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Shinji Mikami and the Lost Art of Game Design


Shinji Mikami and the Lost Art of Game Design

An edited version of this article was published in The Gamers Quarter Issue #8.


What is design and how is it different from other disciplines like art? One distinction is the product. The product of design is meant to be used; it has a function and not just a message. It is for this reason that we call the people who create videogames game designers. Sure, there is plenty of artistry which goes into the visual/aural/script design, but the end product is something that was designed for people to play.

Consider for a moment popular non-electronic games like chess, poker, and mahjong and think about the mechanics of those games. Those games are really well designed, and it's no wonder that near endless electronic versions of each of them have been made over the years. Taking a cue from these games, we can outline a number of important qualities for videogames. First, videogames should require the development of skill, or at the very least knowledge, in order to progress through them. And second, videogames should be replayable. That is, subsequent playings of the game should be sufficiently different to still be interesting, usually by leading to different outcomes. In some games, the requirement of skill is enough to ensure replayability -- the player will need to replay the game over and over in order to master it. In other games, subsequent playthoughs comes from the nonlinearity and potential for discovery inherent in the game's design. An entirely linear videogame which doesn't require skill or learning on the part of the player is not really a game at all, it is pop entertainment that could just as effectively be a film, novel, comic, or television. The less that is required of the player, the more the game must rely on non-game elements for its appeal.

There is one maker of videogames which understands the above elements perhaps better than any developer today, the Japanese company Capcom. Over the years, they have produced a staggering number of quality titles, and many avid gamers feel that Capcom is currently in the midst of a renaissance in game design, producing excellent skill-based games at a time when many studios are content to churn out 12-16 hour experiences which deliver a simplistic story via a succession of multimedia hits as a reward for the player's pavlovian responses. They are the creator of such beloved franchises as Mega Man, Street Fighter, Resident Evil, and countless classic arcade games in the early 90s. This renaissance of game design can be traced to the contributions of one man, Shinji Mikami. The thread begins with Mikami's first significant title, Resident Evil.


Resident Evil (also known as Biohazard in Japan), released in 1996, was a defining game for the Sony Playstation and for the genre of survival horror. Resident Evil took advantage of the increased storage afforded by the Playstation's CD-ROM format to provide a more cinematic experience, with prerendered 2D backgrounds and full motion video(FMV) sequences. This cinematic philosophy carried over to the game mechanics as well. Most games featuring a third person perspective used either a dynamic camera system or a static isometric viewpoint. In Resident Evil, the camera was placed differently in each area and its placement was a key component in creating tension within the game; the player could only see what the designers wanted him to see. In this way, the designers had to become like movie directors choosing the best shot for each scene.

Perhaps as a consequence of the camera system, Resident Evil's most often criticized component was established: the control system. In Resident Evil, the player controls his avatar as if he were playing from a first person perspective, regardless of the viewpoint. Up on the direction pad moves the avatar forward and Down moves him backward. Left and Right motions on the d-pad will turn the avatar, tank-like, to his left or right. This can be counter intuitive -- especially when frantically running from pursuing zombies -- because movement is relative to the on-screen avatar's orientation and not the player's 3rd person view of his character. The advantage is that when the viewpoint suddenly reverses, when running down a hallway for example, the controls remain consistent and the avatar continues to move in his intended direction.

Resident Evil would spawn numerous sequels and offshoots, some of which Mikami was involved with as a producer, but the gameplay elements of the series proper would change very little until the release of Resident Evil 4, once again directed by Shinji Mikami. But the process of reinvigorating Resident Evil actually began with an earlier Mikami game, the mysteriously titled P.N.03(GC). Developed rapidly and with a relatively small budget, P.N.03 was designed to be a 3D homage to old school 2D shooters(or shmups as they are often called).

