If ever were there a game I played that would have benefited from a developer explanation of its design decisions, it's Noby Noby Boy. If ever there were a designer who I wanted to see in person just to check if he were clinically insane or not, it'd be Keita Takahashi.
"All About Noby Noby Boy," Takahashi's sort-of-except-not-really postmortem of his recent PSN title, did not disappoint; it was random, entertaining, enlightening, and occasionally bizarre. In a good way.
Hit the jump for my rundown of the lecture.
Takahashi opened by attempting to basically explain what Noby Noby Boy is all about, illustrated in the form of a scarf-and-gloves combo Takahashi wore while a (typically inexplicable) video of Noby Noby Boy played on the screens beside him.
Takahashi opened his (adorable, handwritten) agenda and launched into the main thrust of his talk. After having the initial idea for Noby Noby Boy, he discussed the idea with his teammates who thought he was crazy. He assured the audience that he wasn't, however: “I don't use drugs at all...do not worry about me.” In making Katamari Damacy, Takahashi wanted to show an ironic point of view about consumptive societies. He filled the game world with lots of objects in order to keep it fun and enjoyable, but once these objects get rolled into the Katamari they effectively disappear which makes them feel “empty.” Takahashi felt the same way about consumptive society.
Takahashi wanted to make a new game with fewer stages and objects and put Noby Noby Boy inside it. He also wanted to create a game where he didn't need to worry about boundaries like time and money (illustrated as Takahashi digitally drew the words on his Mac screen over the looping game video). “In games, there are usually goals and rules and there are usually carrots and sticks, but perhaps I might be able to create something fun without those,” he said of Boy. Katamari had rules in the form of size and time limitations, but he wasn't happy with these limitations; in the last remaining second it's possible to create a really big Katamari and maybe the game rewards you for having good time management skills, but that “doesn't make me happy”. The constantly growing game world made him feel “betrayed,” and with Noby Noby Boy he wished to start from scratch as far as his understanding of design was concerned.
“This may be a little bit abstract, but I wanted to make something that didn't...have a visible goal, that didn't have set formulas...where the developers couldn't possibly imagine what was going to happen. Of course, at this point I didn't think about debugging,” Takahashi said. When the debuggers later asked him what was a bug and what wasn't, Takahashi actually found himself unable to answer them.
In Japan, Takahashi says, you'll often find people playing handheld games in trains. “Well,” he said, as he drew an adorably minimal picture of a group of train riders staring at their “bleeping and blooping” handheld consoles. “This one's PSP,” he said as he drew an arrow toward one of the illustrated devices.
“Are we really making games because we want to see the world reacting like this,” staring down at little screens and ignoring each other? Takahashi quoted Hiyao Miyazaki who suggested that children today do not play, but consume. Japanese kids who play games are called “users,” and Takahashi always felt there was something wrong with this – “games are meant to be played, but why do we say they are 'users'? Aren't we supposed to play games? Perhaps this was a little minute, but it bothered me.” Takahashi admitted that in order to create a successful game company one must create things that are consumable, but it still makes him mad when people talk about “users” – “so mad I want to bonk them. Sometimes I think maybe they should just die.” This didn't come off as creepy as it sounds written down – everyone laughed.
If a kid is playing a game with his parent watching, the kid won't even talk to his parent. “This made me think maybe it's not so good if a game really sells. So I thought, maybe I should make sure that Noby Noby should be available only on PlayStation 3 and only by download. That means it's not going to sell that much. It's only been a month since we launched it, but I was right! It's not selling that much.” More laughter.
At the beginning of 2005 while beginning to develop We Love Katamari, Takahashi came up with the idea for Noby Noby Boy in the form of some simple drawings that showed the Boy coiling himself around a house, then extending and stopping a car with his body. He showed the images around to programmers, one of whom exclaimed that he was thinking about the same type of stuff. The programmer showed the sketches to his wife, who told him he needed to do it as if his life depended on it. “So we have...crazy people working on it,” Takahashi said.
