Miyamoto: I Couldn’t Have Imagined Where We’ve Ended Up

Where do you go when you're arguably history's most famous video game designer in a medium that's witnessed explosive growth since its halcyon days? Back to the drawing board, says Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto.

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Where do you go when you’re arguably history’s most famous video game designer in a medium that’s witnessed explosive growth since its halcyon days? Back to the drawing board, says Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, who told me that after three decades designing new ways to play, the fundamental things (still) apply.

I spoke with Miyamoto by phone earlier this week in a broad-ranging interview about the Wii U as well as his approach to game design. Part one is here; this is part two.

Given the proliferation of devices like tablets and smartphones, do you see the Wii U’s ecosystem eventually becoming a complementary technology, where it interacts with these devices, or does it remain standalone?

When you’re talking about a hardware ecosystem, Nintendo views the stability of that ecosystem as paramount, as well as our ability to ensure that everyone who uses it has access to all of the features the ecosystem can offer. That’s important because then from a developer or designer standpoint, you have the ability to choose which of those features you’re going to leverage in the product or service that you’re developing.

For example, with Nintendo 3DS, developers can choose to leverage the 3D visuals and know that everyone who owns a 3DS can take advantage of those 3D visuals. Similarly, they understand that everybody who owns a Wii U has access to the functionality of that second screen on the Wii U GamePad. The more that you take one device and try to build in compatibility with other devices through software, the greater challenge you have from a development standpoint in maintaining stability between those different systems, and you also run into the challenge that not everybody is going to have access to those features you’re trying to create.

So for this current generation of hardware, our belief is that Wii U is going to offer the most stable and consistent environment to which developers can bring their ideas. In the long term, and I mean very long term technology changes and advances, it’s possible that we’ll see technological advancement that from a hardware standpoint make other possibilities a reality, but certainly in the shorter term, we feel that Wii U is not only the best but also the most suitable device for the living room.

The launch window lineup for the Wii U was light on titles starring mainstream Nintendo characters, which was actually kind of refreshing given all the off-the-beaten-path alternatives like ZombiU, Nano Assault NeoMonster Hunter 3 UltimateToki Tori 2LEGO City Undercover, Pikimin 3 and The Wonderful 101.

If you look back at the launch of Wii, we were able to prepare a game like Wii Sports, which at the time was clearly a new game, and launch that alongside a Zelda game. With the Wii U, we took a similar approach by launching Nintendo Land as well as a Mario game — though we’re working on Zelda for Wii U, that’s going to take us a little big longer.

From my perspective, I think ideally it would have been nice if we’d been able to release Pikmin 3 closer to launch, but the Wii U — though it shares the Wii name — is obviously a brand new system, with new chips and graphical capabilities. It can do a lot more, and in the process of developing a lot of the features and functionality, the resources required to best utilize those features drew on some of the same resources that might have been spent developing games, thus we weren’t able to bring quite as robust a lineup initially.

At the same time, we still have new things to learn about how to leverage the features and functionalities of Wii U in ways that create fun and interesting new ways to play, including new gameplay systems. As we become even more familiar with the hardware, we’ll be able to do more from a software standpoint. That’s an area we’re currently devoting resources to.

With series like Pikmin and others like Nintendogs or Steel Diver you’ve been at the forefront of new IP for Nintendo. That said, most of your games involve taking existing IP and retooling it for new gameplay ideas. Are you more inclined these days to want to develop new IP, or to retool existing material?

Whenever I start working on something I always start with creating new gameplay. After that gameplay becomes more concrete, we look at which character is best suited to the gameplay. So I guess from my standpoint, the ideal situation would be that we’re creating an experience that’s so new and so unique that we can present it to consumers with a new character or IP in a way that would be easiest for them to really understand the concept and enjoy the gameplay. But it may also be that in some of those cases it makes more sense for it to involve some of the characters that are more familiar to our fans.

When we created the original Wii Sports, we could have done it as a “Mario Sports” game, but we decided not to. Similarly with Wii Fit, that could have been a “Mario Fitness” game, but in both of those cases we ultimately decided that introducing those games as new IP or new franchises was a better approach. Because those games don’t have specific characters associated with them, people may not view them as new IP, but certainly when we created those games we intended them to be new franchises. It may be that in the future, as we’re generating new ideas, we’ll come across an idea that makes the most sense to release with a new character.

We talk a lot these days about casual versus core gamers or individual versus family gaming, and yet your games tend to appeal to all of these groups and across all ages. How do you design games that maintain crossover appeal as gaming’s become more of a mainstream hobby and those demographics shift?

The approach that I always take from the outset is that I want my games to appeal to as many different people as possible. Certainly many years ago, it was an era where people who were 50 years old or older had never played video games, whereas now, when you’re looking at people in their 40s and 50s, you see people who’ve played video games and have real experience doing so. Conversely among some of the younger audiences, you have groups that are very casual players or may have never played a game. And so a lot of developers or people in the industry talk about who your target audience is when you’re creating a game. But I never approach game development itself by starting off thinking about a target audience. Instead, my focus is always on how I can create something that appeals to as broad a group as possible.

As I focus on developing that gameplay, I look for things that I find to be fun or interesting and then I try to find ways to convey what’s fun about that to consumers in a way that is very easy for them to understand and also enjoy. As technology evolves, I have to continue to find things I find fun as well as ways to leverage that technology to deliver that to the consumer. As I’m getting older, where I start to have challenges is in trying to keep up with the pace of information flow, and really what I do is try to focus in on the essence or core of designing that interactive gameplay structure and then build the fun elements from the center of that core rather than trying to create something that’s heavily reliant on lots of different pieces of information.

What hasn’t changed about gaming in the past 30 years?

I think what’s unique about interactive entertainment that hasn’t changed is the idea that the player will sit down and think about what’s possible, then experiment within the parameters of that gameplay. And so what becomes important as you’re designing a game remains that simple idea of, “How can I create something that’s going to encourage creativity in how someone plays within the structure or world we’ve created?”

You didn’t ask this question, but conversely, I think’s what’s changed with regard to video games is that in the past, people would get their information about how to play the game over the phone from help lines or from strategy guides. They had very limited access to sources of information about how to play a game or what they could do in a game. Now what we see is that there are a wide variety of ways to encounter that sort of information, and so the breadth of communication itself becomes an element that can be a part of the gameplay as well.

Would 1980 Shigeru Miyamoto in his wildest dreams have anticipated what’s happened over the past three decades?

I don’t think I could have imagined where we’ve ended up. At the time in the 1980s, games fell categorically somewhere between toys and technology, and I think what I didn’t imagine happening over time was that gradually games began adopting more and more of the latest technology, to the point where games today are at the very forefront of technology and something everybody seems to be paying a great deal of attention to. The other thing I couldn’t have foreseen back then is that — particularly today when you look at the state of the consumer electronics industry, which had been where some of the most advanced technology was being used — that you see a number of the companies in a tough situation in a way that hasn’t hit gaming.

MORE: Miyamoto: The Wii U GamePad Gives Us Advantages over Tablets, Smartphones