The most unique, and important, aspect of P.N.03 is its control system, an action oriented evolution of Resident Evil's system. The reason why the system works so well, and the fundamental difference between it and Resident Evil, is the camera. For obvious reasons, the camera is seldom a problem in 2D shooters; the viewpoint is generally static and all enemies with the capacity to harm are clearly visible. P.N.03 recreates that environment in 3D by placing the camera in a fixed position behind Vanessa -- the game's protagonist and the player's avatar -- and by keeping enemies mostly in front of the player and in clear view. The exceptions to this philosophy are slight: the camera can be shifted slightly by using the c-stick -- although the game never requires you to do this -- and occasionally Vanessa will become surrounded by enemies. This last occurrence is not nearly as troubling as it might seem because much like 2D shooters, enemies in P.N.03 are entirely pattern-based in their movement and attacks. They do not attempt to flank the player; on those occasions where flanking does occur it is usually a result of some deliberate action by the player, when chasing a combo for instance. There are a few challenging encounters in which it is easy to become surrounded, but the predictable nature of the AI opponents means these encounters can be handled with sufficient strategy and spatial awareness.

Aside from the obvious differences in camera setup, P.N.03's control setup is essentially Resident Evil with dodging. Left and Right on the analog stick still turn Vanessa instead of moving her, but because of the fixed camera orientation it is less confusing than in Resident Evil. Forward on the analog stick causes Vanessa to run forward and Back causes Vanessa to pirouette backwards a few feet. The Z button will execute a quick 180 degree turn, a feature that was also in the latter Resident Evil games. The L and R triggers serve as the primary dodge buttons. Pull them and Vanessa will gracefully cartwheel left or right, respectively. Press B and Vanessa will jump, and if she is running at the time she will perform a nice acrobatic flip. When it comes to offense, the A button is used for Vanessa's standard projectile attack and special attacks(Energy Drives) are launched by inputing d-pad combinations. Finally, X serves as a simple 'switch target' button; there is no need to aim in P.N.03, all of Vanessa's shots will streak toward the selected target.

P.N.03's control system definitely takes some getting used to, and I can't think of a game which plays quite like it. Vanessa dances with measured precision and although Vanessa's individual movements are also exceptionally graceful, it takes a skilled player to move her fluidly through them. Once the necessary skill is gained, however, controlling Vanessa becomes second nature. P.N.03 is not a game which leads the player to feel cheated when he fails.

The real importance of P.N.03 is that it demonstrated that tank controls work in 3rd person action games given the right camera system. Shinji Mikami would reuse P.N.03's system as a basis for Resident Evil 4 when it was decided that the survival horror series needed a more action oriented overhaul. This was a pretty bold move considering that by and large they critics disliked P.N.03. Chief among their complaints was that Vanessa couldn't move and shoot at the same time, much like your younger brother whining that pawns in chess should be able to take the piece directly in front of them. Resident Evil 4, widely considered by critics and players alike to be one of the best games ever made, would depend on Shinji Mikami ignoring this particular line of criticism.


As I have alluded, Resident Evil's salvation would rise from the ashes of the critically flamed P.N.03. Resident Evil 4(GC,PS2) would take P.N.03's camera and control system and remove all the fancy dodging maneuvers. The L and R triggers would now be used to enter aiming mode. The camera would slide in to sit tight over Leon's right shoulder while the player aimed his weapon with the analog stick -- either a gun of some sort or a knife, depending on the button pressed. Once again the player was stuck being unable to move and shoot simultaneously, but in the context of a survival horror game such as RE4 it made perhaps more sense to the player because tension is such a key component of the genre. Forcing the player to stop while hordes of enemies plod towards him is an obvious anxiety-building technique. And beyond that it makes a lot of sense because Leon is a former cop, and we all know that in the real world cops are trained to plant their feet and grip their weapon with both hands. Another great thing about the aiming is the unsteadyness of the aiming reticule, a tiny dot of light from Leon's laser sight. By substituting one system for another, the focus of the game is shifted from the graceful dodging of P.N.03 to tension-filled shooting. Other than that one significant change, the controls are much the same as they were in P.N.03. 180 turns are still available, as is the ability to make slight camera adjustments with the c-stick. In fact, the latter actually proves pretty useful; the player will probably want to use every trick in the book to avoid potential surprise encounters.

