1994 Game Developers - Interview Collection
This collection of interviews first appeared in a Japanese book called “Introduction to Game Design,” published in 1994. Although featured as interviews, these are more like testimonials and are directed at aspiring young game developers in Japan. Each interviewee talks about how he got into the industry, his experience developing games, and what qualities he thinks a good developer should have.
Game Designers and Programming
It seems there are quite a few people out there who think “I just write the stories, so I don’t need to know any programming.” But in reality, a certain degree of programming knowledge is necessary even for non-programmers.
If you brought nothing but your bare story and plans to a game company, its unlikely very much of it could be used.
Nowadays I don’t do the programming myself, but when I first started out I would program everything and bring the completed game to the software publisher. In this way I made Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken and Karuizawa Yuukai Annai all on my own. I did all the graphics as well.
Though I no longer program, even today I still use the knowledge I acquired then; I’m very conscious of the structure and methods of programming when I write a story.
By programmning knowledge, I don’t mean that you have to understand the especially difficult or complex aspects of programming. What is important is to realize that with computers, everything happens because a human ordered it thusly, so it isn’t about thinking up complex things, but rather to what extent you can simplify that which is complex.
Therefore all you need to know is the basics of how programming is done and how programmers think. Though computers may evolve and change, that underlying method of thought will not.
When writing a story for a game, just having a general outline of things won’t suffice. For example, with Dragon Quest, when I first started to think about the screen, I realized a map was needed. When the map was done, I worked on displaying a characters on it. Then I had to decide what their roles were. I had to think of how they moved, and what they would say. Depending on the circumstances of the game I might need to prepare a variety of dialogue for them too.
What I’m trying to say is that as you write your story and build your game’s world, you should think about what elements of the game the programmers will actually have to program. For that, a certain degree of programming knowledge is quite helpful, and I think it will also make for better communication with the programmers themselves.
Becoming a Game Developer
In school, I was very bad at geography and social science. I simply wasn’t very good at remembering things. I didn’t do very well in Japanese class either. However, it was at this time that I really wanted to be a manga artist, and I spent all my time drawing manga. To make the dialogue fit into the small text bubbles, you had to express yourself clearly and succinctly with short words. I think this was a very helpful experience for me.
In college I worked as a freelance writer. Since I thought a computer would help with my work, I bought a PC6001 computer. However, computers at that time didn’t have many capabilities and it wasn’t helpful at all; all I did was play games with it.
Since there weren’t many games out then, I started making my own programs using BASIC and assembly. I enjoyed seeing the computer act according to my instructions. I bought a book on programming, but it was too big and I never felt like reading it. In the beginning I only knew about 4 programming instructions. As I went along I’d encounter something I couldn’t do, then I’d read the book to find the answer, and I’d end up memorizing one new trick… that was how my learning progressed.
At that time, I was doing a game feature for Shonen Jump and I visited Enix to gather materials. While there I ended up applying for a game contest, and that was how I got my start as a game designer.
During the development of Dragon Quest, when I first told everyone that the spells would have names like Hoimi and Parupunte, they all went “what!?” and criticized the idea. I reassured them, “Look, its easy to change the names, so just try it out, and if at the end you don’t like these names, we’ll change it back.” As it happened, everyone fell in love with them. “It has to be these names!” (laughs)
Everyone on the development staff loved games and we’d often have heated debates. But because we were all dedicated to making a good game, those debates never turned ugly.
The final stage of game development is always a fight with the available memory. For each game we end up having to remove some number of monsters, and in DQIII we removed an entire town. Making all the NPC dialogue cohere is another challenge, but we somehow manage to get it done.
I always participate in the difficulty balancing. The playtesters give me their reports, then I play up to that point myself to check their comments, adjusting numbers as I go.
To make people happy
Movies, novels, manga, video games: each of them appeal to people in their own way… but they all make people happy. If you want to make games, you can’t simply study computers. The computer is not what you’re addressing; it is the person on the other side of the screen who you’re communicating with. In that sense, my advice to aspiring game designers is to look at the diverse world around you and then think of new ways you can bring people happiness.
Also, when you play games, there will be occasions when you think “oh, I’d do this differently here.” Eventually you’ll have accumulated a great number of such observations, and your work will gradually become more original. Even if your idea is to make a game like Dragon Quest, the experience of adding your own ideas to it will serve as a good object lesson for game development.
beginnings at square
In elementary school I learned to play Piano, and in middle school folk guitar. In high school my dream was to be a musician. At that time I didn’t like video games at all, and never touched them.
So then I found myself, this guy who hated video games, enrolled in classes at the Electrical and Computer Science Department of my college. I started playing the adventure games Wizardry and Ultima on the Apple II computers, just casually at first, but before I knew it they had ensnared me. I had editor tools for Ultima that allowed me to remove and alter the save data. I could give myself as much money as I wanted, and as I fiddled with this and other variables I gradually came to understand the structure of the program. I thought, “I could do this myself.” And that was how I started making games. My first games were adventure games written in BASIC.
