"Anyone who makes 3D games who says they've not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda is lying," Dan Houser, the head writer at and co-founder of Rockstar Games, told me while Grand Theft Auto V was in development. Given the shadow cast by Nintendo, you could surely say something similar for anyone who makes any video games at all, whether 2D platformers, or handheld games, or motion controls for virtual reality. Yet the Kyoto company, by far the most influential in the history of the medium, was written off by many only a few years ago, when players failed to buy the Wii U console in large numbers and stock analysts begged Nintendo to start porting its games to Xboxes and PlayStations.
With the success of the Switch, Nintendo is back – and, coincidence or not, so is the rest of the Japanese games industry. If anything marks the year in games so far, it's the abundance of exceptional Japanese games, starting with Nintendo’s own The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
And Nintendo's Jordan Amaro worked on two of them. A game designer at Nintendo’s flagship studio in Kyoto (known as Entertainment Planning and Development, the division that makes Zelda and Mario, for starters), Amaro was one of the designers of 2017’s Splatoon 2. Before coming to Nintendo, he was a level designer for Capcom’s Resident Evil 7, also released in 2017. Amaro, who is originally from Paris, trained at Ubisoft, Crytek, and 2K before becoming the only non-Asian designer on Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
During a two-hour conversation on Skype from his Kyoto apartment, Amaro talked about being one of only two Western developers inside Nintendo’s headquarters, how Japanese developers approach video games differently from Western designers, and why Splatoon 2 doesn’t always give its players what they think they want.
I think what every video game player wants to know is, “How do I get a job at Nintendo?”
The thing to keep in mind is that, while I’m technically a foreigner, I’ve spent more time making games in Japan than in the West. I’m into my fifth year now in Japan. And I spent three years making games in the West. So as a designer, I’m a lot more Japanese than foreigner.
People who want to try it: Start with the language. Although when I started, I barely spoke Japanese. It was a different time. Hideo Kojima is the type of guy who likes taking chances on people.
Do you know why he decided to take a chance on you?
At the time, they wanted a foreign designer on shooters to come and make Metal Gear Solid V user-friendly to foreign audiences. The thinking was probably, “OK, this guy has some experience. He wants to work in Japan. Let’s just try it.”
There was an American designer on MGS 4, Sean Eyestone. He worked as a programmer and level designer. In any case, it’s very rare. There is a handful of game designers who are foreigners throughout Japan. You could count them on both hands, and you probably wouldn’t reach 10.
On Twitter, you said that you and Corey Bunnell, an American who is credited with “wildlife programming” on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, are the only two Western game developers at Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto.
Yes, of the people who actually develop games. A while ago, there used to be foreigners like Giles Goddard, the founder of Vitei, and Dylan Cuthbert, the founder of Q-Games.
Before going to work for Kojima, you wanted to work in Japan, but you didn’t speak Japanese?
Very little. I could ask basic questions, very rudimentary. The first few months at Kojima Productions were pretty rocky. I had good support from translators and people around me, who explained a lot. Also, Japanese people are very patient. They understand that you’re swimming in deep waters.
During the first few months, I was making a completely different game. I studied at Ubisoft—Ubisoft used to have a school. I studied there, went to 2K, went to Crytek. I was taught Western game design, especially a Ubisoft way of thinking. And you get to Japan and it’s, “No, that’s not what we’re doing. At all.”
The thing I want to stress is that, because games are this universal object that anyone can play, when you make games what nationality you are doesn’t really matter. Still, there’s definitely a sensibility and an aesthetics that are very Japanese.
Tell me more about that. How does the Japanese approach to game design differ from the Western approach?
There are several Japanese approaches. Every company has its own culture. It seems to me, when I look at the way game design was done at Kojima Productions, the way it’s done at Capcom and Nintendo, the way I feel it’s being done at Platinum Games or From Software, I feel there’s a lot more importance and focus given to game mechanics over world, setting, story, message, all that stuff.
I’m stereotyping, but in the West, scope, visuals, and features are the main attraction. For example, when we used to have Kojima Productions L.A.—we had an office in Los Angeles—we would get proposals for new games, pitches. It always started with: “This is the world you’re in. This is the experience I’m going to give you.” And gameplay was relegated to page 5 or 6 or 10. It was always about who you’re playing, who is the character, what’s going on, but not the “how,” how am I playing this?
In Japan, a pitch is a page, maybe two. The first page you write what the game is about and how you play it. And the second page, maybe you need an illustration. We don’t care about who, or what the story is, what the game world is, all of this doesn’t really matter.
After Metal Gear Solid V, you worked as a level designer on Resident Evil 7. There are people who thought Resident Evil 7 was influenced by P.T., the “playable teaser” for the cancelled Silent Hills. Is that fair?
I don’t think so. It was in development well before P.T. I wasn’t part of the core team of P.T. I was there almost every night, but just as support, at the team’s discretion. P.T. was Hideo, Guillermo del Toro, and then it was eight guys. Silent Hills would have been quite different from Resident Evil 7 anyway.
