Yasumi Matsuno x Shigeru Miyamoto (2003)

Yasumi Matsuno x Shigeru Miyamoto – 2003 Developer Interview

In this lengthy interview from the GSLA, Shigeru Miyamoto and Yasumi Matsuno discuss the challenges of being a producer and leading a large team. In between such managerial musings, Matsuno talks a bit about the making of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and Miyamoto shares some characteristic insights about the Mario series and how his leadership style has evolved over the years.

Matsuno: For the development of Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced (FFTA), I took a step back from the day-to-day working environment. I helped create the very initial concept and planning documents, which I handed off for further expansion to Yuichi Murasawa (formerly of Quest) and his team, who were also responsible for the Knight of Lodis. Otherwise, in terms of the game data, I checked the messages and dialogue, and also oversaw the balancing. Until FFTA, I’d always been directly involved in the creation of the actual game data myself—this was my first time having to entrust so much to others…

Miyamoto: You hadn’t worked with the Tactics Ogre team in awhile either. And this was your first time working completely as a producer, wasn’t it?

Matsuno: It was, and in that sense, it was equal parts exciting and challenging.

Miyamoto: When you aren’t the one personally working on the game, you can view it much more critically. That vantage allows you to tell your staff, “this is how things should be, ideally.” (laughs) And I believe it’s extremely important to have someone on a development who has taken a step back and thus has that more objective viewpoint—someone who knows what everyone was originally aiming for in the beginning. It’s a very valuable thing, for your game, to have a producer like that. After all, there are a lot of things you see clearly at the end of a development that people were incapable of seeing when they were right there in the thick of it.

Work Habits

Matsuno: How much time do you spend on the work floor actually overseeing everyone’s work?

Miyamoto: It really depends on the game. Following the planning phase and until the structure of the actual game starts to take shape, I tend to stand back and let things progress freely. I prefer to have them show me their ideas once they’ve taken some concrete visual form. I do check in on everyone from time to time, though. Usually the developers come to me once they’ve gotten things working to a certain point, but sometimes I walk by and notice they’ve gone way off track. (laughs) In those cases, after seeing something like that I find myself spending a lot more time in the development rooms. I may be down there anywhere from 6 to 10 months then.

What I’m looking for in a development is, are they trying to do something new and original? When the originality reaches a certain level, that’s when I give my OK for the project to proceed. If it’s lacking in that regard, I ask them to think of ways to spice it up. In terms of storyline and canon, as long as a new game doesn’t create contradictions with the previous titles, I’m fine with it. The setting and timelines of our series is something we keep a tight grip on, but other than that, developers are free to do what they like.

Matsuno: Do the developers ever fight with you?

Miyamoto: No, they don’t. Part of that is the age gap between me and the younger developers. (laughs) I know I have a reputation for ordering massive revisions and “flipping tables”, as it were, but in reality that’s more of a joke we’re all in on. I mean, there have been times when I’ve actually made them re-do everything, but in truth it’s really more of an established ritual now, that I will come by at some point and critically evaluate the project. (laughs) I feel it’s a way to lighten the mood—no one wants to have their work scrapped, but having this joke about how I go on rampages helps ease the pain for the developers who do end up having to make major revisions. It’s sort of a clever way to try and keep things positive, and I’m in on it too. (laughs) It’s a delicate, subtle relationship.

A slide from a presentation by Eiji Aonuma about Shigeru Miyamoto’s infamous tendency to “upend the tea table” (a literal translation of chabudaigaeshi, meaning here to dramatically start everything over). In this case, it was Twilight Princess which Miyamoto ordered substantial reworking on after a poor reception at E3.

Matsuno: I love Zelda, and have played every game in the series. I’m always impressed by how tight and flawless the games are, including the latest. In any creative work, one is faced with deadlines that ultimately result in compromise after compromise. Maybe you don’t really like how this part turned out, but at some point you’ve done all you can and you just have to put it out there. In the end, every creative work faces those challenges, I believe. That’s why I admire Zelda so much, and want to someday create at least one game with that level of polish in my life… but I’ve been unable to so far.

