Working with Nintendo, making a studio great for developers

In this new interview with the Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon developer, co-founder Jason Carr talks about fostering internal culture and what makes working with Nintendo special.
Vancouver-based Next Level games, for almost a decade, has worked exclusively with Nintendo. The company started its relationship with Super Mario Strikers for the Gamecube -- a soccer game -- and has continued it through Strikers' Wii sequel and Punch-Out!! to Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon for the 3DS, which has sold over 3 million units worldwide. Needless to say, co-founder Jason Carr's statement will come as no surprise: "We are doing only Nintendo products now." The developer's recent success has helped its relationship with Nintendo, Carr says. In this interview, Carr and Luigi's Mansion producer Ken Yeeloy talk about that relationship, what makes Nintendo special to work with, and building a studio culture that truly makes developers happy.

So as the producer, you work directly with Nintendo? You interface with the producers at Nintendo.

Ken Yeeloy: Correct. Yeah.

I'm curious about how that relationship works, from your perspective.

KY: It's funny. I said this on one of the previous interviews... People always talk about Nintendo as "Nintendo," this one big great entity. From a production standpoint, they've got tons of teams. And just like any other company out there that has multiple teams, they all actually can run very differently. So the experience on this last project was very different than the previous three that I worked on, because the group, the creative and production group at Nintendo that we worked with, was different than the previous three. So it was markedly different. The standard things that you have to deal with are cultural differences, the way of working -- you know, the standard things. So it's just about getting in a good dance step with them. And we had a really good dance step with the previous Nintendo groups when we worked on Strikers and Punch-Out!! And then [Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon], because it's a new one, it's a new "dance partner," pretty much. So you've gotta learn things. And you also learn stuff from your previous partner -- they teach you a few things, so it makes it a little bit easier. But yeah, you've got to learn a new dance step with this group as well.

Is it the stability of working with Nintendo that attracts you, or is it the fact that it's Nintendo? You ended up making a very Nintendo-like game.

Jason Carr: Yeah. When we first started the company, about 10 years ago, we worked on NHL Hitz for Midway, and it was a very arcade-y kind of hockey game. Canadians don't mind working on hockey games, it's kind of in our blood. All the stuff that we really focused on was very gameplay-centric; it wasn't massive RPG storytelling and all that. It was really what feels good in your hand, you know what I mean? Nintendo has a very similar approach. So definitely, we like to make the same sort of games, so that's a good fit. And yeah, the stability as well. I'd be lying if I said, "Oh, no. We want to throw ourselves out there [on our own]!" There are a lot of benefits to working with a first party. Nintendo's great. They give you the time to make the games good. They've done really well -- the Wii's done really well, the DS has done really well, the Wii U is not the strongest start but we trust that they'll come up with something to get it going, and the 3DS was a blast to work on. I think it's a little bit of both. It's not just one reason.

You have been doing Nintendo games for awhile now...

JC: A decade, almost.

It's been a mix of established franchises and new stuff. For Strikers, did Nintendo come to you and want a soccer game? You did both -- the first one on Gamecube.

KY: They were looking to make a soccer game internally, and wanted to make a Mario soccer game. Through their research -- they look at games that are out there, and they particularly liked one game, Sega Soccer Slam. I think they felt, "we want more of that type [of game]" -- it was arcade-y, not a sim. And they just basically tracked down the developer for that. That's basically how that came to be. JC: A lot of the guys [at Next Level Games] came from Black Box, which was acquired by EA. That's where we had made Sega Soccer Slam for the Gamecube. We, of course, as a new company, put our feelers out everywhere. We'd established some relationships, but we didn't really have the pedigree that made people say, "Hey, these are the Sega Soccer Slam guys."

It's interesting that Nintendo made the leap -- it's very Nintendo-ish. The people in charge didn't follow the name, they followed the people.

KY: Yeah, absolutely. They knew, "I need the guys who made the game, I don't just need the company." At that time in the industry there were lots of gaming companies getting built up, bought out, built up, bought out. People changing all the time, I think. JC: It is different, though. Like you say, it's very much about the people for them. We've noticed with their producer-type guys, these are all guys who have usually worked on content, art, whatever, and they've moved into roles where it feels like the creative guys are the decision-makers. A lot of the North American publishers we've worked with come from a business background. They're money guys. It's like, "Wow. It's really nice working with guys you can imagine designing a game." It's nice working with a guy who's basically controlling the path of the schedule, and he's actually a designer. And they're very responsible on the business side, with their launch dates, and all of that, and they're very secretive about when it comes out, as you alluded to. But, man, it sure is nice working with guys who understand gameplay, and games, and game experiences, and stuff like that. KY: When we work with them, it is strictly about the game, throughout the entire process. Obviously, on the production side, we have to talk about that. But the focus is driven by the quality of the game, and what is cool, and what feels good -- not how much money it's going to cost or how long is it going to take.

