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The Nintendo Development Structure

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Nintendo Development Structure
Article by Anthony JC

Since May 2002, after Hiroshi Yamauchi departed from his position of nearly 50 years as Nintendo's president, Nintendo and its new leader Satoru Iwata have been evaluating the transition it must make in the 21st century to satisfy its consumer base all the while attracting first-time customers. Specifically, Nintendo has taken a big step in preparing its development groups in loom of maximizing production and innovation for the Nintendo Revolution and Nintendo DS. The past few years have seen Nintendo president Satoru Iwata conducting many experiments by rearranging and forming several new divisions. The last major Nintendo restructure in early 2000 consisted of dividing Nintendo development groups into six divisions:

  • Nintendo Research & Development 1 (R&D1)
  • Nintendo Research & Development 2 (R&D1)
  • Nintendo Integrated Research & Development (IRD)
  • Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development (EAD)
  • Nintendo Special-Planning & Development (SP&D)
  • Nintendo Research & Engineering (R&E)

Although there were six full and capable divisions, the ratio of staff heavily favored general manager Shigeru Miyamoto and deputy manager Takashi Tezuka's Nintendo EAD group.

The History

Nintendo R&D1 consisted of many acclaimed designers from the 80s. The credentials of the group included games like Kid Icarus, Metroid, Tetris, Mario Paint, Gumshoe, Detective Club, Balloon Fight, Super Mario Land, Wario Land, and most recently the Wario Ware franchise. Originally led by Gunpei Yokoi from the 70's to the 90's, Takehiro Izushi took over upon Yokoi's sad departure in 1996. The design leaders were Yoshio Sakamoto, Hirofumi Matsuoka, Takehiko Hosokawa, and Hitoshi Yamagami amongst others. Originally the biggest and most dominant group within Nintendo, the division has played second fiddle to Shigeru Miyamoto's EAD since the days of the Super Nintendo.

Nintendo R&D2 was created to focus on both hardware peripherals and software. The original general manager was Masayuki Uemura, and upon his retirement the position was held by Kazuhiko Taniguchi. The R&D2 group was very small, and perhaps spent more time experimenting than releasing software. EAD's director Toshiaki Suzuki and Legend of Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma began their careers in this division. Some notable releases include NES Open Tournament Golf, Sutte Hakun, Marvelous: Treasure Island, Super Mario Bros. DX, The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past DX, Super Mario Advance, Super Mario Advance 2, Kirby Tilt N' Tumble, and Jam With The Band.

Nintendo IRD, formerly known as Nintendo R&D3, was run under veteran engineer Genyo Takeda. Takeda's team always had the main priority of designing Nintendo's consoles. However, moonlighting became a habit for Takeda's group as they delved into video game development off and on. Genyo Takeda and his main designer Makoto Wada created Punch-Out and Star Tropics. After the team developed Super Punch-Out on the SNES, an unofficial retirement from game development occurred.

Nintendo EAD once went under the name of Nintendo R&D4. After the success of the Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda franchise, Nintendo began allocating more and more resources behind star designers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka. The group has since become the most popular and recognized Nintendo division by far. The popularity of the franchises has also become an incentive for Nintendo to use Shigeru Miyamoto as a public relations figure for the company. Ever since the 1990s, Nintendo EAD has been the biggest and most dominant group at Nintendo.

Nintendo Special-Planning & Development was a small development group headed by general manager Satoshi Yamato and former R&D1 and EAD designer Toru Osawa. The focus of the SP&D development team was to create very unique software. Yamato's group was also the main developer supporting the Pokemon Mini handheld.

Nintendo Research & Engineering was the former engineering group that belonged to Gunpei Yokoi's R&D1 division. This was the team that physically designed the original arcade kiosks, Game Boy, and Virtual Boy. R&E was created after Nintendo decided to separate the engineering side of R&D1 from the pure software development group. R&E's general manager Satoru Okada has been employed with Nintendo for over 30 years.

The Change

Satoru Iwata has completely reorganized these development groups within Nintendo. Following the trend of allocating more and more resources behind Shigeru Miyamoto's EAD group, Nintendo has finally decided to merge all its software designers under the EAD division. As of 2005, Nintendo's divisions are composed of the following:

  • Nintendo Integrated Research & Development
  • Nintendo Technology & Development
  • Nintendo Software Production & Development
  • Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development

Nintendo R&D1, Nintendo R&D2, and Nintendo-Special Planning & Development no longer exist. For the most part Nintendo has extracted all of the software designers of those three divisions, blended them with the EAD group, and has now divided EAD into several different sectors. Nintendo Technology & Development is a mix of the hardware side of Nintendo R&D2 combined with Nintendo R&E while Nintendo Software Production & Development is a new division made for overseas production of first-party software with subsidiary and partnered development groups such as Retro Studios, Kuju Entertainment, and n-Space.

