Two of my favorite game designers are Sigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario, Zelda, and Pikmin) and Masahiro Sakurai (creator of Kirby, Smash Brothers, and the new version of Kid Icarus). Though both make excellent games, their design philosophies are in many ways opposite of each other. In this final part in my review and repair of Kid Icarus Uprising, I contrast these two designers, their philosophies, and the effect they have on the end user experience. I'll also reflect on the kind of designer I hope to be. Keep in mind that it is difficult to assess exactly what Miyamoto and Sakruai contributed in their games. Instead of worrying about the detail accreditations, I'll use Miyamoto and Sakurai as figure heads of various design choices. The quotes are from Iwata Asks.
Simple Mechanics vs Complex Mechanics
Miyamoto likes to keep mechanics and controls simple. He does this by keeping his mechanics individual (one mechanic mapped per input) and by not adding many, if any, nuanced complexities to these mechanics. Mario's RUN/SHOOT fireball mechanic is a classic example of complex design in Mario's controls, and it's still relatively simple. Miyamoto also pioneered context sensitive action buttons with The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time. Having a range of contextual mechanics allows players to do more with fewer buttons and less complex schemes.
Sakurai's control schemes tend to feature a lot more button redundancy. Super Smash Brothers and Kid Icarus Uprising feature a lot of buttons with the same function. Sakurai's mechanics also tend to have many nuances and versatility depending on the ways players combine the moves with other mechanics. After close to 5 years of practice, I'm still discovering all the little tricks and nuances of Pit's moveset in Brawl. A short list includes the ability to loop up to 4 arrows at the same time, blocking power on the Wings of Icarus (up+B), super armor on the Mirror Shield, forward momentum on the Angel Ring, and more crazy details like this. I'm discovering new things about KIU as well. Like in Kirby Super Star, Sakurai isn't shy about mechanic complexity in his games even if they require more complex input combinations and commands.
Yet at the same time, as complex as Sakurai's controls and mechanics get, he often supports an alternate, simpler style of play. Smash Melee and Brawl have the C-stick, which can be used for air attacks and smash attacks. Players can do surprisingly well in Smash with just the C-stick, analog stick, and one of the shield buttons (L/R). In Kid Incarus Uprising, players can use the touch screen to switch between and activate powers instead of the D-pad. There's even an option to have Pit automatically shoot in single player reducing the 3-input core design into a 2-input version. And in Meteos, players can accelerate gravity with an on screen button or the L button.
One Control Scheme vs Key Mapping
Iwata: I suppose Miyamoto-san feels that since many players will play with default settings, there should only be one key configuration that the developers determine is right, and they must take responsibility for it and putting it forth.Sakurai: But I think the players should have a bit greater degree of freedom in their choices.
Miyamoto takes his control schemes very seriously. The feel that he creates with his control schemes is something he fine tunes and presents to players to embrace. With an industrial engineering background Miyamoto prioritizes the ergonomics of his control schemes and offers few options regarding controls. Working with the analogy I made here, Miyamoto works on creating Pianos and designs specific fingering for music.
On the other hand, Sakurai is much more open to controller customization. Smash Brothers Brawl let's players play with 4 different types of controllers and gives players the freedom to map most of the buttons. I've met players who customize their controls in all sorts of unexpected ways. Some people like putting grabs on the D-pad. Why? Why not. Sakurai is much more focused on his gameplay systems and helping players embrace the ideas communicated through gameplay. He allows players to make all kinds of adjustments to the way they control to hopefully alleviate any early barriers to entry. Sakurai's style is like a violin where players have the freedom to tune the strings, play most notes on alternate strings, and change their hand position however they want. Sakurai just wants players to focus on playing the right notes and enjoying the music.
Uniform Characters vs Complex, Diverse Characters
The multiplayer modes in Wii Sports, Pikmin, New Super Mario Bros. Wii/DS, Mario Bros 3 NES/Advance, and Zelda: Four Swords Adventures all feature playable characters with nearly identical attributes. This is a design choice that makes gameplay balance much easier to achieve. This kind of design also helps players understand that the rippling consequences of their actions are what ultimately determine the winners and the losers. With such a design, when you see another play play well, you can use their performance as a guide knowing that your capabilities are equal.
