How do you design and build a new paradigm for gaming while simultaneously designing and building the hardware that will enable this paradigm? This is an interesting question! Thankfully the Shmuplations blog has dug up 1996 Japanese language strategy guide interviews with Shigeru Miyamoto and the developers who created Super Mario 64, a new archetype for 3D games.

So how did they go about making this revolution in gaming? If you’ve heard any of my talks over the last couple years, you won’t be surprised when I tell you: The answer is prototypes.

Miyamoto: […] That’s how we make games at Nintendo, though: we get the fundamentals solid first, then do as much with that core concept as our time and ambition will allow.

Before committing to an overly ambitious design, they enhance and extend those core concepts once they are nailed down. Miyamoto and Hajime Yajima explain this a little further in the interview:

Miyamoto: […] We spent about half our time and energy designing the basic [movement, animation, and physics] system that we talked about. As for the courses and enemies, those actually came at the very end. They were done in a single burst of energy, just thrown together, almost.

Yajime: […] It gave us, as designers, a chance to play around with Mario in a diorama world, in a very free way. We could do a lot of experimenting—like, we’d make a ghost house course, and then drop Mario in there and see how it felt to move him around there. It was very fun.

“Fun”. At the end of a project that’s rarely a phrase you hear from developers. Create a Low-Fi prototype, drop a character in and see if it’s fun or interesting. The interview goes on to say they didn’t even model out the worlds, they just started with “sketches” and “brief notes/memos”.

I think this has a lot of lessons on how to build and design products. With the fundamentals built, sketches and notes should be enough to communicate intent. Then it’s a matter of nudging and improving as “time and ambition will allow”.

What if the plan had failed? Miyamoto saying the courses and enemies came at the very end actually makes me sweat a bit. However the prototyping and planning meant that they already knew what worked, they just had to build it. And build it they did! Super Mario 64 has 15 levels with 7 stars (challenges) each and 11 bonus levels. But I think the most valuable thing learned through playtesting it with children is that even though something is difficult, it can still be fun.

Miyamoto: Up to now, I think there’s been this image with games that if you can’t beat it, it’s not a fun or good game, right? That’s a philosophy we’ve stuck to at Nintendo, too, but I figured that if a game was this fun to play even if you weren’t getting anywhere, well, it must be alright. Until this game, I was very skeptical about something like this being fun.

Fun doesn’t just mean “easy”. I think that’s something I need to remind myself when relentlessly simplifying.

From a technical perspective, I think this era of video games correlates pretty strongly to Virtual Reality, especially WebVR. It’s new, the hardware isn’t quite there yet, no one really knows how it works, what’s good, or what VR on the Web is finally going to look like. Lots of people, myself included, are starting to poke around with WebVR and finding new tools and concepts that work in this new paradigm. I look forward every week to seeing new little prototypes that push the Web’s capabilities forward.