Shigeru Miyamoto: Tired of games?
“Why do you still play video games?”
Shigeru Miyamoto is tired. Jetlag is partly to blame, the 11-hour flight from his hometown Kyoto to Paris combined with a day’s worth of interviews with journalists eager to pull headlines from his lips accentuating the bags under his eyes. But it’s more than that.
This November Super Mario’s father turns 60 years old. Having spent over half of his life working at Nintendo (his first and only job) on over 100 games, a little vocational weariness is inevitable. But it’s more than that too. The pause before he answers is born from somewhere deeper than the fug of travel exhaustion or the fatigued plod toward retirement. While his face remains composed, there’s an internal scrabbling for an acceptable answer to the question.
Eventually, a sharp intake of breath and a smile: “I still play video games because I still make video games, of course,” before adding: “Just playing the stuff I make myself keeps me very busy.”
He looks down.
Miyamoto may not have fathered the videogame medium, but perhaps more than anyone else, he has been responsible for raising it. From his first unexpected success with Donkey Kong, a game designed to shift 2000 Radardscope arcade cabinets sitting unsold in Nintendo warehouses in 1981, through the creation of multiple multi-million selling series based around characters of his own design, Miyamoto has stayed abreast of every generational leap in technology in a way not one of his contemporaries has managed.
For over twenty years his most famous work, Super Mario Bros. remained the best-selling video game, selling over 40 million copies worldwide and popularizing a character that, by the 1990s had become more recognizable amongst American schoolchildren than Mickey Mouse. Mario’s iconography came to define the medium in popular culture: the red splash of his plumbers’ costume; the unfashionable cap and moustache; Koji Kondo’s irrepressibly joyful theme tune; the squat, shifty-eyed Goombas and the spike-backed kidnapper, Bowser. The rude surplus of ideas behind the pixels which, combined, continue to represent video-gameness to so much of the world.
Beyond the recurring play myths he originated – Donkey Kong, Zelda, Mario, Miyamoto was the first to master not only the technological transition from 2D to 3D graphics with his seminal titles, Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but also the accompanying creative transition in game systems and mechanics this dimensional expansion brought with it. Then, in more recent years, his hand on Nintendo’s visionary tiller brought motion control to the masses by way of Wii Sports and Wii Fit, both games that broadened both the definition of games as well as the audience that consumes them.
Miyamoto was honoured as the first inductee in to the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1998 and is the only videogame designer to have been knighted into France’s Order of Arts and Letters. If the esteem in which he is still held in was in any doubt, just four years ago he placed first in the Time Magazine reader choice ‘100 most influential people.’
As such, to hear this visionary say that he only plays video games because he makes them is jarring. Surely his love for the medium he has spent a lifetime working to shape and define is more than just a job? Surely.
“Could it be that you might not play games if you didn’t create them?” I venture.
Again, the long pause; a quiet search for an answer already sat on his tongue:
“It could be that… I might not be playing games.”
Could it be that Shigeru Miyamoto is tired with video games?
“The thing with Shigeru Miyamoto is that you think you’re meeting Walt Disney when, in reality, you’re meeting Mickey Mouse.”
I had shrugged off my journalist friend’s sharp warning that Mario’s maker can be something of corporate mouthpiece in interviews these days. But now, sat opposite him in the plushest hotel room in Paris that yen can buy, this diminutive designer, producer and director appears more spokesperson than creative genius.
It’s partly understandable. He’s here to promote Nintendo’s latest project, an interactive guidebook on 3DS for visitors to the Louvre museum, an app, if you will, not a game. Instead of a Walkman or iPod with spoken notes delivered as you strain to see the Mona Lisa, now visitors may rent a Nintendo’s latest handheld, offering 700 commentaries about the artworks and a real-time map to show your position in the museum.
It’s a gimmicky idea but a well-executed one, designed to show off some of the 3DS’ lesser-known features to the general public and, no doubt, help drive sales for a handheld whose sales have been generally underwhelming. But my interest in in Miyamoto’s game work, not his promotional role in quirky tour guides. This doesn’t stop him from working the Louvre guide into every other answer, with quietly cheeky stubbornness.
Miyamoto’s dedication to remain unflinchingly on-message reflects his unusual position in the company. Fusajiro Yamauchi may have established the Marufuku Company in 1889, the company that would shortly thereafter become the Nintendo Playing Card Company, but without Miyamoto the Nintendo if today would not exist. It’s from his creative heart that Nintendo’s brand, mascots and most valuable game series have sprouted. Miyamoto is inseparable from contemporary Nintendo and Nintendo is inseparable from contemporary Miyamoto.
