According to a Metroid Prime developer, Nintendo and other Japanese publishers take more risks with game prototypes before agreeing on full development terms with studios, compared to western publishers.
This comes from the latest Kiwi Talkz podcast, where host Reece Reilly spoke to Jack Mathews, who worked on all three Metroid Prime games at Retro Studios. Discussion eventually moved to the differences between how Japanese and western publishers finance their titles and take risks.
“A lot of the way that deals get structured is that [Western publishers] want – when you’re going to do a prototype – they want to do an entire long-form agreement of the entire game […] before you start the prototype,” said Mathews.
“It ends up negating a lot of what you’re doing in the prototype anyway because you still have to figure out how much the whole thing is going to cost for this thing that you really don’t know much about.”
Mathews then rhetorically asks why smaller developers would make a prototype “on their own dime” if it never gets picked up by a publisher, as all that time and money they invested would be wasted.
Reilly follows this up by asking why Nintendo would allow developers to make a prototype before full development contracts are signed, to which Mathews responded: “[Nintendo] know that that’s the right way to go. It’s all about risk/reward, where you put your risk and where you see your reward”. With him adding that a lot of Nintendo’s teams are internal, so they see prototypes as “sunk costs” until a product makes money.
The restarting of Metroid Prime 4‘s development in 2019 appears to support this risk/reward approach from Nintendo, at least in terms of the development phase. As Shinya Takahashi – general manager of Nintendo’s Entertainment Planning and Development division – said in a video at the time: “Nintendo always strives for the highest quality in our games; and in the development phase, we challenge ourselves and confront whether the game is living up to that quality on a daily basis.”
Mathews adds that this approach to prototypes is “also just a western way of doing business, it’s one of not trusting the other party by default”. Adding that he sees and hears about western publishers being fearful of a developer walking away with a prototype unless they do a long-form agreement around it.
Working with Japanese publishers is a lot more “handshakey” than dealing with tons of legal documents though, according to Mathews. As he says he dealt with Capcom, Konami and other teams in Japan where it felt like “being at home working with them”.
The sentiment was echoed by famous Nintendo programmer Giles Goddard, who said in a recent NME interview: “You can spend entire decades making prototypes with Nintendo because they fund those prototypes but they might not necessarily make games from them.”