How Platinum designed and tuned Nier: Automata to 'feel' good

Game director Yoko Taro talks about how the game's multi-layered narrative was designed, while game designer Takahisa Taura digs into the nuts and bolts of how it was tuned to 'feel' good.

Platinum Games made waves last year with Nier: Automata, an action-RPG about that androids that asks what it means to be human.

At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco today, game director Yoko Taro and game designer Takahisa Taura took the stage (along with a translator) to chat about about the game came together -- and the challenges they faced along the way.

“When it came to Nier: Automata, we at Platinum Games were especially concerned with making the responses to the player input 'feel' really, really good,” Taura said. “If pressing a button doesn’t cause an immediate action, then the player will become frustrated while playing. And if playing is frustrating, then it’s not going to feel good. It’s pretty simple.”

For Platinum, speed is often a critical factor. Taura said the team wanted Automata players to see a response as soon as they pressed a button, and so the devs took pains to ensure actions like jumping and dodging could always be executed immediately.

“So in games where dodging is important, like Automata or Bayonetta, we try to make sure there’s never a time you can’t dodge,” he added. “We make sure of that right from the very beginning.”

“However, in the final game [Automata], there are certain situations when you can’t dodge, such as when you’re in the middle of taking a hit,” he continued. “So we set a special flag to disable dodges, so you won’t be able to dodge during that time….we concluded that from both a visual and game balance perspective, not being able to dodge actually felt better.”

"An immediate response after you push a button -- that leads to the game feeling really fun"

Taura added that “responsiveness” in a game isn’t just about how fast something appears to happen after a player presses a button -- it’s also about how quickly the player sees the result. So in Automata, for example, if the player presses the attack button while their character is stationary, the attack and hitbox come out almost immediately -- Taura says it takes about ten frames, or 0.16 seconds after the player hits the button.

“We make the time it takes for a basic attack to count as hitting the enemy as short as possible,” he continued. “We place importance on both the responsiveness of the attack button...and on the result of the attack.”

While not all attacks in the game work this way, Taura believes that having this basic, standard attack be so speedy makes the whole game feel more responsive and dynamic.

“When there is an immediate response after you push a button -- that leads to the game feeling really fun,” he added. 

Iteration was also a big talking point for Taura, who suggested that devs who want their games to “feel” good put a lot of time into reviewing the game and making detailed adjustments to things like animation timing or attack/hit triggers.

As an example, he mentioned the “Track enemy” flag the Automata dev team used to earmark specific attack animations. If the flag was enabled, the game checks to see if an enemy is within a certain radius and turns the character to face the enemy.

The dev team specifically used this flag on the early stages of combat animations to ensure that when players start attacking, they will automatically turn to target the enemy. They had to fine-tune the timing: if the flag was too briefly enabled, it’s too hard for the player to hit an enemy; if it’s enabled for too long during an animation, it makes the player character look robotic and removes too much of the challenge.

“It does take a very long time, and depends heavily on the sense of the person doing the work,” Taura added. He also claimed that the game designers and animators at Platinum often work very closely together to nail down animation timing that “feels good”; animators will animate an attack, then designers will test it in the game and suggest detailed adjustments that the animators then integrate into a new version.

“To sum up, these are the things we consider very important to achieve our goal of action that feels good the moment you first touch it: create a very clear plan for what ‘feels good’, precisely identify the good and the bad, and perform a very detailed fine-tuning cycle,” concluded Taura. “But it’s also important to remember that there’s no absolute correct answer to be found. That’s exactly why it’s important to have a very clear vision or plan from the very beginning.”

Taura then ceded the stage to Taro Yoko, who sat behind the podium wearing a mask and stated that what we wanted to talk about was simple: freedom.

"To make people feel a sense of freedom, what’s important is not volume"

“There might be some people today in the audience who came here expecting to hear about the scenario creation process,” Taro said. “I apologize, I may disappoint you today.”

He went on to say that it would be incorrect to label either Nier Automata or its precedessor Nier as an “open-world” game, stating he basically ripped off The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time when making Nier.

“Since Nier copied that, it actually has very little freedom when compared to the open-world games we have now,” Taro said.

So when thinking about how to design Automata, Taro spent some time dwelling on the notion of “open-world game fatigue”. He claims that over the last few years he noticed that many people seemed worn out on games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto, constantly complaining about giant maps filled with tons of mindless fetch jobs and empty side quests.

