What’s up designers, and welcome back to Rempton Games. In today’s game designer spotlight we will be looking at the career and design philosophy of one of my favorite designers – Masahiro Sakurai. Best known as the creator of the Kirby and Super Smash Bros series, Sakurai has a very unique perspective on game design that has served him well over his 3 decades of game development. Without further ado, lets get started! 

Before we dig into Sakurai’s game design philosophy and everything we can learn from it, let’s take a brief look at his illustrious career as a game designer and director. Sakurai was born on August 3, 1970 in Tokyo Japan, and was interested in games from a very young age. By the time Sakurai was in High School, he had already decided to pursue game development as a career. For two years, he worked part-time, and would spend all of his spare time and money buying and playing games. Even from this early age, Sakurai was a true student of game design. He not only played a prodigious amount of games, but intentionally sought out games that he personally didn’t find fun or interesting, because he believed that he could learn the most about game design by learning from other people’s mistakes. 

His hard work paid off when, at only 19, Sakurai was hired by HAL Laboratory, and soon began work on his first title – Kirby’s Dream Land, which was released on the Gameboy in 1992. THis introduced the character of Kirby, and started the franchise which continues to this day. This was followed by Kirby’s Adventure for the NES in 1993, and Kirby Super Star for the Super NES in 1996.

After making 3 Kirby games in a row, Sakurai decided to try something different. He had an idea for a new type of fighting game – a four-player battle royale title that he called “Dragon King: The Fighting Game”. Over the next few years he developed this game almost entirely on his own, with then-president of HAL laboratory, Satoru Iwata, helping as a programmer part-time. While he liked the mechanics of this fighting game, Sakurai realized that most fighting games had a hard time quickly expressing their world and characters, and knew he needed to come up with a way for his game to instantly stand-out – which is why he came up with the idea of using well-known Nintendo characters instead of an original cast of fighters. He knew that his idea probably wouldn’t get approval if he asked permission, so he didn’t ask permission until he already had a working prototype with a handful of characters. The idea was approved, and Super Smash Bros. was released for the Nintendo 64 in 1999.

The original Smash Bros was followed by the final game in the series, Super Smash Bros. Melee, in 2001, and Sakurai worked on a handful more Kirby games over the next few years. However, by 2003 Sakurai was tiring of HAL Laboratory’s preoccupation with making constant sequels, and wanted to try something new, so he left HAL labs and worked with Q Entertainment to make the puzzle game Meteos, released in 2005. 

Following Meteos’s release, Sakurai formed his own Company – Sora Ltd, and was trying to figure out what to work on next when, at E3 2005, Satoru Iwata made the surprise announcement that a new game in the Super Smash Bros series would be coming to the Wii. This blindsided Sakurai, who had not been consulted about the decision, but Iwata was able to convince him by explaining that, if Sakurai wouldn’t make a new game for the Wii, they would simply have to re-release Melee on the Wii and try to add Wifi compatibility.

As Iwata explains in his “Iwata Asks” interview on Super Smash Bros Brawl: “It wasn’t right, but you might even say I used it as a threat of sorts”

In that same interview, Sakurai went on to express his enthusiasm at being given the opportunity to work on another game in the Smash Bros. series – “I decided to accept the project. Or, accepted that I had no choice but to take it. We didn’t have any staff as I was working freelance. I don’t think you could have made things harder for ourselves if you tried.”

Development was reportedly very difficult, but because this was the last Smash Bros. Game he would ever make, Sakurai decided to go all out. Smash Bros Brawl for the Wii was released in 2008, and was a massive hit, far outselling the previous entries in the series.

Following Brawl, Sakurai was asked by Iwata to make something original for the upcoming Nintendo 3Ds hardware. He took this opportunity to revive a long dead Nintendo franchise, and to develop a game unlike anything he had ever made before, and the result was Kid Icarus: Uprising. 

Following Uprising’s release, Sakurai decided to make one last Super Smash Bros game – well, actually two – Super Smash Bros for Wii U and 3D, which were released 2014. Having finally made these last games in the series, Sakurai was able to put the Super Smash Bros. series behind him and work on something completely new – Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which is actually, definitely, positively, maybe the last game in the series.

After releasing Smash Ultimate, Sakurai continued working on DLC for the game over the next few years. Now that all the DLC has been released, Sakurai has moved on to a new Project – a youtube channel, which you should probably be watching instead of this video. Don’t worry, I won’t be offended.

Huh, you decided to stick around. Well, I guess that means I should probably take a look at how Sakurai approaches game design. The first thing to say about Sakurai as a designer is that he absolutely loves video games. Remember earlier when I mentioned how, in high school, he would spend all his time and money playing and studying games? Well, it turns out that he basically never stopped doing that. Sakurai himself has stated that his apartment is full of literally thousands of games, and he is well known for being very skillful at a wide range of different games. In the same way that a great author needs to read lots of books, or a great film directory needs to watch lots of movies, Sakurai believes that the best way to learn about how to make games is to play as many games as possible, from a wide range of styles. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Sakurai’s most well known series is basically a repository and love letter to the history of video games as a medium.

