The Nintendo Feel Question

I was asked this question:

Nintendo-made games, at their best, have a particular feel, some kind of optimal relationship between the player and what goes on on-screen. It’s part of a more general Nintendo-ness, something many gamers and critics tend to call “polish.” What do you suppose that is?

There are a handful of video game developers in the world who can afford to take the “when it’s ready” approach to game development. Each developer chooses to do something a little different with this luxury: Blizzard are the masters of structural game design and game balance while Valve champions level design and produces games that have uncanny flow and pacing. Nintendo’s unique focus is on moment to moment interaction. Specifically, making the thing being controlled in the game feel like an extension of the player into the game world, making that sensation powerful, tactile, and subconscious. This means building games from the most common experience outwards, removing obstructions to easy play. Every Mario game starts with a sandbox level in which all the controls of the game are developed, honed, and perfected for many months. “Before any of the levels had been created Mr. Miyamoto had Mario running around and picking up objects in a small ‘garden’ which he uses in all his games to test gameplay elements.“ Pragmatically, the problems being solved aren’t particularly earth-shattering. As Yoshitaka Koizumi said at his recent keynote at the Montreal International Games Summit, three main things they were trying to solve in Mario Galaxy were simple, camera-related problems: the problem of accurate depth perception (accurately stomping a Goomba is really hard in 3d), motion sickness from excessive camera movement, and preventing players from getting lost. This is where the idea of running around spheroids came from. There are no obstructions to move the camera quickly around and the space is small and easy to navigate.

It all comes from an underlying philosophy. Shigeru Miyamoto calls it the “miniature garden” aesthetic. You want the player to be drawn into the design of a miniature garden. The garden is self contained, self consistent, and full of joyful discovery. It is alive. It changes, grows, and evolves, inviting you to play with it. The world feels whole and complete, your abilities fitting in clearly with the reality of a simplified but living world. So many times in a Nintendo game if you ask the question “I wonder if I can…” the answer is yes. Can I get up to the top of that tall mountain? Can I fly to that distant cloud? This comes out of giving the player a great deal of expressive freedom within narrow but well masked constraints.

What I think is so surprising to gamers, critics, and other game developers, is just how different the experience of a Nintendo game can be from other games that seem to be constructed with the same elements. The reason is that video games, more than any other medium, rely on harmony. The whole is what’s important. Examining each component separately is fruitless, because the art is in the relationships. If a coin didn’t give you health, or if collecting 100 coins didn’t get you a star, would you bother collecting them? Nintendo games, while comprised of familiar elements, combine them in ways that give rise to the most delightful dynamics. These are masterfully crafted abstract relationships. This mastery of relationships extends downward to moment to moment interaction, which is Nintendo’s chosen problem domain. They construct the miniature garden from birds’ eye, looking down on its entire ecosystem.