Luigi’s Mansion 2 : Interview with VFS Alumni on the Development Team

Box Art for Luigi's Mansion 2 : Dark Moon

Luigi’s Mansion 2 : Dark Moon was released March 24, 2013 and right away it took off like a rocket. It was the top selling game in Japan for three weeks in a row. We (myself, Senior Instructor Andrew Laing and Head Of Department Dave Warfield) conducted an interview with VFS Game Design graduates who helped in the creation of this very successful game.

Thanks very much to Diego Pons, Matt McTavish, Cavin Yen, and Jeffrie Wu for their time and for producing such a fun game. And thanks to Doug Tronsgard and Rob Davidson from Next Level Games (NLG) for helping to make this interview happen.

Cavin Yen, Diego Pons, Matt McTavish (behind Diego) & Jeffrie Wu

Michael Boyce: First of all, can you tell us a bit about what is so unique about this update to the Luigi game?

Cavin Yen: In my opinion, what makes Luigi Mansion 2 (LM2) stand out from its predecessor is how well the game is developed for being played in 3D. I believe that Nintendo, at the time of making the original Luigi’s Mansion, had thought about making the game on a 3D platform, however, that platform simply just did not exist.

The “doll-house” feel really makes a huge difference when played in 3D and was also one of the challenges we faced when creating this game.

Michael: What were some of the challenges to creating this game for the 3DS?

Matt McTavish: One of the bigger challenges we had was wrapping our mind around what it means to be a stereoscopic game. We wanted the game to be fully enjoyable with the 3D slider cranked up, so we spent a lot of our early prototypes figuring out what worked and what didn’t, related to 3D. When you play through the game, there are so many moments where you can sit back and really enjoy the 3D effect and how it really helps bring the world alive.

Jeffrie Wu: There’s not a lot of precedence for making great 3D games on a portable device, so a lot of the solutions had to be found through exploration and iteration as a design team. The device’s control scheme was a unique parameter to work within and there are nifty functionalities available on the device that the team challenged itself to explore. From a personal standpoint, making things as visible as possible to the player within a portable screen when the levels are so jam-packed was always a focus.

Luigi's Mansion DVD Cover for Gamecube

Michael: Were there any difficulties in translating this from the Gamecube format?

Matt: Luigi’s Mansion 2 is such a good fit for the 3DS in so many ways. The original Gamecube game was developed to make use of a stereoscopic peripheral, which players would attach to their TV’s, so we had a good foundation. One of the bigger challenges was the controls and the lack of the right analog stick that the Gamecube version used. This helped us recreate the core ghost gameplay to use one stick, and to use the 3DS gyro to help the player look around.

Michael: What sort of approach did you take to creating the feeling of depth?

Matt: We spent a lot of time experimenting with different values and different techniques to make the most out of the stereoscopic effect. We had a solid foundation of what worked and didn’t by the time we entered production, so it was a matter of making the player appreciate the 3D and not want to turn it off.

gamecube controller Luigi's Mansion 2 on 3DS

Andrew Laing: Diego, are you proud of anything specifically that you a direct hand in for this title?

Diego Pons: It’s a difficult question to answer, because I was involved in many things. I’m very pleased about the game’s presentation. Overall, it has been very well received.

Two particular things do come to mind though: One is the dialogue – which are almost monologues — between Professor E. Gadd and Luigi.

We had to keep our story simple, but at the same time it was necessary to give the player a sense of progression; which became even more important with the multiple mansions and our particular mission structure. The main point was to provide context and meaningful information about what the player was supposed to be doing during the upcoming mission. However, we had to do so keeping in mind that players could play three or more missions non-stop, or could be picking up the game after a long break and would need to be reminded of where the adventure left off. In addition, we had to keep the system flexible (and localization friendly) given the constant iterations we were producing.

Furthermore, we had very important guidelines on what we could do with the characters. Characters in the Mario world don’t develop; so that poses a big challenge when you have an adventure game where progression, immersion and atmosphere play a big part. Because we couldn’t rely on huge story turning points or character arcs, we decided to highlight the characters’ personalities and make them shine in the most humorous/endearing way possible.

So far the reviewers have been praising the writing and have stated that the interactions make them smile and chuckle, so I take that as a job well done.

I’d like to add that working directly with Eric Smith, a writer from Nintendo of America, was a blast and a very enriching experience.

The other thing I’m very proud of is the Vault feature, and the fact that I championed its existence – almost in a zealous way! There were many risks, challenges and constraints related to it. At some points the entire Vault was at risk of being cut. At those times I went back, gathered the pieces and insisted the Vault would add tons of replayability and that it was a feature that rewarded exploration, a core element of our game. I think the effort paid off and players – especially the ones that like collecting stuff in games (like myself) — really appreciated it.

Luigi meets with Professor E. Gadd

Andrew: You guys worked very hard on this game, what was your reaction when you heard about your “Hall of Fame level” Famitsu score?

Diego: Plain joy!

