Right from the off, this GDC ’08 talk was notable for the novel, (to the West anyway), approach to staffing up for this sequel. Charting the production of SSBB, the incredibly young-looking director Masahiro Sakurai began with his own hiring onto the project on March 9th, 2005 – placing the entire development time around the three year mark.
Sora Ltd: Development – SUPER SMASH BROS. BRAWL
Masahiro Sakurai -Director
Despite directing the original SSB games under the Nintendo/HAL Laboratory collaboration, Sakurai has been working as a freelance game designer since 2004 under his own company Sora Ltd. – (the company comprises just him and his assistant). After sub-contracing creative direction to Sora, Nintendo rented offices in Tokyo and employed the bulk of staff from long-time development house Game Arts. In addition, they temporarily contracted many of the original Smash Bros team for this project as HAL were not officially involved.
This is the way I’d like to see the game development process go in the future so we can move away from the restrictive full-time studio model towards a more talent based one where individual creatives and full development teams can be married, before disbanding once the pipelines and initial creative visions are established.
Sakurai continued with the challenges faced in developing such a diverse character roster,admitting that they were “blessed” with having characters from many famous games. By July 7th 2005, all the planning docs were finalised, as was the roster. The character line-up was only reduced from there on, except Sonic who was added in 2007.
Listing his requirements for a successful character design in SSBB, Sakurai pointed to individuality, ease of implementation and qualities that would bring balance to the roster.
Some rights issues prevented even Nintendo characters from being included.
He wanted characters with unique visuals to stand out.
The team had to unify the art style somewhat, drawing a comparision between Mario vs Link throwing up inconcistencies like Bugs Bunny cartoons vs Photo-real.
Changes that were made included a washed-out colour pallette and detailed textures for some of the more cartoony characters. Notably, Nintendo allowed them to add more details to Mario despite usually enforcing strict style guidelines.
Thankfully body proportions were not unified, allowing for an interesting variety in deliberate mis-matchs of character sizes.
Sakurai pointed towards an improvement in the team’s ability rather than Wii’s power facilitating an increase in visual fidelity.
All of the team’s “interpretations” of characters were supervised and approved by the original character creators.
Kid Icarus main protagonist Pit, who had not been updated in 20 years, had to be completely redesigned in order to fit with other characters that had improved and moved with the times – requiring the original creator’s consent. At this point the talk spent an uncomfortably long time examining the finer points of Pit’s jewelry and sarong, betraying the Japanese fascination with effeminate male characters.
This latter section was by far the most interesting part of the talk, mostly due to the clearly determined approach in which Sakurai dictated animation timing and posing to his team. To this end, he began by thinking of moves with the approach that one must maintain a “preciseness and steadfast confidence that the move will work.”
Every attack in the game can be broken down into 4 component parts or phases:
StandBy – either the idle pose or the fall for mid-air assaults – (essentially the first frame).
WindUp – the initial buildup as the character draws back in anticipation of the attack. This should never take longer than 0.75 seconds.
Strike – the strongest pose, seen often by players as the action pauses here when a hit lands.
FollowThrough – after the attack, the period of vulnerability following a missed move. It is important that this pose must not look like the StandBy, and typically is the longest part of the move.
The animations needed to be exaggerated in order to ensure the player had enough visual feedback following a key-press as well as warn the opponent to dodge.
Translating each of these 4 stages for each action into numbers greatly aided the designers.
Every action was hand-done in key-frame, involving no motion capture.
Sakurai’s method for illustrating moves to his animation and design team relied on the use of side-on photographs of “Microman” poseable action figures (above) to convey each of the four attack stages visually.
He dictated every pose, but said the final quality was down to the animator. Nevertheless, I believe this would be a hard sell to Western developers even with a track record such as his.
Stringently enforcing the posing in this manner, however, insured the moves would work within the game and the number of changes to animation for balancing purposes was reduced.
When balancing the game, he closed with the advice that parameters, motions and “character essence” must all be consistent and are the most important elements of all. (eg. weight of Mario and Samus makes them fall differently). Furthermore, he feels it is imperative that a designer sniffs out why design decisions are made in other games and learn from them. Game designers must only take a “try out and see” iterative approach when they have enough lee-way and time to do so.