Gunpei Yokoi

Gunpei Yokoi (1941-1997) has been described as a legendary design of videogames who played a monumental role in ensuring the success of Nintendo in developing video games. Yokoi designed numerous hardware for Nintendo such as the Virtual Boy, the Game Boy, and Game and Watch, and various videogame series like Kid Icarus and Metroid. Yokoi also invented the control pad having a plus-shaped design, which has been adopted in almost all videogame controllers. In addition, he produced some critically acclaimed and long-running videogame franchises. Yokoi is also famed for mentoring the creator of Mario series. Essentially, his influence in the world of videogame design, both hardware and software, cannot be underestimated. The purpose of this paper is to profile Yokoi and examine his game design techniques.

 
 

Profile

Yokoi was among the earliest designers of videogames at Nintendo and played a key role in transforming the company from just producing playing cards and toys into a multinational gaming corporation. He designed the best-selling products for Nintendo during the 1980s and 1990s such as the Nintendo Entertainment Systemamong other handheld systems. Born in the course of the Second World War, Yokoi was brought up in Kyoto and went ahead to graduate with a degree in electronics from the Doshisha University. The Nintendo Playing Card Company employed him in 1965. His role was maintaining the manufacturing equipment used for the production of the hanafuda playing cards. As of the mid-1960s when the market for playing cards was dropping significantly, Nintendo was searching for novel revenue sources. After experimenting with diverse products, the company settled on developing toys for children. The president of the company at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi, tasked Yokoi with designing a great product for the Games division. Yokoi went ahead and designed Ultra Hand, which was an instant success with about 1.2 million units being sold. Yokoi was then transferred from the assembly line and placed under research and development. With this new position at the company, he went ahead and designed numerous high grossing toy products for Nintendo such as the Beam Gun that came with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) during the mid 1980s. In order to develop this toy, Yokoi worked together with Mayasuki Uemoura of the Sharp Corporation to develop solar cells. They created a plastic light that discharged light beam using solar cells function as targets.

During the mid-1970s, Nintendo made a decision to enter into the lucrative market for videogames. The president of the company established three departments in competition with each other. Yokoi was the head of the first research and development, which was tasked with creating handheld gaming devices. Yokoi was inspired by witnessing a passenger on a train passing time through pressing keys on calculator having a liquid crystal display. This experience led to Yokois realization that the LCD technology could be utilized to develop portable games. As a result, during the 1980-1991 period, Yokoi designed and created 60 games titles for a game series referred to as Game & Watch, which derived its name because it incorporate gaming with a digital clock. This device was sufficiently small to be held by a child. Each device came with one game. In order to lessen amount of energy used when playing and address memory limitations of humans, the LCD screen has a particular scene. Moreover, Yokoi designed the cross-shaped (plus-shaped) directional button in order to ensure that the small surface remained orderly. This design would form the basis of nearly all video-game controllers.

The Game & Watch was characterized by a basic interface, good battery life, and the use of affordable components all of these represented the game design principles espoused by Yokoi, which he would later refer to as the lateral thinking of withered technology this is discussed in detail in the following section. Instead of focusing on developing new technologies, Yokoi was of the view that Nintendo would differentiate itself through levering existing hardware in a creative and entertaining manner. During the early years of the 1980s, Nintendo was getting reading to release its maiden gaming console, the NES, and was in need of a marketing tactic to steer the product in an already overcrowded market. Yokoi developed a solution that was deemed strange albeit turned out to be effective. He designed the Robotic Operating Buddy (ROB), which was incorporated to the NES. The ROB was a controller although its use was limited to two games. The ROB was instrumental in making the NES a marketing success. Additionally, the popularity and success of some of the games developed by Nintendo such as Metroid, Super Mario Brothers, and Donkey Kong can be attributed to Yokoi. The Game Boy is his well-known invention, which integrated both the monochrome LCD display and portability. The Game Boy also incorporated an 8-bit processor and a cartridge system. In 1989 release of the NES, Yokoi elected not to design the game using the full-color 16-bit technology as was by competing handhelds such as Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx; instead, he maintained that consumers preferred cheaper portable handheld game devices that had a longer battery life. His assumption was proved true as Nintendo managed to sell at least 100 million units of Game Boys. Other games designed and developed by Yokoi were best-selling.