Then one day I was looking through a part-time job magazine, and I saw that Square, a new company, was taking applications. I could program BASIC, and I figured I couldn’t cut it in a top-class company, but maybe something like this would work out. (laughs) And I applied.
My very first game plan didn’t make it, but later I made software for the 98, 88, 7, and 77 computers. In the beginning I was just intending this to be a part time job so I could save some money.
a team endeavor
Games like Tetris and Sim City were made by a single programmer. However, with recent RPGs, its important to have both team power and individual abilities. I did basketball in middle school, and with regard to experienced and less experienced players, the philosophy was “each man’s time will come to do what he must do.” The Final Fantasy team also had the feel of a sports team. Making a game is a marathon that takes over a year, and even if one person is fired up and ready to go, if you aren’t coordinated with others you won’t produce a good game. It takes a large variety of talents to make a game, after all: graphics, sound, and more.
I also want to say this. When I had colleagues who would come in at 1 or 2 in the afternoon, I’d tell them the following: “Be here by 11AM! Don’t leave before 10PM! Come in on Saturday! Come in on Sunday! If you’ve got the free time to think about dates or movies you can think of events for the game!” I rapped my knuckles on their desk with each admonition, and after that we’d end up making our deadlines. (laughs)
When new people joined the Final Fantasy team I’d tell them “we’re all aiming for Koushien here.” That passion and power would find its way into the game.
design plans not included
I also never wrote game design plans out. With such plans, you’d write something out and it would sound interesting, but when you’d turn it into a game it would turn out to be not that fun. Design plans are written on paper, but games take place on a tv screen, not a piece of paper. It has to be interesting on the screen. I always say “If you’ve got the time to write a spec sheet on your idea, you should program it and put it on the screen instead.”
I use a Macintosh to make the tools we use at Squaresoft, and I also use it when making SFC games. Our team is also connected on the local network, and we pass ideas around via e-mail. This way when one person has an idea, it can be shared with everyone.
In Final Fantasy IV we use the SFC mode 7 scaling on the world map, but that actually wasn’t something we initially planned. But along the way someone said “hey, if this is an SFC game, we need to add mode 7!” At first, we used very simple scaling. But one day, one of our programmers, influenced perhaps by racing games, made the screen look like it was collapsing or falling inwards. When we saw it everyone went “Wow, that looks great” and it took the shape you see today. And my point is that there was no design or plan sheet for that. Everyone understood it when they saw it on the screen rather than written on a page. I think that kind of an environment is important for making games.
I don’t make general planning documents either. 1 About 6 months before a game is due for completion, we have a sales announcement meeting, and at that time we hurriedly put something together that resembles a planning document. (laughs)
to aspiring developers
I really enjoy smashing older ways of doing things. For example, if the story and setting have previously been done by one person, then this time I’ll try letting 3 people create the story. Or I’ll take a position we’ve had for awhile and assign it somewhere else, and create a new position. Creating games, after all, is still a developing field. If you change the way things are made, or the roles to which people are assigned, then you should end up with a different final product, too.
When people come to me saying they want to make games, I ask them this: “Why haven’t you completed a game on your own yet?” If you can forgo buying 10 games, then you can afford to buy a computer. If you want to express your ideas in a programming language, you should learn C or BASIC. Programming is the most fundamental level of game making, after all.
Those who want to write stories for games shouldn’t just write a few scenarios and call it a day. That won’t be helpful. As practice, game writers should try their hand at every part of game creation: design, screen layout, pixel art, programming… if you don’t have at least a passing understanding of these things, you won’t produce an interesting game.
And remember, its important not to be bound by the hardware limitations of this generation, but to dream of what the next thing could be.
Nowadays “computer games” are all around us, and for today’s children they’re a feature of life from birth. However, for me, when I made Mario, I didn’t feel like I was making something called a “computer game.” It was more like I was creating a “toy”, or some form of “play”, or “a product that will be popular.” And my thinking was that using a computer for that purpose would be very effective.
If I may speak from experience, when making a game, if you don’t change the gameplay system, there isn’t much point in making a new game. So, taking Mario as an example, if you keep the same system but just change the maps, its not going to be very good.
For our development teams, for the beginning of the first year its usually comprised of 3 to 4 people, then about half a year in we start adding people until about the 8 month mark, where we reach a team of 20 or so. A new game system determines about 60% of the game creation process. In my case I work on that nucleus of the game first. The maps, story, etc are all about 10 or 20%.
