Category Archives: Design

‘But then Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’

Victor Luckerson recapping Nintendo’s year as “The Best Tech Story of 2017″for The Ringer:

It all seemed like enough to burn through the last of gamers’ goodwill for the often maddening company. But then Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and a lifetime’s worth of anti-consumer transgressions were suddenly forgiven. In an era filled with cynical IP cash-ins across entertainment, Nintendo used a formulaic, nostalgic franchise to deliver a fresh reinvention of open-world gaming mechanics. The game is an adept mix of old and new, borrowing elements of Skyrim and Minecraft but augmenting them to recreate the whimsy, mystery, and intrepidness that a lot of gamers felt the first time they booted up the original Legend of Zelda or the seminal Ocarina of Time. The gushing praise for the game, the best-reviewed title of the year, proved that endlessly cynical gamers will always have a soft spot for a Nintendo classic done right.

Zelda immediately transformed the Switch from a curiosity to a must-have gadget. Gamers like Yai Torres, a 30-year-old resident of Arlington, Virginia, who had skipped out on the Wii U, got the system the day it launched. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a Nintendo product but I’ve always been a follower in terms of the latest games,” Torres says. “The fact that they had such a cool console with such a cool game clicked for me.”

I’m still pondering whether The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may be a bigger achievement than the Switch. Would Nintendo have had such a stellar year if the Switch launched with Super Mario Odyssey?

(Aside: Fun to see Victor end his piece where I was originally going to begin mine: the insanity of 2017.)

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Traditional Games

Walt Williams in his book ‘Significant Zero’:

A traditional game is a challenge in which a player’s skill comes up again a rigid set of rules. Turn-based strategy, multiplayer death match, platformers—these are traditional. The modern, high-end, blockbuster AAA game is not a skill challenge. If it were, the player might fail and be disappointed, and then we wouldn’t sell as many copies. The rules are fluid. We change them to create tension, surprise, or excitement. Saying yes to the player only goes so far, and that distance is the exact length required to make you feel in control.

Last week, a colleague of mine asked how far I was into Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. I told him that I was in the middle of the fourth (and possibly last) stage — Lava Pit. (For what it’s worth, I had recommended the game to him.) I also told him that playing Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was the most fun I’d had with a video game in a long time. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was great, but the aesthetic doesn’t draw me back. Likewise, Splatoon 2 is lots of fun, but only in casual, Mario Kart-style doses. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battlle has me not only progressing through the main campaign, but backtracking to achieve better, cleaner results in previous battles and optional challenges.

Right now, it seems the “traditional” game is where I find fulfillment. When life feels like a maze, solving simple, zero-stakes problems — in a world you adore — is unbelievably gratifying.

If platformers fit into this bucket, then boy, oh boy am I looking forward to Super Mario Odyssey.

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Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle: “Just looking around is a joy”

Patricia Hernandez in her review of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle for Kotaku:

The game’s zones are numbered similarly to Super Mario Bros.’ in that there are worlds sectioned by levels—1-1, 1-2, and so on. Each area has its own Pixar-esque landscape, all themed in the most video-gamey way possible. Fire and ice world! Lava world! Obligatory starting-area-basic-forest world! It all seems crafted from clay. I don’t think I saw a sharp edge throughout my adventures; that cartoon aesthetic, combined with the top-down camera, made me feel like a kid mashing together dolls from different sets.

You can poke and prod some stuff around the overworld—there are some light environmental puzzles, and coins to collect—but just looking around is a joy. The haunted world, for example, is dotted with Boos, pipes stuffed with candles, and turbulent waters squeaking with rubber duckies. You move through these worlds controlling a party of three characters. I would run through everything and watch in awe as Mario stuck his arms out at top speed, Rabbids trailing behind him maniacally. The characters’ animations oozed so much personality that, dozens of hours in, I still stopped to appreciate them.

This echoes similar sentiments I published in my E3 recap:

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is the game I’m most looking forward to. It’s gorgeous and surprisingly deep. I can’t recall ever seeing the Mushroom Kingdom in such detail.

I waited two hours to play 16 minutes of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle at E3. Madness. But as crazy it was, the immaculate detail of the game’s Mushroom Kingdom saved me from feeling it was a complete waste of time. Simply stunning.

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Sell My Old Consoles, I’m Off To Handheld

There is a house. In the house, there is a room. In the room, there is a closet. In the closet, there is a box. In the box, is 2013’s top-of-the-line consumer hardware technology — dusty and dormant.

I haven’t touched my PS4 since my Switch arrived. In fact, I removed it from the living room entertainment center completely, replacing it with the Switch’s dock — unnecessary seeing as the Switch functions without being connected to a TV at all. TV optional! Sure, bouts of Mario Kart 8 aren’t quite as great without a TV, but that doesn’t happen that often in our house. Still, I was inclined to remove a console dependent on a TV for the chance that I might play the Switch in docked mode.

That’s not to say I haven’t tried playing a home console since. I recently hooked up my Xbox One to a smaller TV in our office with the intention of playing Overwatch with some friends. But after a week with Overwatch, I canceled my Xbox Live account and haven’t touched the console on since.