What explains the renaissance in Japanese games that we’ve seen in 2017? This year alone has seen Persona 5, Nier: Automata, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Resident Evil 7, Yakuza 0, and all the games on the Nintendo Switch.
Years ago, after Keiji Inafune said “Japan is over; we’re done; our games industry is finished,” I knew it wasn’t true. I think between 2016 and 2017, there’s been like 20 amazing games, at least a dozen. I wasn’t there 10 or 15 years ago, so I don’t know why it went downward to begin with. I started in Japan when we started to go uphill.
I would agree that Western technology is very impressive. You look at the Unreal Engine, you look at Naughty Dog games, you look at DICE’s Frostbite engine, and Unity. But technology is only a support component for design. Sometimes technology can create new mechanics and new avenues for game design. But if you don’t nail your game design, whatever your tech is, you have a bad game. You know that there are countless very beautiful, very boring games out there.
You play Western games, and it’s very beautiful, it’s technically impressive, the scope is massive, yes. Is the controller response that good? I don’t think so. Is the expression of the game related to your inputs and actions? Is it elegant and simple and natural? I don’t think so either. I’m not really impressed, to be honest. That being said, of course there are amazing Western games, every once in awhile--several amazing Western games every year. There are games like Inside and Journey and Portal and The Witness. You’ve got to throw in The Last of Us, but if I want to be mean, I’d say it’s a reskin of Uncharted with an invisible buddy A.I. The game is amazing anyway. My friends at Naughty Dog will beat me up at the next Game Developers Conference now.
Are there any Western games you would point to as being similar to the Japanese approach to game design?
Portal, definitely. They made a game that’s mechanically impeccable. Western developers are very strong in strategy games, mobile games. Sid Meier has made impeccable games, complex but very impressive. The first Gears of War was something. Off the top of my head, those are the ones that come out.
There are people who think that Japanese game designers have begun adapting certain elements of Western game design, especially in open-world games like Metal Gear Solid V and Breath of the Wild.
I don’t think so. From the design meetings that I have at work, that’s not what I’m getting. I think, in three years on MGSV, I heard a Western game mentioned maybe once. That was on Ground Zeroes, and the discussion was about the circular enemy cone--when you get seen, how do you express that you’ve been seen by someone who is not displayed on the screen? If an enemy is watching you from the side and behind, how do we communicate this? At the time, Far Cry got mentioned.
When a design discussion takes place, you usually don’t refer to other developers’ games. You talk about your game, and in very specific contexts and situations. In Japan, the pride about the craft is very high. You almost never hear another game being mentioned, whether it is a Japanese game or a Western game, during any design discussions. That’s contrary to the West. When I was in the West, I heard about other games on a weekly or daily basis.
Within Japan, how is Nintendo distinct in its approach to game development?
I haven’t been here for long, but the sense I get is that what really matters the most is the form: what I can do as an agent, meaning somebody who acts and produces an effect in the context of a game, and understanding how the game reacts, and how all this can be interesting. There’s a focus on that.
Other companies will, from the start, be thinking about: How will people perceive this? What are the aesthetics of the game? What’s the world, who is the character, is there a story, what is that story? How do we make that into a product?
I think Nintendo is really just focused on the toy and what’s new about it. We see, here, games as an object. It could be a table. It could be houseware. It could be a pot. It could be a bell. Really, as an object, what is this thing?
Shigeru Miyamoto has described himself as an industrial designer and a creator of products rather than an artist.
Absolutely right. Anyone is free to make whatever games they want. Anyone is free to express whatever they want in games. But I really believe that’s the closest you can be to the unique nature of games. Music is sound. Literature and poetry are words. Architecture is mass. Sculpture is, I guess, volume. Painting is color and form, I don’t know. What are games? We have to try to understand what the unique nature of games is, what the strengths are, what the weaknesses are, and not be confusing or mixing the form with other forms, especially with movies, which might be the language of editing and camera placement.
Movies are the most popular form of entertainment. But they have almost nothing in common with games. If anything, the closest to games is the stage: plays, ballet, circus, dance, the Japanese kabuki. There’s a stage, and performers move in space and produce actions and reactions. The “camera,” so to speak, is fixed. We really have to start distinguishing the subject of a game from the nature of games. When Miyamoto said that, he was right on the money.
Yet you’ve called Journey and Dear Esther “masterpieces.” The way you talk about games, you would think you wouldn’t like that kind of game.
I wouldn’t be interested in developing that kind of game, that’s true. But as a player, I love it. They are simple to play. Anybody can finish them, which is something I really care about. The button mapping is not complex. The same for Heavy Rain. I know people who had never played a game, any game, before Heavy Rain, and they completed Heavy Rain. As a developer, I’m the opposite, sort of. I like game mechanics. I like inputs. I like solving problems. I like elegance. As a player, anytime. Keep making those games. I will be playing them.
