Link’s Awakening, Super Mario 64, Ocarina Of Time, Majora’s Mask, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy: what’s the first name to pop into your head? It’s almost impossible not to think of Shigeru Miyamoto, but it’s hard to conceive any other name to attach to such a remarkable series of titles. Yet a man called Yoshiaki Koizumi has quietly toiled on each one of them, most recently as game director for Super Mario Galaxy.
In fact, it’s amazing to consider the influence he’s had on some of the best games ever made, even from his very beginnings at Nintendo, 16 years ago. “Before I worked as a game director I worked as a script writer on Link’s Awakening,” says Koizumi. “In that game I was responsible for the entire story. So the entire idea of the island in a dream, the interactions with the villagers and the boss behaviors were all my concepts. I’ve continued to do that kind of work on following games even though my title is director. On Majora’s Mask, for example, I wrote a lot of the events that you have with the villagers, and with Super Mario Galaxy I was heavily involved in the creation of the story.”
Miyamoto excitedly tried to describe how he felt Mario should swim – by swimming around his office “I began swimming around with him,” laughs Koizumi. But it’s not that Koizumi has demanded that he have his input at Nintendo recognized as comparable to Miyamoto’s. He’s nervously twitchy in an interview situation, and it’s not until he begins to talk about his experience of working with Miyamoto that he begins to relax, and indeed it’s to Miyamoto that he attributes the quality of the titles.
“Mr Miyamoto is known for taking lots of time to create the best player experience. His demands are numerous and exacting, but I actually really like that. He’s effortless in explaining what he wants,” Koizumi explains, recounting a moment during the development of Super Mario 64 where Miyamoto excitedly tried to describe how he felt Mario should swim – by swimming around his office. “I began swimming around with him,” Koizumi laughs. “We get along well together, and time files by when we’re working. Before we know it, sometimes, it’s 2am.”
Even-handed in his praise, it’s not only Miyamoto whom Koizumi feels is important to Nintendo’s game development. “I don’t only work with Miyamoto,” he points out. “As a whole, Nintendo tends to place the customer first. We all spend a lot of time thinking about how players will react to things and trying to cater to them.”
Indeed, Koizumi’s influence is focused on player experience. “In all of the games I’ve worked on, I’d say I spent most of my time working on the player character,” Koizumi says, but he can’t help but note Miyamoto’s role once again. “Miyamoto has taught me that if the player does not feel right, this can affect the whole game. The more things a player can do, the more possibilities are available for the game. A great example is Super Mario Bros. What if Mario couldn’t jump? Even the lowliest Goomba would be unstoppable. But when he can jump, breaking blocks and stomping enemies becomes possible. So several new possibilities can open up from only one new ability. But of course, complexity can become higher. At Nintendo we call it ‘player-based design’. It’s all about the balance between fun and complexity.”
Clearly, this balance is finely nuanced: “If you think about games only as a thing that you interact with, you’re missing the possibility of immersion. The inspirations that I tend to draw on for that all come from real life itself. Hiking on a mountain and seeing a cave and thinking about what’s inside – it’s that sense of wonder and excitement I want players to feel.”
It’s the joint importance of surprise and ease of use in the player experience that Koizumi considers the core of his development philosophy: “I think of the two as a set. For example, if you’re designing a world, you have to give both to the player. You can create a world in which when they turn a corner they are amazed at a vista, something that would surprise them, but at the same time the world can’t confuse them, or get them lost. Any time that you’re trying to surprise them or do something hard or difficult in the environment, you also have to balance that with ease of play.”