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How To Make Games Like Nintendo: Mentality

What can we learn from the most successful and influential game-company in the world? A mentality change for one. Here are some pointers.

Tim Tavernier, Blogger

August 27, 2010

7 Min Read

With rising game budgets because developers fell for the HD-fluke while on the other side the established audience is imploding, it’s a hard time being a game-developer. News reports of people being laid off have almost becoming a daily occurrence.

Yes, the international economic situation doesn’t help, but the industry has also a lot to blame itself for.  Despite all of this bad new, there are a few shimmers of hope. One specific company keeps chugging along, expanding studio’s, going into vast unexplored markets while also making some of the most fun games this generation for all.

How does Nintendo do it? The company is responsible for 90% of all games that sold over 10 million copies this generation, has two hardware devices that are still selling faster then the legendary PS2 in the same time periods  and is the only reason why the Game-industry hasn’t crashed yet since the HD-consoles have failed at even re-capturing the established audience from last generation.

Analysts, gaming enthusiasts and gaming press (will) deny it in all kind of ways…but Nintendo is the determining force of the gaming industry for the last 5-6 years. So why ignore Nintendo’s OM? Why doesn’t anyone analyze Nintendo’s practices? There are various reasons, but those are irrelevant before the grand fact that trough its success, everyone should at least take pointers from this company.

So how do you make games like Nintendo? This isn’t about copying some of their business practices or company structure and you’re done. No, Nintendo works from a specific mind-set on which the entire company has been built and structured around. This mind-set you have to teach yourself and I’ll tell in advance, some of the more art-dogmatized people are not going to like it.

Nintendo’s company structure is set-up to achieve one very important thing: a perfect blend between software and hardware development. Normally companies specialize in one or the other. Microsoft and Google are primarily software companies; Sony is primarily a hardware company.

Nintendo is a very rare breed of a software/hardware hybrid, the only other of this kind of hybrid in the world is Apple. But Nintendo was not always the sole hybrid within the gaming industry. Atari was it until a few years after the buy-out to Warner in the 70’s. SEGA was another hybrid. The first home computer manufacturers were also hybrids. This hybrid status is an important part within Nintendo’s strategy.

For example, Nintendo doesn’t care one bit what Microsoft does because Microsoft is by far not such a hybrid, therefore, in Nintendo’s eyes, Microsoft is not an actual console manufacturer.

This hybrid status, and Nintendo’s mindset, can be traced back to two people: Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi. Well actually it was three people, the third being Hiroshi Yamauchi who hired both of them on his gut feeling.

Before you think Miyamoto represents the software part and Gunpei the hardware you would right. But Miyamoto is also responsible for a lot of controller designs while Gunpei made the Game & Watch games and Metroid.  So for this article, we’ll focus on Shigeru Miyamoto.

Here  are the basic premises  in terms of mentality that Shigeru Miyamoto employs:

1)      You are an entertainer, not an artist. Miyamoto’s dreams was always to see people smile, especially children. Miyamoto actually wanted to become a toymaker and he still does want to make toys (just to make clear, Miyamoto sees videogames as inferior to toys). Yep, the most influential game designer is in fact a toymaker… and you can tell from his games which are far more fantastical playgrounds.

Some say Miyamoto is videogaming’s Steven Spielberg, but that says more about the industry’s desire to be compared with Hollywood then something else. Miyamoto is far more akin to Walt Disney whose motto was not to make cartoons for kids but cartoons for the kid inside us all. Also Miyamoto wants to make games for all, games he can play with his kids and wife. And there’s logic in this…videogames are off course…well…games.

So you want to make games like Nintendo? Think not in terms of the game you always wanted to make, with all the artistic dogma and narrative tripe connected to it, but think in terms of the game you always wanted to play together with friends. These games will probably endure far longer as real art does.

2)      Use your own life as inspiration. Aren’t puppies cute? Everyone likes puppies! Let’s have one of our elite EAD teams make a game about the experience of having a puppy! Hmm, I’m getting a bit older, I should work out a bit more…can I turn it into a game? Oh Tennis and bowling is fun…but bit of hassle to do in real life… can I make it easier in a game without losing the actual complexity of the sport? You know where this is going at.

The basic idea is to recognize something you like, then found out why people like that in general and then trying to put that inside a videogame. The second step is very crucial but often forgotten; you cannot force your view of liking something which connects again to the first item: you are an entertainer, not an artist.

3)      Technology is a tool, not the goal. As seen in many keynotes by Nintendo people, Nintendo has a knack of letting a idea simmer, sometimes for an entire decade waiting until technology is cheap enough and it can functionally be used to enhance the game-experience. The Mii’s is an example. Nintendo’s motion control has had trial versions on the GBA, Animal Crossing was a experiment started on the N64 untill it exploded on the DS.

Miyamoto once said about improving tech that it may lead to a game character being able to hold a bottle perfectly as in real world…but what is the point of that within a game. Technology serves the game and should enhance the game-experience for the player. This generation has already proven that HD does not do that, motion controls can and 2D still does.  Don’t jump on expensive technology if it doesn’t add to the basic game-experience.

4)      But also be impatient at times. Miyamoto is also known to “upend the teatable” on a few games. This mostly happens when Miyamoto finds out that the game is losing track of its basic premise or not progressing fast enough. Twilight Princess had this where the debut director was removed. Sure the Story and Characters were fleshed out nicely, but there was hardly a game in place so Miyamoto upended the tea table, took direct control, delayed the game for a year and tried to get the most out of it.

The same seem to have happened with Skyward Sword. The same almost happened with Mario Galaxy 2 because Miyamoto found there was getting too much story into the game (yeah... no kidding). Also this facet reflects again to the first premise: you are an entertainer, not an artist. You make games, a kind of toy. If the toy/game doesn’t properly do what it needs to do, you’re making a bad game.

Nintendo makes such great games because Nintendo keeps them being games, things that entertain through reflecting an interesting facet of life into a game. Nintendo also does this not by forcing a narrow arty vision of that facet, but looks for the base common level to make a game from.

Technology serves as a tool, not the goal itself. Adopting high-tech can lead to high costs without certainty that the game will still be as good. On the other hand this does not mean you have to throw away ideas because tech is too expensive. Allow ideas to simmer or deconstruct them to fit tech that has penetrated the mass-market or wait for a certain tech to become feasible for mass-market penetration. But the most important part…you are an entertainer, not an artist.

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