And whenever a creative becomes synonymous with a corporation, there’s a danger that creative pursuit slips into corporate concern, especially when business falls upon tough times. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that Miyamoto’s current job title is ‘General Manager’, a role that belies his expertise, inferring generalist, unspecified supervision.
So just how much input does the one-time artist and designer have in Nintendo’s creative output? What does a day in the life of Miyamoto look like in 2012?
“My days all follow much the same pattern,” he explains. “They are structured and typical. Roughly half of my time I spend checking new games that Nintendo’s directors are working on. I sit at my desk, play their games and create checklists of comments and amends that I then send out to the directors. Then, the rest of my time is spent attending various meetings, talking about management decisions for the general business direction of Nintendo.”
This split of Miyamoto’s time clearly reflects the split in his professional responsibility: half to the company’s creative output and half to the company’s corporate future. I wonder if he misses spending the majority of his time creating. “Not at all: the decreased workload allows me to do new projects like the audio guide,” he replies, with typical Japanese diplomacy. “But I am still very close to the game development. Although I am not a director myself I do check all of our games and discuss them over email. I visit Nintendo’s Tokyo EAD team every few weeks too, so I don’t really feel detached from the game side of the business.”
Miyamoto’s schedule may still be demanding, including a significant amount of foreign travel to promote Nintendo games as well as his monthly trips to Tokyo but there is a sense that, as he approaches 60, he is winding down, stepping aside to allow others to carry the creative flame.
The most recent Super Mario and Zelda titles have credited him as “General Producer” with direction and design duties falling to others, most notably Koichi Hayashida, director of Super Mario Galaxy 2 and, more recently, Super Mario 3D Land. I ask him how he has been working to ensure that there are artists and designers to take his place when he retires, a question that is greeted with a gently frantic response.
“There have been numerous media reports that I am about to retire and I very much want to emphasise that this is not the case.” This eagerness to dismiss his (inevitable) retirement plans is understandable. When a video game blog recently claimed he was looking to retire soon, Nintendo’s stock price fell the same day, a further indication of just how closely Nintendo’s fortunes are perceived to be dependent on his involvement.
“I believe that if I remain in the same position as a leader of the development teams within Nintendo, then the entire structure will grow or revolve around me. I’ve certainly seen there are other people within EAD that have the potential to be leaders. I wanted to give these people a chance to lead their respective teams. When I said in the press that I would step back a little I was just saying I want to support the company from the side, rather than being front and centre all of the time.”
Despite this eagerness to push others to the fore, Nintendo’s recent unwillingness to stray far from characters and series first developed by Miyamoto is worrying. Without risk-taking at a managerial level, surely there’s little creative soil from which the next Miyamoto may emerge and flourish. Nintendo EAD has always had the air of myth about it, a Chocolate Factory for games (the handful of journalists who have visited the Kyoto or Tokyo premises rarely see anything more than the lobby and a meeting room separate from the machinery of game development) with Miyamoto a subdued Willy Wonka.
With this in mind, I ask him how he spots new talent when hiring. “We don’t usually hire game designers,” he explains. “We almost exclusively hire artists or programmers; people who have learnt a technique and have a basis that we start with. Recently we have hired a few game designers, but generally they have already had careers in other companies and then joined us. But we hire a lot of people out of university. They bring basic knowledge and we start from there.”
This was certainly Miyamoto’s own route into the industry. Born and raised in the 1950s in the rural town of Sonebe, near Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, Miyamoto was a short, unassuming boy. With no television in the family home he relied on the natural world outside for excitement, spending countless hours exploring the woods, caves and riverbanks near his house. It was here he fostered the love of discovery and these childhood adventures inspired his games, a local chained-up barking dog making an appearance as the Chain Chomp enemy in Super Mario Bros. 3 and his beloved caves appearing throughout the Zelda series, myths that appear to grow in the re-telling.
