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Shigeru Miyamoto Talk Asia Interview

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AR -- Anjali Rao
SM -- Shigeru Miyamoto

AR: You may not know the name Shigeru Miyamoto, but I guarantee you know his babies -- a portly mustachioed plumber called Mario, and a burly ape who goes by Donkey Kong are just two of his world famous creations.

Without his characters -- and without Miyamoto -- Nintendo would almost certainly not be what it is today: a super power in the cut-throat world of computer games.

Miyamoto took some time out of his day to talk, and play, with Talk Asia.


AR: Mr Miyamoto welcome to Talk Asia! Now many people would say that you've got this dream job, you get to design games every day and you also get paid for it at the end as well -- take us down the path that led from you when you first started out as an artist to the job you have today.

SM: When I started my career at Nintendo, there was no such thing as video game making at the company. There was not a clear style of video games yet. When I joined the company, I only wanted to be involved in making toys or entertainment products. Soon afterwards I came across video games. But at the time in those early days, the company didn't make or sell them. My job was simply to draw pictures.

I specialized in industrial design, so I was primarily drawing things to do with video games or creating boxes for them. But I was lucky enough to get a job that involved creating games right from the beginning, right from the planning stages. The first game that I was involved in developing was Donkey Kong. It was only after the success of Donkey Kong that game design won major recognition and was officially considered a big part of the company. In the time that has followed, I have continued creating games all the way through. I am no longer an employee of Nintendo. In fact, I became one of the directors. But I still receive money from the company, and I'm still able to do what I like to do, and that's making games.

AR: And you know better than anybody almost that in your industry a single game can revolutionize the entire gaming industry -- and you experienced that with Super Mario Brothers which invented the side scrolling adventure. How does it feel to think back to that time and to realize that you're a part of something like that.

SM: I have enjoyed creating something that is unique, something others have not done. I enjoy thinking about ways to create something that other people have not even thought about, something no one has managed to achieve. I often get inspiration from seeing the reaction from users playing games like Super Mario. For instance, I enjoyed making 3D versions of Super Mario 64 or Zelda.

My staff and I are motivated not by trying to out-sell whatever happens to be in the market, but rather trying to develop something that is totally unique. I think it's important that we enjoy that process. To create a new standard, you have to be up for that challenge and really enjoy it. This is the way we work and have done so many times.

AR: But when you look at a guy like Mario -- he's a pretty unlikely hero isn't he, he's a pudgy Italian plumber with more facial hair than Donkey Kong has. Tell us about how you came up with him.

SM: We had to draw Mario as a small character and at the same time, we had to make him look human. To do that, we needed to draw a distinctive feature for him, such as giving him a big nose. We gave him a moustache so that we didn't need to draw a mouth. It is difficult to show facial expressions with small characters. We gave him big hands. Since we were trying to create something distinctive in the character, it was natural to draw something like that. First, we created Mario with dots, putting together these distinctive features. Then I finalized with a drawing to show a final image of the character. So I didn't have any special theory behind the making of Mario. He evolved over the development process, followed by a final drawing of what I wanted him to look like.

AR: Today's games though are so complex aren't they, from a designer's perspective you've got these amazing 3D characters & 360 degree scenarios, like the Legend of Zelda for instance. But do you ever look back to the '80s and think, I really miss those simple days because I have to say that I really miss the Game Watch and that was stick figures moving across the screen!

SM: The game creators and players grew up together. They went through the history of video games together. When we came out with Super Mario or Donkey Kong, the whole world was astonished and showed interest. But when I look at the games that are out now, I cannot help thinking that games these days have become more user-oriented than in the past. I think everyone can enjoy games. In recent years, I have been trying to make games that even a game veteran like me could enjoy. For example, with Nintendo DS, I try to create games that are simple, with a new theme -- something that can be played by 5-year-olds to 95-year-olds. One of them is "Ninten dogs, which is a game anyone would enjoy playing. And even in the Wii software, we have golf, tennis and bowling games that anyone can play. I am now trying to get back to the basics, to the origin of the video/television games, and present something that people can enjoy.

AR: Anyhow I guess it's fair to say that Nintendo does come out with some incredible games and you can really really tell the huge differences obviously between what you're coming out with now and what you came out with in the '80s. But during that time you really were the undisputed industry leader in terms of computer games. Now there's a lot more competition. You've got Microsoft. You've got Sony. Do you think that Nintendo can ever get back to the dizzy heights of your success 20-25 years ago.

SM: I do think we are too conscious of competition. There are many companies today that can be compared to Nintendo. But I think that Nintendo should be unique and become a company that can not be compared with the other corporations. I believe that Nintendo will loved by the public if it can maintain that philosophy. For instance, we are currently making products such as the Nintendo DS and Wii. I don't think there is a company equivalent that has the know-how or skills with the technology behind the games, or has the history and experience in the entertainment industry, and or has such abundant and motivated staff. I believe that with our people, we are able to make games that can be accepted by the public for a long time. And as long as we maintain that edge, we will always have an advantage over other companies.


AR: So this it - the thing everybody's been waiting for. Let's give it a whirl. Ready?

AR: Oh, backhand!

AR: This is absolutely amazing. How long did it take to come up with something like this?

SM: The time passed very quickly, though it did take one or two years to make it. This is simple game and I am hoping to make simple games like this and have people enjoy them.

AR: You know computer games have always been about sitting at home on the sofa, eating chips, drinking coke and basically being very unhealthy. All those coach potatoes are going to recoil in horror at the idea of getting up, standing up, moving around. Are people going to go for it you think. Is that what people want?

SM: The games will change. The whole family will watch the game and they start saying "I want to give it a try"

AR: Do you think people could get hurt doing this. I mean you're running around all over the place?

SM: Be careful.

