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Sakurai on the development of Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Hey everyone, cortjezter here once again! So of the two sessions I’ve attended this morning, you’re all probably most excited for any info, details, etc on Brawl, even if they’re things already available…the fans just can’t get enough of the game!

First off was the trailer for Brawl…many have seen it; if not, here’s a link. As a way to calm his nerves between the end of the trailer and the start of his speech, he treated us to a few bars of the baritone opera vocals… with the translation headphones on, it was actually hard to tell which was which; I thought maybe the trailer had started over!

A few details on the team structure: his company, Sora, is comprised of only two employees and serves as a way for him to gain contracts and work as a freelancer. Because he doesn’t directly support any development teams, they had to build it from scratch, and instead of relying heavily on contacts from within his old employer, HAL, they started with folks from Game Arts, then some from Nintendo recruits, and then temporary staffers. On and off, the team included upwards of 100 members contracted to bring the franchise to life.

With a limited time today, he decided of everything in Brawl, he’d focus on the character roster. Contrary to the wild rumours and wishful thinking of fans everywhere, the final roster was finalised at the very beginning of development, with Sonic the lone exception, added in 2007. The initial plan was over-sized; they aimed high and created as much as they could. So what you see in the final game is some fraction of the overall planned roster, though no specific number of the initial goal was mentioned.

So how did they decide on that roster? Well it turns out the criteria list is short and sweet. First, the character itself needs to stand out both in terms of personality and design, but also in the potential abilities it can bring to the table. Second, the character has to complement the balance of the gameplay. So Doshin the Giant may not have been a viable option as a playable character, let alone any of the myriad Ridley iterations we’ve seen, short of a larvae-staged monster.

Sakurai lent some insight to the graphics and visuals of the game, using Melee as a point of reference to contrast differences between characters. Having so many characters to choose from, they were between the hard places of conforming to the brand identities and official models of characters, yet making the collection in Brawl seem natural and cohesive. The compromise they found, was to focus on subtle details and interpret each character’s essence. Mario, for example, is viciously protected by Nintendo, so getting too wild was out of the question. Where they landed was essentially the same physical model as the official, but enhancing the denim and fabrics not just with detail, but with other scrapes and distress to make things more natural. Olimar on the other hand, is interpreted in Brawl to have straps, clasps, and Vader-like controls on his chest and space suit. Overall, the sought cohesion was achieved through these subtle details, but also through the game’s lighting, texture, etc. Interestingly, he said these interpretive choices were not made possible by the expanded power of the Wii, but by the power of the talented developers.

In the case of Pit, the only point of reference was really the original game and the flat, cartoon illustrations, much how Link was rendered in 1986 for print publications. But unlike the Zelda series, Pit didn’t have 20 years of games to evolve his style. So what the team did to interpret him for the Brawl series was to some extent “pretend” he had 20 years worth of games, and extrapolated his design nuances from that imagination, modernising him in one giant leap.

Next, Sakurai talked about the movement and motion of the various characters. He said that thinking of character moves for the game was so easy, there was virtually no limit or hindrance to coming up with a vast supply, and most moves wound up being things that he himself wanted to see in the game. The only caveat for imagining moves was that they had to be precise, an essential characteristic for a game of precise gameplay.

He broke the creation of moves into four stages: Standby, Windup, Strike, and Follow Through. A short description of each:

  1. Standby - the default, originating stance all characters have when inactive, and is the starting point for all moves, except in the case of aerial or falling positions, a second default stance is created.
  2. Windup - a very short, quick animation to show the lead-in to a move.. it’s very short– about 2/60 frames per second, and gives the player a cue that their input has registered, but also gives a cue to the opponent about how to respond.
  3. Strike - the meat of the move, and literally is the execution of whatever action is being performed.
  4. Follow Through - the longest part of animation for any given move, it is the transition between the strike and returning to default stance.
  5. All in all, each move needs to be quick, and so no attack lasts longer than 3/4 (45 frames) of a second.

Even though the characters tend to move in human ways, all animations were created by hand, not the result of any motion capture, so the quality of every move is really the direct result of the talent of the animator working on it. But where did the direction for movement come from? Since it’s hard to convey movement by written description, Sakurai used what he called “micro-man” posable action figures, and did snapshots of how he imagined each chracters poses at any given time or point during an action. The snapshots of these 4″ figurines were then translated to each character, making concessions where necessary to emphasise when being viewed from the side. He used Snake’s crawl as example…normally he would crawl with both shoulders low to the ground, but for Brawl, one is raised to show more to the viewer from a side angle.

Sakurai went on to discus the true nature of each character, and how it lies in the numbers and parameters of each. Just because someone is in the roster doesn’t necessarily mean it’s IN the game until its parameters are tweaked to feel right for each; something he did almost exclusively by himself. What parameters? Things like the speed, inertia, timing, weight, etc for how each character comes to life. Without ironing out those details, characters lose their essence and then feel unnatural, unbelievable and not a part of the game.

For example, he compares the jumping between Mario and Samus. Mario jumps and falls quickly; Samus jumps but has a lighter, airier fall. Considering she’s weighted by the power suit, one might jump to the assumption this is because she’s in space. But by examining the gameplay–she needs to shoot things at varying heights–it’s much easier to hit a target when you have a longer window of opportunity; if she fell straight down, it would be harder to hit doors or other moving enemies. Therein lies one secret to the essence of Samus, and so her parameters of jumping would be tweaked to match and feel “right”. By thinking through these details early on, it’s easier to direct teams, be more efficient, and land on a better final game.

Finally, he focused on the buzz generation machine. Obviously almost any fan knows of the current Dojo site, an essential tool to gaining mindshare from the widest user base possible. Without it–despite the popularity of the franchise–they wouldn’t have been able to generate the kind of buzz and hype surrounding the game. While the two previous games had websites, they were Japanese, and this time around, they expanded worldwide with several translations. While he writes the content himself, a team at Nintendo prepares the media, and a localisation team handles the “6+1″ languages the site appears. With over 230 updates since the beginning, they’ve managed to capture millions of visitors, and generate some real excitement and publicity for the game.

Ok… that was a lot, and I paraphrased for you. Unfortunately cameras (still and motion) were not allowed, so no footage of the keynote is available, at least not from me and it would have been great since I was right up front and centre!). Rest assured, the game looks great, even on the giant projected screens, and literally has so much stuff in it to keep any gamer busy for a long, long time!

Thanks everyone… time to leave the desk a few minutes. I’ll be back later to share my experience with the development of the Wii Menu! –cortjezter

Categories: Consoles
Tags: wii

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