Miyamoto: Well, the truth is that we also have to make many compromises. By the end of any development you’re calculating how much time you can afford to spend away from your family, how many hours of sleep you can get by with… (laughs)

Making FFTA

Matsuno: I believe games have a “skeleton”, if you will—not in terms of the story, but in terms of the gameplay.

Miyamoto: And what would that be for FFTA?

Matsuno: For this game, there’s two main things. First, is going through all the different mini-story quests. And second, of course, are the battles. What both share, is my desire to create a balanced system wherein players are free to play however they want, while never feeling like the game is either too easy or bland. Strategy games, of course, are rather like chess… and a high degree of “freedom” does run counter to the notion of rules and strategies in a game like chess…

Miyamoto: Right, chess has things like standard opening moves.

Matsuno: Nevertheless I really wanted to give players that freedom: to be able to use and level up the characters you like, and be able to use your preferred fighters regardless. I didn’t want to lose that. Murasawa, however, wanted to go deeper on the formal chess-like rules and strategies, but I ultimately decided not to go in that direction this time. There’s some of that, but it’s weighted more to giving players the freedom to try their own ideas out as much as possible. That was something I couldn’t compromise on.

Miyamoto: That’s your core concept right there, I think: the original answer to the question, “why are we making this game?” If everyone in the development is on the same page with that question, then it becomes easy to trim away the fat at the end.

But you know, I’ve noticed it sometimes happens that, at the end when everyone is flustered, there’s a tendency for the developers to lose perspective and see everything as equally important. At that time, I think the most critical thing is that you stop, return to your “normal” self and mindset, and ask yourself what’s really essential to the game.

So—and this is something I say to the staff too, when we have to cut things—if you play this game six months from now you’ll understand what I’m saying. Of course they rarely find that persuasive. (laughs) But it’s really true—let six months pass and you’ll have the right perspective. I think a lot of the little things developers get absolutely hung up on just aren’t important to players at all.

Yuichi Murasawa, director of FFTA, apparently wanted the game to feature more chess-like rules; the combo and law mechanics are possibly remnants of that.

As such, I now take up a more detached position in the development, where I can see things clearly because I’m not overly involved. For the younger developers, I try to see the things they can’t and find a good way to communicate with them about it. Even if you create some super-thick master planning document, it’s going to be full of details that are mostly just conceits of the developer and likely have no bearing on the player’s enjoyment of the game as such. And yet I never tell developers not to include those details; they make up the heart and soul of the developers’ ideas, and telling someone to excise those and just create the “important” parts of the game… well, human beings don’t work like that. So all those obsessive details are very important to the process, but the key thing is being able to forget them if they become hindrances in the end.

Managing Development Teams

Matsuno: What kind of guidance do you give to developers, specifically?

Miyamoto: For example, in Mario games, I suggest that the level designers first decide how big the map is going to be, then add their content. With Mario, each new gameplay element you want to add should be used 4 times in a stage: a place where players are introduced to and can safely learn the new element; a place where they get to play around with it; a place where they apply what they know about it in some novel way; and finally, a place where the idea is taken to an extreme. I ask designers to try thinking about it that way.

In doing so, however, sometimes the designers are unable to fit all four of those in a single level. If they get stuck, I tell them to just go on to the next level or idea for now, and stop wracking their brains for the moment. By taking a break, the answer will become clear. That’s a good way to figure out what your best ideas are. Lots of developers have big dreams but little experience, but until you’ve actually had experience making something like this, it’s not something you can just figure out. That’s where my job comes in, working together with the developers and helping them revise their ideas.

Matsuno: Any games you’ve played lately that have particularly impressed you?

Miyamoto: FFTA, of course. (laughs)

Matsuno: Thank you very much. (laughs)

Miyamoto: Yeah, I never seem to be able to pick one when I’m put on the spot like this. (laughs) Right now it’s Bow-lingual, maybe. Bow-lingual and Taiko no Tatsujin grabbed my attention last year. The year before that, it was Samba de Amigo, so I guess my tastes haven’t changed much. As for why that is, well, I have a sense that these are games the industry needs right now.

