Miyazaki shares about Total Direction in Game Design
Hidetaka Miyazaki is the game director behind the highly acclaimed Souls games. His works are known for having high integrity, quality, and consistency.
He has gained the respect and trust of his fans and followers, to the point that they believe they will enjoy whatever game he directs.
You may wonder how he achieves this. What are the secrets of Miyazaki in game design? What does he really contribute to the product development process? How active is he as a game director?
Discover what Miyazaki calls Total Direction and learn how he uses it in leading his teams in creating their games.
Total Direction in Game Design
Miyazaki follows a principle he calls Total Direction in working with his teams. It could be summarized as follows:
- He takes full control of the direction of the game. This includes:
- All text in the game - labels, descriptions, menus
- All names in the game - character, location, armor, and item names
- The story and lore
- Background music and sound effects
- Cut scenes and artwork
- Map and level design
- He takes full accountability in all decisions
- He gives creative freedom to his members
- He promotes synergy in the team
- Still, everything must pass his approval, and he has the final say on the output:
- Character design
- Weapon design
- Armor design
- Boss fights and combat
- He engages the team with philosophical and conceptual discussions to flesh out the game and align them to his vision
The only game where (1.c) was not followed was during the creation of Sekiro, as he started delegating the detailing of the story to a member of the team.
Miyazaki: I am aware that my approach to game direction during product development is a bit different from others. I call it “total direction.” It means I get complete control of how a game is created, not only with regard to level design but also on background music, sound effects, and everything else. I believe that gives it a unique quality.
Honestly, I truly enjoy the game director role because it’s like being the total overall designer of a game.
Knowll Insight: Miyazaki takes control of as many factors in game development as he can. He would rarely put another level of manager or team lead between him and the people who actually do the work.
Miyazaki: In game design, our approach is not to have lead designers but, instead, have the game director work directly with the individual designers.
This, of course, has both benefits and disadvantages. The benefit is that you don’t lose sight of what you are set to create, and it’s easier to make an impact and have your unique style shine through. However, there are physical limitations. In as much as the method allows you to really stay on target, it’s also easy to be immobilized.
Miyazaki as an Actor for Characters and Scenes
One of the many things that make Miyazaki unique and different from other game directors is that he takes active participation in reenacting cutscenes and character actions in the game.
He will typically act a cutscene or character action himself so that the animators have a better idea of how he envisions the scene in his mind. Often he succeeds, but sometimes he does not, leading to frustration on his side.
Here is an insight during the creation of Dark Souls’ CGI trailer:
Satake: We used motion capture for the pre-rendered movie, but in the scenes where it differed from Miyazaki’s vision, he would act it out himself. For example, in the part where Nito opens his hand, we had to reshoot that many times. Also, in the scene where the maiden takes the fire, initially, she just takes it in her hand, but Miyazaki wants it to appear as though she is in prayer. We had to reshoot that part multiple times too.
Knowll Insight: And here is Miyazaki sharing his experience with the animation involving the Dragon Torso Stone.
Miyazaki: One animation that I will always recall is when the player activates the Dragon Torso Stone and transforms. I actually acted the motion for the animators to see, but when they showed me the finished scene, I did not like it. I told them, “he would not move like this,” to which they replied, “but this is how you showed it to us. We are sure of it.” Well, everyone agreed with them. I was a little embarrassed, but that awkward, jerky motion actually conveyed what it would be like if a human were trying to force himself to become a dragon. In the end, after some adjustments, I gave it the Ok.
Knowll Insight: There are more instances of Miyazaki working as an actor for scenes. Here is the final example; this time, one of his team members shares his experience related to the Soul Drain attack.
Satake: I will always remember the Dark Hand’s Soul Drain attack. It was the first thing Miyazaki wanted to show to me and the first time I experienced being on the receiving end of his acting. He said, “I want it to look like this,” while acting out the motion. Of course, I had no clue what he was doing.
Full Ownership of Names
Miyazaki takes full accountability in the creation of names for the game, as he finds it extremely enjoyable. He welcomes suggestions and accepts input from the team, but in the end, he takes full ownership of the decisions.
