GDC 2011: Swinging Across Oceans: Donkey Kong Country Returns

Retro Studios (Austin, TX)

-          Started back in 2004 when Tanaka visited Retro Studios to talk about localization
o   Michael (CEO, I think?), who has been involved with DK Country when he worked at NoA told Tanaka he’d like to work on a DK game
o   At the time it wouldn’t make sense for them as a studio
-          4 years later in 2008 - Meeting between Tanaka and Miyamoto
o   Miyamoto mentioned making DK and asked if Tanaka knew of a studio
o   At that time, Retro had been doing a bunch of experiments so they wouldn’t be able to make Donkey Kong
o   But coincidentally, a bunch of key members of the studio left. This allowed for them to do DK Retuns (silver lining to people leaving J)
-          Overall, it was a HUGE change for them as a studio
o   They had been doing Metroid for 10 years prior
o   Art lead used to completely different style (art wise)
§  Had all artists do experiments and go in different directions
§  Had them all try different things, see what was working
§  “Fun” and “whimsical” were the primary drivers
§  There was a lot of “Man, that looks like it belongs in Metroid,” the team really had to work together
o   3D first person to 2D sidescroller also a big shift for how textures were made: texture size was relative to screen, as opposed to something you could approach in game
o   Didn’t have camera system that was equipped to do 3rd person camera
o   Had to problem solve handling characters passing through each other, needed a system for making them sort correctly
-          At start, had intensive  meetings with Miyamoto
o   Animation totally critical for him (big change in style for them!)
§  More art changes
·         Tools & rigging system not appropriate
·         Did a lot of R&D for rigging – stretchy IK, broken hierarchies, experiment with style
o   Certain features were dear to Miyamoto
§  Example: ground pound – they spoke for hours on this feature
·         For first pass at it, made motion 1 to 1 with controller movement
·         Miyamoto thought it felt off. Suggested off-setting it (ba-boom, ba-boom), making it rhythmic made it FUN
§  Blow mechanic
·         Came from Miyamoto watching the change in direction animation (for like, 10 min straight)
·         Thought it looked like blowing: “it might be fun to make DK blow on things”
·         When they took this idea to the team, “the lights didn’t initially come on”
-          First thing to do when approaching a franchise which has been done before become engrossed in all of the other games in the franchise
o   They played a TON of DK games
o   Got inspiration from lots of other side-scrolling games
-          Major shifts in thought process
o   Didn’t need to over think this game
o   It’s simple: make it fun. Really it’s just a game about an ape with a tie who is trying to get his bananas back
§  Animation lead: We wanted moving around to be FUN.
§  Just traversal = fun
-          Multiplayer
o   Tanaka’s priority
§  In the original DKC – you tagged out with a friend. Wanted to see simultaneous multiplayer
o   But Miyamoto said to focus on a single multiplayer
o   This caused some headaches for the team. J
§  Tripled number of player animations (# was in the thousands)
§  Now had to figure out a better camera system (2 target camera) completely different challenge
§  Had to model more, since the camera could pull out farther than single player
§  Level designs had to permit characters getting stranded
o   A goal was to have a very experienced player able to play with someone inexperienced and have fun!
-          Challenges in working with Nintendo
o   Distance, time delay
o   Had to overcome with communication
o   Constant video conferences, tons of visiting, lots of bilingual staff for translating docs
§  Needed people who could clear up cultural confusion (in addition to language confusion)
o   An ounce of prototype is worth a pound of documents
§  Particularly since the documents had to be translated – this created a lot of time gaps
§  Rapid fire prototyping made it work
o   During meetings with Nintendo typed and sent real time notes to the team
§  Were often able to get a build with changes in it back before the meeting was over (could see changes in action)
§  This was vital in a game that is ABOUT small details
-          Tidal wave level
o   There were open spots in the level where the waves would move from the background to the foreground. You had to hide DK behind things to keep him safe
o   2-3 months before lot check, Tanaka didn’t like it – tech artist himself was called into the meeting for direct feedback
o   In general, had to try to make all functionality flexible because it was a game where details mattered so much
-          Incredibly high standard of quality
-          Debugging feature
o   QA could easily take in-game video captures and send them to the engineers
-          Importance of E3 demo
o   E3 was highly motivating for the team
o   There was a high bump in productivity because of the public reaction
o   Had 4 levels complete for E3 – 70 more to finish!
o   Took away great data points from watching people play at E3
o   After E3 focused intensity on polish
-          Miyamoto “I’m looking forward to playing this product with my family and enjoying it” (high pressure J )

Q & A
-          Eastern vs. Western development styles?
o   Nintendo doesn’t focus on GDDs or spec sheets
o   Idea is that they find a core idea and make a prototype and iterate over and over until it feels right
§  Once it feels fun and appeals to a wide range, that’s when they hit the ground running (they don’t go into production proper until then)
o   At the start, retro didn’t do this – would send HUGE spec docs to Nintendo
o   Next Level Games in Vancouver & Monster Games in Minneapolis – these companies have come to understand Nintendo’s design philosophy & come on board with it
-          Some devs (including Retro studios) tend to think side scrolling action games are easy – this was a real shock
o   Miyamoto’s quest for perfection was a rude awakening
o   Much, much more content for artists in this game than Metroid
o   The point was to have fun in just one screen – so shot composition had to be good in every screen
o   Had to add big moments to each level to give them their own feel
§  Needed to give players specific things to talk about
o   3 days before lot check – Nintendo asked for a fundamental change in the way that platforms moved (fundamental part of whole game)
-          Change in difficultly not straight ramp, more like waves: up and plateau a little, then more up. Let you relax for a second before making it harder
-          Idea of ‘speed runs’ came from youtube – people did that with old DKC

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