The Role of the Sidekick

Nintendo Power: Iinside Zelda began with a look at the visions of Twilight Princess director Eiji Aonuma. Since then, IZ has visited many members of the Twilight Priness development team who have to ensure that their piece of the grand puzzle stays true to Aonuma’s vision. It takes a strong leader like Aonuma to keep so many creative minds on the same page – but it also takes a great support person. Makoto Miyanaga is the one tasked with the endlessly busy job of ensuring that all of Aonuma’s decisions are carried out by all of the teams working on Twilight Princess. Given the enormous size of the game and it’s vast development crew, Miyanaga must put on more miles walking the halls of Nintendo’s headquarters then anyone else. With little time left until E3 2006, we went to Aonuma’s go-to man to find out the status of the game – how’s Twilight Princess looking?

Makoto Miyanaga:
Staying in Synch
Any time of year is a busy time for me as an assistant director. But as anyone in game development can tell you, there’s no busier time than in the lead-up to E3. As Mr. Aonuma’s assistant director, I do everything I can do to guarantee that his directions are fully realized among the whole team, executed correctly in each section, and that the entire development is staying on the right track. At the moment, I’d say that the development is at the point where the game’s outline is very close to being nailed down. The main flow of the game is getting a few tweaks, and changes are being made to some of the many branching storylines that always make up a Zelda adventure. You’ve heard from many people on the team that we’re under great expectations to exceed Ocarina of Time. I see Twilight Princess’s development from a privileged perspective, since I work with many teams almost every day. So I’m in a unique position to see how the pressure from Ocarina translates for different people: sometimes good, sometimes not so good. For example, there’s a feeling that we absolutely can’t “lose” to Ocarina. And that creates a lot of pressure. As we proceed, we’re seeing unbelievable things created for Twilight Princess with lavish attention to detail.

Sometimes I wonder, when I encounter one of the many spectacular creations that I seem to be bumping into more and more lately, did we really need to go to such lengths to provide the extraordinary detail? As someone who was involved with Ocarina development as a field designer, I remember the equally strong passion for creating something new and unprecedented – the same spirit that the Zelda team is feeling right now. In more-recent Inside Zeldas, you’ve already been hearing how important a visual sense of touchability has become among our designers and programmers. Natural, comfortable play control – that, too, has become all-important for the new Zelda game. Also, you’ve heard many people mention how realism isn’t actually our top priority. Stunning graphics and character motions are. (All that being said, I’m often struck at the shocking level of detail, and I’ve said, and Twilight Princess far surpasses previous Zelda titles such as Ocarina. But I digress.) As assistant director, it’s been nice to hear them echo these same thoughts, since they’re a core part of Mr. Aonuma’s vision for Twilight Princess, and it means that everyone is indeed on the same page. That’s especially important when breaking fresh ground in game development. For example, bringing the playable wolf to life in the most authentic way possible has been an immense, new challenge for the Zelda team. You’ll be delighted to hear the status: We’ve got the wolf moving around quite naturally in gameplay, and the player’s feelings of moving as the wolf is incredibly natural. Just a little fine-tuning, and the wolf will be ready for playable prime time at E3.

Groundwork with Nintendo
I’ve been a huge video game since my days in elementary school. Not just on the Famicom system (NES to you) but very much on the early personal computers, too; it’s there that I could create my own fun, simple programs when I was a kid. I have especially vivid memories about Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, however, since it came out around the time that I was studying hard for my high school entrance exam. The moment t hat I finished that tough exam, I ran all the way to the store to buy Zelda II. And it was worth the wait: The Zelda II experience was sensational. Back then, the action scenes were incredibly realistic for me, and I was completely absorbed.

My interest in games continued all the way through my university days, of course, when I suited commercial visual design. But it never seriously occurred to me that I could work in video games until my graduation date approached and I had to think about my future career. Many of my friends were taking their design skills to advertising agencies, but I wanted to use my talents at a company that made products of some sort. So I applied for a position at Nintendo. For my job interview, I showed some of my work: a card game that I’d designed, plus an original backpack design –maybe not the typical calling cards that people use to break into the video game industry!

