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Feature An Interview with Shigeru Miyamoto 08/20/2004
Nintendo's star player talks about the past, present, and future

Shigeru Miyamoto(The following is composed of part of two sit-down interviews and a roundtable discussion with Mr. Miyamoto).

TNL: What previous work experience did you have when you started at Nintendo?

Miyamoto: As soon as I finished at the Kanazawa Municipal Art and Design University, where I majored in design, I came to Nintendo. I didn't have a career at all before I came here, but I always used to doodle a lot of cartoons in school. Also, I was in a garage band during college.

TNL: How did you end up at Nintendo and what did your earliest work for Nintendo consist of (pre-Mario, of course)?

Miyamoto: I searched through several companies before deciding on Nintendo. I wanted to do some sort of product planning, but my first jobs wound up being graphic design. I did things like making cards and board game designs. I also developed the art of Nintendo's early arcade games. The first game I did the actual game design for was Donkey Kong. From Donkey Kong up until Super Mario Bros., I worked on about a dozen different games, including stuff like Excitebike and Tennis.

TNL: Nintendo used to have a pretty sizeable arcade business. Was it phased out because of the success of the NES? Did you ever regret not being able to work on more advanced arcade games?

Miyamoto: Actually the decision was made to stop arcade games by the man at the top a long time before the system actually came to market. [Former Nintendo president Hiroshi] Yamauchi instructed all of R&D to focus on the home market instead of the arcade business. In those days, it was a risky choice, because the viability of the machine was as yet unproven. We were worried about the decision at the time, but it turned out to be the right path for the company to take.

TNL: Did the success of the NES and Mario change the company, and what did that success mean for you on a personal level?

Miyamoto: The reason I decided to work for a company like Nintendo instead of by myself is because I wanted to be free to create as I pleased and have the company benefit from my work. The company, in turn, would act as a sponsor and a distributor to deliver my ideas to the public. Nintendo eventually came to let me do just that, and the success early on of things like Donkey Kong and Mario allowed me the freedom to pursue the creation of new things.

TNL: What time period at Nintendo did you enjoy the most and why?

Miyamoto: Well, that's really hard to say. I always try to enjoy myself here at Nintendo no matter what I do. There have been times in the past when I've endured some hardships, like when we're preparing new hardware and games for launch. The stress sometimes really takes a toll on me physically, to the point even where I have developed some heart problems in the past. Apart from that and spiritually speaking, though, I always feel like I've been trying to fulfill myself and make myself happy here.

So despite some of my physical hardships I have always felt spiritually fulfilled and happy at Nintendo.

TNL: We understand that your role at Nintendo these days is quite different from what you did in the past. Can you elaborate on what your present job consists of?

Miyamoto: What I've been doing lately hasn't changed a lot from when I started, really. It's more the quantity of things to do that has changed. Right before I came here to speak with you, I was checking up on some work-in-progress games. That's the sort of the work I enjoy the most. I also have to join meetings to assist in making decisions for the future of Nintendo and have to train the next generation of designers for Nintendo so we can continue to provide the sort of content which we are known for in the future as well.

Let me be a bit more specific. The company knows that it would be better to allow me to work at the forefront of game development. That's why the company gives me so much autonomy. But, with a lot more at stake for the company, it may be in Nintendo's best interests to nurture new employees with the potential to take the place of people like me for when I will eventually have to leave. Still, I keep on doing a lot of what I used to do, but alongside that I have many other duties which I didn't have in the past.

TNL: So then, do you think of the carefree days of the past a lot, or are the bigger responsibilities you now hold more to your liking?

Miyamoto: Nintendo is unique because it makes both innovative games and hardware. When we have a good idea, we not only can take advantage of it through software, but through various hardware and peripherals as well. As long as we have this sort of position, I like the way Nintendo is now better than it was in the past. But really, it's a hard question. I can't say yes or no. When it comes to games, I can't always take the hands-on approach I used to, so it's a bit limiting. Nintendo is publishing two or three dozen games a year. I can't really work on any single game as much as I'd like. I wind up doing training and relegating work to others more than I would like.

I [worked] closely on Pikmin 2 [and] I'm working on Mario 64x4 for the DS, the four-player Mario 64 game. But other than that I'm looking very closely at a lot of what we're calling tech demos for the DS as well. There are a lot of tech demos out there that are already very close to being games.

I really enjoy the process of designing and creating games, the hands-on approach of designing games is something very special. For instance just the other day, I met Mr. Hideo Kojima [Konami]. He's been regarded as a designer whose work is similar to cinema. He, however, insists he should be known as more of a game designer.

TNL: Mr. Iwata at E3 held a very humble speech and acknowledged mistakes made and made amends for the future. Is that the general mood at the company right now, and how do you feel about Nintendo's performance over the last couple of years?

Miyamoto: I think that how people interpret what we say is something that needs to be discussed. Mr. Iwata is a former mechanical engineering designer. As the president, sometimes what he says might be misinterpreted as the whole company's position, but because of his background, when he speaks of not achieving a goal, he talks about it more on a personal level - like challenges that weren't surpassed or expectations he couldn't meet. When Mr. Iwata spoke of the N64, we weren't admitting it was a failure. We just think that maybe things could have been done better, a little smoother and more streamlined. It was a capable machine, but maybe it was too hard for our third-party developers.