They prototyped the game on the Xbox 360 – “I'm gonna move it around 'cause I don't want you to see it,” Takahashi said as he moved the window quickly around the screen. The video was pretty much Noby Noby Boy as we know it, except with uglier graphics and a more realistic environment.
Since the PS3 analog sticks line up, Takahashi thought it'd be a better game on the PS3. “That's the only reason I wanted PS3,” he said, after drawing a big X over an illustration of the 360 controller with its misaligned analog sticks.
Noby Noby Boy took 3 years to complete including a total engine change partway through because of the physics engine. Takahashi mentioned that Havok was a good physics engine, but using it would have meant he would have had to show the Havok logo over and over, which he really did not want to do. “In the end, we still had to end up showing the Bandai Namco games logo,” he lamented.
Takahashi showed us the Web Web Boy site, which shows how many people are playing at any given time – during the talk, 55,768 people were playing. Takahashi then doubled back and admitted that for all his talk of goal-free play, Noby Noby Boy still has a goal in the form of stretching the Girl to different planets. “Why did I create a goal like this? Because I thought it was such a huge goal that it maybe wouldn't qualify as a goal for the game...within one week of sales, the Girl was able to reach the moon. I was very moved by this.” The girl is growing 40 million meters per day, however, and at this rate, it would take 820 years for Girl to connect the entire solar system. “This is a problem – I'm going to be dead by then! What should I do?”
Takahashi moved on into what he couldn't do with the game. The first tenth, one hundredth, and one thousandth players get a Noby Noby Boy scarf of the sort Takahashi played around with early on, or a Boy-shaped long pillow as a present. Takahashi showed pictures of his dad and grandmother wearing the scarf, to lots of endeared laughter. His mother made the scarf, and his sister made the pillow, “so you can call this a domestic industry,” he said. “Why did I want to do this? ...This is a gift to our players as a token of my gratitude for buying my game. But also I wanted to enjoy this game with my customers or users or players. We talk about technologies such as 'network' or 'iPhones,' but I wanted to give an actual gift to players. It is silly but fun – we can share this gift with our players.” Though the Boy only exists in the game, if players get real-life versions of the Boy maybe they can imagine that there is also a real Girl who could join the planets together and make everyone happy. The second place prize was a wooden Boy doll that Takahashi had looked forward to making after completing the game, but he wasn't able to do so because of privacy and delivery issues. Takahashi was “so disappointed.” Still, he thought it could be fun even if the gifts ended up going to the wrong addresses, whose recipients would put them on online auctions, at which point Takahashi could buy it back and personally deliver it to the right house.
On a more serious note, the other thing Takahashi couldn't do, was Girl's ranking system. “Ranking is irrelevant for me.” Because of the ranking system, some people might just try to stretch Girl as much as possible or give up after a little while. To this end, he tries to design a more fuzzy, indistinct ranking system in the form of having the players walk back and forth on Girl's back, but he was unable to actually implement this. He wanted to implement a search system in the game where characters would arrive holding the search results that, when eaten, would open the page in question. However, this was also untenable given varying Internet speeds. Takahashi also wanted to give out Boy pencil caps out as gifts.
Boy's face is made up entirely of round and circular components and Takahashi wanted to allow players to customize his face, but he couldn't.
Takahashi wanted to encourage discussion between the developers and the audience. He considered the game a ticket to a festival – an invitation to have everyone help Girl grow together, but, again, it'd take 820 years to actually grow Girl all the way.
Takahashi wanted to do this because “the world has become much more of a cramped place. This world is not a game world – it's the real world we live in. It's difficult to explain, but it doesn't have anything to do with the recession. It's just constraining...maybe this is just my personal feeling but it feels like there is something invisible that is tying me up. It feels like everything is controlled by systems. Maybe this thing that is tying me up might be Bandai, actually, but there is a much bigger 'cramping' that is happening in this world. The phrase 'noby noby' means...'to not be constrained.' This may be a bit dramatic, but maybe Noby Noby Boy is my way of fighting against this constrained word.”