Yokois career in game design was not entire successful. His failure was documented during the last years working for Nintendo when developing the Virtual Boy during the early 1990s. This console necessitated gamers to wear goggles and the watch light-emitting diode (LED) screen that would sometimes induce headaches. The Virtual Boy console was criticized for energy inefficiency, being too fragile, and overly costly; as a result, Nintendo halted its production one year following its release in 1995. This was followed by Yokoi resigning from Nintendo in 1996, and establishing his own videogame company known as Koto, which developed the Wonderswan a handheld videogame targeting the Japanese market.

Following his death in 1997, Yokoi has been acknowledged posthumously for his contributions in videogame design including the 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award issued by the Game Developers Conference. Moreover, his philosophy for game design has continued to influence the consoles developed by Nintendo. For instance, the Nintendo DS (handheld) and the Wii (home gaming console) are designed based on their legacy technologies rather than improving the graphic capabilities and processing speeds to match their competitors.

Analysis of the Game Design Techniques Used by Yokoi

The overarching principle that influenced the game design techniques advocated for by Yokoi is the theory of lateral thinking of withered technology. In the context of game design, withered technology simply involves using a developed technology that is not only cheap but also well understood by people. Thus, withered technology needs little training for the user. Therefore, lateral thinking entails devising radical ways of utilizing withered technology. Lateral thinking is characterized by a creative thinking process that is not linear and devising multiple, innovation solutions for addressing problems. In this respect, Yokoi maintained that the development of games and toys should not be necessarily based on the use of cutting edge technology; instead, a lot of emphasis should be placed on ensuring fun gameplay. In addition, he maintained that costly cutting edge technology should not hinder the development of a novel product. Through the application of non-linear thinking in withered technology, Yokois theory posits that these mature tools cab be utilized innovatively and creatively in engaging users without the need to incur unwanted costs for developing products. Essentially, this theory underscores the originality of gameplay and the interaction between the system and the gamer rather than relying on high-end graphics and computer processing capabilities. The first speaker, Professor Jason MacIsaac of Sheridan College/UTM disagreed with Yokoi with regard to the significance of graphics in the design of videogames. According to Jason MacIsaac, graphics did not matter before 1985; however, after 1985, graphics started becoming an important aspect of videogame design. During the post 1985 era, videogame designers can use visuals to hide inferior gameplay. Jason MacIsaac states that graphics are better since they are the first and the most noticeable impression. Essentially, Jason MacIsaac disagrees with Yokoi by maintaining that graphics are a crucial part of the appeal of videogames and play a role in contributing to the functionality of the game.

Through the application of this principle in the design of games, the development of games becomes more cost effective when legacy and proven technologies are used instead of utilizing cutting edge technology. Yokoi further suggested that using advanced technologies might disrupt the design of innovative products due to extreme emphasis on the technology instead of its innovative use. He also stated that the time allotted for designing and developing games is lessened when lateral thinking is applied to mature technologies when compared to the use of cutting edge technologies. These legacy technologies have been established to be effective; hence cutting costs both for the developer and the user. Game design, just like any other business, is not immune to the devastating impacts of stagnating economic conditions. Hence, some commentators have advocated for the application of Yokois principle in game design and development. This requires game designers to take into consideration a number of factors in the design process, which include determining whether the technology they are using is mature, whether it is available widely, whether the public understands the technology well, and whether the technology is inexpensive.