Graduating with a degree in Industrial Design in the mid-1970s, Miyamoto’s father asked an old friend, Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of the toymaker, Nintendo whether he had any jobs available for his son. Miyamoto’s first task at the company was to design art for the outside panels of some arcade cabinets Nintendo was working on: Radarscope and Sheriff. Two years later Yamauchi called Miyamoto into his office and asked him if he’d like to design an arcade game. Miyamoto jumped at the chance, drawing the game’s characters on square paper, each block representing a single pixel on the screen, calling the resulting game Donkey Kong: ‘Donkey’, as a synonym for ‘Stubborn’ and ‘Kong’ for gorilla.
Is there a difference between the kind of designer that started in art, like Miyamoto (who is ambidextrous – both Mario and Link were designed with his left-hand), to one who started in programming, I wonder? “I don’t think there is a big difference,” he says. “Obviously people from artist or programmer backgrounds have to work together soon enough. So I think there are two key characteristics: a positive attitude towards new things, and someone who doesn’t easily give up in the face of problems or criticism. That’s what I look for in a new hire.”
This tenacity has defined Miyamoto’s own career at Nintendo, his creative commitment to perfection delaying the launch of the Nintendo 64 by three months to afford his team time to finish the game of his vision. “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad,” he quipped at the time.
More recently, he has contended with a troubled launch for the Nintendo 3DS. “Especially for the first six months following the system’s release sales were weaker than the DS. This was mainly due to the fact we didn’t have any big first party titles I believe. Also the price point was too high. In fairness to us, we realised that, reduced the price and worked very hard to have a strong line-up for the Christmas season, which we offered with Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Kart 7 and Kid Icarus. Looking at the situation in Japan today, the console is selling very well. We have now sold 5 million consoles there, which is respectable for a console in its first year. The challenge now is to continue to put effort into making the 3DS more widely known. The Louvre guide is another way of doing that.”
There’s humility to Miyamoto’s analysis of the 3DS’ fortunes to date, even if, when I ask him what he might have done differently, his solution is to fall back on old ideas and past successes. “I think if I could rewind the clock I would change the line-up for the 3DS launch so it had more Mario titles. Not only that, but we also have some excellent features that appeal to non-gamers: 3D photography, the augmented reality features and other preinstalled apps. We tried hard to communicate these but we failed. If I could go back I would have communicated these things differently, and spent more time working out that message.”
When I ask whether some of the hardware’s failure to inspire sales might be down to the core selling point – stereoscopic 3D – being gimmicky, Miyamoto is indignant. “Actually, 3D is really the most normal thing because it’s how those of us with two eyes usually see the world. TVs are the unusual things in 2D! We don’t look at stereoscopic as a gimmick. It’s rather the most normal way to display things.”
The obsession with targeting “non-gamers”, as Miyamoto puts it, has defined Nintendo’s recent output, a direction the company took following the mainstream success of the Wii console and game-lite software such as Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training and Wii Fit. “There are big lines between those who play video games and those who do not. For those who don’t, video games are irrelevant. They think all video games must be too difficult. We want to remove that barrier,” he said at the time of the Wii’s launch. That work continues today. Indeed, one of the most successful features of the 3DS has been StreetPass, software that detects when another 3DS is in the vicinity and adds the owner’s avatar to your own system, in a kind of human zoo (“I just heard today that people in France meet to Street Pass one another. That kind of phenomenon is happening!”).
But in recent times the new focus has been sharpened by Apple’s land grab for the hearts and minds of casual players. Indeed, Nintendo’s immediate plan for the 3DS is an overhaul of the eShop, the Japanese company’s competitor to Apple’s App Store. I ask him if the plan is to create a more open platform for game-makers to be able to upload their own games, in much the same way as Apple has lowered the cost of entry for would be game-makers hoping to publish their titles to iDevices.
“Obviously that would mean making development tools more easily available,” he says. “Maybe we should look into it but any tools we offer would need to be supported… From my perspective we want to reach out to smaller studios and work on smaller projects while supporting them as an easier and faster way to get smaller studios involved. I think that would be the best way to go personally.”
Apple’s entry to the handheld market has caused Nintendo some problems in envisioning its next move in handheld system innovation. “Obviously a lot of the potential of handheld game systems can now be covered by smartphones,” he says. “When we think about new hardware we need to think about what things we can add that you can’t currently do with a smartphone. For us, we would need to have a good reason to launch a new hardware – something necessary.”