Have you thought about working with anybody else?

JC: We have worked with a lot of other companies before, and we're super happy with our relationship with Nintendo. There's no reason to look anywhere else. They keep giving us better and better IP to work with, and as long as we do our job and make good games for them there's no reason for us to venture out. Because we're still a small shop. We're under 70 people. We like that size. For us, we're like, why would you want to go and talk with these other guys? What's it doing for your business? The guys in the company are just really, really proud of the company and proud of the games they work on.

Of course, you have stability...

JC: As much as you can in this industry.

You've found some stability. I get the sense you have a satisfaction level at the studio, and that is not 100 percent common around the industry.

JC: No. When we first started the studio, at first it was that we just wanted to make fun, cool games. Publishers were always your boss as a third-party developer, but as much as we could control making fun, cool games, that's what we did. And the big thing for a lot of us, especially with guys getting older and having families, we thought we could build an environment where we could build games and not kill guys. Not slack off, but not throw the pool table in the studio and go "Here's some free food, and more pop! Stay here forever! Eat the magical fruit!" We realize that there's a whole life outside of making video games. And for a lot of guys, when they come to work, they're fresh, they're immersed in it, they're excited by it. They want to come to work -- they're not dragged in. It's worked out really, really well. And it's the kind of place where people want to stay -- not all the time, but when they're there, they're happy. Again, another Miyamoto-san quote, but he always asks us, "Is the team having fun? Are they having fun making the game?" It's really important that the team's enjoying themselves there, because they feel -- and I agree -- that if you're miserable it'll follow suit in your job. How are you supposed to make an engaging Nintendo game that's actually fun? We don't do the gimmicky stuff that you hear a lot about.

Free sushi and back rubs.

JC: Yeah. And don't get me wrong. We have the odd late night here and there. [But] we're not set up to incent people just to stay and demand long hours. KY: What we've built is built for the long term. When I come into the company, the reason I was brought in was to help establish the studio for the long term. They had a vision of the culture, and what they wanted the company to be about. I think we take care of people. For us that means more than just giving people stuff to do. That's not taking care of them. Taking care of them means paying attention to what you enjoy. What do you want to do? Recognizing their family lives, and working around and trying to balance all of those kinds of things. I really think the way in which we do that makes people want to stay and engage. And if you look at, pound-for-pound against the EAs -- well, yeah. EA's got a gym. EA's got free food. EA's got massages. Well, we don't have all that stuff, but yet we have people who are fully engaged, and enjoy what they do, and are happy. It's interesting that when you say "happy" -- well, how do you define that? How do you get them to that place?

Did you want to grow any bigger or are you satisfied with where you're at?

JC: We did get bigger for a while. We got up to four teams. We were about 115, 120 people. We spread ourselves way too thin. We had heard from other developer friends, "You need to have at least three teams -- that's the magic number, blah blah, blah," just from a financial perspective.

Cycling people off projects.

JC: Totally. All that sort of stuff. We just ended up making shitty games, really. We spread ourselves way too thin. It wasn't fun. I didn't know everyone's name anymore. We lost a little bit of that family kind of culture feel, so it wasn't great for us. We pared back down to a two-team company... one-and-a-half, whatever -- depends on the game, right? We have 70 people. For some games these days, that's half of a company. I have no real interest in growing. If we did grow it would be small, and because we're working on products that actually need more people. And in a lot of cases, there's so much talent that's up in Vancouver, we hire contract people in, and we can grow that way as well.

You've arrived at the point where you're happy with your internal culture. A lot of people are starting new studios now. What would you tell someone?

JC: Oh, God. KY: You better have a vision, and you'd better stick to it. And you better have 110 percent of your senior management, or whatever it is -- whatever your structure is -- believe in it 100 percent. And no bullshitting and no faking. No "I believe it this way," and then acting a different way. Because it's completely, 110 percent how they act, in your studio, day-in and day-out, that will build [the vision], and you will quickly find out who is bullshitting you and who is not. And if you have one person who doesn't believe it, they will destroy it. It will not happen. JC: Definitely having a clear path, or a clear vision. The big one for me is egos. Lose the ego. You may think you're the cream of the crop, but it doesn't work. The way we handle all of our middle management stuff is very bottom-up. Producers are there to help the guys out, get them a cup of coffee if they need it, not to order them around. It's very infectious. It's got to start somewhere, and definitely if you've got a bunch of egos running around, you're going to bury yourself.

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