The design and development of Game and Watch hinged on this principle. When Game & Watch was being developed, Casio and Sharp were in an aggressive competition in the market for digital calculators. As a result, there was surplus supply of semiconductors and LCDs. Therefore, the Game & Watch leveraged the use of an existing technology (LCDs) in a radical manner. The emphasis of the lateral thinking approach has the main objective of finding an innovative and entertaining use for abundant and cheap technology. The design of the NES and the Game Boy followed the same principle. In the market for handheld games Yokoi refused to adopt the color display when designing the Game Boy and instead favoring longer battery life, which is one of the reasons for the success of Nintendo against its competitors - Atari Lynx and Segas Game Gear.

The lateral thinking of withered technology is still an important principle that guides the game design techniques used at Nintendo. When Yokoi designed the Game & Watch, the LCD technology was abundant. Moreover, it was a well-understood technology at the time, and because there was a significant drop in the prices of all components, the integration of LCD into the final product was relatively cheap. While some game designers at Nintendo sought to use fancier technology in the development of Game and Watch, that technology would have lessened the battery life considerably and increased the product development costs. Yokoi maintained that affordability was more important and that the player was more concerned about the fun game play rather than some flashy technology. He further applied the same principles when designing and developing the Nintendo DS and the Wii, both of which have been successful in the market. These consoles are based on the same technology used in the preceding game system, the GameCube, and has no significant differences in terms of multimedia versatility and processing speed relative to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles, which are its competitors. In its place, the Wii console provided something entirely different through the introduction of motion-based controls to the videogame consoles market as a means of revolutionizing the manner in which people play videogames and also broaden the videogame audience. This approach is consistent with Yokois viewpoint that graphics is not the only way of making progress in the design and development of videogames. In fact, after the Wii performed overly well in the market, Microsoft and Sony also followed suit by developing motion control devices as a peripheral component for their gaming consoles. Nintendo places considerable emphasis on peripherals, especially for the Wii, which has been considered an exemplification of the lateral thinking philosophy (Sito, 2013). The Nintendo DS makes use of the ARM processors having low clock speeds coupled with less computational power when compared to the competing PSP developed by PSP although it has several modern features including touchscreen functionality and wireless connectivity. The following subsections discuss the specific game design techniques employed by Yokoi.

Simplicity

Besides the lateral thinking of withered technology principle, simplicity of games was also an important principle championed by Yokoi in videogame design. Sito (2013) illustrates that the appeal associated with the Game & Watch goes beyond just the long battery life and the design. Since the LCD design provided the developers of the game with an extremely limited amount of on-screen space to put their action-packed gaming experiences, the games were much focused. As Dillon pointed out, in the design of Game and Watch, there was little room for the designers to make errors; thus, if the mechanics of the game was not sufficiently simple or addictive, then the game would have been a failure. The Game & Watch titles could not hide behind glitzy full motion video (FMV) or intricate storylines. Instead, it was the mechanics of the game and the player, and the interactions between these two had to be simple enough to get the player engaged. Douglas Gregory, the fourth speaker, seems to agree with this view by pointing out that game designers are in a position to control the mechanical components of a game to influence the play dynamics as well as the aesthetic experience of gameplay.

The experiences provided by the Game & Watch might appear primitive based on the standards of today; however, simplicity was a key factor in ensuring the success of the game series. The key was to ensure that the games were playable. According to Sito, the simplicity principle helps to design games that are addictive. Wolf agrees by Yokois game design principle of simplicity by stating that people prefer engaging in activities that can be learnt with relative ease albeit challenging to master. The first title under the Game & Watch series Ball, which has been described as being simplistic. Ball was released on 1980 and was an eminently basic game characterized by a completely blank screen, unsophisticated gameplay, and crude game characters. Although the first title was an instant hit in the market, it seemed to resonate with consumers, and this was sufficient to convince Nintendo to develop further titles under the series. The next title that followed was characterized by using a dashing static color to make the game more vibrant, but was still simplistic like the preceding title. The concept of simplicity in game design is also lauded by Douglas Gregory, the fourth speaker, who emphasized that videogame designers have the role of indirectly designing the players experience through directly designing the rules in a way that they are simple yet challenging and engaging.

