Let's talk Nintendo with the creative director at Universal Studios Japan

February 6, 2017, 5:22 PM · Theme park and video game fans are looking forward to the debut of Universal's first-ever Nintendo-themed land, slated to open at Universal Studios Japan in 2020. Super Nintendo World lands eventually will make their way to Universal theme parks in Orlando and Hollywood, too, but Nintendo's home country of Japan will provide the first opportunity for fans to step into a practical world inspired by some of the video game maker's most iconic characters. Universal Studios Japan in December released concept art for the land, which appeared to show Bowser's Castle and Princess Peach's Castle from the Mario franchise.

To learn more about the process behind the development of Super Nintendo World, I swapped emails last week with Steve Tatham, Vice President Creative Group of Universal Studios Japan. (I first spoke with Steve for Theme Park Insider in 2015, just after he moved from Walt Disney Imagineering to head the creative group for Universal in Japan.) He can't reveal anything about the Nintendo project beyond what the PR teams already have approved, obviously — but he can help fans better understand the thinking that's going into the creation of the land.

Robert: Are you playing a lot of Nintendo these days for "research?" ;^) What's your best game?

Steve TathamSteve: We all here in Osaka, up the road at Nintendo in Kyoto and at Universal Creative in Florida, are big fans of anything Mario.

Robert: Me, too. I'm not much as much of a gamer as my kids, but they hooked me into Mario Kart. But for you, as an American working in Japan, what cultural differences have you seen in the ways that Americans and Japanese feel about video games? Or are generational and gender differences more relevant than cultural ones with game IP?

Steve: There are very passionate fans here in Japan. People love to come in costume to the park as their favorite characters. I see a lot of Marios and we don't even have anything Nintendo-based in the park yet! So the guests are primed and ready.

In our park we have a lot of single, young women and moms with kids so we are definitely always aware of that. We don't want to ignore any other groups but when we select IPs we make sure it's going to be something our guests are going to respond positively to.

Robert: Universal Studios Japan already does more with video game IP than any other major theme park in the world, with Universal Cool Japan and other limited-run attractions your team has developed. What have you got going with video game IP right now, and what have you learned from your guests and your team about bringing game IP into theme parks?

Steve: Right now as part of this year's "Cool Japan" we have created a new interactive experience based on the game "Monster Hunter." We also have a new advanced VR coaster that is based on the Evangelion anime property. For this attraction we created our first-ever mobile app game to set up the story experience in the queue. Guests can download the app to their Apple or Android device and interact with the attraction and receive their mission before climbing on board.

I've learned that our guests know these properties very well and the stories we tell need to be faithful and consistent to the IP while creating a whole new experience that the guests have never seen before.

Robert: On that note, video game IP seems to create a fresh challenge for attraction designers in that it does not provide the clearly defined, established narrative we usually find in movie, TV and book IP. Every single player has a different experience every time he or she plays. How does that affect your approach toward the process of adapting this IP to an attraction? What traditions and conventions about developing theme parks attractions have you been able to keep and what have you had to throw out because they just don't apply to game IP?

Steve: Character is at the heart of stories whether they are told in movies, books, games or rides. In a game, you, as the player, are often at the center of the action and are on a mission. We want to give the essence of that experience to our guests in the park. First we ask ourselves "What's the mission and what are you as the guest trying to achieve?" The answers to these questions grow out of character and come from the stories these experiences are based on. We need to create a mission that feels true to the game; something that is motivated by the kinds of values that the original story embodies.

We reinforce narrative choices by using the appropriate technology. By using VR, mobile experiences and interactive gaming, we can allow for branching storylines and multiple points of view within the same experience. Technology helps us to make the guests the hero of the experience. A non-game IP might call for a different solution where you want to control the narrative in a more traditional, linear way and might lead to an entirely different solution: say, a boat ride as opposed to an interactive walk-through maze.

Robert: I imagine that every IP owner is different to work with, when developing new IP-based theme park attractions. What do you - as a theme park designer - look for from an IP partner and what opportunities do you have when an IP partner chooses to get actively involved in attraction design rather than just cash a check?

