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Best Of GDC: Developing Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Gamasutra is continuing to showcase previously unposted write-ups of the best lectures from its canonical GDC coverage all week - and this one covers Masahiro Sakurai presenting a 'premortem' of hotly awaite
[Gamasutra is continuing to showcase previously unposted write-ups of the best lectures from its canonical GDC coverage all week - and this one covers Masahiro Sakurai presenting a 'premortem' of hotly awaited Nintendo Wii title Super Smash Bros. Brawl.] Masahiro Sakurai, half of consultation and planning services company Sora, Ltd., started out his session by bursting into song. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I just broke into song because I'm a bit nervous.” Perhaps it was the large group of photographers crowding around the front shooting flashes at him shortly before the lecture started, eager to get a picture of the Super Smash Bros. Brawl designer before the audience cameras would have to be pocketed for the remainder of the hour. Sakurai noted that the Brawl development team was mostly a mercenary force, consisting of freelance developers. There was a small group of freelancers that hailed from Game Arts, while HAL Laboratories, developer of the earlier games in the series, had little representation in this latest iteration. Designing Characters Most of the session's time was devoted to the process of developing the game's characters. Despite the slow but steady way in which consumers found out about the game's new characters over the last year, the character roster actually was finalized in 2005. Development stuck with these characters for the majority of the time, but a few others managed to sneak in extremely late, notably Sonic, which was added in 2007. For Sakurai, character individuality was key in choosing which characters made the cut. Of course, development cost and game balance effects were taken into consideration, but the individuality, especially amongst the growing character roster was the most important factor. Sakurai noted how new characters like Ike, Metal Knight, Zero Suit Samus, and Solid Snake all represented greatly disparate styles of motion and fighting. Despite these differences inherent in the characters themselves, great care was made to assure that all the characters felt the same visually. “Even though the Wii is not HD, you still run into a gap when representing characters from different series.” He showed examples of how use of color and details in textures can help characters integrate with each other's styles. Besides showing how characters changed in making the transition from earlier games to Brawl, Sakurai showed how characters can evolve significantly from their official, Nintendo Co. mandated designs. No character changed as much as Pit, who had not been redesigned for about two decades as his series hadn't received new titles in that span. Sakurai walked the audience through the numerous changes made to Pit as the developers conjectured how he would have evolved had he the dozen or so games of evolution that other Nintendo characters had. Sakurai then described some of the basics of the fighting game system. In Brawl, the motion of character attacks is defined by four states: standby, windup, attack, and follow-through. He encouraged the audience to recognize that though a character might be going through a human-like motion, that does not mean the character should have human like timing in animation. The Smash Bros. series, for example, often has a suspension of a frame during the attack portion of the animation, and this often feels perfectly natural. Communication and Observation In terms of conveying the actual animation and motion to the team's artists, he found it difficult to do so completely using hand motions and relating it through words. Sakurai found the solution in Microman figures which he could pose in various ways. He would represent a whole attack animation as a series of photographs of a Microman in various poses. Sometimes he would use extra effects or drawing to further communicate the attack motion. Despite the vast differences in physiology between characters in Smash Bros., he found the figures to be useful in conveying all characters, from a thin and lithe Samus, to the oddly moving and strangely proportioned Wario, to the weapon wielding and rotund Metal Knight. Sakurai cautioned designers to be very observant of all of the invisible elements that are essential components of the characters. Speed, inertia, hit back strength, attack power, and other elements that aren't easily seen must be constantly and often minutely adjusted in order to achieve the proper balance and consistency of that balance. “Hitting the mark here may well be the most important thing you do in your game,” he noted. He brought the topic back to character individuality, noting that these invisible parameters are often the source of the character. Sakurai compared the descent of Mario's jump to that of Samus's. Where Mario's games often focused on accurately landing on points on the ground, Samus's games concerned shooting things that existed in various points in the air. The difference in the games here is what contributed to the difference in the characters, and despite the importance of balancing this difference must remain. The Responsibility of Designers Sakurai insisted that game designers think before they act. They must not underestimate the fact that their actions affect the workload of many people. “If you think before you act, you reduce the workload for programmers and artists,” he said. While he suggested that if the development starts with a grand plan, that afford flexibility for later in the project, he encouraged designers to not fall back to the old adage: “You never know until you try.” He also encouraged the designers to think about marketing and make use of it. Sakurai showed how the Smash Bros. Dojo website was instrumental in creating a large amount of buzz for the game. “No matter how good a game may be,” Sakurai insisted, “You can't be lazy about getting your game known.”

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