Sakurai fills his games with many character with many complex, nuanced differences between them. Compared to Mario's handful of powerups, Kirby Super Star features many different powers for Kirby to absorb each with various special moves, button combinations, and other attributes. Meteos has over 20 characters each with their own unique combination of screen dimensions, gravity, and other attributes relevant to its gameplay. Smash Brawl has around 36 characters designed to cover the incredibly rich design space of the game. And now Kid Icarus Uprising has about 100 weapons each with variable stats and unique attributes. With such diversity, good and bad matchups become an inherent part of the end experience for users. Because of matchup combinations, it may not be clear if your pre-match choice in character is the main problem or your execution in the match. Instead of always being able to learn from opponent's advantageous plays, you simply lose to them.
One Play Mode vs Diverse Difficulty Design
Sakurai: Unlike me, Miyamoto-san, for example, is against the players being able to choose their own difficulty.Iwata: You mean in the thinking of how the optimal level of game difficulty is something that the game creators should determine, not something you have the players choose?Sakurai: Yes.
Miyamoto usually designs single player modes with just one difficulty mode and perhaps a hard mode that's unlocked after completing the game. Within this mode there are many ways for players to adjust the challenge like finding secrets, going on alternate harder paths, grabbing more coins, earning more points, and generally doing things more efficiently and with style. This kind of difficulty design puts all players on the same page, which makes the game challenges themselves a consistent system to measure player skill and progress.
Sakurai loves to put various difficulty options into his games right up front. As I explained earlier in this review series, Smash, Meteos, and now KIU all feature many difficulty options. Sakurai wants players to look within themselves and consider what level of challenge will create the best experience. Though in both styles players make choices to control the difficulty of their experience, Sakurai's style is more abstracted in that it encourages players to think in modes, adjusted variables, and other invisible factors instead of gameplay mechanics and level obstacles. It also requires players to be more self-aware and reflective.
Limited Randomness vs Overpowering Random
Miyamoto loves a touch of limited randomness. From the item boxes in Mario Kart, to enemy spawns in the Mario Bros. battle mode (Bros. 3), Miyamoto uses random elements in a very limited way to add a wrinkle on top of a solid gameplay experience. Miyamoto tends to create games where the incoming random elements are clearly presented, fought over (as they tend to be powerups), and then used up or time out.
Sakurai loves improvisation, which is the direction he reassembled the Smash series around. Sakurai loves the idea of playing on one's toes and adapting to situations where many unexpected things happen. In Smash the dynamic knockback system changed everything about how the fighter plays. And how can we forget tripping, that 1% chance of falling over when dashing in Brawl. In Meteos, blocks continually fall from the top of the screen randomly, which is very different from the slow uniform upward creeping blocks of Tetris Attack or the forecasted pieces in Tetris. Sakurai also loves random item drops. Smash, Meteos, and Kid Icarus Uprising all feature items that randomly spawn into the game. I touched on the difference between Sakurai's item design in an article I wrote many years ago called Nintendo & Items.
Few Key Features vs Overloaded with Features
Super Mario Bros. features a 1player and 2player mode. The Zelda series mostly features just a single player adventure mode with the DS Zeldas, Wind Waker, and 4 Sword Adventures being exceptions. In Mario Kart, the main modes are generally battle, racing Grand Prix style, and time trials. Pikmin only features a solo campaign, while Pikmin 2 added co-op mission and a battle mode. With these games players can choose their levels, set handicaps, and tweak a few other options. But overall, you play with what's offered.
Miyamoto's games are sparse in terms of features and options compared to Sakurai's games. Sakurai must love packing his games with every idea he can think of. Beyond the features I've already discussed in this review series, Kid Icarus Uprising also features Sakurai's signature grid style achievement board (Treasure Hunt), an idol toss mini game, a Palutnea heart donation mode, a weapons store, dual weapon crafting systems, a detail stat page, a music player, a training mode, and a boss rush level. The Smash series has been the same way, with more and more features added to every generation.
Conclusion: Differing Philosophies
The complexity and density in the design space of Sakurai's games is both the heart of his design style and the aspect that I ultimately find fault in. With so much complexity in the controls, mechanics, gameplay elements, difficulty modes, and more, the design space becomes a continuous blur of details. Recall my series titled Design Space: Infinite Undiscovery. In it I explained the limitations of communicating information through a medium and come to conclusions about level design and game design as a whole. In 9th and final part, I explain why the continuous design spaces commonly found in RPG systems do more harm than good to their gameplay. I've touched on the idea in this review series and plan to go more in depth on the concept soon. For now I want to pinpoint the source of Sakurai's particular style of design and what that means for his players.