However, despite his skill and experience as a gamer, one hallmark of Sakurai’s games is being very beginner friendly. This has been a guiding principle from the very beginning – the Kirby games are very beginner friendly and easy to introduce to new players – and it extends to pretty much everything he’s made. However, although his games are beginner friendly this doesn’t mean that he ignores skilled gamers in his designs. One of the most impressive things about the Super Smash Bros series, for example, is that it remains beginer friendly while still having an incredibly high skill ceiling and a thriving competitive community.

Part of how he accomplished this is through an emphasis on player choice. Sakurai strongly believes that every player should be able to decide how they want to play the game, and this philosophy affects every aspect of Super Smash Bros. Not only can players choose from a massive roster of characters that fit pretty much every imaginable playstyle, but the various different battle modes, stage options, difficulty settings in Single Player mode, and even music options lead to a very customizable experience for players. This emphasis on choice helps new players get into the game, because certain modes in the game are more “casual” than others. While a new player will probably never beat a more experienced player on Battlefield with no items, they have a much better chance of pulling off the upset on Pokemon Stadium with all items on.

Letting players decide how they want to play is just one part of Sakurai’s incredibly player-focused mentality. In this “Game Designer Spotlight” series, designers often say something along the lines of “I design the games I want to play, and if I find it fun other players will probably also find it fun”. While this approach has its merits, Sakurai sees things from a different angle. 

Sakurai: “Gaming for me is not about making games that I want to play…Ultimately, gaming should be about the customers, and I couldn’t figure out why there were so few games made with the customers in mind…”

Another common aspect of Sakurai’s games is what he calls “Disassembly and reassembly”. Basically, Sakurai tends not to make games that fit the traditional mold of a genre. Instead, he tries to find the kernel of fun at the core of the genre (this is the “disassembly”), and then build something new around that core (“reassembly”). 

For example, Sakurai wasn’t a fan of how fighting games forced players to memorize specific, difficult to input combos in order to be successful. Instead, he wanted to design a fighting game that was more “ad lib”, and put a greater emphasis on improvisation and reading your opponent. This is what inspired the “cumulative damage” mechanic of the Super Smash Bros, and the fact that the series does not include any hard-coded combos (besides as a gimmick for a handful of specific characters).

Because Sakurai doesn’t like being bound by the conventions of gaming genres, his games often have control schemes that don’t follow the standard layout. For example, the racing game Kirby’s Air Ride doesn’t have an accelerator button, and the button that normally would be the accelerator is actually the brake! While it isn’t his intention, these unusual control schemes can sometimes make his games less approachable for more experienced players who are familiar with the genre. However, he always tries to design his controls to best fit the specifics of the game he is making, and believes that players will be able to get used to them after they get over the initial weirdness.

Another common theme in Sakurai’s games is the correlation between risk and reward. Sakurai believes that part of the fun of games is taking risks, and he believes that big risks should come with bigger rewards – but also the chance of bigger failure. While risk and reward are part of lots of games, Sakurai sees it as one of the fundamental aspects of game design, and bakes it into nearly every aspect of his games. One great example is the “Fiend’s Cauldron” Mechanic in Kid Icarus: Uprising. In this system you can pay “hearts” – a form of in-game currency – to increase the difficulty of the game. When playing on higher difficulty you are rewarded with better weapons and loot drops, but if you fail on this higher difficulty you lose the hearts and the difficulty goes back down. This is a very elegant system, and similar difficulty systems have also been used in the more recent Smash games.

Besides his love of games and his philosophy towards game design, there are two other things that make Sakurai one of the all-time great game designers – his incredible attention to detail, and his work ethic. Even before he begins working on a game, Sakurai is able to envision the game down to the smallest detail, and is constantly working to bring his vision to life. During an Iwata Asks interview he reveals that many of the final smash attacks used in Super Smash Bros Brawl used audio that was recorded during development of the original Super Smash Bros – even though the feature wouldn’t actually be implemented until 9 years later. Even that early on he had a vision of exactly what he wanted to do, and kept working towards that vision until the hardware was finally advanced enough to bring it to reality.

However, while we can all learn a lot about game development from Masahiro Sakurai, one aspect of his career that should not be emulated is his work ethic. Long working hours is an unfortunate reality of the game development industry, and Sakurai has been known to take this to an extreme – working 7 day work weeks, giving up his entire social life, and even putting his health at risk by simply taking on too much responsibility for any single person. As a designer, Sakurai has taught me a lot, but if there were one thing I could teach him in return it would be the ever important art of delegation.

That’s all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this video, make sure to subscribe to “Masahiro Sakurai on Creating Games”…oh, and also this channel too, I guess. And join me next time for another installment of my “TCG Design Academy” series. Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you next time.

Posted by:Caleb Compton

I am the Head Designer of Rempton Games, and primary writer for the Rempton games blog. I am currently a graduate student in computer science at Kansas State University, and work on game designs every spare moment that I can.

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