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  • i_am_errorOver the years, game design has calcified. If I were to pick a turning point, I might point at the SNES — a system of broadly appealing games that delivered exactly what people expected of a videogame, challenged few perceptions, and established the status quo for 2D console-style game design. Since then it’s been hard to get past the old standards — the prettied-up enhancements of Super Mario 3, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid that added little new in terms of expression or design language, yet that refined the hell out of some proven favorites.

    You could say that the SNES was the epitome of Miyamoto-styled design (even in games by other developers), and you’d have a reason for saying that. Namely, it was the Miyamoto Box: Nintendo’s reward to Miyamoto for the broad appeal of his NES catalog. Meanwhile Miyamoto’s opposing force, in Gunpei Yokoi, was rewarded for his invention of the Game Boy by having his studio removed from mainstream console development to support his brainchild. The message was clear: Miyamoto’s way was the successful one, so he would be in charge of everything important from here on.

    The thing is, Miyamoto is just one voice. He had a few brilliant ideas in the mid-1980s, all born out of a particular context and in response to particular problems. And then by the turn of the ’90s he was pretty much dry. All that was left was to codify his ideas, turn them into a near law of proper design — regardless of context — and then sit back to admire his work, while new generations carefully followed his example as if manufacturing chairs or earthenware pots. A videogame was a videogame, much as a chair was a chair. It was a thing, an object, with particular qualities and laws.

    Thing is, videogames aren’t things; they’re ideas. A game mechanism exists not in a vacuum, as a fact, but as a solution to a problem. Mario jumps so as to make use of the vertical space on the screen. He attacks by stomping on enemies or punching from below out of economy; his main defining trait is his ability to jump, so there’s a practical effect to both the upswing and the downswing. What makes Super Mario Bros. so effective, on a systemic level, is the tangibility of the player’s exploration. Compared with earlier games, it is revelatory to lump so much behavior onto physically touching the environment. The game is both visceral and curiously intimate.

    That isn’t to suggest that jumping is the best use of vertical 2D space, or that leaping on or leaping into creatures or objects is an ideal way of interacting with an environment. This isn’t to suggest that the game’s level progression is ideal. Just because (given the right powers) you hit blocks in Super Mario Bros., and (given the right powers) you burn or bomb or lift blocks in Zelda, and (given the right powers) you shoot blocks in Metroid, that doesn’t mean that a chain of special powers and tiles, blocking the player’s path, is an ideal game structure.

    You get the idea. One way or another, most mainstream games have evolved from the Miyamoto model. Not just on consoles, either; Carmack and Romero’s debt to Miyamoto is well-recorded, and fairly obvious in Keen, Wolf3D, and Doom. In a more sophisticated sense, Valve’s debt to Doom brings the theories to present on both shores. Granted, Valve tends to be more contemplative than most, with Half-Life 2 almost being a Super Mario Bros. style State of the Art address. Yet in its deconstructionist brilliance, it pretty well shows up the lack of ideas elsewhere. Even six years later, there’s not much been much advance on, or even equal to, the game’s grasp on player psychology.

    There are some solid reasons for this lack of progress. For one, commercial videogames are expensive, limiting their potential audience to people who like “videogames.” For another, any established audience tends to drift toward the familiar. The most a fanbase ever wants is a slight twist on its object of attachment, or else it becomes unrecognizable. Remember how much people hated The Adventure of Link, for the NES — in some ways is one of the bravest and most sophisticated sequels ever made. The reason? It was too different from the original Zelda. So the third game was pretty much exactly like the first again, except prettier and a bit more polished, with a few new gimmicks. And to this day, gamers won’t shut up about it.

    Another problem is of the cart-before-the-horse that is technology. Mainstream games keep getting more and more expensive and difficult to make, just to make use of all of the processing power of each new generation. Yet for all that processing power they’re not exploring many ideas that were impossible ten, fifteen years ago; they’re too concerned with just making back their investment — which means selling to as broad an audience as possible, where the audience has a very specific idea of what it wants.

    In the wake of Nintendo and Sony, that audience has gotten large enough to command a certain voice, suggesting that there is an outlet for these expensive monstrosities, yet it’s too small and narrow to leave much room for alternative perspectives. Nintendo got around the problem by targeting non-gamers and people who haven’t played games in years. Which is brilliant in principle. And then, being Nintendo, they didn’t do much of anything with the idea. Oh well.

