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Ask the Developer Vol. 10, Pikmin 4—Part 2

  • This article has been translated from the original Japanese content.

  • The images shown in this interview were created during development.

In this tenth volume of Ask the Developer, an interview series in which Nintendo developers convey in their own words Nintendo’s thoughts about creating products and the specific points they are particular about, we’re talking to the developers behind the Pikmin™ 4 game for the Nintendo Switch™ system, which launches on Friday, July 21.

Check out the rest of the interview:

Part 2: Training up players in the art of Dandori

Now, we would like to talk to the members of the Pikmin 4 development team. First, can you tell us about your roles on this title?

Kando: I joined the development of Pikmin 4, continuing on from Pikmin, Pikmin 2, and Pikmin 3. I was the chief director and programming director for this title. To be more specific, I was in charge of the general game design and level design, the base programming of the game system, and deciding on the game's direction. So, I was like the head chef of a restaurant, overseeing lots of different processes.

Yutaka Hiramuki (referred to as Hiramuki from this point on): Hello, I'm Yutaka Hiramuki, one of the planning directors for this game. I was responsible for overseeing the overall level design, creature specifications, and the story, including cutscenes and script. Actually, I've been involved in the series for a long time. In the first game, I programmed the controller's rumble feature. In the second game, I was involved in the level design of underground caves. My involvement in Pikmin 3 was roughly the same as in Pikmin 4.

Taku Matoba (referred to as Matoba from this point on): Hi, I'm Taku Matoba, one of the planning directors. I was mainly involved in the UI, the design and placement of in-game objects, and treasures. I also shared the workload with Kando-san and Hiramuki-san on the level design. In the second game, I was involved in creating the underground caves, and in the third game, creating the versus mode.

Mitsuhiro Kida (referred to as Kida from this point on): Hello. I'm Mitsuhiro Kida, the sound director. I managed the background music and sound effects in consultation with our staff and determined how best to bring out the sounds. I've been involved in the series since Pikmin 3 Deluxe (9).

(9) A Nintendo Switch™ game released in October 2020. It features content from Pikmin™ 3, released for Wii U™ in July 2013, with an additional storyline and difficulty options.

Thank you very much. Miyamoto-san, how were you involved in Pikmin 4 as the producer?

Miyamoto: I checked to see if it captured the characteristics of the Pikmin series. Also, since there have been other recent developments to the franchise, such as Pikmin Bloom (10), I checked that it met the standards of a mainline Pikmin title. That said, because my words carry a lot of weight, people would get flustered if I said something even remotely random. All I'd have to say is, “The sound effects...” and they'd respond, “The sound effects?! Which sound effects?!” so I had to be very careful. (Laughs)

(10) An augmented reality (AR) app for smartphones distributed by Niantic. When players visit various places in the real world, they can find Pikmin seeds in the app associated with each place based on location information. By planting seeds in the slots and walking with them, Pikmin will grow. Players can also make flowers bloom by walking with these Pikmin. It is an app that makes walking engaging.

Kida: I do remember asking Miyamoto-san what exactly it was about the sound that bothered him and how we could fix it to match his expectations. (Laughs)

Kando: Whereas people like us who have been working with Miyamoto-san for a long time are used to it. (Laughs)

This game is the fourth mainline title in the series – is the story connected to the previous games?

Hiramuki: This game begins with Captain Olimar once again crash-landing on an unknown planet. However, what makes the game different from the previous ones is that he sends out a distress signal, and the Rescue Corps comes to his rescue, but they also crash-land. As the newest recruit, the player embarks on an adventure to rescue the castaways. To make it easier for newcomers to get emotionally invested in the world of Pikmin, we designed the game so that players themselves would become the Rescue Corps' new recruit. So, even if you're not familiar with past titles, you'll be fine. Of course, we've put thought into developing features that add to the fun for players of the previous titles, so they've got plenty to look forward to. As for the story's timeline, I'll leave that to players' imaginations. (Laughs)

Miyamoto: There have been three games in the series until now, from Pikmin to Pikmin 3, and personally I've always wondered, “Why haven't they exploded more in sales even though they're so much fun to play? Why do people think they're so difficult?”

Many people seem to think the characters are cute, but that the games themselves are a bit difficult. Pikmin die if you make the wrong decision, so there may be some fear of losing them.

Miyamoto: I get that people find it more difficult when death is a factor. But I think the franchise's strength lies in its relationship with mortality. If something is irreversible, you need to figure out a way to prevent undesired things from happening. To try to prevent Pikmin from dying, you need to practice “Dandori.” (11) To me, that's what makes this game unique. I think people find Pikmin difficult for two reasons: the controls and the depth of gameplay. I spent a long time mulling over how we could convey these points as "interesting" rather than "difficult."

(11) A Japanese word that means “to think about planning and efficiency in advance to get things done smoothly.”