Miyazaki: I occasionally get hints and recommendations from everyone on the team and from Frognation, the company that handled the English translations of our games since Demon’s Souls. However, in the end, I choose all the names. This has always been the case for all the games that I have directed. Names are an incredibly important part of the world you want to depict, but even more than that, I truly love coming up with them. I’m kind of a naming nerd, I think. It’s always fun for me. I enjoy the whole process, things like word origins, how it sounds in expressions, regional variations, the whole thing. The only exception here is the titles of my games. I am really terrible at that, and so far, I have never had a good experience with it.
Full Ownership of the Text in the game (including Menus)
Miyazaki writes all the text in the game - including item descriptions, weapon, location, monster, and armor names, and even the text that shows in the menus.
Miyazaki shares below his experience in writing the menu text for Dark Souls:
Miyazaki: Actually, the text is so small that I can’t write anything decent. Three lines of text, with that character limit, it’s impossible. I kind of gave up on them. It’s a bit cheap, but I also think it’s more interesting with that charm, so it’s good enough, but that wouldn’t be nice in a big title or a serious game. But for us? Good enough!
Honestly, the reason I’m writing the texts is that it prevents the game development from falling behind or having more pressure due to also having to write the texts. Professionals could write those texts, together with the dialogues and the screenplay, and that would result in much better quality. But we kept tweaking the game till the very end, which resulted in the need to fix items and scenarios.
Full Ownership of Map Designs
Among all the activities of Miyazaki as a game director, there is one specific area that he loves to do most. And this area is Map Design. He believes that map design has the strongest influence on the player’s experience of the game and has the biggest impact on his enjoyment of it.
Miyazaki: I personally enjoy designing the connections of the overall map. It is actually how the majority of the areas were constructed.
Map design is what really dictates everything else. Once we have determined what needs to happen in an area, we would immediately prepare a rough map, and then once the basic layout of the area was created, we would work on the finer details. By using the rough map, I could convey the requirements, appearance, and structure of an area to the artists and let them develop these ideas through collaboration.
Knowll Insight: As expected, for Bloodborne, he designed all the maps, excluding the Chalice dungeon.
Miyazaki: Excluding the Chalice Dungeons, I personally laid out all the maps in Bloodborne. It’s something that I like to do a lot. This relates to the sense of achievement I talked about earlier. Creating well-designed maps provides a certain joy to the player. It adds value to the player’s actions. As a creator, I find it much fun drawing up the map of the land in your mind. It is a really game-like design, and I quite enjoy it a lot.
Knowll Insight: Miyazaki had this view as early as when he was working on Demon’s Souls. He places heavy emphasis on the value of Map Design, and this belief influenced him when he was about to begin Dark Souls.
Miyazaki: During the later development stage of Demon’s Souls, I began to think of creating a vast connected map for a future game, so it was not planned to be adopted for Demon’s Souls. And so, during the start of development for Dark Souls, I prepared a plan to implement the vast, seamless map.
Full Ownership of the Stories
Miyazaki has publicly confirmed that he has full ownership of the stories and lore in his games. The only exception is with Sekiro, where he still took the primary authorship but delegated the fleshing out of the details to a team member.
Miyazaki: As someone who has written the Dark Souls and Bloodborne games, I would not like to repeat that in Sekiro. I feel that users are going to get bored or tired of this approach, so we opted for a fresh approach here.
Also, this ability to convey and share the narrative internally with other staff more efficiently and let them give their take on it and arrange this information, this abundant amount of data between characters and plots and what have you, is very refreshing. It allows you to get a better grasp of the story as a company.
Miyazaki and Sekiro's Plot
In case you are wondering how much of the story of Sekiro came from Miyazaki, be assured that it is all from him. He owned the overall plot. And if you would like to find out a possible inspiration for Miyazaki in creating this plot, read this.
Miyazaki: Yes, I created the foundational ideas and worked with another staff member to refine them. While looking over their work closely, I have left most of the actual writing to the staff. Though this is the first time I have directed the plot but not done the writing, I believe it will be a good and fresh approach for this work, especially given the peculiarities of my writing style.
