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Friday March 27, 2009 11:15 pm
GDC 2009: Hideo Kojima: Solid Game Design: Making the Impossible Possible
If you at any point in your life have enjoyed a stealth game, you might know Hideo Kojima as the man to whom you owe your firstborn. He’s the father of the beloved Metal Gear game/interactive movie series, and he delivered the final keynote of the GDC today. And, as expected, it was worthy of a man who had just received a lifetime achievement award the night before. I took some pictures of the presentation, and tried to elucidate as best I can, but I seriously cannot stress how much you should try and find the video of the presentation as filmed by the GDC – Kojima is a genuinely funny guy with a lot to say, and if you like the cut of his jib (which is a very good cut, I hear), you deserve to see and hear the whole thing. In the meantime, have some on the house.
The introduction begins. The man, the legend, the part-time ninja. Recap of his career, mandatory fellatio, and… KOJIMA!!!!! YAAAAAY!!!
This is Kojima’s first time at the GDC- it was traditionally E3 before this. It doesn’t help that E3 has lost its punch, and they promised him a f*cking lifetime award if he came here. The men in front of me who speak Japanese more fluently than I do laugh in advance before his jokes are translated. I feel lowly, and contemplate continued alcohol abuse.
Kojima promises no such free games as yesterday with Iwata. Bully to you, sir! What does it look like, we’re here to learn?! WAREZ! He claims that there are no sessions during the keynote. We cannot escape. The bars come down, we begin to devour one another for nourishment.
What is “Revolutionary Creation?” As Kojima describes it, it is simply doing something that nobody has done before – and an extended definition, making the impossible possible. He gives us a diagram of a path. Snake runs across. Suddenly, a box! Snake runs across and jumps it. But that’s too easy – just jumping over seen obstacles. But if the box becomes a wall, hell, that’s harder. Mario comes out of nowhere and jumps it in one bound. Snake is not pleased.
Making the impossible possible demands that preconceived notions be discarded. So how does Snake get over the wall? Why not pole vault? Mow it down with a gun? Build steps? Parachute? Swim over? Think out of the box, right? Let’s change views –
- And the wall wasn’t even a solid obstacle. Move around it. Dig under it. Do something new!
So, what barriers of impossibility do we encounter? Another diagram – the wall is back. We have a foundation, the floor. As hardware rises, we get to the top of the wall. The software technology is another box – closer to the top. Suddenly, a ladder! This is game design. Abstract, right? Check out the diagram.
Now, we begin a retrospective. 1985, the era of the MSX2. Kojima’s mission was to create a combat game for the mission; this is the era of Rambo, and coin-op games are popular.
What is a combat game in 1986? More diagrams, dammit! You need a player. Enemies. And bullets, of course. Lots and lots of bullets. But what kind of hardware technology was available during this time? Kojima describes Nemesis, a 1986 Konami shooter. You need a background, and you place sprites. But there are limitations with sprites – you could only place 32 on a screen at once. Plus, horizontally, if you display 8 sprites, 9 and onwards cannot be displayed. To make Metal Gear sprites, you had to layer sprites for color – so a player, 2 enemies, and two bullets was pretty much all you could display. This was Kojima’s barrier. But, like Snake, like designer…
To solve this problem, Kojima had to create a combat game without fighting. He tinkered with ideas – escaping, evading – but then, it hits him! Hiding! Infiltration! The stealth genre is born. We need to make a stealth game now. Great.
Kojima wanted players to learn the rules of a new genre – it was pretty revolutionary at the time. We know only the NES version, which Kojima disowns as “crap” since he didn’t work on it. Oh, you wacky auteur. But now, we have a problem – we need to create a stealth game, the genre WE invented, on the next generation of consoles. It needs to be steeper. But the hardware didn’t change, so we need to make a deeper stealth game.
So, the enemies gain a wider line of sight, we make larger levels, enemies that are off-screen, a radar system, an evasion phase… The hardware did not rise to get over the wall, so we need a taller ladder. Game design. So… How about a sequel?
New mission: Create a 3D stealth game for the MSX2. The wall is too high. The MSX2 doesn’t have the capability, and no ladder can climb that. But after 4 years, the Playstation comes out. The floor rises. The wall can be climbed with a high enough ladder. Gentlemen, we have Metal Gear Solid. Now, snake can hide in ducts, doors… and the ever-present cardboard box. Voice acting? Hell, we can do that now. Also, Kojima thinks that Germans like to eat sausage, and the French version of Metal Gear is the funniest, yet most romantic thing you’ve ever heard.
So now we have a worldwide hit on our hands. We get to the next wall – we need to make a realistic-looking stealth game this time. The wall is too high for the PS1. In 2000, the PS2 comes along. The hardware floor rises. We have DVDs and better graphics. But the floor is still too low, so we run around the wall – the new goal is not a more realistic game, but a more immersive one.
With the sequel, we have expressions, better textures, environment, lighting, mechanics – and we have MGS2. Mission complete. Now, for the next game – a stealth game that surpasses the previous one on the next platform. But the new wall is high, and the new hardware doesn’t come early enough. We need a better stealth game on the same platform. So Kojima illustrates the difference between games – we have not yet touched an area of his graph; That of natural, open environments. We now have the capability to do just that.
Now, it’s not a hardware floor, or game design – so Otacon comes along and gives us a new engine. This software advance gives us what we need to climb the wall, provided we have a decent ladder. So we get new mechanics, like camouflage, CQC, and survival systems. Snake Eater is released. Kojima loves his cutscenes.
Now, though, we need to make the ultimate stealth game. Kojima hears of a system so powerful, you don’t even need proper game design. That would explain a lot. So our mission is now to use the power of an unknown monster system to make an ultimate stealth game. Reeeeal high wall.
Well, the hardware gives a pretty nice boost. But the rumors are a little too far-fetched, and it’s not enough to just put out a prettier version of the same game and rely on the hardware alone. So our new mission is to use the actual power of the PS3 to make the ultimate stealth game – but, we need to run around that, and the new mission is to use this power to make a new kind of stealth game.
So, we have a new game style. We’re in a war zone, so we can pick our battles; we can ally with a favorite side. We have MGS4. The design ladder allows us to climb up the wall.
So, the review:
- Making the impossible possible in game production. There is a wall of impossibility. The ground is the hardware technology, the box is the software technology, and the ladder is game design. Combined, the rising power of each can overcome your difficulties as a designer. I really can’t do it justice in words – check out the graph to see how far Kojima has come.
- There is a marked difference in Kojima’s approach and traditional western design – we use more software-driven game design, creating a playground for players. Kojima wants to use all three elements to climb the wall of the ultimate stealth game. There is a not-so-subtle hint and the next Metal Gear.
We reach our conclusion: Before giving up and saying “I can’t do it”, identify the impossible barrier holding you back; it’s just what you’re thinking. The impossible is possible. By overcoming barriers, yesterday’s impossibilities are today’s possibilities. Everyone in the industry can make it possible. We can all make great games together.
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