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Designing Competitive Games

Another important aspect that Yokoi advocated when designing games is the need to make sure that games are competitive. In an interview, Yokoi said that, although there are numerous videogame consoles in the market, the bulk of them are not actually games. For him, games have to be competitive, wherein players can either win or lose. As Yokoi observed, the majority of games provide players with an experience of a movie or a short story, which according to him, do not constitute a game. This is particularly the case with role-playing games, whereby the game aspect is bot given much emphasis. For Yokoi, role playing games provide gamers with an opportunity to experience the story that they have written rather than engaging in a competitive activity. Therefore, competition is an important consideration in the design of videogames.

Yokoi was of the view that games should mimic the competitive nature of the real world; thus, the design of videogames should be based on the principle of survival for fittest, which he described as the essence of game plays and games in general. Jeffrey Pidsadny, an architect, game designer, and professor, agrees with Yokoi in his presentation by stating that games should have goals and rules and be challenging to players. According to Jeffrey, it is when players overcome the challenge that they find the game fun and enjoyable, which compels them to continue playing. This can be achieved through level design, which is characterized by incorporating different degrees of difficulty in the game to challenge the player coupled with a suitable reward to motivate the player to continue playing. This is done by incorporating obstacles that hinder players actions and needs skill to successfully overcome.

Prioritizing Pure Gameplay

Besides championing for the designing competitive games, Yokoi also highlighted the importance of videogame designers designing games that are based on pure gameplay rather than pushing the issue of gameplay to the sidelines. He maintained that the design of games is all about gameplay; however, he also observed that the majority of the videogames in the market do not prioritize gameplay. This is evident by slack characters and placing a lot of emphasis on enhancing graphics and the processing speed and graphics of gaming consoles. The same can also be said for the developers of game titles, who are prioritizing the use of enhanced graphics while ignoring the experience that players gain from an improved gameplay. Jason MacIsaac, in his presentation, refutes the claim that graphics should not prioritized in game design and goes ahead to suggest that game designers can mask inferior gameplay using good graphics. Similar views are echoed by the fourth speaker, Douglas Gregory, who asserted that competitiveness is a key part of the game design, where players are put to challenge each other or challenge the system.

Ergonomics

In the design of gaming interface, ergonomics is another important consideration championed by Yokoi. In this regard, Yokoi faced a dilemma when choosing the best interface for his newly developed Game & Watch. He was of the view that using the traditional joystick would hamper the portability of the Game &Watch; thus, he started looking for solutions that would need less space. The majority of the early gaming devices had a number of button for controlling the fame, mostly for simple actions like jumping, moving left, or moving right. However, the design of Donkey Kong Jr in 1982 by Yokoi changed all that. Yokoi designed four buttons arranged in a plus shape, with the buttons corresponding to right, left, down, and up, which would evolve to become the directional pad (D-pad). Sito acknowledges that the portable games industry would not be in existent if the D-pad would not have been invented. The D-pad is considered a necessary invention that made it possible to play videogames in portable devices. The D-pad eliminates the need to have a joystick and requires less physical space and required less manual effort for controlling games.

Too Much Graphical Realism Hinders the Players Imagination

Graphical realism is also another important aspect that Yokoi addressed with respect to the design of videogames. According to Yokoi, games should take the fundamental elements of gameplay and then enhance them with some form of novelty. Since games are not incorporating the basic elements associated with game play, the mainstream games of today lack qualities that can be described as game. In terms of graphical realism, Yokoi acknowledges that regardless of how computer graphics comes close to reality, it will never the possible to surpass real visuals. Therefore, an approach advocated for by Yokoi simply entails refraining from overdoing the visuals. A look at the games designed by Yokoi are characterized by stylized and cheap visuals. He does not advocate for the use of photorealism. Although present day gaming consoles have higher processing power, are capable of displaying many things when compared to the past, can enable the designer to work with many colors, videos, and facilitate music sampling; Yokoi did not envision a future of photorealism in videogame design. In fact, he maintains that pursuing photorealism in the design of videogames increases the effort needed to develop games. Also, he stated that too realistic graphics have negative implications in videogame design and development. This is primarily because, if games are extremely realistic, there is little room for imagination.