Knowll Insight: This is an approach that he might continue in the future. For example, in the development of Elden Ring, he collaborated with George R. R. Martin for the creation of the lore. Miyazaki owns the story that takes place with the hero, but the mythology of the game belongs to Martin.
Active Participation in the Overall Design Process
As shared earlier, Miyazaki does not put an extra layer between him and the people who actually do the work. He actively participates in all design activities in the game.
Miyazaki: We followed two significant approaches when designing Dark Souls. In the initial concept stages, I provided each of the artists with a few simple “image words” that they could utilize as a starting point and freely develop in whatever way they wished. We then collected the images we liked, enhanced them where necessary, and used them to create the world. For example, the Egg Carrier, Gaping Dragon, and Gravelord Nito all emerged during this stage and moved almost unchanged into the final game.
In cases where I have a clear idea of what I want, we use a different approach. For example, if something is meant to be used to perform a function, or an area is designed in a way to satisfy a particular condition. Specific examples would be the Mimic and the Gargoyles. Regardless of which of the two approaches we use, rather than appoint a staff to own and take charge of each concept, I took the designs and discussed them with everyone, and developed them in that way.
Active Participation in Character Designs
For character designs, Miyazaki works with individual designers, and they will keep on doing iterations until the output matches the vision that Miyazaki has.
Miyazaki: I really like Logan as an NPC. I spent a good length of time on his design. He is a wise man, a sage, but I really wanted to make him unique, so I had quite a few designs made for him. Once we decided on the idea of his big hat, the design came together. However, that part was not there from the start and only emerged after continuous revisions.
Knowll Insight: Not only does Miyazaki review and improve the output of his artists and designers, but he also does actual research as well. Below is a glimpse of this activity where Miyazaki shares the kind of work he did for the creation of Gwyn’s character design.
Miyazaki: We wanted Gwyn’s clothing to look ancient, as he is an old king, after all. I studied a lot of old clothing, but I could not find anything that looked cool. As an example, short pants would not create the image we wanted to create for the character. I’m happy with the final design, though.
Active Participation in Monster Designs
In creating the monsters for the boss fights, Miyazaki begins with the design rather than focusing on the movesets. He then works with the artists in polishing the concept art.
Miyazaki: First comes the design. However, when I have more or less pinned the concept down, I ask the designer to do the art. Then I will already tell them what they need and what kind of boss it will be.
I describe the bare minimum a boss needs and leave the rest to the designer because I believe this adds even more to the originality. Since if I intrude too much, we will end up focusing on the game’s development logic. I just let the designer work on whatever comes up in his imagination. I think, this way, our results will be more exciting and unique.
Knowll Insight: Though Miyazaki is no graphics artist, he also takes active participation in designing monster elements, like in the case of the boss Old Monk, from Demon’s Souls. He himself designed the collar of this boss.
Miyazaki: I have a lot of favorite enemies and bosses from each game. As for this title, I think I will hold off from going into boss info to avoid spoilers. Let me weed it down into one: the Old Monk. This boss used a unique and somewhat experimental multiplayer system. I remember facing a lot of opposition to realizing the idea. I also designed the boss’s headcollar myself. Overall, I have a very personal bond with this character.
Active Participation in Armor Designs
Miyazaki reviews all the armor and weapon designs prepared by the artists, and none gets into the game without his approval. When doing the review, he looks for a certain quality in the designs that reflect a sense of feeling or emotion.
Miyazaki: This might sound a little abstract, but I really like equipment that conveys feelings or emotions.
I reviewed all the designs with that in mind, and though I could not get that from every one of them, I felt I was not entirely unsuccessful. Of course, this does not only apply to the aesthetics but the game mechanics must also be constructed around this idea. It is something I always strive for, a theme that carries through everything that I do.
Active Participation in Location Designs
In addition to taking full ownership of the map designs, Miyazaki also takes active participation in the creation of a location’s look and feel. Similar to how he reviews all the armor and weapon designs, all of the location concept art gets scrutinized by him.
Miyazaki: For Blighttown, I began with several images that I wanted to include, but due to the size and complexity of the area, it would have been challenging to try and design all at once. So instead, we began with significant features like the water wheel elevator, and with the help of the designers and artists, we gradually built the area from there.