We should always be looking on the past and looking at our experiences to improve ourselves. He never meant to say the N64 or anything else was an outright mistake. Quite the opposite, since Nintendo is a company built on risk-taking. If we don't take risks, we can't innovate and create new forms of entertainment. If we challenged the established norm, meaning ourselves as well as others, but didn't wholly succeed, we don't consider it a mistake. So what he said was taken out of context and wasn't quite what he wanted to convey. With a background like his, he always feels like things maybe could have been a little bit better than they turned out.

Most of the comments that might have been misunderstood were made about two years ago, I think. Mr. Iwata talked about the fact that with Mario and Metroid we were anticipating greater sales, but we didn't increase hardware sell-through as expected. Right now, at R&D, we're simply trying to fine-tune our games as much as possible. We had to delay Pikmin 2, but that's because I wanted this game to be of the high quality standards that Nintendo is known for. Nintendo's major strength is great character franchises. When people speak of Nintendo, they talk of the important Nintendo character franchises as well. But we're always working on new and original games, too. I think, beyond our established works, Nintendo also has to make efforts to design great, new game series.

What Nintendo is doing differently these days is trying to build strong relationships between the game creators at Nintendo and other companies. We've worked with [Sega's Toshiro] Nagoshi, [Konami's Akihiro] Imamura, [Sega's Yuji] Naka, [Yoshiki] Okamoto (before his departure from Capcom), Mr. Kojima. It is the personal relationships between creators that have produced these collaborations, which then continue to be beneficial to all who are involved.

Nintendo headquartersTNL: Is Nintendo a company in transition?

Miyamoto: Yes. After all, the entertainment business has to keep reinventing itself or it will not persist. When we speak from the viewpoint of the customer, they always want something you can't get from anyone else. I just talked a moment ago about our fine-tuning processes. We used to be able to do this to cater to the veteran game players. But, when we say fine-tuning now, we have to make sure it's accessible to both the veterans and the novice players who are just getting into gaming. It's become very different nowadays from when we could sell massive amounts of games of any sort.

Customers want unique experiences. However, people tend to flock to things which are easy to understand. It isn't always easy to make something that's both unique and easy to understand. The current situation is that games are everywhere now. Games themselves aren't unique anymore, so you can't sell on the simple basis of being a video game anymore. We've constantly had to abandon things we've done in the past. Unless we can change ourselves repeatedly, we can't create anything new and interesting.

So in that regard, yes, I would have to say that Nintendo is a company in transition, simply because of the fact that the entertainment industry itself is constantly in transition. We hope we can continue to be a driving force in the constant change this industry is going through. We introduced the analog control stick with the N64 and now with the DS we're continuing to introduce these new styles, whether it's touch control with the stylus or using a microphone that's built in to attain control, or even the wireless features of the DS. We've taken all of these features and we've added them into one hardware system that's going to allow us to really create new styles of software that we've never seen before. So really our biggest objective with the DS is to take what has become a rather segmented and focused market, which is the hardcore gamer, and we want to expand beyond that.

What the DS allows us to do is by introducing these new features and these new control styles is enabling everybody to start off at the same point. Whether you're an expert gamer or you've never played a game before, you're both picking up a stylus for the first time and learning how to control a game with that. And so in that sense, the DS automatically becomes a system that anybody can play, age 5 to 95, and everybody who plays it is at the same level as anybody else who plays it, and I think that for that reason, it's really going to open up and broaden the market for us.

TNL: With regards to the next unit, the next console generation, when can we expect more news?

Miyamoto: I think by next E3 we'll have to say something about it.

TNL: Okay, so between now and then can you tell anything?

Miyamoto: Well yeah, I don't know when we'll be talking about it specifically, but you know Nintendo's always researching new hardware and new styles of hardware, and I think that one thing that's really going to influence the direction that the next system takes will be how people react to the DS and the kinds of new features the DS introduces.

If all you do is look at the technical specifications of hardware and you continually up those every few years, then eventually all that you have is a hardware battle, and it's a competition for who can make the most technologically advanced hardware. But Nintendo's a software company, too. So for us, it's not about just trying to create really incredible hardware, it's about trying to create really incredible software. We're going to create hardware that allows us to create that, in a way that brings creativity and fun to the games.

TNL: What do you see for yourself in the future?

Miyamoto: My children are now 17 and 18 years old. Soon they'll be off to college, then after about five years or so they will be assuming their places in the workforce. I sometimes wonder what I'll do when they're gone. So far, my priority has been to be a family person. But they'll be leaving soon, so I need to think about what I'm going to be doing after that.

One thing I've been doing nowadays is practicing musical instruments. I've already mentioned my garage band back in college, and my concert hall performance. My wife sings sometimes, so maybe she'll join me in a band. It's my secret mission! [Laughs.]

At Nintendo, I don't see anything changing drastically in the near future. I might leave Nintendo to retire someday. I have to consider what I'll be doing when that day comes.

Of course, when I challenge myself to do something new, that's always fun. About five years ago I started a garden, and two years ago I got a puppy. I loved the experience of training the puppy and watching it grow. And, at my home, I study music. I made a personal music studio in my garage, all by myself. I also made a big kennel for the dog. I love those sorts of do-it-yourself projects. Making things with my own hands has always fascinated me.

Part two of our interview with Shigeru Miyamoto

2004 The Next Level