    But now we have alternative channels. We have the Internet, we have cheap design tools, we have communities of individuals who grew up on videogames and who think in game design the way that New Wave auteurs thought in film. These aren’t people with a huge budget, or an audience to placate; all they have to please is themselves, and maybe a few peers. And videogames are a palette through which to explore their ideas. The atmosphere lends itself to asking questions — why do so many games revolve around killing and death? Why is Mega Man so hard? What’s the point of RPG statistics? What does all of this mean, anyway?

    And so somehow, right now, and as of the last few years, it seems all the important questions, and most of the relevant answers in game design, are coming not from the institutions with the budget and the influence to command attention, but from a handful of hack programmers, putting in a few hours after their day jobs or between term papers — the way it used to be, twenty-five, thirty years ago. Videogames have gone through the maelstrom and come back to zero, a bit confused but also just a little more mature.

    If videogames are an exchange of ideas, perhaps it’s best that exchange is between individuals.

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    • SnowflakePillow 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
      I guess I can't call the Wii Miyamoto's box, and to call it any one person's box is ultimately too simplified. I don't know enough about the internal structure and we can always be unsure about the veracity of what's in the interviews. I would say, though, the Miyamoto definitely had a hand in Wii Fit and a few other popular Wii successes. You can say that they aren't innovative because the technology was already on the shelf for decades and even appeared somewhat on the NES. However, I think part of game making that should be valued is the ability to package and market something good so that people can get the motivation sparked in them to try it. Sure, you can say that Portal wasn't at all innovative because Narbacular Drop already existed and Prey had some portal-type things. I still think Portal is the most important game of the three; it wasn't the first, but it was the first to do it well.

      I wouldn't knock supervisory positions either. Miyamoto's been known to throw some projects into upheaval when in that capacity, projects that went on to become great games. I'm pretty shy and so a lot of times when in group projects I see the handwriting on the wall for a failure but can't summon the gravitas to prevent the train wreck. So I can respect that courage to apply his expertise when necessary and avoid harmful squeamishness. In fact, I'd say that up until about Link's Crossbow Training, every game on his list was at least decent, if heavily recombinant, which gives him a better track record of supervision than many other luminaries that have graduated to that role.

      I wouldn't call Pikmin incidental either. As players, we often have transitory relationships with games as they quickly come and go. But no good game happens by accident, even if good game ideas are discovered by accident. Most games take an incredible amount of effort to craft, so I don't really feel it's right to call achievements accidents even if I hate everything else from a designer. A lot of people go through life without one achievement of that magnitude, despite tremendous effort. Miyamoto's had many, and it is no accident.

      I also don't know what this "spirit" is that is missing between the NES and Pikmin. I think Nintendo made improvements on getting away from Mega Man-esque difficulty in the interim, for one example among many (I'm not sure on your opinion of Mega Man - I'd lean towards thinking you dislike it or at least think its time has passed).

      Not totally sure what you mean by "expansive and simplifying," in regards to The Sims. I'd guess you mean an expanded audience due to simplified gameplay. Honestly, I think it has more to do with reaching out to untapped audiences that are drawn to paida, participation, and mimicry. Those traits, of course, are usually looked down upon as "simplified" by those who are attracted to the more traditional video game conceits. There may, nonetheless, be some truth to the accusations of simplification.

      Spore is certainly a misrepresentation of its promise, but I don't think it was an intentional sham or intellectually lazy in its conception. The buzz trends in design around the time it started were buzzing mostly because of itself. If anything, I think the reason it was poorly received seems to be that it avoided the calcified Miyamoto style of game design that many identify as the "meat and potatoes" of games. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think a lot of player-designed-content-sharing was inspired by it; I certainly see commonalities between Spore and SIDtube, if not a direct influence.
    • Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
      Lots of good points here. I'll try to respond to them when I've had more time to put some thoughts together.

      Offhand, I'd call the Wii very much Iwata's box. In his Iwata Asks columns, Miyamoto frequently seems bemused with the whole mentality that Iwata is expressing, or at least describes some challenges in meeting it -- though eventually he comes around. I'd provide some specific examples, but it's been a couple of years. I drifted away shortly after the Twilight Princess interviews, when updates became less frequent and began to repeat themselves.

      Beginning with the SNES, Miyamoto was put in a supervisory position over nearly all of Nintendo's output -- so he's credited with everything from Kirby's Adventure to Smash Bros. That itself is a misrepresentation. Since the early '90s, the only game I can think of with which Miyamoto was deeply involved that really expresses any new ideas, and develops them to a significant point, is Pikmin. And I won't disparage that game -- it's rather wonderful and actually full of the spirit missing in Nintendo's games since the NES -- but it does strike me as a bit incidental.

