soon, though. Very soon.


Can you give any background on the projects you're working on?

JCC: Not really. I can't really go into a lot of details on individual projects right now.

We've always had a big stake in kind of action adventure games here, and we think those are going to be fantastic on the handheld. So, I will say that we are definitely working on some action adventure games for sure. We're working on kind of unique mechanics within those to kind of plug in and give players something new.

How does your studio's background fit into that?

JCC: I'm pretty confident we just have a huge advantage now because we've been working on this thing for so long. When we first got the specs, as far as thinking about what the end result was of the games that we needed, we realized we needed a serious kind of reboot to our technology.

We took console elements from our console engine, and we kind of combined the best of our console engine with the nimbleness of the handheld engine. So, we've got this new engine. We're calling it the Atomic Engine, which is basically designed from scratch for the 3DS. And a lot of the things I was talking about before in terms of various types of art direction and genres, everything in it has been geared towards the 3DS.

I think developers who are starting with their DS tech base and thinking they can kind of port it up and be good to go, I think they're in a lot of trouble. I think that you really need an almost console-level expertise to really take advantage of Nintendo's new hardware. And so the software experience we've had in terms of thinking about the design elements and how to handle 3D the right away combined with the tech advantage we've had, which is further kind of compounded by...

You know, F9 is a pretty big company. We've got 650 folks across six studios, many of which are working on handheld and 3DS stuff. So, we share tech all the time. So, we'll take the physics engine from console games and integrate that in. You know, any engineer in the entire company is available to work on this engine depending on the project they're on. So, I think already we have an engine that is six months, you know, ahead of everybody else. I think that in time, that advantage will even grow more.

So, it sounds like it's more complicated than taking an existing game and just splitting it into two different fields, doubling the visuals to create the effect.

JCC: Yeah. I don't think that will work at all. You know, I think that anybody that tries that will realize very quickly that this is not the platform for that. And I think that's a good thing. I think that gamers are ready for new handheld experiences, not just kind of ports of old games.

I think that we're going to see some really cool, innovative stuff coming out. I think that it may be easy for people to underestimate this platform because they may look at it and go, "Well, this is just another DS," and it's absolutely not. This is a console that is full of surprises both on the development and on the hardware end. You have to take this thing seriously.

And the way that you and others have been talking about it makes it sound like it could be skewed to include more hardcore audience and more of a hardcore game library --  do you think so?

JCC: Yeah. Certainly a lot of the titles that have already been announced steer that way. I'm a hardcore gamer, and I can't wait to get my hands on this thing because I think there's going to be some really cool games for that audience coming out, for sure.

But, you know, I've got a little daughter who also can't wait to... I was trying to describe to her the 3D effect. She can't wait, too. I think Nintendo's great at making a platform to appeal to everybody, and I think they'll absolutely do this, but I think there will be more for everybody.

I just want to emphasize how excited I am about this platform. I think the screen is just gorgeous. I assumed you got to look at it at E3?

Yeah. I played one that was attached to a model with a steel cable.

JCC: [laughs] Oh yeah. No, it's great. A lot of [the 3DS software at] E3 was video demos, and I can say in terms of visual quality, there was no trickery going on. A lot of the games are really going to look like that. But once you actually start playing a game and get immersed in it for more than a couple minutes -- or tethered to somebody -- it's great. It really sucks you in. I think it's going to be huge.

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