It’s this sense that Nintendo is not quite sure what it can offer that’s novel – that has defined the company’s approach to software in recent years as well. While Miyamoto is quick to point out that Wii Sports and Wii Fit are both new game series, he is forced to retreat to the Gamecube release Pikmin in response to the accusation that Nintendo EAD has become conservative in recent years with regard to new game launches. “We need to continue releasing new games in existing franchises otherwise those franchises might die,” he says. “That’s not to say that we aren’t interested in new games. It’s just a case of picking a new game idea. When we have the opportunity we want to create new things in the future, certainly.”
With this in mind I wonder if Miyamoto has a yearning to create any particular game that he hasn’t yet been able to? “I don’t have a big list of ideas I want to realise,” he replies. “I usually come up with new ideas while I am working on other games. That said, there’s a strong possibility we will introduce some new characters to the scene soon.”
While it’s easy to accuse the company of over-reliance on its established characters, arguably Mario has become a cipher for controlled innovation. For example, Super Mario 3D Land may chare an interactive vocabulary with Super Mario Galaxy, but the ideas and execution in each are diverse. This sense of restrained invention reflects Miyamoto’s own primary interest in the medium today. When I ask him what excites him about games he answers: “I think the key thing is surprising people. Videogame development is actually a very easy tool to use to surprise people and to offer new, unexpected things to players. It can actually be done quite easily. It doesn’t take a lot to do this. There are exceptions but games can be created quite easily. I love that.”
33 years into his career and I wonder if Miyamoto believes it’s growing hard to surprise people, whether the ideas are running dry? “Yes, it’s become more difficult,” he says. “In the past it was just you touch a button and something happens on screen and this was surprising enough to people! Like, magic. Nowadays we have experienced players and players with no experience and we must accommodate the needs of both groups. It’s becoming increasingly difficult. ”
Miyamoto prefers to talk about Nintendo than himself. “You can ask pretty much anything,” the PR girl told me before our interview, “but he’s specifically asked that you don’t talk to him about his hobbies.” Rather than an indication that Miyamoto has taken up some unspeakable pastimes in recent years, his request indicates a shyness, a natural tendency away from the limelight. When I ask him of which of his games he is most proud, he squirms and looks uncomfortable.
“It’s difficult for me to answer,” he says, eventually. “Looking back, Donkey Kong is close to me because it was the first game I made where I realised I could actually make a living from this. Then the title that made games known worldwide was Super Mario Bros. so that’s incredibly important to me.” He laughs. “But this is a very generic answer and maybe doesn’t help you too much. Actually, a big innovation was Wii Sports. With this game we kicked off an adventure into something new. I want to be able to do this bold step many times in my life.”
It’s telling that Miyamoto’s choices centre around innovation and breakthrough. I wonder: what about his games that iterate and perfect on what has gone before? “It’s an excellent point because my desire is always to attempt to perfect my games. I think the Zelda series… You know, I am not so deeply involved any more compared to the past, but Skyward Sword is a very complete and exceptionally well-polished title.”
And that’s when we talk about why Miyamoto still plays games, and the fact that, if he weren’t making them today, there’s a very good chance he would not be playing them.
“I think it’s the lack of time in general,” he offers. “And maybe I don’t see so many titles that I find fascinating enough that I want to spend time playing. Time is precious and a game has to be worthwhile, right? Another problem is that there are so many games on the market today that it’s difficult to find the right one. In many ways I think I am in a similar place to the average game player. I think this is one of the greatest challenges for the industry right now.”
It’s a fair point. With tens of thousands of games hitting the App Store each month, the pool of potential avenues for play has broadened and deepened, and the sheer number of options can be overwhelming. I wonder if Miyamoto is concerned for the future of game, of his medium.
“I am not that concerned, actually. Nintendo and I have always hoped that games would someday become a more accepted part of our day life. Every month this becomes closer to the reality we live in. Games have grown and developed from this limited in-the-box experience to something that’s everywhere now. Interactive content is all around us, networked, ready. This is something I’ve been hoping for throughout my career. With this success comes a new challenge of course: how do we make our titles relevant in this world of games. How do we keep going when everything has changed? It’s a huge challenge. But it’s a good one. It’s what we always wanted.”
Shigeru Miyamoto is tired. But he remains undefeated. As he enters the twilight years of his career, the industry is as exciting, diverse, tumultuous and unpredictable as it ever was. Just as it appears as though the medium is creatively stagnating, everything changes again in the wake of some technological advance, or systemic invention. Miyamoto might not play games if he weren’t making them today. But he believes in them and celebrates their ubiquity. And why wouldn’t he? That ubiquity is his very legacy.