The main man behind Super Smash Bros. Brawl reveals his technique for modeling and balancing the roster of characters, revealing some interesting secrets along the way.
In one of the more anticipated sessions during GDC week, Masahiro Sakurai of Sora, Ltd. gave a revealing look into the thought process and design of the character roster in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which will be releasd in North America on March 9th.
Sakurai kicked things off by showing the audience the opening cinematic. After it had ended, he continued to sing the theme song. "Sorry about that," he said, stopping himself. "I'm just a bit nervous so I just broke out into song."
"Of course, I wanted to be done a little bit early, but since we're a little bit late, Reggie said he'd make a whole lot of extra copies to make up for that."
Before Sakurai dove into game development discussion, he started off by explaining what his company, Sora, Ltd., was all about. Brawl had a development staff of as many as 100 people at times; Sora only has two employees: Sakurai and his assistant. The company essentially was established so that Sakurai could work freelance.
To facilitate the development of Brawl, Nintendo set up the Smash Bros. offices in Tokyo. Then it brought in staff from Game Arts, added contracted staff from Nintendo, and filled in the gaps with additional temporary staff to help create the game. Surprisingly, although the previous Smash Bros. games were developed by HAL, they had little involvement in the development of Brawl other than one or two people working on the music. Sakurai likened the development team to "a mercenary hoard."
The talk quickly shifted gears to the game itself, starting off with the selection of the characters. "Smash Bros. is a project blessed with the fact that characters from many games are involved," Sakurai opened. The first interesting tidbit he dropped during his talk was that the final character roster was essentially completed when the design document was finalized on July 7, 2005. That was, the character list was done 2½ years before the game was completed. Sakurai said the reasoning behind this was that he knew making additions later during development would be very difficult.
To prevent this master plan from becoming a problem in the long run, Sakurai's design was constructed with the goal of trying to include as much of it as possible within the allotted time. In that way, late cuts could be made without sacrificing the production schedule. The only exception to this plan was the late addition of Sonic. He was not added into the game until some time last year, though Sakurai didn't elaborate on how they incorporated him into the game relatively quickly.
When deciding on which characters to include, Sakurai laid out certain criteria a character had to meet for inclusion. Firstly, and most importantly, a character had to individually stand out. "There had to be something that only that character could do," Sakurai said. He knew that characters couldn't be included at random, since including any old Nintendo character would throw off the overall game balance. Sakurai also mentioned that even among Nintendo characters, there were some they couldn't consider due to intellectual property rights issues. In addition, characters within a series needed to have proper balance and representation.
Moving on to the game's graphics, Sakurai's big question to answer was how the team would unify the world view. Brawl has many different characters from a variety of series, and they must all fit in the Brawl world. He also had to consider all the extra aesthetic details that could be added to characters because of the Wii's extra power, which would make the differences in character design stand out even more. "If we had Bugs Bunny fighting against a photo-realistic character, the result would be unnatural and visually disruptive," giving an example of the problem.
Sakurai showed the audience Melee character models of Link and Mario, where he pointed out the clearly defined colors of each. Mario was red and blue, and Link was green, with no color variance. Flipping back and forth to Brawl's character models of the characters, the differences were clear. Through use of intermediate colors, stronger texture capabilities, and better use of lighting, Sakurai and his team was able to give everyone a similar look and feel despite the drastically different head sizes and body types among the characters. Sakurai mentioned that he could have tried to balance proportions, but he drew that line to prevent things from becoming too complicated.
Sakurai showed the differences between the official Nintendo Mario model and the Brawl version of Mario. He pointed out the intricate differences between the two, particularly the denim pattern on Mario's overalls, complete with scuffs and scrapes. Nintendo has strict policies regarding the use and alteration of the Mario model, but gave Sakurai special permission to apply the changes he wanted to better fit him into the Smash Bros. world.
The more detailed character models were made possible with the help of Wii's extra power, but it wasn't the primary reason for the improved look. "It was not the additional graphic power of the Wii, but the improvement in staff ability that enabled us to carry out more detailed presentations this time around," Sakurai said.
Showing Captain Olimar on the screen, pointing out the finer details and comparing it to the official model from Pikmin, Sakurai said that the Olimar's Brawl look was the Smash Bros. team's interpretation of what he would look like with more detail. All of the detailed upgrades for characters were done with the supervision and approval of the original character creators, though not everything went smoothly. "Sometimes, it doesn't go as well as we'd like, but we do our best," Sakurai admitted.
This process was taken to an extreme with Pit, a character that had not been redesigned for twenty years. Sakurai flipped back and forth between the 2D, cartoon Pit and the 3D version the Brawl team designed. "Please don't tell me this is not the same Pit that you all remember, because it is," said Sakurai.
In deciding what to do about Pit, Sakurai thought about what a new Pit would look like if he had been slowly modernized in the same way that Link had been reinvented over the years. Seemingly apologetic, Sakurai said, "Unfortuntely, Pit didn't have a game series for him to grow into." Working though a similar sequence, and with the approval of the character's creator, Sakurai eventually arrived at the final model, with which he is very satisfied. The team, he said, had a lot of fun creating Pit.
As a final word on character design as it relates to graphics, Sakurai said, "At the end of the day, we felt making the character stand out was job number one. If a concept is well-thought out and solid from top to bottom, both the creator and the audience will accept it."
The next topic in Sakurai's presentation was character motion. He explained that thinking up moves for all the characters is easy. The real problem with getting things right is making sure all of the motions are precise and that it is obvious to the player what a character is doing. For instance, the difference between a character's standard pose and action poses must be distinct so they can easily understand that the command entered was recognized by the game. Also, the notion of briefly pausing a character's animation when taking damage helps convey that a player has dished out a big hit on his opponent.
