Designing the A-Life System – 1996 Developer Interview

Designing the A-Life System – 1996 Developer Interview

This short interview about the “A-Life” system from NiGHTS was originally featured in game hihyou magazine in 1996. Yuji Naka shares some valuable insight about the challenges of creating an “artificial life” system, as well as his thoughts about the need for more unique games like NiGHTS in the industry. This interview makes a nice companion piece to the longer NiGHTS interview we translated earlier this year.

Yuji Naka – Producer
Takashi Iizuka – Lead Designer
Tetsu Katano – Programmer

Naka: I love games like Lemmings and Populous. In Populous, it’s fun just watching the people move around on-screen. When I see little characters, like those Lemmings, moving around all cutely, it puts a huge smile on my face. I wanted to evoke something similar with the Pians.

—There seem to be a lot of connections between those games and NiGHTS.

Naka: Actually, the truth is I wanted to make the A-LIFE sim more meaningfully connected to the game itself, but that would have meant changing the underlying gameplay of NiGHTS. For awhile, I thought we should just make the A-LIFE sim its own game. We talked about it, but eventually settled on the way it is today.

—Without the A-LIFE system, I bet the programming work would have been a lot easier.

Katano: Yes. (laughs) As you can imagine, it took a lot of time fiddling and tweaking everything to get it right. We had an overall tight, very limited schedule for NiGHTS, and the A-LIFE part especially took up a lot of that time.

Naka: The genetic evolution of the Pian’s shape, form, and abilities are all a matter of statistics, so if it wasn’t tuned just right from the beginning, we were worried certain undesirable patterns would occur downstream, like all the Pians eventually becoming one type, or their actions and behavior all eventually becoming uniform. If we gave one genetic pattern too much priority, you see, it threatened to ruin the entire A-LIFE system. I think we managed to balance it all pretty well, though.

L-R: Tetsu Katano (programmer), Takashi Iizuka (lead designer), Yuji Naka (producer)

—The Pians are very cute, with such rich variety in their behavior.

Iizuka: For me, more than just creating them, I find it’s most fun making the Pians do all kinds of new actions. Even though I technically should know all the parameters of the A-LIFE system, whenever I see them do something new it’s still really fun to me.

Naka: Making a Super Pian is actually less difficult than making the Pians do new actions. During the development we saw a lot of different actions though. They just don’t happen very often when playing at home. (laughs)

Katano: The truth is we adjusted the programming a little bit, and lowered the incidence of those actions. (laughs)

Iizuka: Yeah, there are rare ones in there. Like the Pians who will race opposite you on the Frozen Bell bobsled course.

Naka: Really? I’ve never seen those. Aren’t you worried they’ll crash into NiGHTS or something? (laughs)

—There’s a lot of variety in the way the Pians jump, too.

Naka: There’s ones that can jump really high, and ones that kind of float low.

Katano: The Pians with high intelligence who are also good at jumping can be found in high places.

Iizuka: I’m glad that there’s many different ways to enjoy NiGHTS. I’ll be very happy if players get so into the A-LIFE system that they become experts with the controls and ultimately get an A rank on all the courses.

Naka: We had originally wanted players to be able to name the individual Pians. If you pressed the pause button, their name would appear and you could change it there. The names would have carried on in some form, like the genes, too, gradually changing with each successive generation.

—I think that would have further increased players’ affection for the Pians.

Naka: Unfortunately, it would have made the save data too large, and only people with the backup RAM carts would have been able to play. So we cut that idea. And there are other places where I think we could have given them more stats, or done something more interesting with them.

Katano: It would have been a nightmare to program all that, though. (laughs)

Naka: For now, I think we’ve learned that a system like A-Life is possible to add to a game, and that we’ve created something fun with it. My goal is to build on that for a future game.

The A-Life system and Pians were inspired by the cute, diminutive sprites of games like Lemmings and Populous.

—One of the fun things about the A-Life system is that when something cool happens, it feels like a private discovery, like you’re the only person to witness it.

Naka: That’s great—that’s very much something we were aiming to create.

—I imagine it must be hard nowadays to add that element of “personal” enjoyment to a game, what with everyone reading strategy guides and trying to copy what they see in them…

Naka: That kind of “synergizing” with the strategy guide market was something we never thought about during the development.

—That makes sense. And regarding the main game of NiGHTS, you seem to put more emphasis on flying gracefully, rather than getting the fastest time.

Naka: Yeah. That was part of our message to players: NiGHTS is a different kind of game from what has come before. I think there will be players who, after seeing that no matter how fast they fly, they aren’t getting the A rank, will start to question the value of flying fast. So yeah, whether it be through the A-Life system or the ranking system, those elements are messages from us to the players, and the players who understand them will find NiGHTS fun, but those who never get the message will probably stop playing. Whenever you try to do something new, there’s always going to be trade-offs and sacrifices somewhere… that’s the dilemma.

—Yeah. When you change up the rules that people have been used to, undoubtedly some players are going to reject that out-of-hand.

Naka: But there are also many people who are bored with games that all feel the same. It is precisely for them that we’ve endeavored to create something new. To be honest, if we were only thinking about the risk, we should have just created an RPG or vs. FTG game. But because there’s so many games in those genres, I think players are starting to get tired of them. If the same kind of games keep getting made, eventually you’ll end up with a community made up of only hardcore players; it’s not a healthy direction for the games industry overall. With NiGHTS, we hope to do our small part in revitalizing this industry.

—That said, with the inclusion of the A-LIFE system, there’s a ton of freedom in the core game that is NiGHTS, and surprisingly solid gameplay.

Iizuka: Right. We spent a great deal of time working out the core mechanics of NiGHTS—many, many hours. We had meeting after meeting refining that core, making sure it was solid and well-made.

The Chao from Sonic Adventure were the next iteration of the A-life idea.

—It’s also cool how the A-LIFE system can be enjoyed even if you only play it for 10 minutes a day. By playing just one night per session, in a month the world will have evolved. There’s a lot of fun to be had just witnessing those changes.

Naka: Yeah, and that experience, too, is unique to each person. It can be similarly said for the main game as well—the way you enjoy it is totally up to you. NiGHTS is a game that has a broad appeal and is easy to pick up, but I think it has a lot of depth too once you get into it.

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