Kazutoshi Iida designed and released three games in his career before changing paths, eventually becoming a game design professor at Japanese universities. The most famous of those games is probably Doshin the Giant, released in the west for the GameCube in 2002. In it you walk around a large open world as a friendly faced giant, terraforming the world to help humans build villages and make them happy.
Like Doshin, Iida's other games were hard to classify, and when I spoke to him at the Japanese indie festival Bitsummit (opens in new tab), it was clear he doesn't think about games just in terms of platformers or shooters or other typical genres. For example, in his first game design course, he doesn't teach students how to use Unity or build a basic Mario clone. He makes them draw.
"In the first year, I teach students about drawing, about how to observe things in the world, and how to recreate them on paper without using technology, because I feel that's a very important part of the game process," Iida said through an interpreter. "Not using words, but using images to copy things that you see. I want people to observe things and draw them, but also to view how unique their drawing is compared to others.
"If 10 people took this bottle of water and drew it, they would all be different. Each person would have their own perspective on this bottle of water. One way to do game design is to take a game you like and add to it. But if you do that, the game won't be very unique. So I try to teach the students how to have a unique core, how to build on their own ideas by first teaching them how to do these drawings."
Iida is clearly as thoughtful a teacher as he was a game designer. He really went against the grain when he was a designer, in an era where "art games" were all but nonexistent on consoles. I thought he'd have something especially enlightening to say when I asked him what what games he finds interesting today. But it turns out he loves Grand Theft Auto just as much as everybody else.(opens in new tab)
"Not a Japanese developer, but Rockstar Games is one of my favorites," he said. I pointed out that GTA is about as far away from Doshin the Giant (first released in Japan on the N64 in 1999) as you can get.
"Doshin the Giant was kind of an open world game, and also the idea for a sandbox is kind of something that I think Doshin the Giant helped introduce to the world. And maybe not directly influenced Rockstar Games, but maybe kind of influenced them, at the same time. One thing I like about the games is that there's an open world environment, but that's not the only part of the game. There's way more to it than just a big open world."
It all comes full circle. Iida said that he likes GTA 3 and 4, but 5 had an especially big impact on him, because he could see how influences from tons of different mobster movies—Italian mafia, Japanese yakuza, American mob—were all combined.
There's a lesson in that for his students that goes back to the drawings he has them do. Perspective and observation are important.
"Kojima Productions is probably trying to do this as well," he said. "I know Kojima personally and know Kojima really really likes movies. He watches an impossible amount of movies and has taken inspiration from some of them. That's definitely a way to create something unique: To observe things from movies or novels, or even just collections of pictures. But not just to watching them in a normal way. You have to be excessive about it. You have to watch every single movie you can watch, doing this one thing, so you can draw inspiration, a little bit here, a little bit there. That's one way to create something unique. He talked about drawing pictures, but it's also important to observe anything you can, whatever you can."
As for his favorite GTA character? For that answer, Iida didn't need an interpreter.
"Trevor," he said with a chuckle.