Steve: We love for the IP partners to collaborate with us. After all, if we have selected their property, it is because our philosophy is to bring the best properties in the world into our park, and so we think they've made something world-class that really engages our guests. We want them to help us capture what is special about their movie, TV show or game.

But also we really want them to listen to us because it is unlikely they've ever made a theme park experience before. We hope they recognize that while they are the experts in their characters and stories, we are the experts in how to translate that into a theme park attraction. Making a 100-minute movie or a video game that has 10 or 100 hours of play is very different than making something for a theme park. We need to condense the essence of these expansive stories into a visceral, immersive, compelling experience that may only last a few minutes. And it takes a lot of creative cooperation to make that happen.

Robert: Speaking of the people do make that happen, from your perspective, what is the market for design talent these days? Is it hard to find people to work on new projects, or are there a lot of great candidates out there? Is this a field that arts and engineering students should be looking toward right now, or is it overcrowded with talent at this point? What's your advice for aspiring designers?

Steve: There is so much going on in the world of theme parks today, particularly in Asia. Everybody's busy and it's an exciting time in this business.

I am not great about predicting the future of business or I would have gone into investing instead of design, but it feels to me that, as more people have an increasing amount of leisure time, the demand for people to create entertainment will only increase. I hear from parents in Japan at my kid's school and elsewhere that they don't want their kids to go into the arts. They have this feeling that it is safer to go into science or math. Well, nothing is safe if you suck at it! And if you are not passionate, then you won't do well.

Any chance I get, I'll tell kids, do what you love. I am looking to hire people all the time; and I am looking for artists. Artists are always the ones who tell our stories, move us emotionally and create new things that have never been dreamed of before. My advice is, if that interests you, do that, because that stuff is awesome.

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Replies (7)

February 6, 2017 at 6:18 PM · Great interview! I'm really looking forward to Super Nintendo Land. My biggest question is whether it will be just Mario stuff, or if it's going to encompass more Nintendo franchises (like Legend of Zelda and Metroid). I hope they have expansion plans in the back of their mind. I think you could fit a whole theme park full of their franchises.

I have to say, I'm always super jealous seeing all the fun attractions that Universal Japan cooks up for the Cool Japan events each year. I think part of what makes them successful is that franchises like Monster Hunter and Dragon Quest (huge fan of both series) are so much more family friendly and accessible to broad age ranges. In the states however, the only big franchises that fit the family friendly bill are Nintendo titles.

February 6, 2017 at 7:19 PM · Can't speak for Steve, but everything I've heard from Universal sources tells me that the company sees this as the next Potter - not just a platform for a single land, but for a series of attractions and lands as the years progress. Potter started with Hogsmeade then progressed to Diagon Alley. Nintendo will start with Mario, and I guess we'll see where it goes from there.
February 6, 2017 at 9:52 PM · It looks like Nintendo land will open in Orlando 2-3 years after Star Wars opens at Disney. In other words, don't hold your breath, fans.

My other thought: PLEASE give us something other than a collection of 4D simulators and screen-based shoot-em-ups.

February 7, 2017 at 9:03 AM · I agree that Universal has to do something more than just screens, but adding Nintendo is a master stroke, Mario may be more popular and relevant than Mickey at this point. I just hope Nintendo consoles don't go away.
February 7, 2017 at 9:27 AM · Always something to look forward to! Disney's got some serious competition (which is great for consumers!) I'm sure it's still years away, but as Robert said, this could be the first phase in what could eventually bring other characters into the mix (I'm looking at you, Zelda). Lots of fun possibilities in store!
February 7, 2017 at 11:46 AM · I wonder if Toon lagoon will finally get it's (desperately) needed makeover with Nintendo? It blows my mind how that area still exists in Universal today, when it seemed like a placeholder on day one to me.

I do hope the new console for Nintendo does really well, that could influence how big they go here in the States with Nintendoland.

February 8, 2017 at 4:25 PM · Great interview and very interesting how their philosophy is regarding rides: taking a know property and their characters and base the ride on the rules and values of that world and then make it unique. It so different then Disney does where they compress a move in 4 minutes most of the time.

Super Nintendo World (not Super Mario World) sounds more diverse then only Mario. On the other hand I think Mario makes at least a cameo in most of the Nintendo games.

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