With F-ZERO, we knew we were going to need a racing series for the new Super Famicom console. We didn’t want to do a port of a pre-existing game, and in our first drafts the screen was horizontal and you viewed the ships from their side. During the prototype phase we tested various ideas, getting a feel for the capabilities of the new SFC hardware as we went… creating that solid foundation is essential for game development.
It turned out that with the horizontal view for F-ZERO, the perspective didn’t allow us to draw three-dimensional objects like bank curves, and without that, how could the game be interesting? On top of that, we wanted to draw player character vehicles that looked more alive and vigorous, but if we added tires to the vehicles the required memory would be doubled. And if you added smoke from the tires during drifting, it would be even more. So because of all that, the cars became hovercrafts. We also didn’t know how to convey the right sensation of turning a wheel with just the directional pad and buttons of the home console controller. That was another problem that came to us during this phase of the development.
The important thing is how the game feels in the first 2 or 3 minutes. That’s the window of time in which the player’s heart is seized. For Nintendo, until we’ve finished that core nucleus of the gameplay, we don’t add graphics. If the game is no good after we create that core, then we throw it all away. In any event, you can’t know until you go through the process of making it.
If you do your experimenting in the beginning like that, you can experience all different kinds of failures. That is an important process too.
a story is not a game
At Nintendo we get many letters with stories and designs from kids asking us to make such and such a game. However, most of them are just imitating Mario or Dragon Quest, and only the stories are different.
But thinking up a story and setting is not the main part of game design. If you only change the surface appearance, you really haven’t changed anything.
Its often said that the heart of a game is its story, but that’s not the case. The story comes only after the core of the game system is completed. Then the characters come into focus and the world starts to manifest.
“Two siblings separated at birth are reunited…” I can’t call that a game design. (laughs) There is no backstory to Mario, after all.
On the other hand, if someone came to me with a proposal for a new system like that of the game Sim City, that would probably catch my attention. Without that, “game design” is just a game of make-believe. I don’t mean to speak negatively about using your imagination like that, of course, but there’s no need for young aspiring designers to do that. What’s important is starting from the fundamentals.
unique qualities of game development
What do you think the difference is between games and movies?
In movies, when the director is watching the footage he’s taken and sees something he doesn’t like, he can’t just go back and refilm it all over. Corrections are not easy to make. But with games everything can be changed up until the very end. Just by changing one section of the code, an entirely different game will emerge. For instance, if you make it so the player can’t die… (laughs)
For example, maybe the reason the game isn’t interesting is because of the gravity? Then remove the gravity code and see how the game plays without it–suddenly, its a lot better. That kind of thing has happened at Nintendo before.
Since changing a single aspect of a game can change the entire game itself, in game development you can’t rest until the very end. That is the most interesting aspect of game creation though. So remember, until the due date, until the very end, you must not give up. Among programmers, there’s many people who think that if no bugs are found its good. But making a game more interesting means always making improvements, right? That kind of tinkering easily leads to bugs, so its best for programmers not to worry about it too much.
the role of the game director
For a game director, I think its important to have enough programming knowledge to be able to persuade the programmers of your ideas. If you don’t understand how to present your ideas, the programmers may end up evading your suggestions.
Sometimes, when you ask a programmer why something isn’t possible, and they ask you why you want to do that, in the course of such talks an entirely new way to solve the problem will present itself. For instance, take a situation where the player and enemy collisions aren’t working right. The director may say to make the enemies smaller. But with over 400 enemies in a game, updating them all would take over a week’s work. Normally the conversation between programmer and director would just end there, but what if you know enough about programming to realize that the problem is really that the collision detection is too strict? Then you don’t need to change the enemies, but by changing just the player you can fix it with one line of code. Finding those solutions is what the director is there for.
In another example, during a test play someone looks at the monitor and says “this game is too slow!” That doesn’t mean you should just immediately increase the scrolling speed. The real problem is that the player sprite doesn’t appear to be running despite the player diligently pressing the buttons. If you understand that, there is another way. By increasing the speed of the sprite’s running animation and making it look like he’s moving faster, the complaint about speed goes away. Changing the scrolling speed is also very difficult for the programmers. Speeding up the sprite animation, however, is easily done.
Finding such solutions, speaking the language of the programmers, and being able to converse in programming logic is extremely important for a director. Being constructive, determined, and positive are also good qualities.
to create is to share
I studied design in college. There, the work you did was ranked and posted for everyone to see. Being ranked high made me happy, but when I ranked low it was frustrating. I’d feel dejected, as if I’d lost something. It ended up being a good experience for me.
In game design, you can’t make it if you have thin skin. You will be making things and sharing them with people. If you get dejected, you’ve got to suck it up and soldier on.
You should pause and ask yourself if you just like video games, or if you really enjoy creating things. And if you still feel like you want to be a game designer, then my advice is to come get involved in the game industry, no matter what form your participation first takes.