The most obvious homage to P.N.03 of all lies in RE4's The Mercenaries mode, which is unlocked after completing the story mode. The Mercenaries is a score/time attack mode with 4 stages and 5 playable characters. The goal is to rack up as many kills as possible within a limited time frame. Successive kills earn bonus points in a manner inherited from P.N.03. Every kill adds time to an internal timer and increments a kill counter in the top right corner of the screen(in P.N.03 you can actually see the timer as well). Any kills made while there is still time left on this timer adds to the counter. The higher the kill counter when the timer finally expires, the more bonus points are rewarded. Then the counter is reset to zero and the player must begin building a new combo. Many players spent more time with The Mercenaries than they did the main game, a fact which is testament to both the soundness of RE4's fundamental mechanics and the staying power of 'simpler' arcade-like experiences.


God Hand(PS2), Mikami's most recent game, is the third game in the P.N.03 family tree. This time Mikami applied the P.N.03 template to the beat'em up genre. The familiar behind-the-back camera remains, but there have been some changes to suit the genre. The four face buttons are used to perform various hand-to-hand attacks and can be customized to the player's liking. The are a number of built in moves which are hard-coded to certain combinations, such as Back+Triangle for a juggle, but otherwise each face button is mapped to one of 114 different techniques. There is no block button in God Hand but four different dodges may be performed with the right analog stick, which is traditionally used to adjust the camera in 3rd person action games on the PS2. The combat system implemented in God Hand is very deep, implementing all the familiar buzzwords: counters, juggles, guard breaks, evade cancels, etc. And of course, the game is well known for its painful looking and often humorous special moves.

In God Hand, the camera would pose to be more of a problem than in P.N.03, as it was much easier to become surrounded by foes. A radar is provided to help the player deal with unexpected enemies, but ultimately it is the ability to dodge repeatedly, coupled with aural cues signaling incoming attacks, that make it all manageable for a dedicated player. God Hand's camera also received criticism for a design decision which was perceived by many as a bug. The camera system must do its best to keep environmental obstructions from obscuring the player's view of the action, which can be a challenge in confined areas. Most games attempt to perform complex camera manipulations to retain a clear line-of-sight. In God Hand, the designers opted to simply make intervening objects invisible. This is a simpler and more reliable solution, although it can be unsightly when walls suddenly blink out of existence. In the case of God Hand, the designers consciously chose to maximize gameplay over aesthetics.


Of the three Current Gen Mikami action games, only RE4 would receive broad critical acceptance in the mainstream videogame press. RE4, in fact, would be many critics' choice for Game of the Year. Matt Casamissina at IGN gave the game a 9.8 out of 10. Concerning the controls, he says:

"Bringing both gameplay types together is a control scheme that for the most part remains disappointingly unchanged from previous Resident Evil games. Kennedy is manipulated minus true analog control. Push the analog stick and he walks. Hold the B button down and he runs. Same as it ever was. Also, in our play experience with the game it became abundantly clear that many of the battles would have benefited from a dodge or strafe function, which Capcom has chosen not to include. And yet, despite all of this, the process of controlling Leon is far improved thanks to a combination of a flexible new camera that shoots the action from behind the character's back...Because the view remains behind Leon at all times, that momentary sense of disorientation that accompanied entering a new room in former survival horror games is thankfully absent."[1]

In his earlier review of P.N.03, Matt had this to say:

