Those Who Don't Play Games May Design Better Games


#1

I was talking with a friend once about how we both thought the most limiting thing in game development is how players and devs often start with the idea of an existing genre when building a game idea in their head.

In this recent article, while discussing how he is ceding control to the younger generation of designers within Nintendo, Miyamoto reveals that he feels much the same way, to the extent that he goes out of his way to find designers who are not gamers. Here’s the quote that has been going around Twitter:

“I always look for designers who aren’t super-passionate game fans,” Mr. Miyamoto said. “I make it a point to ensure they’re not just a gamer, but that they have a lot of different interests and skill sets.” Some of the company’s current stars had no experience playing video games when they were hired.

I think back to how many of Miyamoto’s famous ideas that became beloved franchises are traced back to him going outside as a child and exploring, picking up hobbies or zeroing in on basic human instincts like jumping that were relatable, and making games that draw from those experiences. Why don’t we pay more attention to that? Why are so many of the ideas we come up with just our version of the games we have played? How do we start getting away from that, saving comparisons to existing games for the pitch meeting and keeping them away from the idea process?

In 2018, it might be nice to make some resolutions to expand our horizons. Take up a hobby or two outside of games, get some weird experiences that are even more unique than the weirder experiences games feed to us. Why wait for those?

Do you agree with the idea that a broader life experience helps you design better game experiences? Have you ever felt like your knowledge of games actively holds you back from having more unique ideas? What are some ways you think you have broadened your life experience recently, to help others who might not know where to start?


#2

I 100% agree with this. I see it all the time in both designers and journalists, people who haven no real interests outside video games, and it’s exhausting. If all you’re ever getting inspired by is video games, you’ll only make things that are like other video games. You’ve gotta read books, watch movies, listen to music, go outside, start a noise band, get six or seven roommates, eat hummus with them, paint, smoke cloves, start some kinda salsa company.

When I was in my early teens, I used to read all the time, and I fell off the wagon as I got older. In August I made a point of trying to read more; I read 13 books this year and already I feel like that experience has greatly enriched my creative work. Plus I’ve been making an effort to like, get outside more and go do things, and honestly it’s so invigorating.


#3

I’ve definitely had art & design classes try and get this notion into my head; that finding ways to inspire myself to create beyond simply looking to what is already being made (in my case in the field of illustration/animation) can bring out unique ideas and help you when you’re in a creative rut. It’s fascinating to think about that in the context of making games, and I personally think that approach is really cool! In retrospect that probably speaks to why Nintendo has a knack for making games like no other.

I’d love to see more game makers be inspired by the world around them that exists outside of virtual spaces. I’d also love to see more creative leads talk about their process and how they generate ideas. It’s great for aspiring developers and fans alike, in my opinion.


#4

Obviously having varied interests helps in creating new things and working towards novelty. This is something the vast majority of people have - painting it as exceptional is rather odd and often tied to classist views of how only the select few have broad “taste”, ie rejecting popular culture [in which basically all games sit] being a note of refinement.

Unfortunately this all reeks of this fetishisation of outsider art, that people who are not experts in the field are somehow better (ie domain expertise is actually a negative*) because they don’t know the terrain and so are free of the assumptions. However, when intentionally making something new then being extremely well versed in the domain is actually required to know what is new and what is just out of current fashion, to be able to know where to push out into the uncharted and have a good chance of success. I’m reminded of this simple visualisation of what a PhD involves (where to goal is to expand the total knowledge and understanding of your field):

In recent years there has been a major push in academia for collaboration between fields and increased diversity of viewpoints, with the aim of accelerating research but (thankfully) at no point has this involved a push to reject the value of domain expertise. There is a fine line and it certainly doesn’t appear like many are really being careful of that when sharing this interview (as it does the rounds on social media) or to note that “Nintendo-like solution” is a common shorthand for a highly flawed design that fails to engage with the existing solutions and make something even as good as them.

In terms of employment style, this is the other end of a pendulum from which we get two (negative) extremes:

* Example in the wider world: “We’ve had enough of experts” deployed by politicians to allow them to enact destructive policy.


#5

I can’t divulge too much, but I recently got offered a job as Narrative Designer on a project while never having played any of the genre. Same for my current job. Instead, what I like doing more is watching let’s plays, it gives me an idea of how we want/can expect this game to be played.