It was a great compliment to our work, commitment and passion, because Famitsu has such high standards. I’m proud that we were able to deliver a game – developed in North America – that managed to impress gamers in Japan and all over the world.

Dave: Jeffrie, having worked at a few different companies now in different roles, what have been the differences that you have seen?

Jeffrie: Every project is a different experience and each one has a life and personality of its own. In my experience, every game studio has its own groove for getting things done and its own list of best practices, but from project to project it can change dramatically. It’s one of the scary but also exciting things that making games can offer.

I’ve now worked as a mission scripter, a living world designer, an AI designer, and a level designer. All of them have been unique challenges on their own, and often, in order to get into the right design mindset, it requires a drastic perspective switch. I’ve learned to be flexible and to try to not expect any of my past solutions to be the best ones for the job at hand.

Dave: Cavin and Jeffrie, what skills did you learn at VFS that you have been able to apply at Next Level Games and in your other roles?

Cavin: I have only worked at two studios since graduating from VFS: Next Level Games and Rabbit Hole Interactive (RHI). Next Level Games has been around for a decade now, whereas RHI was a startup company. The biggest difference that I’ve seen is in the game development process. Different companies have different processes for developing a game. Next Level Games has a lot of experience with balancing out all the stages of development, from pre-production to full-on production.

The skills I learned at VFS, which apply in the industry on daily basis are:

  • Learn new tools and skills extremely quickly.
  • Work efficiently with a small team.
  • Be in full crunch mode whenever a milestone date needs to be hit.
  • Be able to come up with ideas and pitch them to directors or peers.

Jeffrie: Working hard, expecting new challenges every day, and my own list of best practices, which I’ve been adding to and evolving since VFS. Always work on improving yourself and your processes. Even since graduation, I still pretend that I’m a student.

Dave Warfield: Matt, you have been at NLG now since you graduated, what have been the greatest skills you learned from VFS that you apply on a regular basis?

Matt: The best thing about making games is that you are constantly challenging yourself to solve new and interesting problems. VFS does an excellent job of preparing students in a lot of different ways. By graduating VFS, you’ve proven that you have a strong grasp on all facets of game design, so when you start working professionally you are prepared for any type of work that might be needed.

Andrew: Matt, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the role of designer over the last 7 years?

Matt McTavish: Haha — Wow, seven years — it doesn’t feel like that long. We’ve been lucky at NLG to work on a lot of different genres and platforms, so the role of a designer is always changing, which is exciting. We’ve worked on puzzle games, sports games, rail shooters, beat’em ups, and adventure titles. Every game requires designers to contribute in different ways, so designers need to be flexible and adaptable at NLG. This is a huge benefit that students get from graduating from VFS, where you get to experience all facets of game design, so you graduate well-rounded.

Luigi's Mansion 2

Andrew: What makes this game a Luigi game?

Jeffrie: Luigi is an unexpectedly unique character in the Nintendo world. You have to imagine what it’s like to be thought of as second fiddle but to be so similar to the one who’s in first place. It’s a lot different than being in last place or the villain. On top of that, “player one” is his brother. Luigi doesn’t become a rival, he doesn’t try to steal the spotlight in his brother’s games, despite being able to jump higher, and often he’s only too happy to help his brother be the best he can be. It requires a lot of heart to do that day in and day out, for decades even. Patience. Heart. Unexpectedness. Luigi to me has the most emotional range and complexity out of all the characters. That’s what makes him special to make a game for in the Nintendo world and that’s what LM2 tried to capture.

Michael: How did you manage to balance the old and the new aspects of Luigi and the game?

Matt: We didn’t really think about it too much. With treasured IP, it’s a delicate balance. You want to deliver something new and exciting, yet familiar. Having worked on Punch-Out!! before, we knew the types of nostalgic elements that players remember and how we could play on those memories. It was very similar in Luigi’s Mansion 2. We all played the original, so there were specific elements, which for us, just had to be there, or nodded too in a way, to where we say… we remember, and we liked it too.

Michael: How did you adjust or expand on the personality for Luigi?

Matt: Our animation team did an unbelievable job of bringing Luigi and his personality to light. We had the first Luigi’s Mansion as inspiration, and we watched a lot of Mr. Bean to help get the style of humor and personality we were looking for. You always know Mr. Bean is going to get into some kind of trouble, and sort of goofily blunder his way out of it, which is what makes it really funny. The audience has this kind of perspective or anticipation when watching the show; it becomes a lot of fun to watch it. The player gets the same sort of feeling while playing Luigi’s Mansion 2. You know ‘something’ is going to happen, and that it will probably be at the expense of Luigi, but watching as it unfolds is pretty fun.

Jeffrie: Luigi has so many great reactions in this game. He’s a quirky guy who’s full of surprises. On the surface he may seem like a cowardly fellow but as the game progresses you get to see a lot of character from him. I suggest standing Luigi under some flowing water when you get a chance. Definitely a quirky guy. Just through the multitude of small moments like that in the game, you get an even richer sense of who he is and what makes him so special.

Luigi's Mansion

Andrew: Matt, I heard that Shigeru Miyamoto himself came to your office. What was that like for you?

