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Shinji Mikami On Mechanics

The Resident Evil creator gets into the nitty-gritty of the design decision making behind his new third person shooter, Vanquish, currently under development by Platinum Games.

At E3, Shinji Mikami -- best known as the creator and revitalizer of the Resident Evil series with its first and fourth installments, respectively -- showed his new third person shooter, Vanquish. Developed by Platinum Games (Bayonetta) and published by Sega, it continues the work he started in the genre in 2005, with Resident Evil 4.

Here, Game Developer Magazine editor in chief Brandon Sheffield presses Mikami for the concrete reasons behind the gameplay decisions he has made with Vanquish, a battlesuit-toting action title set in San Francisco.

The shooter genre, after all, has become tremendously important this generation -- but there's still a lot of room for evolution of gameplay expression within it, and Mikami and his team at Platinum Games are going down a specific and different path with this game.

Let's start by talking about the third-person shooter genre. After Resident Evil 4 came out, most games in third-person style followed the same camera angle, the same aiming scheme; it did a lot to re-launch that genre -- have you noticed those similarities?

Shinji Mikami: Well, I like all kinds of games, really, and I try out a lot of them, but I don't think that a lot has been done with the action genre in general since, whether you're talking first- or third-person.

What's your philosophy for moment-to-moment gameplay in this genre, going up to Vanquish? In the past you always had something new to throw at the player -- they have to reinterpret the situation differently with their existing controls.

SM: When development first began on this game, the design was centered a lot more around QTEs. QTEs were a really big thing you saw in games all over the place at the time, no matter where they were developed. There were tons of QTE games coming out, and honestly I got sick of them.


Vanquish

So we started cutting down the QTE sections and concentrating on keeping the gameplay simple and fast-paced -- something that you could enjoy and get really enthralled with without things getting too complex. You know, give the player a chance to control all of that on their own instead.

In your mind, what's a good strategy for pacing the player action over the course of a level? 

SM: Basically, first I decide how the player moves -- his movement speed -- as well as how much time it takes for him to dispatch an enemy. Then I add that up to figure out the total amount of time it takes to go through a given area of the game. That's the usual order of things.


What is the first gameplay element that you start with when you're designing? Do you choose that ideal character speed? Do you change the design based on how fast the character is? Does that come first, or do you set up a level and then figure out how fast you want a player to get through it?

SM: We work on both of those at once in parallel.

In the past I've noticed you do a good job of having visual short, medium and long-term goals for the player -- you can see that castle off in the distance, you know you'll eventually get there, and there are a lot of interesting things along the way.

What is your philosophy for those kind of player goals?

SM: I suppose it depends on the game that you're making. Deciding what to show the player and what doesn't need to be shown is part of the total structure of the game, after all.

Some things are best when they're shown off right at the forefront, but other things would spoil the game too early. Figuring out which of those categories each game element fits into is one of the difficult parts of game design.

Do you do a lot of iteration and playtesting to determine when those things should be revealed and when those moments should happen in gameplay, or do you plan it all out at the onset?

SM: That process happens at a pretty early level of development -- figuring out the structures of the stages, you could say, the flow of the game. We decide upon the general structure. We ignore all the little setting details at that point; we take the larger elements of the game and figure out whether to put them in the first or second half, or to have this or that scene serve as the halfway point for the story. That's the basic way we think about it.

You've gained a reputation for knowing when it's time to cut content or switch directions. How do you know when that needs to happen? What advice would you have for other people who are having trouble with their scope getting too large, or development going too far down the wrong path?

SM: Once you build up enough experience over time and learn what works and what doesn't in development, you start to naturally know when it needs to happen. It's really no unique skill on my end. (laughs)

Of course. For yourself, when do you know it's time to do it?

SM: It's a matter of what the time schedule is, and a matter of how motivated the director and his team are. You look at the project schedule and see how much time you have left to implement this or that section, and you say to yourself "If I don't say something about this right now, then it's all over."

We always cut it really close like that, waiting until we absolutely have to make a decision. If I pulled the trigger too soon, team members wouldn't have a full understanding of why their section got cut out so early, and it'd impact their motivation level.


What did you want to accomplish with Vanquish -- is it just a pure exciting action game for you, or is it more of a larger experience? Where did the idea come from for you?

SM: Part of it was a desire on my part to give the shooter genre a try, but I also wanted a shooter with a heavy traditional-action element to it.

How much time did you spend in San Francisco to determine the setting?

SM: Hmm...how many times did I visit San Francisco? Around four or five times.

Is the city itself actually important to the game, or is it sort of an iconic place that's incidental to the story?

SM: There's no very deep importance to it, no.

I did appreciate seeing Coit Tower explode.

SM: Oh? I just felt like destroying the Golden Gate Bridge, so...

I feel like that sometimes too.

SM: (laughs)

The game's genre could generally be associated with Western design, but it has the look of a game made in Japan. How do you reconcile those things -- and do you even have to?

SM: I do think the visuals lean more towards a Western style, but the original inspiration was from Casshern, a Japanese animated show, and a lot of the game's taste comes from that. I don't think worrying about reconciling those two ideas was a big concern when we began development, though.

The original inspriation for the visual look is from the movie version of Tristan and Isolde; that was the initial spark, although the look wound up evolving into something completely different in the end.

How do you determine the camera position for third-person perspectives? It seems that the whole genre has been influenced by your decisions.

SM: It was very much trial and error. We played around with the camera angles over and over again for something like one to three months until we got it right. I wanted your character to be visible onscreen, but in a shooter the enemy has to be plainly in sight as well, so I had to strike that balance in my experimentation.

In most game projects, the main character sort of grows new animations through the course of development, and we kept revising the angles to make new animations clear and present onscreen as well.

It's been a really good solution for showing as much of the playfield as possible while showing the player -- not going into full first-person mode where the screen is your very existence. It also removes a lot of clipping errors where the camera will go into things when it's further back.

SM: That's very important, yes, and something that gave us a lot of trouble in this project. From a development standpoint, FPSes are easy as pie to make. (laughs) In third-person, though, the player's viewpoint is different from where the character's bullets or whatever are coming from.

So you have to reconcile the gun versus the viewpoint.

SM: It's never something you can pull off perfectly, because there's a physical difference in the locations of the two points, you know? With Gears, they show the track of your bullets rather than where the actual bullets are hitting. I think that's a really clever solution, but I want Vanquish to show the actual bullets themselves onscreen. That's led to a lot of headaches. (laughs) The fact that there's no online in this game is the one thing that makes it possible.

So considering that first-person is so much easier, what made you decide to keep with third-person?

SM: It was because of the sense of speed we were trying to convey here, the sort of quick, fluid motions your character is capable of. If this was an FPS, we'd need to make things a lot faster than they are now, and even then, that sense of speed just isn't there unless you're showing the character onscreen pulling off those speedy, acrobatic moves.

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