It's almost here - the game that's taken Japan by storm and been credited with everything from getting more girls into gaming to increasing sales of the Nintendo DS console five-fold. Now Nintendo's popular puppy sim has been given a European release date of October 7, and we caught up with the man holding the game's leash, Hideki Konno, to discuss how he reckons the game will be received over here, what the future holds for the franchise and who keeps Shigeru Miyamoto's feet warm at night.
Eurogamer: So what came first - the idea of doing a pet sim, or the idea of creating a killer app for the Nintendo DS?
Hideki Konno: Actually, the original idea was to make software dealing with various types of animals for consoles, and we were doing a number of different experiments based around this.
Then Nintendo DS hardware development project began, and once we realised the DS was going to feature the dual screens, touch screen, microphone and wireless capability, we decided to make the software for the DS. We saw that by making use of the DS's unique functionalities, we could make a game based around puppies, and that it could be a lot of fun.
Eurogamer: You mentioned there that you were looking at other types of animals... Why did you pick puppies in the end?
Hideki Konno: We narrowed down the candidates into dogs and cats - after all, they are the two main types of companion animals loved by people all around the world. Why dogs instead of cats? Well, one of the things we really wanted to do was to let players teach tricks by utilising their own voices.
Cats are at a disadvantage when it comes to learning tricks, and also we wanted to have animals with much more fun-loving natures - we wanted the animals to be able to take part in contests, such as agility competitions, and we wanted people to be able to take their pets for a walk. So we decided that dogs were more preferable than cats when it came to realising those elements.
Eurogamer: Hmm... So does that mean you have no plans to do another version of the game which features cats?
Hideki Konno: Actually we are not excluding the possibility of developing games based on other animals. Now, with the success of Nintendogs in Japan, we are considering other options.
Eurogamer: So, er, Nintencats is a real possibility then?
Hideki Konno: To tell the truth, we were already starting to develop a cat-based game at the outset of this project. So we already have the cat models, voice data and so on.
Eurogamer: All righty then... When do you reckon we can expect Nintencats?
Hideki Konno: Give me more time to review the possibilities!
Eurogamer: Fair enough. So, how did you choose which breeds of dog to put in the game?
Hideki Konno: I have to admit, the personal tastes of each developer involved in the production came into play when selecting the breeds in Nintendogs. However, we also did research as to which breeds are preferred in which regions.
For example, in Japan, we have the Pet Owners' Club and the Kennel Club, and they disclosed how many of their members own which breeds of dog to us. Similar organisations can be found in the US and Europe, so by looking at their data we were able to find out which are the most popular breeds of dog in each area.
Eurogamer: Did you always plan to develop three different versions of the game?
Hideki Konno: No, actually we were thinking about doing many more! Initially, Mr Miyamoto and Mr Iwata suggested that if we are going to have 15 types of dog, we should have 15 different packages, so that users can visit videogame stores as if they were visiting a pet shop and identify their favourite.
However, we had to look at what was feasible in terms of marketing, and talk to retailers about the possibilities, and in the end we opted for just the three different versions.
Eurogamer: Would it be technically possible to combine all of the breeds into one game, so that people don't have to buy more than one version of the game to get access to all their favourite dogs?
Hideki Konno: Yes, technically it's possible. But after careful discussion, we decided to introduce three versions for two main reasons. The first is that we wanted people to start playing Nintendogs from the moment they arrive at the videogame store - in other words, choosing one package from three is the start of the gameplay.
The second reason is to do with the existence of Bark Mode in Nintendogs. When the game is in Bark Mode and the DS is in Sleep Mode, you are alerted if you pass by a total stranger who has done the same with their DS. You can then exchange verbal messages, text messages, items - and dogs.
So, you might not have a particular type of breed in your version of the game, but you can eventually collect them all by interacting with other users. The Bark Mode is very popular in Japan.
Eurogamer: As, indeed, is Nintendogs, which continues to top the gaming charts over there... Are you confident it will be as successful in Europe?