Matt: Anytime we get to work closely and collaborate with Nintendo, everyone at NLG has so much fun and learns a ton. With Miyamoto-san, it was the same… just maybe x100. Miyamoto-san came to visit the office on the final day of a weeklong summit with other team members from Nintendo and to put it simply… it was epic!

We got to work closely with Miyamoto-san throughout the entire development cycle of Luigi’s Mansion. Every week or two, he would review the game and send us his comments/mumblings. Sometimes his feedback would be focused, but most of the time it would seem like it was coming out of left field — in an “only Miyamoto” kind of way. It might be, for example, something along the lines of him comparing a puzzle to drinking milk and sugar, where sometimes he just really enjoys the natural sweetness of milk by itself.

So reading his comments/mumblings were always an adventure, and they forced the team to think deeply on what he really was saying. When he came to visit the studio, we got to witness firsthand how Miyamoto’s mind works. He has so much experience and wisdom, and takes a real sensei type approach to giving feedback. He never tells you how to fix a problem, or sometimes, even what the real problem is, rather he empowers the team to come to their own conclusions. He is a great mentor.

Andrew: Cavin, what was your reaction to hearing that Miyamoto has proclaimed this to be the “Year of Luigi!” to celebrate his 30th year in games? Do you think that Luigi was getting the respect he deserves?

Cavin: When Mr. Miyamoto-san proclaimed this to be “The Year of Luigi” I was extremely excited! I felt that Luigi was not getting the respect he deserves, so it was about time Nintendo focused more on Luigi. That excitement however, quickly turned into anxiety. There was a sudden realization that LM2 would be spearheading this “Year of Luigi” charge! This was a highly anticipated title and as a team we knew we needed to reach and surpass fan’s expectations. LM2 was also a Miyamoto title, and with that comes a feeling of great responsibility to make sure everything that is implemented is at its best.

I had a lot of fun making LM2. It has always been a dream of mine to work on a Nintendo game. I feel truly blessed to have been given the opportunity to not only work on a Nintendo title, but a Miyamoto title. This is for sure one of the highlights of my career!

Luigi's Mansion 2 is a multipalyer game

Michael: Was it difficult to achieve the great level of detail, which helps to offer such a rich experience with lots of surprises?

Matt: It was one of our main goals from the start, so it didn’t feel overly difficult. A core pillar, which really resonates throughout the game is, “surprise and delight.” We always want to reward players for “going left” or taking the time to explore the game. If the player invests the time, the game should acknowledge this.

Jeffrie: From how Nintendo encourages early design exploration during project development, there was always an abundance of great ideas available at any given time. It was a big challenge, in the sense that there were so many great ideas and the team had to ultimately choose which ones would make it and which ones wouldn’t.

Michael: How did making this a multiplayer game change the direction of the game development?

Matt: Multiplayer was always a natural fit. Since the early prototypes, we really focused on improving the ghost “fishing” gameplay. Miyamoto-san focused us in the first few months of pre-pro to focus on the “core mechanic” of stunning and tethering a ghost. Having a strong core allowed us to create an engaging multiplayer experience without needing to change the game.

Jeffrie: The multiplayer never took anything away from the single player experience. In fact, both experiences borrowed, shared, and sparked ideas from each other constantly.

Andrew: Jeffrie, how do you make a game scary without making it too scary?

Jeffrie: It was definitely a challenging design constraint. There are lots of ways to “scare” people and everybody gets scared for different reasons at varying thresholds. Because of that, relying on phobia-based fears can be a hit or miss solution and in LM2 they were only used sparingly. The majority of the “scares” in Luigi’s Mansion 2 were designed by taking advantage of the pacing and flow, and various things like player expectation and anticipation. Anyone can be “scared” or “spooked” if they’re not expecting it, and anything can be scary if it’s new and unknown. That being said, the general spookiness was something the design team had to manage to keep it from getting out of hand. What helped was having little early guidelines — for example, anything “spooky” should be explainable once the problem/puzzle was solved.

Scared Luigi Running from Ghosts

Michael: The trailer promises an immersive experience, how did this effect the game play development?

Matt: We focused a lot of attention on the little details. Our goal was to make the player really care about the world, and the best way to achieve this was to make the world really care about the player.

Jeffrie: A lot of effort went into making memorable levels, encounters, and environments that had a unique personality of their own. Also having Luigi be as expressive as possible was a great tool in helping the players share in the moments.

Dave: Finally, what recommendations would you make to students in the Game Design program if they wanted to have success in the industry?

Matt: Success is what you make it. Give everything your 100% effort, so when all is said and done you know you gave it your all.

Jeffrie: Don’t stop, work hard, and wear your passion on your sleeve. Always aim to make yourself better, even after school.

Thanks guys — congratulations to you all, and to everybody else at Next Level Games!

Dave Warfield is Head of Department for Game Design
Andrew Laing teaches Game Mechanics, Presentation Skills, Game Design and Post Mortem
Michael Boyce is a Community Cultivator at VFS