AR: Okay, it's match point -- here we go! Congratulations, you won!

AR: Before we get into the technicalities of this new system. I'm just going to have to ask you about the name obviously. Nintendo's taken a lot of flack over the fact that it changed it from Revolution. What was wrong with Revolution? Isn't that what this is?

SM: Japanese people have a funny habit of abbreviating names. For instance if you have a "Family Computer," people call it "Famicom". We at Nintendo had thought of giving it a name that can not be abbreviated. It is a very short official name, and we wanted to add other words to create a new additional name. Such as "Wii Sports" "Wii Play" and so on. We debated how the Wii might be thought of in the English speaking countries. And we came to a conclusion that there is no other choice but to use this short, appealing name.

AR: So it involves a motion sensitive wireless console. Some have said that this is nothing but a gimmick and something else in the next couple of years is going to come out and supercede it and it will have been a waste of time and money. What do you say to those people?

SM: First thing I would say is "Give it a try". If you use it you would know that you had the wrong impression about it. I became more and more confident in the Wii since I started to make the software for it.

AR: Nintendo though -- it's always been a company that takes a risk here and there, but this is such a gamble isn't it. Essentially what you're doing is reinventing the wheel by inventing this new console. Why do you need to fix something that isn't broken?

SM: It is always fun to try something new. A new market will open up when you introduce something that people have not expected. I feel strongly that we can have a chance in taking the lead in that market. Nintendo, historically, is a company that takes risks. Our former president himself has said "do not try to compete with the others, try to be the only one," set yourself apart from others. We are able to spend as much budget as needed for the challenge of creating something that makes us "The Only One." That is why Nintendo puts as much money as possible into such projects and big challenges. Our company thinks that there is never a big enough budget for such challenges.

AR: Nintendo has always said that Wii is supposed to be for everybody but there is this one really large, really tough nut in the community that no one seems to be able to crack and that's women. Why are we so hard to please?

SM: It is actually fun to think about that. My wife does not play any kind of games. I have tried to make her interested with various games like Tetris, but she has never showed interest, until recently. But we're beginning to tear down the walls, starting with the Nintendo DS games. It was fun to watch. Although we have not gathered figures about this, I think games such as Wii Sports can interest women. Hopefully women will begin to enjoy games more. I think our target will be mothers. In a common family with a mother, father and children, I think mothers take the initiative in family entertainment and I think they would respond well to the Wii. And we might go as far as saying that we designed the Wii to that effect -- as something that mothers would want to buy.

AR: There is still though a really big chasm between those who are gamers and those who are non-gamers. To the latter group, playing a game on a computer is more like hard work than anything else. How do you go about bridging that divide.

SM: I think anyone can enjoy video games. But some people shy away from them, just by looking at the shape of the console, or they think it is complicated when they have to plug the machine into their television set. However, I think if it is something that is simple to connect and play, it can be enjoyed by anybody, especially if they can interact with the characters.

We also have to think about the themes of the games. There is an abundance of themes that people are interested in, and video games have only touched on few of them. Nintendo is trying to diversify the gaming genre, offering new themes to the players. There are so many left to do. By introducing these available themes into video games, it will help people relate to the games better, and we may even be able to convert them into those who can not live without video games.


AR: As a kid, you were really into "manga" cartoons, but because of its violent content your parents saw some real cause for concern. As a father now yourself, do you think they had a right to worry?

SM: Yes, I think so. I myself am careful about any excessive violent expressions in video games. But when I was a child, my parents worried about me reading too many comic books. I'm not sure that they knew the full extent of the comics I was reading. That is when I was young. But obviously, I know about the content of video games that are out today. So I do worry about my children. I think it is natural for parents to do so.

AR: When you think about violent computer games , I guess the first thing that springs to mind these days is Grand Theft Auto , it's very, very graphic in content, it's also been blamed for inciting real life crimes but it's also extremely popular amongst gamers. Why hasn't Nintendo never gone down that very lucrative road.

SM: I think there is variety of ways to entertain people. Nintendo has many ways of entertaining people without the use of violent expression. So I do not have to worry in making such games.

My personal thought is, and I think it is the same with Nintendo, that before thinking about how to handle violence in video games, I think it is important to think about pain people feel. For example, you would not laugh at people with disabilities. There are bullying problems in Japan. Looking at the overall picture, it is important to understand and feel the pain that people might have. We make our games based on that philosophy, using means other than violence. But we also have to take a careful approach, even in the circumstances when we are not portraying direct violence. I think it is always important to give children a product with a careful approach.

AR: Gamers are very fond of saying what's on their mind about the latest games and they certainly do like to blog. Do you listen to their views?

SM: This is a difficult subject. If a fan makes a suggestion, I will often put it in my mind, and I will take in whatever comment I feel is useful. But I make my own predictions of how a user might react to the games I create, and I would say I am sensitive to whether those reactions are in line with what I predicted. People generally have different views and opinions about anything. So I would only listen to whatever information is useful for me. It is interesting to hear what other people say. But instead of reading the blogs, I would rather stand behind a person playing the games and sense how the player is reacting to the game -- whether he is unhappy with the games, or if he is having fun. I can feel all of that directly. It is more useful for me to do that than to read what he thinks of it.

AR: The last thing I want to ask you is what's the secret to getting into the design side of this business - and lasting at it as you have. I guess a fair amount of being a big kid at heart would really come into it.

SM: I wonder what it is ... I think it is important for me to think about the fact that there is always someone playing the games that I make. I always think about how to surprise them next, what to surprise them with. And it's also probably a good idea to keep working with younger generations.

AR: Mr Miyamoto, it's been a great pleasure -- many thanks indeed. And that brings us to the end of our show. My guest today has been Nintendo's game design genius Shigeru Miyamoto. I'm Anjali Rao, see you next time.


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