Kando: Yes, looking at players' reactions to the first three games, I've also thought really hard about how to get more people to play this game. In the early stages of development, we prioritized ease of play and experimented with making the controls easy enough for those who aren't used to playing games. We also tested improvements to the camera and AI. Also, it just doesn't feel like a Pikmin game to me if it's not like the first one. That is, if it doesn't have this Dandori element where players learn and become more efficient through repetition.

So, it was clear to the development team that the first game set the tone for the Pikmin series.

Miyamoto: We were talking about how we want as many people as possible to play Pikmin 4, but if it's not Pikmin-like enough, we won't meet the expectations of those who've enjoyed the series until now. The first game provided a deeper challenge, while the second game was broader in terms of content, and we went back to something closer to the first one in Pikmin 3. But after thinking about it, I realized that we could do both. We could retain the depth of gameplay that makes Pikmin so interesting, while providing the functional support to address the challenges around controls.

Kando: So, we implemented a variety of supporting features to expand the Dandori gameplay. We wanted players to enjoy the game in greater depth and for longer by offering those Dandori elements, while removing the time limit. So basically, Pikmin 4 gets all the good things from the first and second titles. (Laughs)

I see. Now I'd like to ask you about the newly introduced character, Oatchi, the space dog. I assume he has a lot to do with the Dandori gameplay, but how did he come about?

Kando: Miyamoto-san mentioned earlier that the Pikmin series hadn't seen huge sales. At the beginning of development, we were seeking what would become the selling point of this game, both in terms of gameplay features and in terms of being eye-catching. So, the first idea was that it would be interesting to have the player control a Bulborb, one of the native creatures, and have it chow down on Pikmin. The controls would be simple, yet give a sense of satisfaction to players. Above all, it'd be visually striking.

Are you serious?! Controlling a Bulborb would've caught people's attention for sure.

Kando: Stemming from this idea, we considered letting the player ride and control various creatures in the story, but it became difficult to weave it all into a coherent game. Ultimately, we decided to add Oatchi as a partner creature that the player could switch to from the main character. As a playable character, you can have him throw and call Pikmin, but he can also be used as a sort of “mega Pikmin” who possesses the power of 10 Pikmin.

Is there a reason you chose a dog as the player's partner?

Hiramuki: He's slightly different from the dogs you see on earth... he's a space dog! His canine nature allows us to incorporate him into the story as a Rescue Pup who sniffs out lost castaways. As Kando-san said, Oatchi is the player's partner. So you can ride on him with Pikmin and train him to do different things to improve his utility. Essentially, we were able to solve two problems at once with a single idea.

While I understand that he's a powerful support character, doesn't he disrupt the meticulously constructed Dandori gameplay?

Kando: At first we were worried that Oatchi may make battles too easy against native creatures. But Oatchi deepens the strategic nature of the game because players are able either to control both their character and Oatchi at the same time or to assign a different role to each. You can strategize like, “Should I have Oatchi remove the obstacles first?” or “Nope, I'll let the Pikmin handle that and have Oatchi take care of the creatures instead.”

Miyamoto: Making Oatchi a Rescue Pup worked well in this story because the Rescue Corps crew that went to Olimar's aid also crash-landed, and there are plenty of people in need of help.

Kando: I agree. Pikmin games are not only about fighting but also about finding and collecting things, so I think we've struck a good balance.

I see. Speaking of new characters, what can you tell us about the newly introduced Pikmin types? It seems like players will have a greater variety of abilities at their disposal.

Hiramuki: The new Ice Pikmin have the ability to freeze things, and they were popular among players who weren't skilled at battles against creatures in the survey conducted by Mario Club (12). With Ice Pikmin, you can freeze both enemies and bodies of water. When you freeze flying enemies, they fall and shatter.

(12) Mario Club Co., Ltd.: A wholly-owned subsidiary of Nintendo that handles debugging and monitor testing of video game software to improve its quality.

Matoba: Glow Pikmin are another new type who help you in caves and in the newly added night expeditions. They're reliable companions in your exploration, as they're resistant to almost all elements and warp back to you once they've completed their task without having to be called back. Since Glow Pikmin can't die, players can use as many of them as they want without worrying about the consequences. This is another element that makes this game easier to play.

That's quite the ability!

Kando: The new Pikmin have their appeal, but all the Pikmin types you've seen in the past games, including White Pikmin, Purple Pikmin, Rock Pikmin, and Winged Pikmin, return in this game's story.

We've expanded the overall volume of content, so you've got a much wider range of strategies at your disposal, like planning which Pikmin to use first to exercise good Dandori and proceed efficiently.

I see. So, having Oatchi and the new Pikmin not only adds to the ease of play but also deepens the strategic nature of Dandori.