Some knowledge helps, but at the end of the day I’m not making a game for me and I don’t need to be good at it or love playing it. It did take me a while to not feel guilty (and I still do sometimes!), because even as “just” a player I used to feel ashamed that I wasn’t any good at the “regular releases” (mario, fpses, etc).

Edit: Obviously, I am good at my job and that is always being tested for. But a deep knowledge of games is not always required to design/write good documentation/create characters/write dialogue/be a pleasant and timely professional.
In short, you test for a skillset, but it doesn’t always include game/franchise expertise.


#6

what? where? in what field? in my experience, “nintendo-like solution” is shorthand for “extremely elegant and frequently unexpected solution”.


#7

Nintendo’s online system of friend codes (which appears in friend lists as just whatever name rather than a unique id), dongle & phone (initially requiring the app to be in focus) to get voice chat, lack of accounts which allow downloading of purchased digital titles rather than being locked to a single device…

“Nintendo-like solution” isn’t elegant but sure is unexpected for anyone who is familiar with the solutions others have come up with for years before Nintendo implements their variant.


#8

I only ever hear Nintendo Like Design used to mean stuff like their always bad online and so forth myself but it may well vary based on who’s using it


#9

I think it’s used to mean both. Nintendo makes odd choices out of left field. Sometimes that’s obfuscating choices about their online infrastructure. Sometimes that’s making a game about shooting paint instead of bullets. I prefer having both than having neither.

And maybe this was a more generous read but I didn’t take the initial message to mean that they didn’t want anybody with gaming knowledge. But that a diversity of experiences is good, especially if that includes people who aren’t as game literate.


#10

Coming back to this - I’ve been battling some general game fatigue for a year or two now (maybe comes with the fulltime job?), so I’ve made an effort to read books (like @lycaon) and knit. The books for a different creative medium and the knitting, because it feels amazing to learn a new skill and make something tangible with it. It’s so abstract and mathematical, I love it.


#11

i absolutely agree that outside voices have been some of the best things for gaming, because very very often in gaming an “outside voice” means greater diversity and representation and empathy for minorities across the board. i think that this comment coming from nintendo is a little ironic because nintendo are extremely entrenched in a lot of their own bullshit when it comes to like ease-of-use and accessibility and UI design and things like that.

and i agree with Isidro, one of the best things for me and my personal understanding and appreciation of games has been consuming other media and finding new unrelated hobbies. especially in the realm of game narrative, people could stand to take a cue from almost any other medium that’s been around longer


#12

What would interest me here is who exactly are the kind of people that were hired by Nintendo under that premise. There’s a big difference between them hiring industrial designers, as opposed to physicists, or movie directors. “No prior experience in game design” can mean a lot of different things and not all of these will neccessarily lead to the same outcome.

I do agree that having outside knowledge helps (in any kind of field really), but as with everything, it all depends on how you use that knowledge and how much of it is actually applicable to the problem you want to solve.

For example: I have a degree in Anthropology and spend a lot of my 20s thinking about evolutionary theory and how we create knowledge. Now I make videogames and barely any of this is directly relevant to what I do. It probably influences the stuff I make, but so far the only person who’s able to recognize these spots, is me. It probably doesn’t help, that I really like making shooty-pixel games.


#13

I mean, they didn’t make the first paintball game (or the first game about tagging areas in a competitive online mode, even if much earlier games didn’t have the same granularity of tag area). So this is far less about bringing in non-game-literate perspective and more about what could be done with a deep understanding of the existing domain (while not blindly following the most popular approach).

That’s the thing: it’s the desire to make something original that creates novelty not any lack of familiarity with games (the easiest thing to do if you’re not well versed in games is to just make what it most popular right now, the second easiest is to make anything except that which may or may not just mean making something basically the same as a flawed earlier game design everyone moved past - only by knowing the terrain do you know if it’s original or derivative and how it derives from previous works). The thread title here definitely implies an outsider art interpretation of the interview.


#14

I disagree with this, having other interests are very nice qualities to have but the numbing of ideas doesn’t come from being a longtime player, it comes from the workplace not fostering them as a culture.

If you have people you know who are not doing as much as you’d like them to in creative fields, consider how much of it is because of their experience at work. In effect long-time players are able to identify what makes a game and how to steer away from them to create something new. Miyamoto didn’t spend 40 years solely drawing energy from his childhood exploration either


#15

But did spend several E3’s pitching us Wii Fit.

I think this is more about exploration and innovation, and new perspectives more than it is design quality.

