Super Smash Bros. Brawl designer Masahiro Sakurai took the stage at GDC to discuss the all-star character roster in his game, and how they turned a motley crew of Nintendo characters into a polished, finessed, cohesive experience.
But first, he apologized for the Smash Bros. delay to March 9 in the U.S. "Since we're a little bit late, [Nintendo president] Reggie [Fils-Aime] said he'd make a whole lot of extra copies to make up for that," Sakurai said.
It sounds like a joke, but think about it: It's probably true. Nintendo of America likely doesn't want to just put a few copies into the channel -- it's more likely that they want to manufacture enough to fill what will surely be insane demand for its biggest Wii game.
Sakurai explained the Brawl development structure. Nintendo and Sakurai's two-person company Sora set up an office in Tokyo, brought in people from the developer Game Arts, added some contract workers from Nintendo, and hired temp workers when they needed more bodies.
Sakurai's former employer HAL Laboratories was "not heavily involved," although a few of them worked on the music, he said.
Employees were brought in here and there as they were needed, so it was a very flexible team structure, Sakurai said.
Sakurai then moved on to his main topic: How the character roster for the game, filled with characters from famous Nintendo games, was selected.
Sakurai said that the character roster, except for Sonic The Hedgehog, was decided on in the planning process -- before any development began on the game. "To tell the truth, the decision to include Sonic was not made until 2007," said Sakurai.
They placed the "utmost importance" on character individuality, Sakurai said. From a very early point, they considered what each character could bring to the game in terms of unique aspects.
Sakurai ran down what four of the new characters bring to the table. Ike from Fire Emblem has a heavy blade, which does a lot of damage but leaves him vulnerable. MetaKnight from Kirby has a very quick sword that is very effective, but he doesn't have a very powerful finishing blow. Zero Suit Samus has "supple martial arts." And Snake from Metal Gear can get an early tactical advantage with his military firearms.
To make all of the characters blend in together, they added realistic details to some of the character's clothing. "Nintendo requires a strict observance of [the Mario design], he said, "but they let us add details." Instead of Mario's overalls being colored a solid cartoon blue, he said, they added realistic denim details to Mario's clothes, making him blend in more with the realistic Link from Twilight Princess.
Captain Olimar from Pikmin, also, was given a much more realistically detailed space suit. These details were envisioned by the Smash Bros. team and approved by the game's creators.
Pit from Kid Icarus underwent 'serious changes', Sakurai said. "What if we modernized him in one single leap?" Sakurai asked. Pit had never been redesigned in 20 years, he pointed out. To modernize him, they gave him a golden laurel leaf and golden armbands. "Underneath his toga, we added some clothes," Sakurai said, something for which we are all very thankful.
Sakurai moved on to a discussion of "motion" -- what kind of moves each character would have in the game. "Thinking up moves is easy," read his presentation slide, but "moves must have a certain precision to them to carry your game."
The different phases of a move are standby, windup, strike, and follow-through, Sakurai says. He explained each phase:
Standby is the pose that everything originates from, the character's default position.
Windup is the animation that telegraphs the attack. "I designed the animations to be slightly exaggerated, so that players who inputted the command" can recognize them, and so that opponents can get ready to dodge the attack, he said.
Strike is the motion in which the character actually attacks -- the portion of the animation where the hit detection is in effect.
Finally, the Follow-Through is the period of time when the character is vulnerable to attack following the move.
"I'd like to stress that just because you are assigning human-like movements to the characters, it doesn't mean that you should pursue the most realistic movements possible," Sakurai said. Realistic movements don't necessarily fit the game play.
The next step was to get the animators to create moves based on Sakurai's concepts. He used tiny MicroMan action figures from Japan, posing them in the ways he wanted the character to be posed during the fighting moves. He showed some of the pictures he took and the final moves from the game, and noted how faithfully they were recreated in the game.
Sakurai said that the most important emphasis on the animation frames was how they were viewed from the side. Although it is a 3D game and the player can stop it and view the action from any angle, for the vast majority of the time you're looking at the characters from the side. So that's where Sakurai spent most of his time when tuning the animations.
After showing a great deal of different character poses and MicroMan figures, Sakurai moved on to what he called "Parameter" -- the "invisible elements" of a character like the strength of their attacks.
As an example, he used the jumps of Samus Aran and Mario in their NES games. "Mario quickly falls back to the ground, but Samus descends in a light, airy manner," he said. But it's not because Samus' games take place in outer space, he said. "It's imperative that you attempt to sniff out the meaning behind these kinds of design decisions."
"In Metroid, after jumping, the player needs to be able to fire at enemies and doors at any given height," Sakurai said. "You could call this an inevitable expression of the game itself."
Another example. "Sonic is a character who is often thought of as simply being really, really fast," Sakurai says. But Sonic actually moves in a heavy, slow motion, he said, and it's because of this that the player experiences a sense of pleasure when Sonic finally does get up to full speed.
Sakurai turned on a demo of Brawl at this point, and took the crowd through several of Sonic's moves. He tnen turned to Snake and Pit, two characters with very different sets of moves and different speed. (A round of applause followed Sakurai's live gameplay demo.)
Sakurai summed up by saying that game designers must think before they act. "If you think before you act, you can reduce the workloads for your programmers and artists," his slide read.
"Let's endeavor to think over our designs long and hard so we can move on to give proper direction," he said.
Finally, Sakurai talked about "getting the word out" -- how they used the website 'Smash Bros. Dojo,' which was available in seven languages and updated five days a week, to convey new information about the game straight from Sakurai, translated by Nintendo's localization teams.
At its peak, the Dojo had one million hits in a single day and five million over that entire week, Sakurai said.
This grand scale project was necessary, said Sakurai, because there would not nearly be this much buzz about the game had they not had the developers get involved with the site.
With that, Sakurai concluded his presentation.