Shigeru Miyamoto remains the general manager and Takashi Tezuka the deputy manager of Nintendo EAD. However, the once centralized group has now been divided into subdivisions, each with individualized managers and producers. While the exact subdivisions have not been announced, we have some information on five of these teams:

Nintendo EAD - Software Development Group #1
Manager & Producer: Hideki Konno
Software: Nintendogs, Mario Kart DS
Nintendo EAD - Software Development Group #3
Manager & Producer: Eiji Aonuma
Software: Zelda: Twilight Princess, The Legend of Zelda DS
Nintendo EAD - Software Development Group#?
Manager & Producer: Takao Shimizu
Software: Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat
Nintendo EAD - Software Development Group#?
Manager & Producer: Shinya Takahashi
Software: Brain Training Exercise DS, Jam With The Band
Nintendo EAD - Software Development Group#?
Manager & Producer: Katsuya Eguchi
Software: Animal Crossing DS, Animal Crossing Revolution
Nintendo EAD - Software Development Group#?
Manager & Producer: Hiroyuki Kimura
Software: Yoshi Touch & Go, DS Brain Training

Satoru Iwata has been preparing for this restructure for over a year. Iwata initially relieved Shigeru Miyamoto of producing overseas titles by creating Nintendo Software Production & Development under Akita Ootani. Nintendo also promoted several long-time EAD directors to producer roles -- the list of which includes Eiji Aonuma, Hideki Konno, Tadashi Sugiyama, Takao Shimizu, and Shinya Takahashi. Shigeru Miyamoto now completely manages all of Nintendo's internal software development, granting him access to the Metroid and Wario franchises for the first time. The change ultimately bodes well for Nintendo's big picture as far as creativity and productivity are concerned. Nevertheless, many mysteries remain such as the location of the Metroid team and the Wario Ware team.

The Rise & Fall of Nintendo R&D1

When Nintendo Co., Ltd. president Hiroshi Yamauchi and adviser Hiroshi Imanishi first created Nintendo's game development groups, their vision was to separate the designers and have them compete against each other. The first development team created was aptly named Nintendo Research & Development 1. R&D1 was headed by Gunpei Yokoi and was responsible for all of Nintendo's primary arcade and LCD handheld Game & Watch titles. Shigeru Miyamoto actually started out in this development group. However, in 1983, after the immense success of Donkey Kong, he was granted his own development team known as Nintendo R&D4 (later renamed Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development (EAD)).

Throughout the 80s, Gunpei Yokoi's team created classics like Kid Icarus, Metroid, Detective Club, and Wario Land. Genyo Takeda, head of Nintendo R&D2, created legends like Punch-Out and Star Tropics. Meanwhile, Shigeru Miyamoto's group created Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Clearly as great and treasured as all of the titles from R&D1 and R&D2 were, Miyamoto managed to create the two most successful intellectual properties the industry had ever seen.

Mario and Zelda became the catalyst of the first major Nintendo evolution. Hiroshi Yamauchi's original vision of having designers compete against each other was now an afterthought. Yamauchi, perhaps pressured by other Nintendo executives, split up his two most successful R&D teams. Gunpei Yokoi's team was delegated to support the Game Boy, while Shigeru Miyamoto's team was catapulted to rock stardom as the premier design group on the Super Nintendo home console. It was at this time that Yokoi and the engineering department of R&D1 created the most successful Nintendo hardware ever -- the Game Boy was a massive success, but at the same time it became a curse to the designers of R&D1. Not only was Nintendo R&D1 reduced in size in favor of the growing EAD but the team was now forced into developing Mario Land games, attempting to recreate Miyamoto's successes in the handheld realm. Yokoi allowed his developers to create sequels to Kid Icarus and Metroid after pumping out two Super Mario Land games. While working on the Mario Land franchise, the team even managed to create Nintendo's anti-hero named Wario and sway from using the character (Mario) they had no creative passion for. Wario Land became Nintendo R&D1's big hit. It continued the excellent level design of the Super Mario Land series but now with a character that was not created by Miyamoto and instead a character symbolizing R&D1's situation. Metroid II: The Return of Samus, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, and Balloon Kid were all Game Boy sequels to games that Nintendo R&D1 created because they felt that their games were just as good as Miyamoto's. They felt that these represented franchises that should be continued even if they didn't have the broad appeal of Mario and Zelda.