My first experience with a computer was in middle school, when I was still living in Hokkaido. It was with a pay-per-hour computer in the Sapporo subway, set up by the Denden telephone company as an early demo of a computer using the phone lines. I went every Sunday and played “Game 31”, a simple numerical game, until I finally beat it. At that time the word “microprocessor” didn’t exist, nor did “personal computer.”
Later, in high school, I got a part-time job and purcahsed a Hewlett Packard calculator for 160000 yen. It had a magnetic card reader and you could write simple programs for it. From then on I was determined to learn about computers, so the programming classes I later took in college didn’t really help me that much.
Then, in my third year of college, I joined HAL Laboratory Corp., which was my friend’s company. It was a small company, with 5 people total, all working out of a single apartment room.
After that Nintendo put out the Famicom. I too was surprised at how fun it was. Then, utilizing some connections I had, I was given the chance to make a game myself. Nintendo’s NES Open Tournament Golf is one I was involved in from start to finish. I also had a large part in the Kirby development.
the role of a programmer
The majority of the time, the programming of a game isn’t completed by the projected deadline. But most companies, due to advertising and budget concerns, will put a game out regardless of whether everyone is fully satisfied with the final product. You do the best you can to approach that ideal product before you have to release it, but in the end, this process is eventually self-defeating for a game company.
We programmers, however, are professionals, and we must take our limited time into account when deciding what we can and cannot do in a game. If we don’t have enough time for something, we have to find a workaround that doesn’t damage the original idea of the game. Coming up with remedial measures is a necessary skill for a programmer.
Programmers are like the faucets on a pipe. If the faucet is large, lots of water can flow through. But if the faucet is small, that flow will be reduced to a trickle. Design, planning, graphics, story, music… no matter how many great ideas you have, if the programmers say it can’t be done, it won’t get done: the faucet was too small.
The job of a programmer is to produce good work, meaning that the planners and designers shouldn’t feel the limitations of the hardware. I tell my programmers to think carefully before they say something “can’t be done.” There isn’t that much that can’t be done with a little ingenuity.
Lately I’ve heard people say that game designers are to be praised, while programmers are less important. That is a warped way of thinking in my opinion. Both together are required to produce anything. No matter how wonderful a game idea or design might be, without solid programming, it won’t be well received by its audience, the players. Programmers should take pride in that fact.
The qualities I look for when hiring a programmer for my company are curiosity, ambition, and whether he can sacrifice other things to achieve his goals. The ability to focus is also a major point. Those who think that knowledge of C or Assembly is going to help them are, in my view, mistaken. Consider the world of video games: 10 years ago no one thought you’d be able to play Donkey Kong on your TV at home. The technical knowledge of today will no longer be useful in ten years. In contrast, we want to hire adapatable people who are looking toward tomorrow’s challenges. (laughs)
In the world of business software development, changing the design plans of the software means changing the business contract, normally resulting in an extra charge to the client. But in the game industry, with Nintendo for example, they didn’t care at all if we changed the initial design plans. After all, if the game turns out boring, who cares if you followed the design plans to the letter? Programmers have that kind of decisive power over a game. Accordingly, you won’t succeed as a programmer if you don’t like revisions and updates. If change bothers you, you shouldn’t work in the game industry.
Those who want to be game developers should arm themselves with certain tools. First is the ability to persuade those around you that your game is interesting. Those with artistic abilities can express their design ideas with pictures. In addition, maybe you’re better at writing than others, or you can come up with unique crazy ideas. Maybe you’re especially good at programming. Maybe you can solve puzzles that others cannot. Anything that distinguishes you is fine.
However, that alone is not enough. Talent, in my view, is the power to continue persevering in your endeavors. Those people we look at and say “Wow!” are the people who kept on at their work without thinking how hard it all was. Those who can continually exert themselves in improving their own abilities are natural creators, I think.
The youngest programmer on the Kirby team was 22 years old. He would tell us he didn’t care how difficult an idea was to create, if it was interesting, he wanted us to tell it to him. He always said he’d figure out some way to get it to work. He worked so hard because he knew that when the players see the game, his efforts would be rewarded. When something you’ve created becomes popular right before your very eyes, you know it was all worth it.
an unlikely start
I remember being at a cafe and thinking, wouldn’t it be great to hear a song I had created playing over the radio? That was the motivation for me to write a song with my own lyrics. Something similar happened with me and video games.
Originally, I was obsessed with Dragon Quest. When I saw the names of all the staff in the credits, I thought I’d like to see my name in there too. I didn’t know how you go about making a game, but I started taking notes with all the things I’d do and the stories I’d tell in my game. What company would make this game, I wondered? It was something I would want to play myself.