Kando: Yes. We've had people say that we should make Pikmin games cute because the characters are cute, but I actually disagree. I don't think being cute is enough to stand out from other games because there are so many other games with cute characters besides Pikmin.

Hiramuki: We thought it was more important to lower the barrier to entry for new players by implementing features that make it easier to play, and then let the fun of Dandori sink in naturally.

Let the fun of Dandori sink in naturally. I see. How did you go about achieving this?

Hiramuki: In the first concept document created by Kando-san, he wrote, “Eliminate the barriers between modes.” In this game, we've blended the story mode, which you can play for a long time, with a versus mode and mission mode, which demand a deeper level of Dandori.

Matoba: The Mission Mode in Pikmin 3, where you had to complete a task within a time limit, was popular among players who were really sinking their teeth into the game. We thought that the Mission Mode would be the best way for players to understand the fun of Dandori. Earlier, Hino-san described the Mission Mode as helping players clear the main story, but in reality, it's considered a mode that's well known only to those in the know. This time, we've incorporated this mode into the story, so players can find the fun in saving time by practicing good Dandori.

Kando: The Mission Mode has also been renamed Dandori Challenge and has been added into the storyline to increase player motivation. Also, the versus mode in the second and third games required two players to play, but in this game, we've implemented a CPU battle mode so that it can be enjoyed in single player. We call it Dandori Battle, and we've integrated it into the storyline so that players can clear it naturally as they progress. Weaving these Dandori Challenges and Dandori Battles into the story is our way of sneakily training up players in the art of Dandori. (Laughs)

Miyamoto: And this time you have the option to start over, right?

Hiramuki: Yes. Pikmin and Pikmin 3 both involved repeated Dandori within a set period of time – 30 days in the case of the first game and three to four days, before the player's food supply runs out, in the case of the third. In this game, players can go back in time and start over at any point with a feature called “Rewind Time.” Previous games only let you go back to the morning, no matter what time of day it was, but now you can go back to just a few minutes ago when you realize you've made a mistake. This makes it easier to quickly try out new strategies.

The feature of being able to rewind at any time is a nice help to players who find Dandori a little hard.

Kando: Until now, it was common for players to be in a situation like, “I've worked so hard to plan everything and get to this point, but I made a mistake on the very last move, and my Pikmin died... I have to go back to the morning and start all over again...” It's sad when that happens, so we've implemented this rewind feature to support players facing such a predicament.

If players make good use of the Rewind Time feature, it should help them figure out how to practice good Dandori in a short amount of time.

Hiramuki: Exactly. By reminding players in-game now and again that it's OK to rewind time, we've been careful not to make them feel like they're cheating by using this feature. Of course, players who thrive in challenging environments don’t need to use this feature. Also, by developing gear and items or letting Oatchi learn skills, you can do many more things to exercise good Dandori. When it comes to Dandori, there's more than one approach. Players can do more things as they progress, and their Dandori skills will naturally improve.

Miyamoto: The gameplay of the Pikmin franchise isn't about competition. It doesn't make players think, “No fair! They only got a high score because they were cheap!” The fun in this franchise’s gameplay lies in players setting their own goals and overcoming them as they go along.

I guess the gameplay encourages players to hone their skills. They should rewind time liberally to find their own ways of improving Dandori.

Miyamoto: It's all about getting in those reps to grow your Dandori muscles. (Laughs)

Everyone: (Laughs)

By the way, with the expanded possibilities for players to exercise Dandori, I assume you had to account for a myriad of different playstyles. Were you not concerned that this would make debugging (13) more difficult?

(13) The process of playing in-development games for quality assurance and investigating program issues.

Hiramuki: As a development team, we wanted to leverage what players come up with as much as possible. Therefore, from the beginning of development, our goal was to create a game that would support this.

Kando: It's similar to the Legend of Zelda™ series' “breaking the conventions,” but just as in that series, we thought it would be better to leave it up to players which order they encounter Pikmin in, rather than having the game decide it for them. This thought shaped the elements of Dandori, and players are now free to try out their own ideas, like using Ice Pikmin in a certain place to get the job done faster.

I see, so you want players to have fun experimenting with all the things they can do to achieve Dandori. In other words, you're leaving it up to players how they clear the game.

Kando: Precisely. You'd be surprised how well the combo of Dandori and giving players freedom works.

Hiramuki: However, we had to increase the volume of content to achieve this. The amount of things you can collect in Pikmin 4 is more than the number of items in all the previous titles combined. (Laughs)

Kando: I've been playing the game to debug it and probably completed the Story mode around 20 times. Yet I never got bored playing it, because each time it made me think, “I should try this approach next time.” It never felt like a chore. Hmm, I just said something very similar to what Aonuma-san said in the previous volume... (Laughs)

Everyone: (Laughs)

It's nice to know that the game is designed for players to keep making progress to finish it, regardless of how they go about it, while also letting them decide how they want to approach Dandori.