Hideki Konno: I think the Nintendo DS is always going to be popular with people all around the world - after all, what we are doing is very unique and unprecedented, and features such as the touch screen and the microphone input mechanism offer brand new experiences. Also, what we are dealing with in Nintendogs are cute looking puppies, and I believe their appeal is universal - regardless of whether you live in Japan or Europe.
Eurogamer: And regardless of whether you're male or female, which is maybe why the game is so popular with girls?
Hideki Konno: Yes, I think so. And that's not all - a wide variety of different audiences are now playing the game. From very small children to senior citizens, there are many non-traditional gamers who are playing Nintendogs. Plus the game is appealing to people who can't afford to own their own dogs in real life, and also to actual pet owners.
Nintendogs is only part of a range of games which we hope will expand the total gaming population. We are now introducing titles to the Japanese market like the electronic dictionary, the brain training software and other unusual titles which can't be categorised into any of the existing genres.
Eurogamer: How did you go about making the dogs so intelligent and so realistic to look at?
Hideki Konno: Well, since we were dealing with dogs, we could not make use of motion capture. So we just had to gather as much data as possible, and take as many opportunities as we could to observe and scrutinise the unique movements of puppies with our own eyes.
I myself have a dog, and Shigeru Miyamoto also has a dog - in fact, he's something of a semi-professional breeder. So we were able to observe our dogs and have many discussions about the way they move.
Eurogamer: What are your dogs called?
Hideki Konno: My dog is a Shetland sheepdog called Koro, which is a typical Japanese name for dogs. Mr Miyamoto also has a Shetland sheepdog, but I can't remember its name!
Eurogamer: Why did you decide not to let the puppies become full-grown dogs in the game?
Hideki Konno: When we came to choose the main themes of Nintendogs, we decided that the primary entertainment aspect of the game must be communication with the puppies. And we wanted to eliminate the sense of responsibility for the user – for example, we don’t want people to feel obligated to feed the dogs every day. Those kind of priorities were what helped us decide that the puppies shouldn't grow up.
I know that there are already many other software applications based around the idea of caring for pets, but they tend to feature a wide variety of different elements. What’s different with Nintendogs is that we’re concentrating on the communication with the puppies – and that means you can have a very different type of experience.
Eurogamer: Did you ever consider letting the puppies breed, wirelessly perhaps?
Hideki Konno: That was one of the options we considered, but as I’ve said before, we really wanted to concentrate on the communication between the gamer and the puppies. If we tried to expand the gameplay – with puppies growing up, breeding and even dying – then there are more elements to the experience, but those elements can become shallow.
In the end, we decided to opt for a more intense experience, where the focus is on communicating with the puppy.
Eurogamer: One of the key elements to Nintendogs is the different items you can collect and swap. Which is your favourite?
Hideki Konno: There are many items that I really like… To name but one, I think the Mario Kart is one of the best. [At this point, Mr Konno showed us his favourite Nintendog – he’s called Luigi, by the way, and wears the familiar green cap – and illustrated how you can control the Mario Kart toy like a remote control car, using the D-pad. Wicked].
What’s interesting is that depending on the nature of the puppy, some may like to chase the Mario Kart if they are curious – while others, if they are timid and scared, may try to hide from it. That’s very interesting to see.
Another thing I like is the soccer ball, because it’s interesting to watch how two or three different puppies react, and I also like the helicopter [also a remote control toy, demonstrated by Mr Konno for us, and very cool].
Eurogamer: So what's the main focus for your next project? Can we expect another pet sim, as you've suggested?
Hideki Konno: Well, when I was working on Nintendogs, I was (and still am) working on Mario Kart DS and several other titles simultaneously. Personally, I am inclined to make something along the lines of Nintendogs next.
I haven’t come up with any concrete ideas about what, exactly – there are many options to choose from, and I have a lot of possibilities to think about.
Eurogamer: And what of the Nintendo Revolution – is there any way Nintendogs technology could translate to a regular console?
Hideki Konno: I am involved with the development of the Revolution, and just as when I was involved with the DS hardware development, I have to think in terms of the unique nature of the console and how best we can use the hardware. So it’s more about focusing on how we can create completely original gameplay, and how we can do something that’s very different from before.
Nintendogs is due out on Nintendo DS in Europe this October 7th.