My first position at Nintendo was working as an assistant debugger, and I quickly learned that the idea of personal time quickly flies right out the window when you work in the games industry: no long summer vacations, and weekends off? Forget about it! Then the first time I worked on actual game development was on Super Mario 64, where I joined the project when it was already well under way, and I designed the inside of the pyramid, plus Peach’s secret slide. Field design is all about creating a place where the gamer can walk around, where the player can directly interact with the environment. It’s important design work, and I was glad to work on several other titles after Super Mario 64 in the same capacity. Interestingly enough, I was always called into projects also well under way, where the team needed extra help.

Seeing the Big Picture
But Pikmin was the exception. I participated almost from the very beginning of development. Like many Nintendo games, and many Zelda games, Pikmin followed the Nintendo philosophy of “miniature garden” design, where the player plays in an evocative, well-defined environment, then discovers that some small bit of what you can see in that area is actually part of a wholly separate area. Piece by piece, it all adds up over time into a vaster world of discovery. Pikmin was my first game where I learned to see game development from this perspective – a mind-expanding project for me. But Pikmin was also interesting to work on from a technical perspective: We took photos of real things, then translated those images into graphics polygons. Fascinating process. But of the many games that I’ve worked on, Ocarina of Time still occupies a cherished part of my memories. As I worked on it’s field design for Hyrule, there were a huge number of challenges and concepts that we’d never seen before in game development. Even now, I’m still astonished that we tackled so many of those ideas and pulled them off. Since Ocarina, however, I’ve tended to get involved with more and more discussions of the “bigger picture” of each game and done less actual design work. Which led to working with Aonuma to oversee the entirety of Twilight Princess, which is a very high-pressure responsibility. But I’m very lucky to have the chance to work with Mr. Aonuma on this game.

In Twilight Princess, we’re taking up many challenges that we could never have done in Ocarina of Time. Therefore, many people are intensely thinking about how this new “miniature garden” comes together – somewhat of an ironic term, given how huge Twilight Princess is. We never exactly had a crystal-clear image when we started to create it’s landscape, just a general notion of it’s structure. And as we’ve had many discussions over many months, that blueprint has kept evolving. I think of it as sculpting in clay. For example, though I can’t go into specific details yet, the phrase “other world” has been a key concept for us as we’ve proceeded, and as we’ve dwelled on the meaning of “Other World,” we continue to realize that it’s still to early to finish sculpting. Many ideas can still be absorbed into the final work. We’ve shown so little of that “Other World,” but you have seen the new character Midna. I like Midna a lot, because that character shows a wide variety of emotional expression and has a lot of depth. I’m also seeing how Link has grown into his most human depiction yet in a Zelda game, with moves and expressiveness that stay in step with what the player is feeling in a variety of scenes.

Life? What Life?
Development is about to reach an even more fevered pitch, and I’ll have my head in Twilight Princess 24/7, so I’m trying to squeeze in an off day here and there before that happens. There’s just no time to pursue my personal interests – and I rarely even have any time for my family! Sure, I have a lot of guilt about not spending more time with my six-year-old daughter, since when I am hope, I’m probably soaking up just enough sleep before I have to head back to work. But that’s the game development lifestyle, especially on a project as important as Twilight Princess. For now, it’s my whole life. Actually, on the rare occasion that I can get away to a movie or watch TV, I find it difficult to simply relax and enjoy it. I’ve always got my “creator hat” on and am always picking apart how the shows and movies are made.

Everyone on the development team knows how much you’re looking forward to Twilight Princess. We’re working extremely hard to ensure that it’ll deliver a level of excitement far beyond what you’ve ever seen in a Zelda game. Not just for all you long-time Zelda fans out there, but also for all the newcomers that – I promise – are going to want to experience what we’ve been dreaming up. Heard those sentiments before in Inside Zelda? Great – then I’ve been doing my job. It’s a point that Mr. Aonuma drives home all the time, and I’ve ensured that the message stays loud and clear around the whole development team: Twilight Princess will be a game that everyone will want to play.