Takahashi then admitted that games don't necessarily need reasons like that – they just need to be fun, and then words like noby noby become just nonsense. But Takahashi needed those words there, for himself. “Noby noby” also means “to dilly-dally,” which fits the game quite well.
Takahashi found himself running out of time and remembered he needed to give us information about the update.
He showed us an iPhone with a Noby Noby Boy application on it, who can be stretched by the iPhone touch screen. If Takahashi could get the iPhone stretching stats to upload along with the PS3 one, then perhaps Girl would complete her circuit in 400 years instead of 800.
Takahashi then showed us a multiplayer mode complete with two different Boys – one with a red face and butt, one with a blue face and butt. The head and bodies separated and the Blue Boy ate the Red Boy's butt, which meant that the front half of this hybrid boy was controlled by one player while the back end was controlled by another.
Then, a third, Brown boy appeared. Then, a fourth, orange one. “Now I can't tell which is which,” Takahashi said as he switched between controllers. He handed the controllers out to random audience members – “Remember to give it back to me later, okay? Please make sure you don't take it home with you.” The audience members intertwined and flew into the sky as Takahashi continued to talk.
A lot of people feel that Noby Noby Boy isn't a game, but Takahashi doesn't feel like he needs to explicitly create videogames – his only goal is to create something fun. “I would actually like to ask people who ask whether it's a videogame or not, how would you define a videogame? Is it well-set level design? Is it incredible AI...is it a wonderful story...people say that without these types of goals one won't be motivated, but even looking at the catalog for GDC there's no definition of a game. The games we create aren't about level design, limit, or sense of accomplishments.”
“I've been complaining a lot now,” he admitted. People call him “Hate-a” Takahashi. In order to create truly wondrous things, designers have to “think more and feel more” when creating them. “There's no completion...there's no way games have to be. Perhaps we're hiding behind these rules of games and perhaps just relying on...what came before us. I'm sure you're going to misunderstand this, but perhaps we have to ignore the players and our companies. Maybe we should just create a game that we like...maybe we should just rely on our own inner feeling to create something that's fun. Games aren't created by management.”
“We shouldn't be afraid of being criticized...we should be more free and not be constrained, and just try creating much more freely. That will create something fantastic or fantastically awful, but even if it's fantastically awful it still has value. So I want us to not fear failure. By doing that, I'm sure that something that had never existed before will be born, and we have to give birth to those because I think that is our mission. Maybe we'll have other goals, too, but to create something new is one of the missions we game developers have, I believe.
“So I will continue doing this myself,” Takahashi said in closing, “and I hope you will join me too.”
Then it was time for audience questions.
The first question concerned whether there was any intent to shrink the universe to make it completable, and Takahashi said he didn't mind the idea of being unable to complete it so he won't shrink the universe.
When's the iPhone game going to come out an dhow much will it cost? The iPhone game just started development a week ago, but it'll probably be free whenever it comes out.
What does the parrot have to do with the game? “Actually, parrot has nothing to do with the game.” That's not my summary or a truncated quote. That was his entire answer.
One of the audience members heard Takahashi was designing a park or playground and wanted more details. Though Takahashi had no concrete plans, a month ago someone asked him if he'd like to make a playground, and he said yes, and that's as far as it has gone.
Some chick went up and complained about the instructions and the sound of stretching hurting her ears. Takahashi admitted that the stretching sound was a little loud and wasn't satisfied with the noise. “I didn't realize you were so upset about that – just relax...calm yourself down. Maybe you have some issues, privately.”
The next audience member asked if Takahashi felt like the industry would ever change in the way Takahashi seemed to wish it to. “If they want to change, they can change, right?” Again, that was the entire answer.
Does he have any tips or recommendations on how to pitch these ideas? “Well...maybe you just cry, you can cry, and appeal to them and just cry.” Whole answer.
Finally, Takahashi took out a bunch of t-shirts from panic.com and began throwing them at random audience members.
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