In this “cerebral” interview, I.Q. designer Masahiko Sato talks puzzle design, gameplay, and the origins of the I.Q development. With a background in commercials and advertising, he offers a perspective on game production and design somewhat distinct from your typical developer. I recommend watching some of his commercials to get a better feel for some of his ideas presented here.

I.Q.: Intelligent Qube – 1997 Developer Interview

originally featured in The Playstation magazine

—How did I.Q get started?

Masahiko Sato (designer): One day, out of the blue, the image of a game just like this suddenly popped into my head. To be precise, it was April 9th, on a Sunday afternoon, 2 or 3PM.

—Was what you imagined the same as the finished game…?

Sato: Excluding the music, yes—visually it was almost exactly the same. I saw humans standing in an abstract, open space, with giant cubes coming at you. There were about 7 people, and in my initial vision, there were also dogs.

At that time, I also imagined that, in addition to cubes, there would be blocks with more complex shapes: ones that were two stories high, for instance, or ones were more flat and oblong. However, when I actually made them, I realized that they made the game incomprehensible to human beings. The problem was that once the blocks became too complex in shape, people could no longer predict how they would move. Once I got into the actual development and created rules that humans could actually predict, that was when I first discovered the gameplay of I.Q.

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Masahiko Sato, designer.

Gameplay, to me, is about finding the right balance. For example, take a game like Tic-Tac-Toe: it has a simple 3×3 board with players alternating between Os and Xs. This kind of game is easy to understand just by looking at it. But on the other hand, you have games like Othello and Go, which introduce a degree of non-intuitiveness that I think is handled well. When I ask myself why these games have continued to be played for so long, I think it’s because they strike just the right balance in having a moderate degree of complexity.

My own initial image for I.Q, however, was far too complicated. It was too difficult and hence not very interesting. Gradually I refined the gameplay and the game changed accordingly.

However, despite changing the number of humans on the game board, the one thing that remained nearly the same as my initial vision was the tone and atmosphere of the game.

—How long did the actual game development take?

Sato: The idea itself came to me last April, and we started the actual work in July of that year, I think. So about a year and a half total.

When Yamamoto from SCE (the producer of I.Q) first saw the plans, he said “I think this should take about 3 months, right?” However, refining and completing the gameplay took much longer than expected.

—Did you create all the puzzles yourself?

Sato: It was Norio Nakamura (the art director) and me. We made almost all of them together. But for me, I wasn’t good enough get fast clear times, even on the courses I designed myself. (laughs) Nakamura is a lot better at solving the puzzles than me. The most fun thing for me was making the puzzles, then passing them off to Nakamura for playtesting. He’d sit there playing it, saying “Wow, this is a difficult problem….” …then solve it right away. (laughs)

—How did you go about designing the puzzles?

Sato: I wrote each one out on paper first, thinking through them that way. Considering the technological world we live in, it was a very old-fashioned way of doing it. Also, I gave names to certain block patterns to help classify them: there was the “wrap-around”, the “courtroom”, the “crab”… In the “courtroom”, for instance, I imagined the human smack dab in the middle of a number of blocks, so it looked like he was getting judged in a trial.

Sato’s commercial for I.Q. The faces on the cubes say, in turn: “I’m counting on you”, “I believe in you”, “Liar!”, “Coward!”

In fact, Nakamura and I said to each other that if we couldn’t come up with a good conceptual basis for a puzzle, then we shouldn’t include it. It was a pretty lofty conceit on our part. (laughs) Whenever I’d come up with a concept for a puzzle, I’d be super excited to have Nakamura testplay it. It got to where I was always carrying a notepad around with me, so that anytime an idea for a puzzle came to me, I could jot it down. And I had one all-nighter where I thought up 5 puzzles at once.

—So was coming up with all the puzzles the biggest bottleneck for the development, then?

Sato: On the contrary, creating all the puzzles was incredibly fun for me. I didn’t see it as a burden.