"Capcom has unfortunately made some exceedingly poor control choices for Vanessa's movement. The setup functions. It sometimes even satisfies, but rarely. Vanessa's supposed to be quick and agile, but she's not. Her body is supposed to move through the environment like a dancer's, but it doesn't. Rather, the heroine has a control scheme not unlike that of today's first-person shooters, except less responsive...Problems arise. The awkward control scheme and snail-like response time do not at all mingle with the fast-paced battles. Enemy bullets sometimes collide with Vanessa before you'll even have a chance to dodge them. The camera gets in the way. She can't turn quickly enough to adequately survey potentially dangerous terrain. She is the epitome of unintuitive in just about every way. For reasons unfathomable, Capcom has designed the game so that the heroine can only shoot when she is at a full stop -- she can't fire a single blast when she's in motion, so you'll have to halt every time you want to take down an enemy, thus leaving yourself open to fire. The question comes, why? We don't know. But it's lame."[2]

It is odd to hear a game reviewer tell the audience how a game is supposed to control. Also, there is no praise here for the camera that was lauded in RE4. But as egregious as that may seem to fans of P.N.03, God Hand fared the worst of all by far, receiving one the lowest scores IGN has ever awarded. Here's an excerpt from Chris Roper's shocking 3.0 review:

"One of the major problems with the combat, and God Hand on the whole in fact, is that the camera is stuck directly behind your character and you're unable to freely control it. Where you walk is exactly where it points, so enemies will often come up (or even appear) behind you, and this can be extremely annoying in a crowded room. On many occasions we finished off a handful of enemies only to have new foes appear directly behind us and take us out. The right analog stick acts as a dodge button, so since you don't have a block of any sort you'll be using this often, but because of the poor camera you'll often perform backflips into nearby walls."[3]

Roper also mentions, along with several other reviews I have read, that the only interesting aspect of God Hand is the combat system. This is strange since because God Hand is a game about fighting, I wouldn't think that would be such a bad thing! I have played many games which weren't interesting on any level at all, at least God Hand accomplishes what it set out to do. The most puzzling thing of all in Roper's review is that he complains that the game reduces to nothing but button mashing and then proceeds to complain about the difficulty of some fairly early elements of the game.

Of the three, only RE4 would have the budget and development time necessary to impress the critics. The more experimental P.N.03 and God Hand were panned. In the case of P.N.03 this is especially tragic since it was the proving ground for ideas that would later find acceptance in RE4. Instead of analyzing the design of these games, the critics merely complained that they didn't play the same as the games they superficially resembled. I can't think of a better case study for demonstrating the failings of videogame crticism. The situation in the gaming press today stands in stark contrast to the film industry, where low budget arthouse flicks are often celebrated while big budget summer blockbusters are the objects of critical scorn.


What Shinji Mikami does perhaps better than any other game designer is tailor the design of his games to their concept. The original Resisdent Evil and his recent games all illustrate this beautifully. In architecture they often say form follows function. I think the equivalent maxim for game creation should be 'design follows concept'. Perhaps part of the problem today is that there are so few designers who are willing to begin with a novel concept. It is understandable that there are established genres in electronic gaming, but when most games within a genre have almost identical mechanics it is a definite sign of stagnation. God Hand was surely not the first 3D beat'em up, but it was one of the few that truly rethought the mechanics of its two dimensional forebears. Likewise, P.N.03 was a fantastic 3D reimagining of the 2D shooter.

I don't expect to see too many designers take inspiration from P.N.03 or God Hand, but RE4 at least is already showing signs of its influence. Recent action games like Epic's smash hit Gears of War and Capcom's own Lost Planet: Extreme Condition feature RE4-styled over the shoulder cameras. Cliff Blezinski, lead designer of Gears of War, has often cited RE4 as an inspiration for Gears of War[4]. It should be noted, however, that the aspects of RE4 which seem to have impressed developers the most are the pacing, stage and boss design, atmosphere, and general polish. But copying those things will only bring them halfway to Mikami's level. To climb the rest of the way, they need to begin creating games which don't lose their appeal with repeated playings. Most importantly though, they must also learn to evaluate every mechanic in the context of the game's concept. Mikami isn't alone in reaching this level, but as the current generation comes to a close, only Mikami has consistently been there through it all.





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