A friend of mine recently picked up a 3DS. The 3DS has a deep catalog, but Pokémon was his draw. Meanwhile, the Switch was released. He eyed mine, but was reluctant to pick one up due to the limited gaming catalog. He’s now put 120+ hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, completing the game and conquering all 120 shrines — a herculean feat. This friend and I have been going back and forth about Mario Kart, Zelda, and Splatoon 2. Should we get ARMS? How as Super Mario Odyssey at E3?

A colleague of mine took notice of my interest in video games. We got to talking and he let me in that he’d bought a Switch. A recent father, it was the perfect form-factor for him to use while nurturing his newborn. He completed Breath of the Wild long ago.

I’ve had more communication with friends and Twitter users regarding Switch experiences than I’ve ever had with PS4 or Xbox One. More than the gimmick of being able to play anywhere and with friends and family straight out of the box, people are investing in their experiences with the console and it’s reincarnating the schoolyard conversations of yore.

Nintendo’s design mastery certainly make their games ripe for conversation, but the fact that players can play the Switch on a TV, in bed, on trains, on planes, at work, at the park, in hotels… you name it!… makes conversations fuller and more frequent.

Ben Lindbergh on the Achievement Oriented podcast recently entertained a question I imagine many Switch owners have asked themselves:

… As I was trying to make this journey home and failing for a day or so, I wanted to play Tacoma — because we had gotten our review codes for Xbox One and we knew that we were going to do a podcast about it — and I couldn’t because Xbox One is not a portable console. I never would have thought anything of this in the past, but now that I am a Switch owner this just seems backwards.

It’s like I can’t play Tacoma on the road? Now, of course you could get Tacoma for Steam, but I only had a netbook with me. I had no mouse or anything — I didn’t want to play it that way and it’s not quite the same — but what I’m wondering is, do you think future consoles will feel pressure to incorporate Switch functionality?

If they announce PS5 a year from now and it has all the new specs, the graphics look great and a big hard drive and processor and gigaflops out the wazoo, but it doesn’t have portability — it doesn’t do what the Switch does — would you be disappointed? Do you feel like this has to be a component of every console going forward?

The Switch should have been a no-brainer decision for consumers at announce. Tech shrinks. We’ve gone portable. Smart phones rule consumer tech. It was simply Nintendo’s strike out with the Wii U that made the public more weary of Nintendo’s execution on the promise than the promise itself.

The new PS4 Pro and Xbox One X tout teraflops, but they are still anchors. I’ve considered selling my PS4 and Xbox One not to upgrade, but to declutter. The Switch on the other hand is the perfect fit for my life. While I can’t say I won’t be buying home consoles in the future — hell, I purchased my Xbox One on the promise of Below, a game that has yet to see the light of day — unless new consoles offer the same portability as the Nintendo Switch, I will certainly be taking my time in purchasing one.

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Self-Competing and Time Blocking

Daniel Ahmad, writing on his new ZhugeEX Patreon blog (paywall):

This trend isn’t going anywhere right now but it is important to note that only a set number of service games can be successful each year. There is a danger of over saturation or poorer sales from self-competing games. We’re not quite at the point where this is a real danger but it does mean that games need to have higher production values and enough differentiation within one of the top super genre’s to be successful. This is probably something to watch out for at the end of the generation.

First and foremost, for my dollar, Daniel Ahmad is absolutely crushing video games industry analysis. He’s a great follow on Twitter (@ZhugeEX) and his efforts are well-worth supporting via his Patreon.

Now, I’ve been meaning/trying to write about an idea that self-competing games use game length as a means for competing. That is, the length and release date of a game can block the sale of another similar game with a proximal release date. I’ve struggled to put together a theory that these proposed “time blocking” tactics are meaningful, coincidental, or off-base:

  • Meaningful – Publisher X purposefully schedules release date of Game X against the release date of Game Y. (I find this hard to believe due to the large lead times and estimations required for AAA games.)
  • Coincidental – Publisher X and Publisher Y happen to schedule releases for Game X and Game Y around the same time. (More likely, but rings a bit too innocent.)
  • Off-base – There are so many massive, feature-rich games released that, like TV series and books, there will inevitably be overlap in release dates.

The latest example of this “time blocking” tactic occurred around March 2017. Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were released three days apart (Feb 28 and Mar 3) and clock in at an average of 45.5 and 72.5 hours respectively. (HowLongToBeat.com) Both games were followed up by Mass Effect: Andromeda (61.5 hours) and Persona 5 (102 hours!) within a month’s time.

One could make the observation that the hours necessary to experience these games as intended puts them on a closer par with a modern television series. (As of this post, there are roughly 55 hours of Game of Thrones episodes, 72 hours of Mad Men, etc.) So, with customers’ appetites for feature-rich gameplay experiences, maybe my concept of “time blocking” is off-base. However, I like to believe that this “appetite” doesn’t actually exist.