—What would you say was the most difficult thing, then?

Sato: It was the stage during the development when we were searching for the gameplay, and figuring out how to build this concept into a game. As a game I think I.Q gives off the impression to people that it’s a little difficult, but I like how it came out.

—I imagine it will have a long-lasting appeal.

Sato: In music today, you’ve got lots of songs that come out, get really popular, and sell a million copies in 2 or 3 months. But then after just a year, people hear that song and it sounds old and dated. If you look at the Beatles or Mozart though, those continue to be listened to, sold, and appreciated even today—they’re standards, timeless classics.

With I.Q., I wanted to make something classic like that, but for games. In cards, for instance, no one thinks of games like Concentration or Old Maid as dated. And it’s the same with Go. I would love to be able to make a game with that kind of staying power: a game where after I die, 1000 years later middle schoolers are still playing it!

—That seems like a mindset you’ve had since your days working commercials and advertising, too.

Sato: It is. Of course, in advertising I think you can also create things that are deliberately transient, meant only to grab someone’s attention for this moment. I know not everyone likes doing things that way, but that is probably the prevailing attitude in advertising today (and likely in the modern music industry too). But I was never entirely comfortable with this approach, despite the fact that it’s regarded as the way to make profits in the real world.

So in contrast to that attitude, I started to ask myself if there wasn’t room for a different approach. The problem, of course, is that at its heart, advertising is about transmitting a message to as many people as possible, so you can’t really do slight, subtle, or minor pieces in advertising. You’ve got to get everyone’s attention, and I thought creating something with universal and lasting appeal was the way to do that. Consequently I have a lot of confidence in the commercials I made, that they will continue to be shown and used for a long time.

—What is the process by which a “standard” is created, in advertising and/or games?

Sato: I think it comes from realizing that no matter how much technology progresses, human nature remains the same. Some things do not change: there will always be some sounds and colors that are pleasing to people, and some which are displeasing.

—Would you call them universal truths, then?

Sato: Maybe so. What feels good is not based on logic. As long as one keeps that in mind, I think they’ll be fine. For example, if you just go by logic and reasoning, and say “ok, if I build this kind of restaurant in Aoyama with this name it will be popular!”, what you end up with will be a transient, passing fad. I guess they call those people trendmakers, right?

But those who choose a different path, who try and pursue what humans fundamentally enjoy—I think those are probably the people who will be able to create new classics. I forget that myself sometimes, and sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture, but I believe that if I keep that mindset, I’ll eventually reach my goal—towards something eternal and lasting.

One of Sato’s early koikeya snack commercials. A small collection of his work can be found here.

—It seems you might be able to discover some new forms of gameplay along the way, too.

Sato: Maybe so. For I.Q, I was able to include a lot of my own new ideas, and when I was making my first commercials (the koikeya series) it was the same way. However, after several years, that freedom gradually disappears in deference to the concerns of the company. You have big sponsors, and they demand certain things—and then it’s not about doing something new, but about using the knowledge and techniques you’ve already acquired.

I would like my next game to be slightly more commercial though, I think. I’m not expecting some perfect AAA title, nor do I think I could even pull that off, but something less austere and conceptual, with a bit more commercial appeal. I don’t want to forget the principles I started with, though.

—Would you want to make a game that’s more colorful, a bit more elaborate in its presentation?

Sato: Well, I don’t think I could make anything ever matching Tetris, but I’d like to think I could! That’s the kind of game I want to make. Tetris is abstract, but the gameplay is so immediate and easy-to-grasp. It has no pretensions either. It’s a great game though, and very good as a commercial product too.

—It didn’t need colors, in fact.

Sato: That’s right. If you can come up with an amazing gameplay idea, maybe you don’t need anything else. In a sense, what one tries to achieve in a game is slightly different from the progress we’re trying to achieve with better computers and computer technology.

—The ultimate form for a game, then, is to be found in the pursuit of gameplay itself.

Sato: Indeed.