Shigeru Miyamoto on RPG Design

by Darius Kazemi on February 16, 2010

in design

Over at EarthBound Central they’ve posted a translation of a Japanese magazine article from 1994 where Miyamoto is talking about EarthBound. I think the following quote is really interesting:

Lastly, what do you feel an RPG should be like?

Miyamoto: Let’s say you tie someone completely up – even their individual fingers – and then wait a while. Then, if you start to untie the ropes one by one, they’ll of course be happy. Anyone would. The method of sticking someone in an incredibly tight situation then untightening it little by little and then saying, “There! Aren’t you happy now?” becomes very boring as soon as it becomes evident. So, instead of that, my personal theme when making RPG-like games is, “What can I do?” I don’t think creating happiness comes from starting from a negative and returning to zero. It’s starting from zero and ending at one hundred, and I try to think of ways to allow that.

I am totally with Miyamoto here. I feel like most RPG design, especially Japanese RPG design, is just a matter of crippling you and gradually giving you freedom. It’s what I find boring about JRPGs!

(Also note how effortless he is in an interview. He never had to work for press, you know!)


Lucas February 16, 2010 at 5:19 pm

RPGs are disappearing as a popular genre because their designs and mechanics are being subsumed by better playing games. Adventure games met largely the same fate. Both have exceptions and niche markets of course.

Have you played Chime? I wanted to as soon as I saw the first video clip, but it’s not on PC or PSN (yet?), only 360 Arcade. Let us know what you think.

Jamey Stevenson February 16, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Between this analogy and the whole “kidnapping random employees” habit of his that recently came to light, I’m beginning to think we might all be well advised to keep a wary eye on this Miyamoto character.

C’mon Darius, everyone knows Miyamoto never had to work for press; he’s been coasting on nepotism even since his father got him that job at Nintendo. No wonder we’re only just now catching wind of his penchant for abduction — some folks on the inside have clearly been covering for him. All I know is, if Iwata goes missing, the first place I’m looking is under Miyamoto’s tea table.

Jamey Stevenson February 16, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Also, if I can put on my nitpick hat for just a moment (I realize that sounds vaguely lice-related, but I assure you that it’s not contagious): Isn’t all game design to some extent a matter of “crippling [the player] and gradually giving [them] freedom”? If design consists of the imposition of arbitrary constraints, I’m not really understanding the distinction that is being made here, because without constraint there is no design. Is it just a matter of approaching design from an additive rather than subtractive viewpoint?

The reason I’m curious is because Miyamoto’s philosophy here almost seems more indicative of a sandbox or open world style of game design, and I’m wondering what you see as the difference between such games and the average JRPG in this regard. Is it ultimately just a matter of how loose the ropes are, or if that a gross oversimplification of your stance?

Darius Kazemi February 17, 2010 at 10:22 am

” Isn’t all game design to some extent a matter of “crippling [the player] and gradually giving [them] freedom”?”

I don’t think so. What about a platformer? Look at Super Mario World. At least in terms of verbs, you’re able to do almost everything you possibly can right from the start. There’s no “unlocking” Mario’s moves. The only thing that’s unlocked is new content and new environments. Granted, some special powerups are unlocked, but in early Mario games the unique powerups were almost a function of the environment itself (look at Kuribo’s shoe as an example).

Take a look at the first Zelda game too. If I recall correctly, you can technically go anywhere on the world map right from the start if you know where you’re going and if you have amazing reflexes. Yes, you have fewer upgrades and resources, but it’s possible to get there.

Jagged Alliance 2 is another game along these lines. You can blaze a trail straight for the capital city — you’ll probably die and should play the game in a more “correct” order, but if you’re extremely good you can do it and win the game very quickly.

It seems like there are plenty of games that only cripple the player in terms of resources rather than in terms of verbs. Also, I think Miyamoto’s metaphor is apt. If you’re tying up a player (literally allowing them to do almost nothing) and then granting them more freedom, that is different from giving them a fair degree of freedom and then giving them more. The metaphor is transformed from freeing a person who you’ve tied up into something more akin to teaching a student. You give a student freedom to learn but also boundaries. As they learn, you expand their horizons.

Jamey Stevenson February 18, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Interesting. Thanks, Darius. I think maybe we are just diverging a bit in terms of how we view the concept of constraint — I was thinking of it more in the sense of game rules in general, but I suppose that isn’t really what Miyamoto was getting at in the quote. It sounds like what you’re really taking issue with here is the notion of artificial constraints, such as the player having to jump through some designer-imposed gating mechanism like leveling up in order to gain access to new abilities.

Maybe this is nothing more than an indication of a pessimistic attitude, but the point I was trying to make is that the process of designing the initial verbs that are available to the player is also inherently a process of defining what verbs aren’t available to the player, which is in a sense “crippling” them. That’s really all I was trying to get at with the implication about the only difference being how loose the ropes are to begin with.

Obviously, I recognize that there is a difference between trying to provide as much freedom as possible from the outset as opposed to purposely shortening the list of available player verbs solely for the sake of being able to parcel out that freedom gradually to create a manufactured sense of progression. In that sense, I agree that it’s an apt metaphor.

Eric Spain February 17, 2010 at 12:40 am

Game design is all about trying to create an environment and experience for the player. There’s a big difference between designing the game from what the player can do at the end, then taking it away from them to be added later slowly, compared to giving them freedom at the start, then upgrading their abilities as they go through the game.

If the game at all stages feels complete and the character still progresses, then you’ve achieved the second. If the player feels like they are being unfairly restrained or limited then you’ve ended up in the first. JRPGs suffer from how they place barriers in front of the player progression. It’s either a case of “You don’t have the correct arbitrary item to proceed, go find it.” or “You are not powerful enough to defeat the boss, go get exp.” In both cases the player is faced with a lack that must be filled before they can proceed.

It’s tricky when you think about the various games that he has been involved in though. If you take Zelda, then it’s a game with some constraints, but many upgrades. The player feels more powerful as he progresses are more options open up to him as he collects items. There’s still the barriers that stops progression until a required item is found, and it’s required to prevent the player from getting stuck in a puzzle he isn’t prepared for.

So then the problem isn’t whether or not the construct exists, but whether it enhances or detracts from the player’s experience. JRPGs are often gameplay lackluster and only give the player a vague sense of progress through the rope-loosening mechanism. In fact, just thinking about what types of games that use it, and it’s easy to tell which ones use it poorly and which ones use it well.

Matt February 18, 2010 at 8:14 pm

How do you guys feel the tying-the-player concept works in regard to ‘prologue’ and ‘tutorial’ sections?

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