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Turning Nintendo: The Donkey Kong Country Returns Interview

What does it take to become a Nintendo studio, and to make a Nintendo game? Producer Kensuke Tanabe, who works at the company's Kyoto HQ, and Retro Studios president and CEO Michael Kelbaugh discuss the thinking that has enabled the studio to deliver great first party games.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

May 30, 2011

12 Min Read

[What does it take to become a Nintendo studio, and to make a Nintendo game? Producer Kensuke Tanabe, who works at the company's Kyoto HQ, and Retro Studios president and CEO Michael Kelbaugh discuss the mentality that has enabled the studio to deliver great first party games.]

Making a Nintendo game isn't easy, and it's not a skill most developers in the West are steeped in. There's a specific mentality the company engenders, a philosophy and way of working that it maintains. In this interview, Gamasutra tries to get to the root of that by discussing the development of Donkey Kong Country Returns with Nintendo EAD producer Kensuke Tanabe and Michael Kelbaugh, president and CEO of Retro Studios.

Tanabe has worked with Retro since the Metroid Prime days, and has been responsible for ensuring that the developer's games maintain both the publisher's and the series' signature feel. Both the Metroid Prime games and DKCR are beloved by the series' fan bases, so clearly, the process has worked.

The two also discuss making games accessible to children without making them insulting -- preserving a sense of discovery and challenge while maintaining depth that makes them enjoyable to adults as well, something else Nintendo excels at.

What do you find the most important notes to hit when reviving a franchise, or revisiting one?

Kensuke Tanabe: Well you know, the first thing you've got to look at is the what comprised the heart of the gameplay in the original, or the other titles in the series, and make sure that that comes across in the new game as well.

For example, you look at a game like Metroid Prime, which was in first person, unlike the previous games in the Metroid series. But despite being in the first person perspective, you still had those core elements of gameplay that made a Metroid, Metroid. You had searching these environments. Those kind of gameplay bits that really comprise the heart of what the game is need to be in there, and they were.

So for example, when it comes to the Donkey Kong Country series, I think a lot of fans remember the graphics of the original very fondly and so, while we're not doing exactly the same thing, the idea is still to meet the expectations, or perhaps exceed them, graphically, to give a lot of impact to the visuals.

And additionally you know I think a lot of people have very fond memories of the background music in Donkey Kong Country, so actually those melodies have made it over intact into Donkey Kong Country Returns.

So it's really about looking at what aspects of the franchise stand as representative elements -- the things that really stand out to people -- looking at those and making sure that they remain intact in the newest iteration of the franchise.

Today has been interesting, because prior to talking to you, I talked to Iwatani-san who did Pac-Man, and in his case they took the important elements of the franchise and then just drilled down into them, and isolated them from each other, to make a different experience.

It's a similar conceptual approach, but in this case Donkey Kong Country Returns is continuing along the same lines, whereas Pac-Man Championship Edition takes the existing Pac-Man maze game and hones it, and focuses even player interactions with it.

KT: Exactly like you're saying. You know blow it out, or drill down.

And how do you identify those points that you think should be blown out?

KT: We call them "memorable moments." It's the kind of process that really relates to your memories of the game, you know? If I was to ask you on the spot, "What was Donkey Kong Country 1?", you're probably going to see a trend if you ask several people. "I remember this about it," "I remember this about it," "I remember this about it." Those elements sort of naturally sort themselves, and you can see what people felt impacted by when playing the game.

Can you talk about those memorable moments?

KT: Sure, sure. I'll give you a play-by-play. One of our goals from the beginning was to create these memorable moments. They didn't have to be significant as related to the gameplay, but they needed to be diverse. For example, the octopus [in the level background] -- the first time you see the octopus you go, "Wow that's cool," and then as you progress through the level you actually interact with him.

One of the very first elements is the big ship carrying all the bananas away. When I first saw that I said, "Wow that's really, really cool." As grand as that is, that's a memorable moment from the first time you see it.

So the goal is to try to create, at some level, a memorable moment in every level. You want to surprise the player. You want them to go, "Oh wow, that was cool! I wasn't expecting that." So we tried to from varying techniques to offer that as much as we could in the game.

A lot of games for kids, they're often licensed; they're often not that well thought-through. Not that much care or respect is given to the audience, per se.

KT: That's a great point, by the way.

How do you think about like how you're going to interact with kids with this kind of game? What do you guys do to make a game that would do the opposite of that? That would be respectful to kids and excite their imaginations?

Michael Kelbaugh: I think one of our objectives, right off the bat, was to pay homage to and make a better DKC. So inherently DKC was a hard game, so as that applies to children, it's almost not accessible to a very young child. So, how did we approach that? We owed it to the fans to keep the difficulty level such that it paid homage to DKC -- but how do we let a five year old play? We took kind of a two-pronged approach.