Sakurai next began to talk about how he came up with the individual character poses and animations. "I'd like to stress that just because you are assigning movements to the characters doesn't mean you need the most realistic movements possible," he began. Realistic movements might take away the feeling of control from a player. "Additionally, I'd like to note that we created virtually all of the animations in Brawl without the aid of motion capture," he continued. "Everything was done by eye."
To show how this was possible, Sakurai showed the audience a small, 4-inch-tall figurine called a Micro Man action figure. The figures have many articulation points, and Sakurai used such figurines to create poses to aid in the development of animation for all of the characters. He even fashioned weapons out of paper clips and twisty ties to help demonstrate the movement he was looking for. Each character, Sakurai said, had between 30 and 50 photographs taken of various poses, some having extra graphics added on top of them to make visualization of some characters' movements even more clear to the animation team.
The next few slides he showed in his presentation demonstrated the effectiveness of this technique. Sakurai showed Wario, Sonic, and other characters in various movement, idle, and attack poses, which were placed next to the photographs Sakurai took of the Micro Man figures. In almost all of the examples, the action figure and the character model matched up perfectly. In fact, you could almost see the character in the plain body of the action figure, based solely on its various positions. Some characters had a few variations, but those were necessary to better represent realistic motion.
For Zero Suit Samus, Sakurai used a female version of the action figure to plan out the movements. "I'm not sure why, but they had female figurines with different bra sizes," Sakurai said to a chuckling audience. To give her a more feminine form, Sakurai asked the designers to maker her taller than the figure and give her a greater range of motion. He continued on with other examples, such as accentuating Snake's shoulder height during his crawling animation and giving detailed poses for each of his four mid-air combo strikes.
The figurine photographs turned out to be "very, very useful" in the early portions of the game's design, particularly with odd-shaped characters like Metaknight. It was better to have a visual representation of a move from a character that didn't look the same than to just write out what you wanted on paper. However, this process wasn't of much use after the beginning stages, since it was very time-consuming for Sakurai, since he posed and photographed every single character by himself. However, Sakurai did not want to take all of the credit. "When it comes down to it," Sakurai said, "the quality of the final animations really is dependent on the skill of the animators composing the movement."
Sakurai also created and tweaked various parameters that affected character on his own These parameters—the numerical values that determine attack power, movement speed, weight characteristics, etc.—are just as important in defining the personality of the character as anything else.
"Having characters in the game may be enough to the user," said Sakurai. "But the truth is, a character's presence alone isn't enough to guarantee a proper interpretation of the character in the game." He continued, "The fact is, on the development side of things, there is a real need to embody the essence of a character using a completely different set of standards. Both appearance and movement are important, but the real factor in all of this is the numbers we input as parameters."
To make sure Sakurai got these very important numbers right, he had to change things on a daily basis, tweaking and changing to balance things out and keep each character feeling like they should. "Getting there involves a terrible amount of unglamorous, plain work," he said, addressing developers. "But hitting the mark here may well be the most important thing you do for your game."
Sakurai said that it was very important to understand the differences among characters. It's one thing to design a character based off previous games, but without knowing why the characters act the way they do, you can't capture their feel correctly. To demonstrate this, Sakurai compared the jumps of Mario and Samus, point out that the reason Samus had a floaty, consistent jump speed was because being able to shoot accurately at different heights above the ground was crucial to Metroid's gameplay. Preserving this element was important to so that Samus would play like she did in the Metroid games.
In the same vain, believing Sonic is just "a really fast character" would be incorrect. In studying Sonic's movement in the original Sega Genesis games, Sakurai saw that he is, in fact, a slow and heavy character when he's moving around at normal speeds. The big difference between slow and fast is what gave Sonic the appearance of super-fast speed once he got going. And since Sonic never really punched or kicked enemies in his games, Sakurai gave him a basic punch, punch, kick combo—the same basic combo used in Sega's Virtua Fighter series.
In the video demonstration Sakurai used to point out these things, he used an interesting technique while controlling Snake. As he was falling off the ledge to his doom, Sakurai pulled out a remote charge and exploded it immediately. The resulting blast threw Snake back onto the stage's platform. The crowd oohed and aahed at the feat. (Sakurai used a GameCube controller to play the game, in case you were wondering.) He also briefly messed around with the screenshot tool, taking a snapshot of the backside of Snake with Pit in a headlock. Said Sakurai, "Hey look, Snake with wings!"
As Sakurai wrapped up his presentation, he talked about the developers' role in the marketing of the game. He talked about the Super Smash Bros. Dojo developer blog, and how it was important for a game, even of the scope and prominence of Brawl, to have a pre-release source of game information. There was a Dojo blog for the previous two games in the series, but Brawl was different because it was in six different languages, since they were "speaking to the entire world" about the game.
Updating the site with screenshots, announcements, and other things was a lot of fun for Sakurai and his blog team, but they had to go through a lot of trouble to ensure it was updated daily. "When we were at our busiest times [with the game]," he said, "we also had to step into the harsh realms of 'Dojo update hell'." The week Brawl was released in Japan, the Dojo logged 7.6 million hits.
Sakurai believes the blog was necessary for Brawl because the marketing people for a game can only do so much to promote it with all the different entertainment options available. And even with a game this big, there will still be a lot of people out there that don't know what the game is all about, so it's there to inform them about the game before it comes out. There was a lot of hard work put into to the blog to make it work well, but Sakurai said the hard work will pay off in full.
As Sakurai ended his talk, the crowd gave him a big round of applause. In the rush to get Sakurai off-stage, we overheard him being asked a question about the possibility of downloadable content for Brawl in the future. As we heard it, although Sakurai would have liked to do it, it was not possible due to the lack of hard drive on the Wii.