It should be clear by now that Miyazaki has a very hands-on approach, even with location designs. He shares the information below on how he and the team created one of the most popular locations in the game, Anor Londo.
Miyazaki: There was a lot that I wanted to include in Anor Londo. I wanted it to be like a player’s reward after surviving Sen’s Fortress. Also, I wanted it to be an area with no clear roads, where the player has to walk in places that you would not normally walk, like the buttresses. Then we also have the image of the setting sun and how the area changes once night falls. I truly like the way your eye gets drawn to different features, like the revolving staircase elevator.
Discusses Abstract Concepts and Philosophical Topics with Team
Miyazaki spends time discussing abstract concepts and philosophical topics with his teams. It helps him transfer his creative vision to his members and enables them to flesh out the details further.
Miyazaki: If we simply focused on what was required rather than innovating, I don’t believe something like this would have been created. In order to achieve this with my designers, I discussed with them all sorts of things. For example, I converse at length with Nakamura regarding philosophy.
We spent a lot of time discussing the core concept of art design. Our game focuses a lot on death, but what is death? What does it look like? What does death mean in this world? What does it mean to live and to die? These are topics we discussed very closely.
People have a multitude of definitions for what beautiful means. We had deep discussions about what beautiful should mean for the game.
Knowll Insight: Below is specific instances where Miyazaki shared what kind of concepts and topics he discussed with the team during the creation of their games.
Conceptual Discussions for Bloodborne:
Miyazaki: We covered topics like ‘What is deep inside of a beast?’ or ‘What is it like to become one?’ As always, I talked to the designer passionately about many random topics.
Conceptual Discussions for Dark Souls:
Miyazaki: We discussed about the world, life, and death, the game world, the meaning of fire, and the role of the Four Kings. By discussing these with the artists, I found that it not only aided them in developing their ideas but it really helped me flesh out my own ideas of the world I wanted to create.
Actively Overseas the Quality of Designs
Miyazaki provides guidance to the team that all designers and concept artists must follow. He demands a level of quality that must be met and maintained in all aspects of game creation.
Miyazaki: You may not believe this, but I always try to maintain a certain level of refinement and elegance in all designs. I often tell the artists that being muddy or messy is definitely not good. I believe this carries through the entire game. If you ask me to describe what this elegance means, I think you only have to check the designs and judge for yourself, but it truly is one of the most important factors in everything I oversee.
Total Direction and Team Synergy
Though Miyazaki practices total direction, he still promotes and encourages creative synergy in his teams. He gives his members as much creative freedom as they need to manifest his visions.
Miyazaki: If I don’t receive the results I expected, I begin giving more specific descriptions and might even start drawing things on a whiteboard. But even then, I would never go as far as to say, “it has to be this specific color or shape.” I do not intend for the designers to become my tools. Things do not always go as I want, but I believe that’s probably due to me not getting the most out of the artists. This is one of the things I want to get better in the future.
I am never satisfied with design works that just follow the design brief, so I often request the artists and the designers to add some of their own ideas. I think that these ideas can enrich the area, if not the whole game, although this can lead to more work, of course.
Finding the Balance - Total Direction and Individual Creative Freedom
After looking into the various aspects of Total Direction, it may appear as though it is pure micromanagement. But this is what you would expect from someone who has a strong passion and obsession with realizing his vision. However, Miyazaki balances himself with the amount of creative freedom he gives to his members.
Miyazaki: As I have shared before, I took charge of all of the designs and was ultimately responsible for their direction. Since they all went through me, I believe there is some degree of unification.
Having said that, I aimed to bring out all of the artists’ individual styles because I think working closely with the designers to develop their ideas while still encouraging their personal styles creates a deeper, more organic feeling to the game’s world in the end.
As I shared earlier, each artist begins with just a few simple “image words” and develops the designs from that. The words that inspired each of their designs and the way they chose to apply them were very different. Some found that relatively conceptual words gave them ideas, while others used them to develop a character’s background story. Each collaboration was different, which made them stimulating in their own way. I believe this is the main reason that the world of Dark Souls turned out as good as it did.