Destroying game ideas to expose fun and other lessons learned making Star Fox

Dylan Cuthbert, game designer, founder of PixelJunk developer Q-Games and programmer on the original Star Fox, urged developers at GDC to destroy their game ideas in order to expose the fun that's sometimes obscured by sacrosanct game mechanics.

In a talk titled "Design Occlusion is Killing Your Game Design," Cuthbert recounted a difficult period of time from the original Star Fox for SNES during which dearly held game mechanics were ripped out of the game at the behest of famed Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto. Cuthbert, still a teenager at the beginning of Star Fox's development and having come from developing 3D shooters Starglider and X, said Star Fox had good ideas removed that ultimately made the game more fun.

Originally, Cuthbert and a couple fellow British programmers were working on a version of Star Fox that was in a fully explorable 3D space. After a month-long break in the development of the game, when Nintendo was having difficulty finding the fun in Star Fox, Miyamoto came to Cuthbert and his team with a solution: remove the 3D roaming and put the game on rails.

"He removed what we thought was the cool technology," Cuthbert said. "I was 19, we were very cocky British programmers, we were thrown into this Japanese environment. We were in awe and also in shock about the process."

"If we had been in Britain, we'd have said 'No, screw that.'"

Cuthbert said British-developed games were, at the time, "full of good ideas" and on the forefront of 3D game technology in the late '80s.

"What we'd do in Britain is just stuff them all in, and then sell it," he said, but that players would find themselves with "kind of half a game."

Cuthbert and crew decided to grin and bear it, he said, but the process of implementing gameplay systems and ripping them out, later adding new ones, "was a very tough process for programmers."

Miyamoto's idea to remove certain gameplay ideas — and a switch from first-person cockpit view to third-person view — helped expose more fun, he explained. It allowed for more refined, better tuned controls. It helped the developers find the barrel roll mechanic and made boss battles easier to create. As a side effect, the removal of full 3D roaming resulted in a faster frame rate.

"Build ideas, then destroy them."

"With Starglider, the 3D roaming part was such a big thing in our minds, we never considered looking at other ways to do a 3D game," Cuthbert said. "This is an example of an occlusion; the other idea was so big, it occluded ideas that were so much better."

Cuthbert theorized about occluders removed from other Miyamoto-developed games, like the removal of player-controlled jumping from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and the initial removal of Link's sword in the beginning moments of the original Zelda.

"The key thing I learned from Miyamoto, nothing must go into a game, not even if they are good ideas," he said.

Q-Games' own titles, Cuthbert said, have benefited from removing design occluders. The playable character in PixelJunk Monsters, for example, originally had his own weapon. But the player had too much freedom, he said, and the weapon (a knife) took focus away from the game's towers. PixelJunk Shooter originally had a standard hit points system that was later replaced by its heat system. It also had gravity, which Q-Games assumed would be a good fit. Its removal made the controls better and ultimately led to a better game, Cuthbert said.

Cuthbert urged developers to drop occluders from their games — removing the gun from a shooter, for example — if only for a few weeks, play with it and expose the fun through other means.

"Build ideas, then destroy them," he said. "You'll find better ones hiding in the shadows."

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