Would you like to see more collaboration between Western developers and Japanese developers?
I don’t see why I would say no. But I’m not thrilled if I say yes.
Look what happened 10 years ago when Capcom tried to make games with the West. It didn’t work out so well. And now they seem to be doing everything here, in Osaka.
Then again, Nintendo worked with Ubisoft Milan, and we got Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, which is getting amazing reviews. Nintendo has been working really well with Western developers. So I guess I could say yes. But I’ve seen so many cases that went poorly.
Look at what happened between Microsoft and Platinum Games. You have Platinum Games, one of the best developers ever, under Hideki Kamiya, one of the top game designers that we’ve ever seen. The man cannot make a bad game. He wouldn’t know how. And it still didn’t work out. Kamiya-san is in my top five, definitely. And I think that my top five is all Japanese.
Who are they?
Without ranking them: Shigeru Miyamoto, Yoshiaki Koizuimi, Eiji Aonuma, Hideo Kojima, Shinji Mikami, Hideki Kamiya. That's six. Then I would have to go outside of Japan.
And then there are a ton of people you’ve never heard of who are just as sharp about the craft who are going to emerge in the coming years. Including at Konami. Don’t discount them. Don’t write them off. They’ve got some really good people there.
You once said that when you went to work for Kojima at Konami, you possessed “westerner’s knowledge” that was a hindrance rather than a help.
“Hindrance” is probably not the word. It is a hindrance if you persist in that way of thinking while the team is going in a different direction.
It’s not just language. It’s a way to perceive games, and the user. I see it on Splatoon right now. You look at Splatoon, and then people look at Overwatch. These are two totally different games. Overwatch is a self-service game. You boot the game and say, “Hey, I like this mode. I like this character. And I’m only ever going to play this mode, this character, and this map.” You’re like, “I’m going to get what I want.”
But in Japan, everything is tailored. You’ve probably heard Sheena Iyengar’s TED talk, in which she went to a restaurant in Japan and tried to order sugar in her green tea. The people at the cafe said, “One does not put sugar in green tea,” and then, “We don’t have sugar.” But when she ordered coffee instead, it did come with sugar! In Japan, there’s a sense of, “We’re making this thing for you, and this is how we think this thing is better enjoyed.” This is why, in Splatoon, the maps rotate every couple of hours. And the modes change. “I bought this game. Why can’t I just enjoy this game the way I want?” That’s not how we think here. Yes, you did buy the game. But we made this game. And we’re pretty confident about how this game should be enjoyed. If you stick with us, and if you get past your initial resistance, you’re going to have the time of your life with this game. You’re really going to love it.
You think you know what we want better than we know what we want?
We think we know what you don’t know you want.
You think you know what you want. But we know what you will want once you understand it. There has to be some effort from the player to play ball with the developer, just like in a restaurant where there is a course menu. You enter the restaurant, and this is the course today. It’s displayed outside the restaurant. When you enter the restaurant, you know what you’re going to eat. Once you’re inside, if you want to eat something different, that’s not how it works.
With Splatoon 2, there definitely are people who want to know why they can’t play the Salmon Run mode all the time.
I’m not allowed to speak on it, because I’m not the game director. What I can say, and what I think can be said, is that there are lots of reasons. You have to trust us that if you could play Salmon Run online anytime, that would result in a worse experience for you and everybody.
You’ve suggested that Western devs playtest too much. Why?
It’s the designer’s job to make playtests as unnecessary as possible. It’s a cheeky statement, but it’s true. When you hear what Ubisoft, Naughty Dog, Valve, all those guys are doing--they track your eyes, they do it for months with hundreds of players--that’s a waste of money. If you feel that you need that much playtesting, and if playtesting results in significant fixes to your game, something went wrong before the playtests.
Much of what makes Breath of the Wild great is how it is informed by all these aspects of Japanese design that you’ve talked about in this conversation. In that game you aren’t told, like you would be in a Ubisoft game, where all the quests and collectibles are on the map. There’s no checklist for players who want to, say, collect all the korok seeds.
I shouldn’t say anything about Zelda, out of courtesy and respect for the team. I didn’t make it.
An American developer talked to me about the culture of apprenticeship in Japan, where you study for years under the masters before taking over yourself.
I think it’s a Western idea to think that being young and fresh to something means that you’re going to think new and differently. It’s the contrary. The younger people are usually the ones who are going head-on to what is already trending, what is the most pleasing, what is the most familiar. They haven’t lived enough yet.
I’m fortunate to have all these people around me who made all these great games. Many of them are in their late 40s and 50s. The kind of precision that you get when you talk to them about game design is something you could never get from a 20- or even 30-year-old guy. They’ve been taught by the best, and now they are the best. I’ve got so much to learn.
Chris Suellentrop is a host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game? This interview has been edited and condensed.