With the Super Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto's team got to show off new franchises like Pilotwings, F-Zero, and Star Fox to an eager Nintendo audience. In contrast, the R&D1 team, limited to developing for the Game Boy, did not have much of a platform to creatively compete with Miyamoto. Most of R&D1's games were simple and short because no consumer was expected to play an epic adventure on a primitive mobile gaming device. Shigeru Miyamoto's group became the sole representative of the Super Nintendo, with R&D1 being invisible outside of a famous late entry entitled Super Metroid. To this day, Super Metroid stands as one of the most critically acclaimed and highly recognized examples of excellence in game design. While Yoshio Sakamoto was involved in the original Metroid as an assistant, in the third installment Sakamoto stepped up as the lead director and proved he could make the ideal Metroid experience.

When the Nintendo 64 came into fruition, the only thing Nintendo fans seemed to want were 3D sequels to the great games Nintendo created on the Super Nintendo. Bigger, better, and faster!!! There was really no place for Nintendo R&D1 within the new Nintendo schematic outside of handheld software and hardware. With this knowledge, Gunpei Yokoi came up with the successor to the Game Boy platform, a 3D-VR helmet called the Virtual Boy. Although it was innovative, the system's awkward helmet and games with simple 'red' graphics failed to attract an audience. All of the time and energy R&D1 put into the system went unnoticed to even the Nintendo audience.

Gunpei Yokoi, general manager and leader of Nintendo R&D1, was shamed by the failure of the Virtual Boy and left Nintendo in September 1996 to start his own company, Koto Laboratory. He passed away as a result of a car crash a year later. The latter half of the 90's was full of tribulation for the R&D1 team. The development group reached total disarray without a leader and without a console or franchise to develop for. Longtime assistant Takehiro Izushi took over the now small group (recall it was originally the largest), and vowed to continue the team philosophy of making the best videogames possible. In 1998, Yoshio Sakamoto released a remake to his cult-classic Detective Club 2 in Japan. While the game was Yoshio Sakamoto's second SNES game, the title only reached a very limited audience.

In March 2001, Nintendo launched the Game Boy Advance. The core software for the system came from two groups. Nintendo R&D2 was assigned the task of porting Mario and Zelda titles to the system. Nintendo R&D1 was once again assigned the critical role of developing original software for the system. Did the team step up? Finally R&D1 assumed the task of being a driving force on a more competent system capable of displaying some of the innovation and design philosophies the team was famous for. Yoshio Sakamoto finally had the opportunity to develop Metroid titles in the form of Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Zero Mission. Hirofumi Matsuoka and the former Super Mario Land team got to develop Wario Land 4 and one of the biggest new Nintendo IP's this generation, Wario Ware.

The Game Boy Advance exposed hardcore Nintendo fans, hardcore gaming enthusiasts, and casual gamers to the team's magic -- Wario Ware, Wario Land, and Metroid Fusion. Consumers were no longer playing a Mario Land game whose success might be attributed to the character rather than the design team. People were now playing full-fledged R&D1 created experiences and loving every minute of it. Has Nintendo taken notice? Shigeru Miyamoto certainly has done his part in giving adoration to his development sister by recognizing the millions of Metroid fans and stating in an interview of how jealous he was that he never created a brilliant game like Wario Ware.

Still, the resources devoted to R&D1's games are no where near the level that is allocated to the next Mario or the next Zelda. Although there's a chance the members of R&D1 will be pushed aside in this new Nintendo development structure...we can only hope that they will finally have their chance to shine. Now that everyone is under the EAD division, perhaps the former disparity between the divisions and moreover the preferential treatment ceases to exist.

The journey over the past 20 years has been fraught with trials and tribulations but through it all, R&D1 has shown itself to have the capacity to create. It's clearly time we provide them with the proper tools and resources to do something more. It's time for Nintendo and Satoru Iwata to give Yoshio Sakamoto a team as large as Hideo Kojima's (creator of Konami's Metal Gear Solid series) to create a new and edgy franchise. It's time for a Wario Ware game designed from the ground up for a console with four controller ports. Overall, it's time that the people who brought us Game Boy and titles such as Metroid and Wario Land have the opportunity to create the next Nintendo masterpiece. It's time, Nintendo. Surely it's a risk but then what new and visionary idea isn't? Afterall, you wouldn't have come upon Mario or Zelda had you not taken one...