      As far as Will Wright is concerned, though I'll accept the expansive and simplifying influence of The Sims, I consider Spore intellectually lazy even in the concept stage, and ultimately a misrepresentation of its promise. It's a grandiose sham built on some of the buzz trends in design around the time it started development. Though there are some individually interesting, if again incidental, elements -- like the creature save technique, using images.

      There are some more fundamental things to respond to, starting with some definitions. And you have a point there. I'm lacking precision all over the place. The problem is, this was a simple rant meant to address the mainstream tendency toward design as craft, and to muse on the benefit of an independent approach -- and yet without noticing I roped in a bunch of distracting concepts that I've spent eight years observing and writing about, without providing them much context or justification. It's hard to turn off sometimes, you know.

      If I don't respond by this evening, then I'll do so on Saturday. The next couple of days are going to be busy.
    • SnowflakePillow 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
      Has game design really calcified? You pick the SNES as a "turning point," but it seems more like a nadir (or, alternatively, a peak) during which expectations and challenges were most limited.

      I think this article would do well to give a definition of "expression or design language" and what would qualify as "new" in that regard. Otherwise, you risk making it impossible for your thesis to be falsified, as you can always find some reason why a particular innovation is not "new." This is similar to how Roger Ebert can always find a reason why video games are not art because he never defines art other than "not these games."

      If the SNES was "Miyamoto's Box," then so is the Wii. The DS, I suppose, is Iwata's in the way that Game Boy was Yokoi's. (

      Miyamoto has very clearly been the progenitor of numerous brilliant ideas, even decades after 1990. I'd encourage you to investigate Jesper Juul's A Casual Revolution for some perspective on this. In this recent lecture, Jonathan Blow somewhat laments how inaccessible Braid would be to someone like Ebert with no games literacy, because it relies on the player having previous familiarity with precision platforming skills ( It is, of course, Miyamoto who was most instrumental in popularizing and standardizing that design language. And yet, today, it could be Miyamoto who is doing the greatest job of trying to loosen up that language barrier with games like Wii Sports. Whatever you think of that game, my 98 year old great grandmother, born before World War I, can get enjoyment out of it. At that age, she probably could not learn the design language of many of Miyamoto's older games. Yet, she's had no problem learning the language of Wii Sports, proving that Miyamoto is speaking a new language, born of a new context, and in response to new problems he wants to a address. I think the reason that you think Nintendo "didn't do much of anything with the idea" of the Wii is that we aren't the intended beneficiaries of the experiment.

      I'd like to see a specific definition of "the Miyamoto model" as well as an explanation of Half-Life 2's "deconstructionist brilliance."

      I'd say that Portal advanced Half-Life 2's grasp on player psychology, if incrementally. I found that its short story form matched people's desires better than the longer, more-poorly paced H-L2 and episodes.

      As for The Adventure of Link, I think it bears discussing whether a direct game sequel should speak a completely different design language than its predecessor. I think there is some value in expecting that drastically new designs be accompanied by similarly new narrative material.

      You might be interested to know that all of the questions you asked in your third-to-last paragraph have been asked by the mainstream, commercial game industry. All the way back to Pac-Man, Toru Iwatani wondered why games revolved around killing and made Pac-Man in an attempt to make a non-violent game and to draw a more diverse audience in terms of gender. Now, I'm not sure how a game with all-male characters involving ghosts, getting killed by ghosts, and taking drugs to kill ghosts accomplishes that, but Iwatani was certainly asking the right questions. Many "hardcore" gamers have lamented that recent titles have become too easy relative to classic titles like Mega Man, and Mega Man is anachronistic in the mainstream industry today because it has explored the meaning and design of difficulty in numerous ways. Nintendo has started to put guides within games to make them more accessible. Meanwhile, the indie scene has VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy. Why are they so hard, other than to appeal to a hardcore, retro aesthetic? Itoi has satirized RPG statistics for decades while being published by Nintendo. The point is that examples from the indie and mainstream scenes can be cherry picked to make essentialist claims that don't bear out following a more nuanced examination of reality.

      Ultimately, I think that being indie is about the economic and personal freedom of entrepreneurship. It also about a wider freedom to experiment and a wider choice of purposes (since there is less of an obligation to make sure things are profitable). Nevertheless, there are plenty of brilliant people at big labels. People like Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto, and John Carmack continue to experiment, innovate, and make games that deserve to exist and be played. At the very least, I feel that saying Miyamoto was "pretty much dry" by the early 1990s is callously disrespectful and intellectually indefensible. I'd encourage you to look at the list of games he has been involved with since then and see if you don't find evidence of experimentation: ( ).
    • Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
      I'm so happy you identify with it.
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