Don’t Miss: Sonic the Hedgehog co-creator’s philosophy of game design

[The most recent issue of Game Developer magazine printed a truncated version of this interview with Namco Bandai Games America senior design director Hirokazu Yasuhara. Gamasutra is proud to present the unabridged version. Yasuhara has a great design philosophy which he espouses here, complete with his original notes and illustrations, alongside a history lesson on the Sonic series.]

Hirokazu Yasuhara is one of the great unsung heroes of game design. He is currently senior design director at Namco Bandai Games America, and before that he held the unassuming title “game designer” at Naughty Dog, having most recently shipped Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune — but his history is inexorably intertwined with the history of modern character game development.

Yasuhara was the chief level designer on the original Sonic the Hedgehog, as the third person to join that team after Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, and played a key role in the fleshing out of that seminal title, as well as a number of its sequels. He was responsible for the first 3D Sonic game, Sonic R, and was involved in the Jak series for Naughty Dog since the first sequel.

In this extensive interview, Yasuhara outlines his carefully constructed theories of fun and game design, including the differences between American and Japanese audiences, with illustrated documents. After conducting this interview, I was convinced that he should write a book based on his theories. Until then, consider these words to be sketches — a preamble to that necessary work.

I heard that you still use graph paper for all your level designs and things like that. What is your process for designing at this point?

Hirokazu Yasuhara: Actually, I stopped using graph paper to make the level. [pointing out some paper materials] I use this to work out all the gimmicks [ie. the unique features to each level], but I threw some small, easy —

Can I take a picture?

HY: Actually, no. (laughs)

It’s so cute. I want that.

HY: So I come up with some ideas about events that are happening; how the player acts, you know, at each stage. What kind of results happen once you perform this or that gimmick in each level. For example, in a jungle stage, you would use…

So these are small bits of design concept, like moments that you could use? I see.

HY: Mm-hmm. So I come up with some ideas for the programmer to work with, and they decide what’s good and what’s impossible to implement, based on schedule or programming difficulty.

So it’s more high-concept design, and then they narrow it down?

HY: Yeah. So this is the idea for a section, and I make a picture or a scan of what kind of image I have going, add some simple comments, and make a document that I bring to the artists and programmers. These are all concepts. I make a lot of ideas and inserts. And this is what I just created. I don’t write the map by hand anymore; I use Illustrator instead to do the map. It has about five layers.

Do you think of ideas and then put down whatever comes to mind, and then is it you that shrinks it down to the actual design that it’ll be, or is it other designers?

HY: I shrink it down by myself, actually. It’s up to the schedule, so… (laughs) If the artists or programmers say “no”, then that’s the answer. So it’s kind of a mix. I always try to push a can-do attitude with them, you know? (laughs) For the programmer. But sometimes, you know…

How do your ideas come from these individual moments into the full art of game game design?

HY: So I always think about all the different elements of what makes something fun. This formula is made by a sociologist from France who did some thinking into what it is that makes something fun, or interesting, for people to experience. One of the things is competition. The next is happy coincidences; a gamble that pays off, that kind of thing. Following that is dizziness or exhilaration, and the final thing is imitating, or copying.

For example, let’s say we go to a theme park one day. There are two slides there: a regular metal slide, and one shaped like an elephant. Which one is more attractive to a child? It’ll usually be the one with the elephant, because the form of “imitation” that it represents is more interesting to the eye. That, in itself, is enough to make it fun.

So what happens when you put all of these factors together? Well, if your park’s trying to improve its business, then maybe it’d try to make the slide a longer or faster ride, or maybe make it bigger and shaped like a dinosaur so it’ll be more fun for the kids.

Maybe they’ll make it a dual slide so kids can compete with each other to get to the bottom faster — add a competitive element.

If they keep going with it, it’ll get big enough that it winds up becoming a log-flume ride or something — but there’s still more you can do, like maybe put wheels on the logs and make it look like a car.

It’s a continual process to make it more fun. So the more you think about the externals of something, the more grandiose it’ll wind up being. You’ll wind up with a roller coaster eventually — and then you’ll make it rotate or something, if you think it’ll improve business. That is one of my basic principles.