Somebody who has played console FPS for 10 years will know more about how a good game should feel, what makes bad shooters, where to go with stuff like movement, etc. but I think in seeking that, is less likely (and again, this is a huge averages thing, not a rule) less likely to make something like Gravity Rush or Splatoon.

As someone who vaguely works on games, and plays a lot of some genres of games, I know some of my most interesting ideas come from watching other people play games I don’t touch in genres that I haven’t spent thousands of hours in.

The point here is less that people who play games can’t, or shouldn’t make games, but that over familiarity with any subject, in general, stifles creativity in that known space. Again, not that it’s impossible or anything, just as a general law of averages sort of thing. You ask fewer questions, which means assuming more at the very core, and exploring/challenging ideas less. (Which can also be good for designing really solid, fun games.)


#16

I don’t think this is particularly revelatory, maybe it’s just because Nintendo are saying it outright. In most creative fields it’s almost an expectation that artists will have drawn on outside experience.

They may hire people with next to no experience with games but that doesn’t mean at the same time they aren’t hiring people who are very into games. I think the point is that diversity in a team of people is where you can start to make truly unique things.

And the people who don’t have any experience will be being taught by those who have the experience. In any case if you take away one side contributing, the creative output will be completely different.

Recently I was working with a lyricist to write a song in a short amount of time. Even though we both weren’t experienced in each others fields we, he contributed some stuff to the music side of things and I contributed some things to the lyrics. Despite this if he wasn’t there, the lyrics would be a mess and vice versa.

I believe that it goes without saying that having diversity in a team will help make better games, but at the same time those games wouldn’t be able to be made without the people who really know what they are doing. It’s not as simple as just having more hobbies/diverse interests in my opinion - it’s knowing what skills/experiences will work well with the people who do know what they are doing, as it is their expertise.


#17

Honestly I don’t want to hear any inspirational quotes about giving control to others from Miyamoto of all people, and I think he’s full of shit.

Nintendo’s game design is, in my opinion, incredibly “safe” - Mario and Zelda are probably the least risk-taking games to come out all year, basically just copying whatever’s worked either for them or other people and fiddling with the knobs a little here and there to improve them for a 2017 release. When that slideshow came out about them having the “design pyramid” or whatever for Zelda I was immediately reminded of basically every open world game having already done this countless times over, Nintendo just put their company logo on it and claimed to invent it and everyone believed them somehow.

To talk about anime for a bit: Hayao Miyazaki is famously cited as having said something along the lines that current animators are too derivative of each other and don’t draw from real life when animating (this was maybe mid-2000s). Yet the people set to make a drastic shift for the better in the industry right now are the exact people he would describe - people who learned animation by studying sakuga MADs and action scenes almost religiously to figure out how to animate. There’s a large mix in the web-gen group from professionally trained or veteran animators enabling them, like Shinsaku Kozuma or Hironori Tanaka, to gif-makers-turned-pros like Bahi JD or Isuta Meister, and while there’s absolutely a merit to looking outside of an industry and taking cues from elsewhere, to say that the experts inside the industry aren’t going to be innovative or new is incredibly short sighted.


#18

I wonder how much of this is finding people with new ideas and how much is finding people with less experience in the field so you can pay them less


#19

sideways hand emoji

The phrasing used was “super passionate game fan,” which is not the same thing as “experienced designer.”

Design is a craft and requires dedicated practice to do well, but it’s damn near orthogonal to how most people approach and experience games.


#20

Three points.

  1. Having interests outside of games enriches my enjoyment of some of them, but mostly it highlights to me how games are completely stuck in their own little world and mythology. It’s impossible to think of Bioware, for instance, as the great storytellers they’re believed to be when you have any points of comparison at all in prose or film (or comics, presumably, but I don’t know a lot about that). No one epitomizes this more than Nintendo.

  2. Everything Miyamoto says here is transparently meant for consumers (hey, it’s okay if you’re new to games! so are our designers! buy a switch!) as well as shareholders and investors (communicating the brand and company as innovative, future-facing, growing, connecting with the world rather than looking inward).

  3. It’s not just that designers and devs are unwilling to innovate and take risks; gamers are the most conservative target market there is, in every sense of the word. It would be just as easy to argue that selling them anything outside of their comfort zone will result in giant destructive tantrums – as we’ve already observed when the people “innovating” aren’t a beloved global corporation (if we accept the ridiculous premise that Nintendo does any meaningful innovation), but marginalized indie devs.