“How did we get to this point where people complain about having a high level of freedom, even though a high level of freedom is what they were supposed to be expecting?” Taro said. “I think it’s fair to say that a state of a high level of freedom does not equate to the actual sensation of feeling free. And that is very unique to games.”

In an effort to avoid this problem with Automata, Taro said he looked to a few other games for inspiration, most notably Super Mario Bros. and its infamous warp zones.

“I was able to move my character all the way up to the top of the map [above the top bricks in 1-1] and from there I was able to warp,” said Taro. “The place where the score was was a hidden secret. I was absolutely shocked: what was going on here? Seeing that smashed my entire idea of how the world was framed, and made me think this game contained an enormous world.”

“In order to foster this idea of freedom, what’s important is the moment your perceived framework of the world suddenly expands,” said Taro. “The most important part here is ‘Oh! I didn’t think I could do that, but I could.’”

Thus, Taro concludes that -- at least in game design -- “freedom” is a future that the player did not have in the past.

“What I’m trying to say here is, to make people feel a sense of freedom, what’s important is not volume,” Taro added. “Freedom is felt the moment that the perceptions held by the human mind are expanded.”

For example, in Nier, Taro says the team worked to build a world with a discernable framework and limits -- then build beyond that. But since the team didn’t have the biggest budget, they worked inward instead of outward; they designed a world, then tried to design a smaller, more contained world within that and make the player (incorrectly) assume that was the edge of the whole world.

“So broadly speaking, the original Nier scenario is structured in this manner,” said Taro. “Nier is structured such that players will go around the same map multiple times. The reason is simple: we did not have the budget to make a large map.”

“So you first present the character as a child, then you present them as a youth on the same map, then when that’s done you watch Ending A,” said Taro. “Of course, that’s also a copy of Ocarina of Time! So after watching Ending A, it’s then possible to replay just the section of time where the character is older, but that’s when a new element comes into play: you can now understand the enemy’s voices.”

This adds a flip side to the story the player already knows, and if they press on they’ll watch Ending B -- and see that the world is bigger than they knew.

“In Nier, by showing players Ending A, you give them the false impression that the game is over, or that the world is smaller, said Taro. “But then by showing them Ending B, I was hoping to show them that the world is larger than they could have imagined.”

When work on Automata began, Taro says that since everyone knew about the ending structure of Nier, so the team tried to make some changes: they’d still use the same “multiple runs through the same small map” approach, but instead have players switch perspectives and play different characters on different runs.

“Once players reach ending B, we make them feel the game is over,” Taro continued. “So fans of the previous games, they know there’s another route. So they’ll be playing the game with the assumption that it wil end once, they’ll get this alternate route, and then we counter that expectation by giving them yet another alternate route to play, expanding their understanding of the world.”

Finally, Taro talked a bit about how the team came up with the game’s final sequence, where players fight an overwhelming enemy and can see messages of encouragement from other players who have done the same.

“The truth is, this genius idea is not mine; I stole this one too,” said Taro. “It’s from a campaign called ‘Coca-Cola Small World Machines.’”

According to Taro, it’s an ad campaign that the beverage company deployed between two countries (India and Pakistan) that were on bad terms; it told a story of how two countries at odds with each other can learn to get along.

“That project left an extremely strong impression on me; you don’t have ot look very far in today’s real world to see it is overflowing with hatred,” said Taro. “We are capable of detesting people we’ve never seen or met before, and so I was really inspired by this project and what it tried to do.”

“So just like Coca-Cola did, I wanted to use this final message in Nier Automata,” he continued. “I wanted people to see messages of encouragement from players in other countries, so they would realize that the people they hated were just like them.”

Taro said the original plan was to set it up so that specific players would see specific messages from other players, but it wasn’t quite feasible. Instead, the team compromised and set it up so that players would see messages of encouragement from around the world at random.

“I don’t know what a player will think when they see this,” said Taro. “That’s exactly the kind of video game freedom I wanted to make this time.”

“Just like I was influenced by that Coca-Cola campaign, I hope the people who took the time to play this game think about someone they don’t know in another country, even if just for a little bit,” concluded Taro. “That would make me extremely happy.”

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