Star Fox Developer Explains How “Inadvertent Bugs” and Cut Features Lead to Great Games

Despite what that guy on every forum might say who wants to make a “Skyrim-like game with BioWare storytelling and maybe some crafting as well,” game development is very, very difficult, according to those who have it. fact.

To help new developers, the designer of the first Prince of Persia, Jordan Mechner, has put together a list of tips for game developers that is circulating online. This seems like good, albeit very general, advice, reminiscent of those “great writer habits” lists you always see on social media. Here is Mechner’s list in full:

  • Prototype and test key game elements as soon as possible.
  • Build the game in incremental steps. Do not make large design documents.
  • As you go, keep strengthening what is strong and cutting what is weak.
  • Be open to the unexpected. Make the most of serendipity.
  • Make sure the player still has a goal (and knows what it is).
  • Give players clear, continuous feedback on whether they’re getting closer or farther from an objective.
  • Sometimes a cheap tip is better than an expensive tip.
  • The moment the game first becomes playable is the moment of truth. Don’t be surprised if it’s not as fun as expected.
  • Listen to the voice of criticism – it’s always right (but you have to understand in which way).
  • Your original vision is not sacred. It’s just a draft.
  • No matter how much cutting you do, you’ll wish you had cut it sooner.
  • Don’t be afraid to consider BIG changes.
  • Draw inspiration from life and primary sources, not just other games and fiction.
  • Develop personal practices that remind you to step back and see the bigger picture (engage the right side of your brain).
  • Constraints are your friends. They force you to look for creative and elegant solutions.
  • When you discover what the heart of the game is, realign everything to support it.
  • Put your ego aside.
  • Keep a diary.
  • No one knows what will succeed.

In an interesting twist, Dylan Cuthbert, a core programmer on the original Star Fox and its early distinctive 3D graphics, as well as the founder and CEO of Q-Games, went through Mechner’s Twitter list step by step, weighing down his own thoughts over 30 years in the industry.

We caught up with Cuthbert and heard some of his longer thoughts on Mechner’s advice, plus a fascinating tidbit from canceled Star Fox 2 development that suggests ways he may have influenced Super Mario 64 and more 3D game design. usually.

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One tweet in particular caught my eye: Cuthbert says a Star Fox feature he liked had to be thrown out during development, and it made me wonder what the cut feature in question might be. Turns out Cuthbert was referring to the ground walker gameplay segments from Star Fox 2.

“Very early in StarFox 2, I moved the camera around and made the Fox ship into a robotic walker, recreating the classic platformer but in 3D. Some of that stayed in the final game but a lot of the more interesting experiences in 3D platforms have been removed from Star Fox 2,” Cuthbert wrote. “That was years before Mario 64 started, and it was part of the constant experimentation that Miyamoto and I were doing back then. When I saw certain elements in Mario 64, I thought, ‘Oh, that’ what happened to that idea!'”

It’s a fascinating insight into the world of 3D game design, before controls became more standardized, and underlines how fundamental early games like Star Fox, Mario 64 and Doom were to how we move around. in three dimensions.

While not every feature cut from a project influences one of the most important games of all time, this anecdote is also a great example of how spontaneous or chance events can change a game, which Mechner and Cuthbert also point this out in their advice.

“A lot of the killer features in a game are the result of a bug or an unintended glitch,” Cuthbert wrote.

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As for how this phenomenon played out in his own career, Cuthbert told me he had “too many stories” of happy accidents resulting from glitches or other hiccups in the development process, but he was keen to point out an example from 2016’s The Tomorrow Kids.

“One of our programmers had created a debug mode for his graphic effect on the Tomorrow Children, and it was showing all the outlines in a red that faded to dark red in the distance,” Cuthbert said. “It looked so awesome that we added a whole new tool to the game, the infrared goggles, to use it!”

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Mechner and Cuthbert also point to non-gaming activities as key sources of inspiration. For me, this point reminded me of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s story of helpful strangers in a blizzard inspiring the Souls series’ iconic summoning system. For his part, Cuthbert focused on museums and the fine arts: “Modern art is particularly inspiring, there are so many ideas and experiences, and even technologies used in modern art, from which you can draw ideas.”

The developer is a bit less passionate about TV, movies, and social media, noting how easy it is to “overconsume,” but still finds they can be useful resources. He’s also a fan of the fact that “just getting out there and using your eyes; noticing things more is a great way to figure things out.”

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Visual artists are often recommended to flip their reference photos when working, abstracting their subject so that they focus on the shape of it instead of dwelling on capturing how they imagine it. . Mechner and Cuthbert recommend developers find a way to depersonalize their own projects, to see them as a new actor.

On the idea of ​​cultivating and practicing this impulse in game development, Cuthbert joked that “a general lack of satisfaction with yourself really helps this process a lot”. He also described how Nintendo would encourage this way of thinking in the days of the SNES.

“A simple process to help this is to have someone else play while you watch and not allow yourself to comment,” Cuthbert said. “Watch for places where the player repeats things or gets frustrated or just looks unmotivated, and correct them.”

Elaborating further on how the Star Fox team used it, Cuthbert said, “On StarFox, the whole team sat and watched in silence while someone else played the game. We all took a lot of notes on the things we spotted and brainstormed with the player afterwards.”

These advice snippets are aimed at budding developers, but they have a universal quality. I find the idea of ​​depersonalizing what you create particularly useful in writing and editing, for example. Regardless of their practical utility, it’s always fascinating to get a sense of a veteran artist’s perspective, as well as a better understanding of how some classic games came to be.

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