Rather, since the rules are so different from convention, people who are especially used to games may have a difficult time comprehending it at first.
Trying it a little isn't enough to immediately understand how fun it is, right?
Right. I don't at all intend for it to be that way, but there seems to be a hurdle at the start.
Sakurai is too smart for his own good. He designs these incredibly complex and innovative games because he so clearly understands game design down to the individual working parts, rules, animations, and even story elements. How can I not admire Sakurai as a creator, especially considering how much I personally relate to his "renaissance man" versatility. I realized that I'm so fond of Sakurai's games because I can clearly see how similar he is to me. And it's this realization that has given me the insight to properly see the drawbacks of Sakurai's style of game design.
In many of my creative projects, I noticed that I tend create a great density of meaning through meticulous execution. When people read some of my short stories they finish with their heads in a dreamy, confused kind of fog. Readers often comment that they like my writing, pointing out my interesting subject matter and strong voice, but they don't feel like they understand the stories; they grasp the story events and characters, but not the point of it all. To do so much creative work and to fail in this particular way is not good design, craft, or writing. After years of reflection I realize that I created such complex and dense works as a way of saying to my audience, "do you see what I see?" Whether they liked my stories or not, I really wanted to know if others could see and understand these ideas in the same detailed and dense way that I do.
The problem was not asking this kind of question through my craft, but putting the asking of that question at a higher priority than the craft. This is just a fancy way of saying I didn't know how to write in such a way to ask these important questions clearly to my audience. Instead of meeting my audience half way, my writing was more like an obstacle course requiring serious mental and emotional work to reach me waiting at the end. In my series About That Indie Feel I presented several examples of the kinds of mistakes frequently made by indie or amateur developers. In part 5 I explained why these mistakes were so widespread by identifying fallacy that students and learners often make. I wrote with confidence about these things because I've lived and learned through my own mistakes not just in game development, but in the visual arts, music, and creative writing fields as well.
I suppose you belong to a different school of sorts when it comes to the way you think about specific areas of games.Sakurai:
I personally have a strong desire for as many people as possible to play however they like.Iwata:
You strongly want the players to choose.Sakurai:
Along the same lines, Sakurai's dense design spaces ultimately put too much control into the hands of the player. I imagine that Sakurai, being so smart, finds the density of his design spaces very manageable and understandable. And he designs his games for others to embrace and swim through these dense design spaces in the same way that he does. I've found that designing games like this has mixed results. Sakurai wants players to practically drown in the complexity of his systems, absorb it one gasping mouthful at a time, and then begin to swim through it all guided by a sense of curiocity, and self understanding.
Truly appreciating Sakurai's style of design comes at a price; hard work and dedication. The longer you chew on Sakuria's games, the better they become. I assume that most players aren't as smart as Sakurai. When faced with overwhelming options and complexities, most will reduce the complexity just to get by. Most will find something they like in Kid Icaurs Uprising and they stick with it for a long time, maybe even forever. Some will take the hint and learn to explore the vast design space. After all, features like the Treasure Hunt board was specifically designed to encourage players to explore the game in creative ways.
Others will zoom in an explore just how dense or deep a small part of Sakurai's games are. Both are perfectly valid ways of exhibiting the player choice Sakurai designs for. This is why I understand why the Smash tournament community has banned all items and slowly reduced their stage selection down to a handful of stages. Whether you zoom in or explore the space, learning is required. And learning is made all the harder when there is not adequate feedback. And adequate feedback is harder to present when a game is so complex with many variable stats and attributes. This is ultimately why I think the feedback elements I discussed previously are serious design elements that both define Kid Icarus Uprising and hold it back based on Sakurai's core design philosophies.
Like Smash Brothers, Kid Icarus Uprsing is a game packed with challenge, deep gameplay, features, and a lot of love from Sakurai. Emphasizing player choice is great design philosophy, but it is best supported by a design that also clearly informs players. It's great to encourage players to make these high level, self reflective, almost metacognitive choices about their play experience, but I've found that this kind of experience is something designers value more than most people. In the end, I hope that my game design philosophies end up being somewhere in-between Miyamoto and Sakurai, and hopefully in a unique space far left of either. Kid Icarus Uprising is definitely one of my GOTY for 2012.