At that time, I visited Nintendo on other business. The day before I had gathered up all my ideas for the game I had written (it was MOTHER, by the way) and brought them with me. In my fanciful thinking then, I thought Nintendo was like some cool club where everyone made games, and wouldn’t it be great to work with them! I was like some kid used to playing sandlot baseball deciding to try out for the Giants.
I was probably only given the chance because they knew my name from elsewhere. When I talked about my ideas, the sales and staff were like, “Oh, how interesting! I see!” But Miyamoto in development! He was the coldest. In a rather oblique way, he told me “What you’ve got here is something. It looks like there’s several new ideas here too, but as it is now, it won’t amount to a game.”
I heard what I wanted to hear: “Oh, Itoi! This is wonderful!” but later, on the Shinkansen home, I started to think “is that really what he meant…?” and I felt like crying. (laughs) I didn’t understand what Miyamoto was trying to say: making a game is an ordeal from start to finish, not just in the beginning.
I’m not sure what happened internally at Nintendo, but later I was introduced to a development team and the Mother project began. You could say I was very lucky. Though if I think back now on how difficult it all was, I don’t know whether to say I was lucky, or unlucky… (laughs)
challenging players’ ideas with MOTHER
I worked on Mother as producer, and gathered various staff members to the project, including Minami Shinbou who did enemy designs and Suzuki Keiichi who did the music. I felt that I could do two roles: Itoi the producer and Itoi the wordsmith, aka copywriter. Itoi the producer would come over to Itoi the copywriter’s desk and make requests. So in a sense I worked two jobs. (laughs)
In MOTHER there’s a character called Flying Man. They’re helpful and will join your party. But if he dies during a fight, he’ll be buried and gone forever. You think “Nooo!”, right? Its that feeling that I like to create. (laughs)
I think doing a straight conversion of a movie to game is boring. I want to let the player experience things he can only experience in the medium of video games. Take a situation in a game where you have to answer yes or not to a choice… I want to make a game where a player doubts himself, “Should I really choose Yes? Am I a monster…?” How will you live your life? I think games can penetrate the heart of that question–despite being games.
Today’s hardware can easily display kanji. However, for Mother 2 (Earthbound), I did not use kanji. Its something of a personal insight I’ve had with RPGs, but the words in RPGs are meant to be words you hear with your ears. Sound is perceived through the ears. I want the player to read the dialogue aloud; having kanji that one reads with their eyes is discordant with that idea. Being language that you hear with your ears means it can sometimes be hard to understand, but that’s part of the experience I think.
I think basing your game on advances in new hardware is a poorly conceived idea. To draw an analogy with movies, there are still many people today who make films in the older black and white style. When I look at various games that have just meaninglessly added scaling and sprite rotation and so on, I just end up thinking “what are they doing… this is silly.” (laughs)
a personality suited for game design
If you want to make games, I think its important to develop a spirit of service towards others. For example, imagine 4 people gathered together and a silence has descended on the group. One of them will be the first to open his mouth and break the awkward silence. That is the kind of person who I think could have a talent for making games.
I think restless children or timid children are well-suited for making games. Those who are strong-willed don’t understand the feelings of others, and so they cannot be of service to others. I think children with complexes or handicaps would be good, because those kids want others to understand them. I suffered from asthma when I was a kid. Being an asthmatic would also suffice. (laughs) You wouldn’t be able to play like normal kids. You’d have to develop your own self and interests. In doing so, you’d gain the experience of having changed yourself. The children who possess that energy, where rather than seeing themselves as pathetic, instead defiantly say “I don’t want to see myself that way!”… those kids are well-suited for making games.
I think only about 10% of the things you learn in school will help you in the future. Things like Math and English should only be learned for the times they’re needed. More than those things, I think a person should learn how to get home if they become lost. How do you handle the train fare? Which train do you ride? Developing the logic to deal with those problems by yourself is important.
Your teachers do not know the answers to life. No one knows the answers to life. And yet, an answer is demanded.
Its not about what you learn, its about learning how to learn!
the allure of Wizardry
When I was in college I often went to game centers. I’d play Space Invaders, or maybe shoot balloons. But at that time I didn’t have any interest in computers, and I never imagined I’d personally own one. After college, when I was working as a writer, one of my co-workers, Doi Takayuki, owned an Apple II computer. He told me about this game he had called “Wizardry”, so I came over and checked it out. Unfortunately, the Japanese manual for the game then was full of errors, and you’d inevitably die right away. Still, we persevered and played late into the night, and the very next day I went out and bought an Apple II. (laughs) I bought it purely to play games.
Hajime Kimura, creator of Jungle Wars and other games, also came over to play. He was there for 2 or 3 days straight… as soon as he went home he bought an Apple II himself! Yuji Horii also joined our little “Wizardry Club,” and the two of us would go to a local cafe and talk endlessly about Wizardry. I had been into mahjongg and a variety of other games in the past, but I was so obsessed with Wizardry that I couldn’t tell which was my real life: the game or the everyday world. In our talks, Yuji and I often wondered about what made this game so addicting.
