Nintendo’s Philosophy: The Art and Science of Game Design
In a comment on my article summing up my opinion of E3, reader Washboard Abs put forth the question, “What say you to those who believe Nintendo has failed once again by clinging to the past of gaming by introducing nothing new and simply putting a fresh coat of paint on the same games and technologies?” With Nintendo revealing their 3DS, from all appearances just a DS with stereoscopic visuals, and a majority of the games announced being titles based on existing properties, W.A.’s opinion certainly has merit by all appearances. Join me after the jump to look in-depth at what appears to be Nintendo’s design philosophy.
[NB: This is going to be a pretty long one, folks. I won't lie. There is a summary at the end of the post, so feel free to skip down to it if you're inclined to leave a comment consisting solely of "tl;dr" (see the section titled "The Problem"). In addition, let's be clear - in no way is this an attack on Washboard Abs. I fully support and enjoy comments like these on my posts, and I trust that it was given the same good-natured spirit of debate as it was received.]
Since 2004, product announcements from Nintendo seem to have followed a formula: pair a relatively cutting-edge technological gimmick with a collection of games from familiar franchises to create a new gameplay experience. The goal is to turn the risky hardware into a sure sell by means of reliable software. Whether it’s a touch screen, motion control, or stereoscopic visuals, the new tech could just as easily be a fad as a groundbreaking change to game development. By attaching well-known characters or game universes to the device in the form of launch titles, Nintendo likely secures early adoption from loyal fans or curious previous customers. Look to the releases of the DS and Wii for the prime examples. The DS launched with Super Mario 64 DS, a remake of the Nintendo 64 launch title that pioneered fully rendered 3D worlds (if not first, then most successfully) but with added stylus control to demonstrate its use. The Wii showed off its capability with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, originally developed and simultaneously released as a GameCube title much in the style of the Nintendo 64′s Ocarina of Time, but with motion control attached. Don’t look over the Wii touting its online connectivity, either, with the Virtual Console, allowing you to download and play games from their backlog, extending to the NES and even arcade days.
The other observable pattern is iteration of design, both for hardware and software. Nintendo refines their approach to consoles and games by releasing tweaked versions over time. The perceivable goal here is to acquire the “best” design possible. By going over the product, repairing flaws, removing unnecessary bits, and improving performance, Nintendo strives for the most satisfactory gaming experience possible and winds up with innumerable versions of essentially the same thing. If the 3DS is released this year it will be the fifth DS model design in six years. By comparison, the Game Boy went through nine iterations in the 16 years it was supported by Nintendo. The number of sequels taking place in the flagship game universes of the Mushroom Kingdom or Hyrule rival the number of The Land Before Time feature films. If they aren’t refining the core experience, then you’ll be sure to find the characters used in many other games in differing capacities; Mario has been in over 200 games over his near 30-year history.
From where I’m standing, there are a couple of different ways to look at this issue, perspectives that tie into the fact that video games straddle a line between art and science. On the “art” side of game design, we have things like the narrative story, the emergent story, the aural and visual presentation of the game, and the mood and tone set by the preceding elements with the choices in game mechanics. For example, survival horror games employ stories involving scary or dire situations, creepy visuals, and sound and music to cause fear or to supplement the tone of having to struggle to continue. Mechanic design choices like limited health and scarce ammunition work to amplify the overall feeling of helplessness. These aspects improve through finding new ways to convey the meaning or mood of the game: stories and settings we haven’t played through before, higher quality visuals and sound, more immersive mechanics. With regard to Nintendo’s design philosophy, elements like these have seen little innovation or change over the years in the prominent franchises. Mario always works to defeat Bowser, who has captured Princess Toadstool, by working his way through the Goombas and Koopa Troopas by means of jumping on their heads. Link always seeks to reunite the power for good scattered throughout the land of Hyrule by Ganondorf, conquering dungeon after dungeon by using the special item he found within, so that he may save the land and Princess Zelda. The addition of a stylus, motion controls, or stereoscopic visuals may improve one or two elements here, but it does nothing to change this basic formula. This seems to be the viewpoint that Washboard Abs’ comment comes from.
The other side of the line is the “science” perspective, specifically that video games are pieces of software written by programmers. Seeing the medium as such puts it on the same level as a word processor or operating system, though decidedly for different purposes. The goal is not necessarily a new experience, but rather a better experience through iteration, producing many versions with slight improvements each time. For example, if your word processor of choice has bugs and errors in it, you won’t complain when a new version is released that fixes these problems (though you might if you have to pay full price again, but that’s a different story). This is the perspective that seems to line up more with Nintendo’s philosophy. A better experience comes from improved design, not new design.
The root of the disappointment contained in Washboard Abs’ comment is a difference of perspective, of supply and demand. Nintendo seeks to give their customers a well-designed experience, founded strongly in previous iterations, and to deliver this experience to as many people as possible by employing the latest technologies and simpler interface choices. Those folk W.A. refers to in the comment want new experiences that push the boundaries of what gaming is capable of. So to those who believe Nintendo has failed once again by clinging to the past of gaming by introducing nothing new and simply putting a fresh coat of paint on the same games and technologies, I’d say, “You’re right.” In a sense, you’re absolutely right. Both Nintendo’s and your goals have changed with regard to your experience. If you aren’t looking for what Nintendo is providing, even if you want to want what Nintendo is offering, you won’t be satisfied.
If, however, you’re looking for games from a company with a strong pedigree who’s willing to take risks mitigated by years of design improvements, you certainly can’t go wrong with picking up a Nintendo product.