Did Nintendo Developers Really Master Unreal?

Game playing aficionados and game developers alike recognise Shigeru Miyamoto as one of the most famous developers in game development. He was the mastermind behind the Nintendo titles Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda that helped launch Nintendo dominate right back in the 1980s.

Flash forward nearly 35 years and Nintendo continues to produce great games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild among many other new titles. Miyamoto is now seen as a game design master ninja, a great wise game developer sage who continues to influence the direction of new games even if he is not doing much of the coding.

“mastered state-of-the-art technologies such as unreal engine”

Miyamoto was quoted (back in 2017) to have said that Nintendo Developers have “mastered state-of-the-art technologies such as unreal engine”, but however Nintendo was originally renowned for producing their own game engines from scratch, usually in low level programming languages like C/C++.

The full quote (originally reported by Polygon) was very revealing of Nintendo and Miyamotos ninja like strategy.

“Regarding our software development environment, third-party developers who are making software for PC can now easily adapt that software to work on our platform”…
“…In the current development environment, I’d say that it would take less than a year for them to port a PC game to Nintendo Switch. That ease of software development has also been felt by Nintendo’s internal developers. Also, even though game software developers in the U.S. and E.U. are often said to have superior skills to their Japanese counterparts when it comes to software development techniques, Nintendo’s software developers have mastered state-of-the-art technologies such as Unreal engine, and their skills can now be compared with those of Western developers. Our developers are more excited than ever to create software.”

Shigeru Miyamoto, 2017, via Polygon

Managing Executive Shinya Takahashi supported Miyamoto, pointing out that Nvidia is working closely with Nintendo to ramp up the new unit’s performance compared to previous consoles. “I have to refrain from disclosing any technological details, but … we have been very flexible when making technological selections,” he said. “This time, in order to develop Nintendo Switch with high performance in spite of its low power consumption, I feel it was key that the two companies could work together as partners while also fully displaying our individual craftsmanship.”

Shinya Takahashi, Managing Executive of Nintendo, 2017.

Using a custom developed engine today can give game developers more customisability and flexibility, but initially they were used merely because there was no choice of the advanced third party game engines like Unity and Unreal that are around today. The change came when Nintendo wanted to open up their platform to more developers so that more PC developers could develop or port games to Nintendo’s Switch. To do this, Nintendo needed to open up their compatibility to these game engines like Unity and Unreal.

Its also known that top award winning physics engine Havok, that is used in many top games like Breath of the Wild are also now available to both the Unity and Unreal game engines. Havok is used elsewhere for all sorts of physics and robotics simulations.

In retrospect these decisions by Nintendo to open up and integrate or make compatible with the successes of other engines such as Unreal, Unity and Havok can only be seen as a success and another great strategic move by Nintendo.

So is Nintendo now using Unreal as their master platform for game development for such titles as Zelda: Breathe of the Wild and the eagerly awaited Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom?

Its not exactly known if this is the case or not. Unreal is known to take a percentage of profits, whilst Unity doesnt but can be more difficult for new developers to navigate. Assuming that Nintendo is using Unreal more now than custom engines, it might be the case that Nintendo (as a large company) doesnt need to worry about giving up a % of their profits to Unreal, if they get the added benefits that Unreal offers. For smaller developers Unity might still be more of a draw card as it doesnt ask developers to give up this commision, but then again for smaller indie developers Unity can be harder learning curve.

Notably several fan made remakes of Zelda: Ocarina of Time have appeared and garnered a large fan following on YouTube (which no doubt Nintendo are watching very closely). These remakes are also being remade in the Unreal Engine, and are very beautiful.

To game aficionados and casual players alike its not a big deal what platform the game was developed in, or what Nintendo developers will continue to use in the future, but game developers like to follow these trends, especially game developers interested in considering new partnerships or ports or expansions of their titles to other hardware platforms like Nintendo.

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