Horii began working Dragon Quest, and invited me to come help out. I had been thinking that I wanted to make a game so I jumped at the chance. Horii and I both had our start as freelance writers, and we felt that many games released at the time had poor writing. So for the game we were to create, we dedicated extra attention to the writing, even the monster’s names. It takes a name to spark the imagination, right?
Also, we both felt that its best if RPG protagonists don’t have too much personality, but are instead rather blank. If you make their personality too pronounced, the player will read the dialogue and think “hey, that’s not what I would say…” He’ll end up feeling like he’s just playing along to a pre-programmed script. So we imposed a limitation: the main character says nothing; the player has to imagine what was said from the NPC reactions and dialogue.
making an RPG
I worked with Enix on the Dragon Quest series up till DQIII, and after that I left to make Metal Max. When I make a game I don’t really follow a logical process, but I’m always thinking about whether the player would find it interesting or not. When I make dungeon maps, I like to use the graphics on the screen and then imagine I’m walking through it, creating the map as I go. Turning left here, a treasure box comes into view… I’m particular about that kind of thing. I’ve made so many dungeon maps now, at this point I can just use graph paper and get a feel for how big it should be on-screen. (laughs) Personally, I hate maps that are sloppy or disorganized. Its painful when I see maps where there’s no visual balance. But spending time on such things gets me scolded by the producer: “the players don’t care about that, hurry up and finish it!” (laughs)
Because I worked on Dragon Quest, when I think about making a new game, I feel strongly about not making just another Dragon Quest, but doing something different. But there’s a problem: I think Dragon Quest did certain things in the best way possible, and changing those things can result in a game that’s hard to understand, unwieldy, or annoying.
I think the “grammar” of RPGs has by now become mostly fixed. But the truth is, I want to smash those conventions. And yet its taken many years and many different people to refine these conventions, so I wonder if what we have now isn’t already the best or near-best form. In order to change it, I think we’re going to have to start changing the very mode of expression itself.
Lately, many have been talking about the degree of “freedom” in RPGs. Even within a set story, you can create freedom with sidequests and multiple endings. I don’t think these are especially great developments. Stories traditionally have 4 turning points, and when you think about the order of it all, a single beautiful pattern emerges. If you change one of those points, the beauty of the story will be damaged. Therefore, if you want people to be moved by your story, you shouldn’t give the player too much freedom.
For those who are thinking of making games in the future, I have this to say. You should know many things about the world if you want to create something. For example, if I tell a programmer “make it like that scene in that movie” and he doesn’t know the movie, he won’t know what I’m talking about. That’s what the commonly heard admonition “Watch movies!” is all about.
And remember, for every game people will have a variety of opinions; some will love it and some will hate it. So in the end, you can only rely on your own judgment when thinking whether something you appraise will be similarly liked by others. It’s important to keep that mindset. A game designer is a person who makes something he can call his own. Changing your ideas because of what others around you say is not the work of a creator.
vgm and ballet
I think game music resembles the music of ballet more than film music. In a movie, the narrative is the main thing you enjoy; the soundtrack, therefore, becomes nothing but background music for the dialogue and story. However, in ballets like Swan Lake and the Nutcracker, a relatively simple story that everyone knows is expressed through visuals and music. I think its a fair comparison, given the simplicity of the stories of both ballet and games: the good guy defeats the bad guy, and everyone lives happily ever after. (laughs) So I think they have much in common. Both are expressive arts, a journey to be enjoyed.
the writing process
When I write game music, I first ask about the general background and story for the game. Then I decide on an overall direction for the music, something that fits precisely the world of the game. After that, as the developers show me sketches and partially completed artwork, I start writing the music.
Game music will be heard over and over by players, hundreds or even thousands of times. So you must make music that listeners won’t get tired of easily. Melody, harmony, texture… I pay attention to all these things; my musical approach is fairly orthodox. Eccentric music that tries to grab your attention may sound interesting at first, but in the process of listening to it over and over it eventually becomes annoying. I place great importance on melodies. A good melody will last for a long time, you know.
When it comes to town music, I try to get an idea in my head of the town and write a variety of melodies around that idea… it never goes very well though. Eventually a good melody will just pop into my head, and I write it down on my notepad immediately. My notepads fill up very quickly. If I’m having trouble deciding on a given song, I’ll often write two or three alternatives. For Dragon Quest V, I think I wrote 5 different battle themes…
I don’t drink, and the things most adults spend their time on, like karaoke, golf, mahjongg… I spend that time on games. I often get asked by people, “What’s so fun about playing with an artificial, mechanical companion like a video game?” But this machine was made by a human, and it represents that creator’s feelings and ideas. Dragon Quest was made by Yuji Horii, Nakamura Kouichi, other producers, and myself too. Its a piece of our personalities. So when I’m playing a video game, I feel like I’m playing a game with the creators.
