Mega Drive Game Design, Part 2

The following is a translation of the second column in a monthly series on game design by Kan Naito (Shining in the Darkness, Landstalker) that appeared in the March 1991 issue of the Japanese magazine Mega Drive Fan. A scan of the original column is posted at the end. See other translations in the series here.

The MD Game Culture Academy

Period 1: Game Design

Instructor: Kan Naito, chief programmer of Shining in the Darkness

The second game design lecture will focus on the role of the producer. More so than programmer Kan Naito, this is the specialty of Shining in the Darkness producer Hiroyuki Takahashi, so we have invited him to talk about it this time. Please read further if you are interested in becoming a superior producer!

Kan Naito: Born March 23, 1967. He has been obsessed with games since he was a young child, and he has been active as a programmer since beginning high school. He is currently the executive director of Climax.

Lecture 2: The Role of the Producer

In the current game industry, there are many people who go by the title of producer, but this covers a wide variety of different jobs. In Japan, a producer is typically the person who manages the money and does all of the scheduling. However, the title of producer is also used to refer to people such as Spielberg and Lucas in America who govern over the entire production. My thoughts on the role of the producer are more in line with this latter group.

The Game Design Comes First

If you have decided to make a game, the first thing to do before beginning the project is come up with a design plan that outlines what kind of game it will be. At this stage, the plan has to at least describe what makes the game interesting. That is required. Without some degree of appeal, the project will not advance any further. Once you have something interesting, you can gather the staff as you proceed with the actual work (that is exactly what we did with Shining in the Darkness), or you can put together a full-scale proposal, establish the general story and such, and then assess all of this additional content. Then, when the staff is gathered, you have a very clear idea of the kind of game you are going to make. If you do not do all of this and are not an independent developer like us, then there is a chance that the publisher will demand big changes at the final stage if the game does not match their expectations. To avoid that, it is essential to plan well.

A very important thing that you have to consider here (this is entirely my own opinion) concerns how the game’s appeal makes it different from other games. Working closely with Yuji Horii [creator of the Dragon Quest series], I was always impressed with how he did things, especially with the idea that you have to keep trying to make the game as fun as possible until the very last minute. When starting the next project, it was always important to not become lax or overconfident due to the massive popularity of the previous title, but to come up with as many new and interesting ideas as possible. As a game designer, I always follow this example set by Horii in how I plan a project (although Shining in the Darkness is my first…).

As for Shining in the Darkness, I was constantly thinking of how to make an RPG that showed off our ability to plan well. I also wanted to make a system where you could really feel the possibilities available in a video game. In addition, recently, there have been a lot of so-called Dragon Quest-type games that are nearly identical to each other… Considering all of these factors, the general shape of the game began to form during this initial design phase.

The Games of Hiroyuki Takahashi
All of the games that Hiroyuki Takahashi has produced so far have been RPGs. This includes the well-known Dragon Quest III and IV. He’s busy at work now on Shining in the Darkness.

Developing and Announcing the Game

As development begins in this way, the type of producer who is not directly involved in development will do things such as manage the schedule and try to create a favorable working environment. For myself, I was also involved in the scenario writing and game design, so I devoted about 80% of my attention to that.

During the first half of development, my average day consisted of making drafts of different aspects of the game and holding staff meetings. As we moved into the last half of development, my job was chiefly focused on creating the message and monster parameters.

In addition, during the latter half of development, a very important period begins in the work of a producer. This is when the game is announced. This has a very different feel to it from the typical work of making an interesting game in a timely manner, but it is of equal importance. From the viewpoint of the developer, we want as many users to know about and to become interested in playing the game that we are working so hard on, and from the viewpoint of the users, they want to be notified of interesting new games as soon as possible.

The typical way to announce a new game is through a press release. That garners publicity and introduces the game to the public through the news. For example, such news might be: “It was just announced that — Software is developing an entirely new shooting game called —!” However, when users see that kind of article, they just think, “Oh, OK…” and do not really develop much interest, since it is just one new game in a sea of many. For those of us called producers, we are constantly worried about how to get good press coverage and feature articles and such. The reason is that even if we make an interesting game, if it is not introduced in a gaming magazine, then people will not know about it, and most users decide what game to buy based on magazine ratings. For myself, I am lucky in that I have worked on high profile games such as Dragon Quest and Shining the Darkness, so I have not had many problems with it, but I do constantly worry about how best to announce information in an equal and impartial manner so that it can fill the pages of different publications.

I was quite worried about the Shining in the Darkness announcement, and in the end we decided to hold a press conference for it. That actually required a fair bit of courage to do, and it became quite a grand event. However, in all honesty, we were confident that the game deserved that kind of treatment.

At that press conference, we only revealed a tiny bit of the smooth dungeon animation, monster designs, and battle scenes, so the reporters there must have been thinking, “The game system is certainly different, and it does look nice, but I’m not really sure what to make of it…”

This is a picture from the Shining in the Darkness press conference. Takahashi looks nervous!

What Happens at the End?

Once the producer has organized a hopefully impactful announcement, he then begins to provide the various news companies with an equal amount of information. At this point, the most important thing to focus on is the state of progress of development. It is both a problem to announce that a game is coming out next month when it is not yet finished and to release a game when there are no articles announcing its release. Therefore, the producer has to stay in close contact with the development team. Until the game is released, the producer goes back and forth between the developers and the press. There is certainly a lot of work to be done, but once the game is released, all of that fatigue just blows away. It is a job well worth doing.

 

Kan Naito on the Path to the Game Industry, Part 2

Last time, I ended at the point where I first encountered Pac-Man. I’ll continue from there.

The action game Pac-Man by Namco first appeared riding the wave of the video game boom, and I became obsessed with it. The game involved moving the yellow ball-shaped Pac-Man around the screen and, while avoiding the four monsters, eating up the food that was scattered about. It was very popular and there were several sequels.

This is Pac-Man. The screen here is from the Game Gear version.

One day, I just happened to be at the bookstore and I saw a magazine with Pac-Man printed on the spine (it was the magazine I/O). I immediately bought the magazine, went home, and read it from cover to cover. I learned that by buying something called a computer, you could make your own games like Pac-Man at home and play them as much as you wanted. I suddenly became very interested in computers, and when I was in the second year of junior high school, my parents bought me my own. It was an NEC PC-6001, which were known by the nickname “papicom.”

In this way, I was able to get my own computer, and I became increasingly engrossed in it. However, there was one type of game in particular that showed me the joy of programming: the kusoge. (to be continued)

 

Kan Naito’s Favorite Games!

This month, it’s Super Mario World! This game is interesting, to say the least. First of all, the balance is excellent. It must have taken a considerable amount of time to achieve. They’ve very carefully considered how they player will respond when encountering a particular situation, so that it feels natural and stress-free to play. To constantly think of things from the perspective of the player is one of the most important aspects of game making (despite there being many games that don’t carefully consider this). I beat this game in two days, but that’s when the fun really began! The first time I beat it, I had only actually cleared less than half of the stages. After that, I went back and looked for all of the remaining stages. I put the development of Shining in the Darkness on hold until I cleared all of them, while Takahashi looked on with concern. It was a bit difficult to play with three buttons, but this game is absolutely amazing.

Kan Naito’s recommended game this month is Super Mario World. It will hush up any crying children for sure!

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