The Super Guide, if you get stuck in a level and you die a few times, then you use a Super Guide, something that's not in DKC, and was really unheard of back then, right? So we implemented the Super Guide. It's a player choice; they could choose to use it, they could choose not to. You could choose to make the game simpler by using that play mechanic, or you can choose not to.

Multiplayer, specifically, was a real fun challenge for us, because it's unique in the sense that our goal was for a very experienced player to be able to play the game and have fun in multiplayer mode, as much fun playing it in multiplayer mode, as an inexperienced player could.

So as a father, I want to play it with my daughter, who is five years old, right? And not to be hamstrung by playing it with her and vice-versa. So in the multiplayer, specifically, we think we did a good job with that, where we merged the enjoyment level for the expert player and the novice player, and the opportunity for them to play together.

So in summary to your question, I think that we did homage to DKC in keeping that difficulty level robust, and also by incorporating features that allowed children to still approach the game.

Yeah, I think same screen co-operative multiplayer is very underrated.

MK: We're really proud of that feature.

KT: Would you mind if maybe I elaborate on that in a more general sense?

MK: Please do.

KT: So you know, it would be unfair to say that every game that we make is built to be enjoyed by every user at every age. For example, a Zelda game, I think those games would probably be very difficult for smaller children to enjoy on their own, and I think a lot of that barrier comes from controls. So for example, another thing is, if you're talking about a small enough child, even the idea of text, text explaining controls for example, can become a barrier to their enjoyment of the game.

So I think that, then, the challenge becomes to look for controls that are intuitive and experiences that are intuitive. You know, if you're roaming around and you push the A button, no matter your age, and you see something jump, then you're like, "Oh, if I press this A button I can jump," because physically this action is not difficult for even smaller children, so it's about that intuitive nature of things. I mean that's how Mario works, right? The first one I'm talking about, in particular.

But then there are people... If people then learn, "If I hold down B and then jump, I can dash and then jump." I think that that might be a challenge for smaller children to learn more complex operations like that, but for the people that are playing that game, who long for that challenge, it's at least deeper gameplay for them.

So you know, then it leads me to think that perhaps one of the core principles of building gameplay at Nintendo might be the idea of starting with a really simple intuitive core concept, one that, say, a child could learn for themselves and quickly learn to enjoy, and then build layers of additional complexity around that -- that could be enjoyed and explored by people have the skill level to exploit them. So perhaps that's how we see doing things, when it comes to finding a way to get kids to enjoy the games.

How do you allow the child to feel respected and like this game is engaging them on a level that makes them feel empowered? How do would you go about creating an environment where they're part of the process of this universe unfolding?

KT: Well so let's give an example here. In Nintendo games, if there's a need for a hint to sort of guide the player along, I think it's very unlikely that the hint will simply be, "You need to turn right." Perhaps instead it would be something more along the lines of, putting a tree with bright red leaves on the right hand side of the screen to indicate that. And instead of saying you need to turn right, there might be something like, "Look for the tree with red leaves, and that will point the way."

So those who are looking around in the environment you know will say, "Oh, I remember this thing that I saw, and I need to go this way," or, "This makes sense; maybe this is the way I need to go."

And those who haven't found it will know to search in some way, to really let the person who is playing feel empowered in the sense that they're the one who made the discovery about what they need to do. I feel like that's a really different experience from telling someone to turn right.

There's a big tendency even in games for adults, to have everything be mission objectives that are spoken down. "You've got to go there, you've got to kill that guy, and then get over there to the depot."

I feel like that feeling of discovery is really, it's an important part of the interactive medium that could definitely do with being explored more. That's not exactly a real question...

MK: Well then I won't give you a real answer. I will comment on your comment. I really appreciate the old LucasArts games. Loom is a great example, Monkey Island, because they didn't walk you right through the game. They gave you a pointer and a screen, right? It was up to you to figure it all out.

You'd never get tips or hints or anything and there'd be times where you're just going, "I cannot figure this out. I moved every single thing, I looked at everything!" And that's gone now.

There's a lot of hand-holding, and not that it's relevant to DKC and what-have-you, but I really see your point that that's missing now. There's a lot of, "We need to nursemaid the player through it," and I like those old games. I want to be challenged in the sense of "I need to look everywhere."

How do you make Retro become a Nintendo studio? Like what does that entail?

MK: It's patience, mentorship -- a lot of mentorship, a lot of help from our friends at Nintendo. It's investing in the right people. It takes time. There's not a book that I could say, "Read this and you'll know how to make Nintendo games." You learn how to do it by experience, and that's really, experience and mentorship. That's really the only way you do it.

It takes a lot of time and a lot of investment and, again, it's getting the right people. You have to hire people that are motivated by making quality product, not by how many units they sell. So it's really as simple as that, but it's not simple at all. It takes a lot of work. Ten, years, well 12 years, and we've made a lot of progress, but we don't have it down yet. We still have a lot to learn, you know. It changes. As the industry evolves, so do the demands of the developer, so it's not easy, and there are not a lot of developers that really get it.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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