If I were a producer and was asked to choose someone to write music for a game, first and foremost I would look for someone with talent as a composer. Almost equally important is someone who has experience with video games and understands their appeal. Those two things would be my hiring criteria.
If you want to write game music, you should first study the fundamentals of music. Dragon Quest is an amazing game because its supported by solid programming. Its the same with music; if you don’t acquire basic abilities in music, it won’t matter how much you know or love games. It can be difficult to distinguish between good music and bad music, but if millions of players hear the music, find it pleasant, and memorize the melodies… then I think that is the best confirmation there is.
from freelance to Square
When I started out, I did music for commercials, porn movies… I would take any work that came my way. At that time I was living near Square, and an acquaintance of mine worked in the planning department. One day he came to me and said there’s this game Square is going to put out that has the sheet music, but the sound hasn’t been recorded yet. He asked me to do it, and that was how my association with Square began. After awhile Sakaguchi asked me, “Want a job?” to which I replied, “Yes!”, and so I had officially joined Square.
of loops and channels
There’s many differences between game music and other music. For example, in game music you have a limited number of voices. Right now the Super Famicom has 8 channels, but the Famicom could only use 3. And with only those 8 channels on the SFC you’ve got to create a whole world of sounds, from delicate harps to full-on orchestral sounds. That’s the biggest bottleneck.
Another issue is that different players spend a different amount of time on a given section of the game. How long will they spend in a town? How long will battles take? So on and so forth… so it isn’t like movies, where you have a predetermined amount of time to work within, from the opening to the ending credits. With video games your only recourse is to compose with loops (melodies that repeat over and over). Writing such loops isn’t difficult. But deciding on their length is challenging.
For example, say you start with an 8 bar melody. But its too short, and you haven’t expressed what you wanted to. So you add another 8 bars. Well, if you’ve gone that far, why not extend it another 8 bars? So you end up with a 24 bar melody, but now its too long, and the player has left the town before the song has ended. (laughs) There’s so many different restrictions to consider, but its also true that there’s a distinct enjoyment to be found from working within those limitations.
There’s rhythm and there’s melody, and I too really love composing writing rhythms. But when I write game music I put a heavy emphasis on melody. There’s body and soul: rhythm only reaches the body, it cannot penetrate the soul. Melodies, however, do reach one’s soul.
“the world of music”
With music, when I can’t write its utter and complete writers block. But when I can write, music comes to me with a mysterious ease. When I enter this “work mode,” songs just come out one after the other. It’s such a flood of inspiration that I may not have time to write them all down… I’ve written 20 songs in 3 weeks before.
It’s as if there’s a “world of music” that exists, and a pipeline is suddenly connected between it and me. When I listen later to the things I wrote during such periods, they always sound good to me. During that time even someone like me becomes a genius, but just as suddenly it will stop. When that happens, there’s nothing I can do. I can only wait. (laughs)
I think its important to hold on to your interests and curiosity in this world, no matter what you do. When I was in elementary school I wanted to be an Olympic athelete and I practiced Kendou… my life took a major detour from that dream, but it wasn’t a waste. People can become what they want to be. So long as you don’t give up, things will turn out OK.
I became a game professional 10 years ago, when I was 15. In elementary school, the games at the game center cost 100 yen, which was very expensive for a kid. But I had heard that if you bought a computer, you could play games at home for free… so my parents bought me a PC6001 computer.
I manually typed in the code from game magazines, and in doing so, I started to make my own modifications and teach myself how to program. In high school I took Electronic Science classes, and I learned that a friend was working part-time making game software. I thought, “If he can do it, so can I! I can make money from making games I like and messing around with computers all day!” And so I joined a game company. That was how it all began for me. Back then you had to make everything yourself in a game. You had to draw the graphics and write the music by yourself.
In my case, I never had any aspirations to become a professional game designer or anything. When I graduated high school I enrolled in college in a major completely unrelated to games. But time passed, and before I knew it, I had become a programmer. I had always loved creating things. In middle school I loved movies, and in a sense making games resembles making movies. Making a whole movie is a huge ordeal, but video games could be created by one person.
I wanted to make Famicom games when I saw how many copies they sold compared to computer games. At the time a computer game that sold well might sell 10,000 copies, but with the Famicom, every game sold at least 300,000 no matter how good or bad it was. I also wanted to experience that satisfaction of seeing your game lined up on the store shelf.
life at Chunsoft
At my company Chunsoft, we’re fortunate to have many people of good character (laughs). Before things get too busy, we go on company trips together to strengthen our solidarity, and de-stress as much as possible.