I’m currently 50+ hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and only 3/5 of the way through the main quest. No doubt that it’s an incredible experience with it’s unparalleled physics-based sandbox, wide-open exploration, and stunning art style. But for me, 50+ hours is an immense amount of a time to spend with a single game. Unlike a TV series, most of the 50+ hours I’ve spent with Breath of the Wild have consisted of wandering a vast landscape, retracing my steps, or banging my head against puzzles. It’s a fantastic escape of exploration, but I can’t help but think 30 or 40 hours to complete would have felt sufficient.

As a developer, I would certainly want my audience to experience my art and efforts for as long as possible. And as a publisher, I would want to players to adopt an affinity for my franchise over another. But as a player, it’s hard not to feel that the release dates of similarly massive titles, or “self-competing” games, are beginning to overlap. And this overlap has reached a point that players must now choose which experience will block another.

Nicalis: Switch development is ‘light years ahead of what we were doing with Wii U’

Tyrone Rodriguez, the president of Nicalis, speaking to Polygon about developing for Nintendo platforms:

“The Switch is, by far the easiest and most programmer friendly so far,” he said. “I know this sounds like lip service to Nintendo, but it’s actually not. If this wasn’t true, we wouldn’t be able to get these games up and running as quickly as we have, and we wouldn’t be able to have a launch title. It’s light years ahead of what we were doing with Wii U.”

Nicalis has developed 18 games, eight of which shipped to Nintendo platforms—all eight to 3DS, two of which hit Wii U.

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Jose Otero, IGN: ‘Attaching and detaching [Joy-Con] from the [Switch] is satisfying to the point that it’s almost addictive’

Jose Otero, IGN, timestamp 3:11:

Outside of the tiny face buttons, the analog sticks, digital triggers, and shoulder buttons feel solid and well made.

The Joy-Con are surprisingly comfortable and versatile in the hand too. And attaching and detaching them from the console is satisfying to the point that it’s almost addictive.

I remember feeling satisfaction attaching and detaching Controller and Rumble Paks from the Nintendo 64 controller’s expansion port.

I can’t wait to get my hands on this thing.

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Nintendo: Amusement Provider

Takashi Mochizuki, The Wall Street Journal:

Rivals were pursuing high-end games with ever-greater technical sophistication. “We looked back at what Nintendo has done, and when you think about it, it’s really been an amusement provider,” Mr. Koizumi said. The Switch’s concept of playing games anywhere with anyone was born.

“When the concept was set, most of the Switch’s basics came together quickly,” he said. “Things like, you have to be able to take the controller outside, and you’ll need two of them.”

The 48-year-old Mr. Koizumi, who has participated in making titles in popular Nintendo series such as “The Legend of Zelda” and Mario, said one of the first decisions was to attach the two controllers to the console, making a self-contained unit that can be taken anywhere for two-person play.

“You could go out with a hand-held game device, but you can’t play with others if they don’t have the same device,” he said. “We wanted to provide people with more options to play games.”

Mochizuki has done a nice job extracting a top-level perspective of the Switch from his interview with Yoshiaki Koizumi.

Between Fils-Aimé’s comment about consuming Nintendo IP and Koizumi’s amusement provider bit, Nintendo has circled the identity wagons.

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The Switch is a home console. The Switch is a “home” console. The Switch is a “home” console?

Chaim Gartenberg reporting for The Verge:

Storage-wise, the Switch includes 32GB of onboard memory, which feels dramatically low in today’s age of 500GB and 1TB Xbox Ones and PS4s, especially with the modern focus on downloadable titles. However, storage can be expanded through the use of microSD cards. Games for the Switch will come on physical GameCards, which may help alleviate the console’s onboard storage space by offloading most of the storage requirements for each game to the individual GameCards.

Lastly, the Switch can connect to the internet through an 802.11ac Wi-Fi connection, with the ability to connect to up to eight Switch consoles at once for local multiplayer. Additionally, the Switch will be able to connect using Ethernet using a USB LAN adaptor with the dock.

I keep needing to remind myself that the Switch is a “home” console you can take with you. That is the dream.

But the fact that the dock does little outside of charging and video output, not to mention the need for a USB LAN adaptor for an Ethernet connection, begs the question, “can Nintendo keep up with this ‘home’ console marketing push?”

The Switch is a powerful tablet with novel input devices. Curious to see how many players use it while docked. Also curious to see if developers cater to battery life over fidelity and performance.

UPDATE: Nintendo’s UK website now lists the Switch’s technical specifications, confirming separate wired LAN adapter:

Communication features

Wireless LAN (IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac compliant) / Bluetooth 4.1 (TV mode only. A wired LAN connection is possible through the use of a commercially available wired LAN adapter.)

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How the inventor of Mario designs a game

The explainer people at Vox put together a nice distillation of Shigeru Miyamoto’s design philosophy:

I imagine this interview was filmed during Miyamoto’s monstrous press tour for Super Mario Run. Love the inclusion of beautiful animations and archival footage by Vox’s team.

For more on the design of World 1-1, watch Dan Emmons’ breakdown ‘Level 1-1 – How Super Mario Mastered Level Design‘.

For more about the business side of Nintendo, read ‘Console Wars‘ by Blake J. Harris.

For more about his characters and Super Mario Run, watch/listen to Miyamoto’s interview with Katie Linendoll at Apple SoHo.

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