As Yokoi illustrated in an interview, even in an instance whereby a videogame is incapable of displaying exceedingly complex graphics, the imagination of the player is capable of transforming the unrecognizable graphics into reality. The underlying reason as to why Yokoi advocated for less emphasis on graphics is that videogame designers should not rob gamers of their ability to add their own imagination to what they are seeing. Jeffrey Pidsadny agrees by stating that videogames should provide players with an opportunity to imagine their own world in a way they want to. Moreover, Jeffrey Pidsadny states that videogames should provide the player with an environment to interact with and a place to explore. Yokoi maintained that videogame designers should only show the players what to do, and leave the players to do it. If they take that away from gamers, there is little room for them to explore their imaginative abilities. Fundamentally, Yokoi believes that game designers have a responsibility to refrain from catering too much for the player, and this particularly the case for role player games, which are characterized by players following one linear path and have everything taken care of. The result is that they have no room for players to explore their imagination. The game design philosophy espoused by Yokoi is that games do not require clear images; instead, the world of the game appears larger when it is player is allowed to make good use of his/her imagination. Because of this principle, Yokoi designed the Game Boy using monochrome despite the fact that the technology to design a multicolor screen was already existing. He insisted that colors are important. The key is to ensure that the gameplay is capable of mentally drawing the player into the world of a game.

Prioritizing Controls/Movement Rather than Visuals

Visuals versus controls is another crucial aspect of videogame design tackled by Yokoi. In this respect, Yokoi urges videogame designers to first prioritize the controls (movement) and then the visuals, which he considered as not important when the player is already immersed in the world of a fascinating game. When asked to describe his process of designing games in an interview, Yokoi stated that he commences with taking the character that the player is going to control and replacing them with a dot that acts as a placeholder, and then thinks about the type of movement that the player would find to be fun. Moreover, when designing characters of a videogame, he stated that he tried to make sure that the characters teach the player how to play. For instance, when the enemy appears overly pretty, they will not appear like an enemy to the person playing the game. However, when the enemy is provided with an enemy-like look, there will be no need for the player to peruse the manual to understand the nature of the characters. Therefore, controls are extremely important when designing a videogame when compared to the visuals. When designing a videogame, designers should ascertain whether the game will still be fun minus the visuals and the computer graphics. For Yokoi, the majority of games in the market are unlikely to be interesting without their visuals.

Conclusion

The discussion shows the game design principles adopted by Yokoi. The all-encompassing philosophy that guided Yokois game design techniques is the lateral thinking on withered technologies, which places emphasis on a game design process that uses tested and proven technologies in an innovative and creative manner rather than relying on cutting edge technology. Yokois theory underscores the importance of originality of gameplay and the interaction between the game system and the player. Thus, Yokois approach to videogame design does not place considerable emphasis on graphics and visuals aspect of the game but the gameplay. In essence, fancier graphics cannot be used mask poor gameplay. Simplicity is also another important element of Yokois game design principles, wherein the mechanics of the game should be sufficiently simple but at the same time engage the player. According to Yokoi, videogames should be competitive for them to be labelled as games, whereby players actions can make them win or lose. It is evident that gameplay is at the forefront of Yokois approach to game design. A good gameplay does not need support from fancier graphics. Additionally, Yokoi cautions game designers from graphical realism as it takes away the opportunity to explore their imagination when playing. For the designers of game hardware, Yokoi emphasizes the importance of considering ergonomics. Lastly, controls/movement are more important than visuals. Overall, it is evident that Yokois approach to videogame design places considerable emphasis on gameplay aspects than visuals.

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