We also sometimes write plans for new games during these trips. Overall though, we don’t create planning documents for our games. We do have something, usually a copy of the pictures and text we brainstormed on the whiteboard. Whatever’s there becomes our planning docs. (laughs) And it sometimes happens that no one can read or understand what was originally written. (laughs) You know, technical issues, processing speed, and memory all come into play, so sometimes its better not to have a strictly defined planning document so early in the development process.
In any event, these trips are a lot of fun. One time we went to Yomiuri Land and rode the roller coasters early in the morning, and everyone felt sick for the rest of the day. (laughs)
If you release one game per year, it isn’t the case that you’re going to be busy all year-long. It’s the last one or two months that are insane. It’s just like summer vacation homework. (laughs) Towards the end things get so bad you’ll have to stay overnight at the office… there’s just a mountain of work to be done. This needs to be completed… Have to do that too… ahhh!! Can I really do this?! When you’re in that crunch time, you’ve got to try and enjoy it. The last two months are actually the most fun for me.
the life of a programmer
Many programmers have a lot of pride. They’re consummate engineers, people who really grasp the core of things. When a designer says, “Do this”, its quite common for the programmers to shoot back with “No! There’s no time, there’s no memory…” and so on. However, if you want to be a game designer, you need to have the ability to convince the programmers that your idea is correct, even if it’s difficult to implement. If you simply try to appeal to them based on your love of games, they will only get angry.
The ideas you need in order to design a game can come from all over the place. Not just other games, but tv, movies… When you do play other games, thinking about what you’d do differently or improve can also be helpful, and depending on the situation, a deeper analysis of the game can be important.
If you want to be a programmer today, I think learning C is a good idea. Assembly may become obsolete in the near future. And with C, you can program for any computer. More importantly, no matter what language you learn, the algorithms of programming are all the same. Those who learn BASIC can learn Assembly, and those who learn Assembly should be able to learn C easily. No matter how the language is structured, its the algorithms that are important, not the language itself. If you desire a challenge, assembly is fine to start off with too. If you start with a very high level language it may be hard to learn a low level language like assembly, so there’s that advantage too.
With game design, there are going to be parts of a game that planners couldn’t foresee or do themselves, and the programmers must compensate and support them there. There are also ideas that can only be conceived by programmers. If you just program in strict accordance with the original planning documents, you won’t create a good game. Programmers too must be designers. Because ultimately, whether the game is good or not rests on the programmers’ shoulders.
Another thing about programmers is that they are forever chasing the ideal finished product. With Landstalker, even after it was released there were things I was unsatisfied with. You discover these things when you’re in the thick of it, but there’s no time to fix or change it.
I always want to do new things. I want to create something that is my own unique expression. You’re always thinking, “in the next game I’ll improve this.” But I don’t think a 100% perfect form is ever possible.
I originally wanted to be a fashion designer. The college I was enrolled in was also fashion related. At that time, the only experience I had with video games was on an old Nintendo at my house, playing “TV Game 16”, I’m sad to say. Its fair to say I had zero interest in games.
After that I wanted to try making my own game too. Right away I looked through the job ads and joined a software developer. The company I had joined mainly worked as a subcontractor for other game companies. We made a large variety of games… it was pretty much your run-of-the-mill software developer. (laughs)
the role of the pixel artist
My job is to create the graphics in a game. Depending on the situation I might also do character design, or work on the animation and presentation. Game art _is_ pixel art. But normal drawings and pixel art are very different.
The first big difference is that you can’t draw lines freely in pixel art. Because pixels are composed of small squares, straight lines are no problem, but curves are very difficult to draw. Things a pencil can do with ease can’t be done with pixel art. And yet, you have to find a way. In the end its just a question of getting used to it, and I’d say that after about a year you should be able to create half-decent pixel art. Recently, I did the art for the RPG Lennus. I really struggled with it: tears were shed.
RPGs require you to make large maps. To do this you use the same blocks (the smallest denomination of game art, an 8×8 unit) over and over, combining them to make a complete map picture. This way economizes on memory. If you do a bad job with this process, the map will appear dull and boring. Its very much like putting together a puzzle.
the future of pixel art
As game hardware evolves, the 30,000 colors we’ve been limited to will expand so that 16,000,000 colors will be available. The amount of pixels capable of being displayed on screen will also increase, so it may be that the age of drawing game art one pixel at a time will soon end. Naturally, the usage of actual art and movies will also likely become more prevalent in games. The era of pixel art is coming to a close. In the future game artists will be doing work similar to those who create anime.
I think that in the future, a visual presentation that wows players may become as important as gameplay. If that happens, the work that game designers have done up till now may be taken over by specialists with experience in the presentation style of movies, anime, and so on. The very way games are made is progressing.
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