What is so wonderful about Bow-lingual is its ability to attract the interest of such a wide swath of society. It has that quality, where you can describe its appeal in a single sentence—and that is an important development theme for our work, too. Unfortunately most of the games I make can’t be described with such brevity, and I’ve had to resign myself to delivering what the fans of our long-running series have come to expect. The kind of broadening and expansion that Bow-lingual represents—I want to see more of that in the game industry. We’re using this amazing technology to make computer games, but it should also be usable in a wider variety of other contexts, and I think it would be best if we diversified our developments in this way. So more than game “quality” per se, I have a feeling what’s going to become important in the future of the gaming industry is more diverse, novel features.

Meet Miyamoto’s top pick for 2002, Bow-lingual. On a more serious note, the interest in software like Bowlingual that tried to interface with the wider world beyond traditional video game controls presaged the development of hardware like the Wii.

Matsuno: The FF12 staff currently has about 120 people, and the overwhelming majority are graphics designers or doing other graphics-related work. As the memory (storage capacity) for our games gets bigger—and this is especially true for Square—there’s a strong tendency to pour more and more resources into the graphics, which in turn eats up all that extra memory. (laughs)

Miyamoto: It’s the producers job to put the brakes on that kind of thing. (laughs) In reality, however, it’s a fact that the company is dealing with a commercial product, so one can’t be too strident in refusing to play ball there. It’s extremely important to show respect in all aspects of your leadership.

Recently, I’ve often found myself saying to the staff, “Please don’t work too hard on this.” Of course, I want them to give their best, but if they go too crazy, we won’t end up having the space to use what they’ve made. (laughs) It’s more like I want them to do their best within certain limits. But going too far just means you’re eating into someone else’s efforts—in terms of using up too much memory or processing power. If you want to work in video games, no matter how much of an artist you may be, you’ve got to be mindful of the memory and processing budgets. (laughs)

Matsuno: When I’ve worked in small groups, it’s been with veterans who—how can I put this—there’s a certain implicit harmony between us, where if I say we’re doing something, they understand the reasons why without any further explanation on my part. When the team gets too big, though, that’s not the case. From the developer’s point of view, my instructions can seem mean-spirited on the one hand, or completely arbitrary on the other. With big teams, you have more of those difficult “handling” problems.

Miyamoto: This is some real talk. (laughs) It gets real scary if you think too hard on how the staff sees you; in reverse, there’s probably some staff who are terrified of speaking to me. Sometimes young staff members come up and tell me things like, “I’m so glad I was able to talk with you”, and I was like, “Huh? Aren’t we both just staff on this project…?” (laughs)

Matsuno: I can easily see that situation happening with you. (laughs)

Miyamoto: Sometimes I make an off-handed joke to these younger staff members about making something, and then they go an actually put it in the game! (laughs) I’m like, “What?! You actually made it?!” And they say, “I thought you were serious…” Sometimes those things become big hits though too. (laughs)

FFXII featured a vast world to explore and was highly regarded, but one can sense in Matsuno’s comments a nostalgia for working on the smaller games of yesteryear.

Future Plans

Matsuno: What are your plans for this year?

Miyamoto: I’m thinking I’d like to do something a little new. Especially since last year I worked on a lot of our bread-and-butter franchise titles. How about you?

Matsuno: I’ll mainly be working on FF12, but now that Murasawa and his team have finished FFTA, they’re slowly taking steps towards their next project, so I might get involved with that too. Last year was fairly conservative in that I worked mainly on franchise series, so this year I’d like to challenge myself as a developer with something new and unique. The card e-reader sounds interesting. I think I’d like to try making some kind of game for that—if I could make something simple that doesn’t focus on sheer volume/quantity, that would be fun.

Miyamoto: Let’s both work to make the whole industry shine. (laughs)

Matsuno: What a nice way to close. (laughs)

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