Crispy Gamer

CG Exclusive: Interview With Shigeru Miyamoto

He's one of the wise old (well, older) men of the medium. His games? Viewed from a certain angle, they seem like so much childish nonsense.

Mushroom kingdoms? Magic ocarinas? Barrel-tossing monkeys?

Yet these seemingly trivial tropes have not only endured upwards of 20 years at this point, they still possess enough juice to make adult men (yes, men who are able to hold down jobs and grow facial hair and have families) regress to the point that they squeal like schoolgirls at a Justin Timberlake concert.

Of course, we're talking about Shigeru Miyamoto. Chances are that even if you don't know who he is, you know the games he has worked on. His contributions not only include Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda series, but also the icons that each of these series gave rise to: Mario, Donkey Kong and Link. At 55, Miyamoto still lives and works in Kyoto, Japan (though Nintendo, fearing for his safety, has asked him to kindly stop riding his bicycle to work).

We recently caught up with Miyamoto-san (along with translator Bill Trinen, with whom we also spoke) on a visit to New York City.

Crispy Gamer: Tell me, did working for Nintendo help you or hinder you when it came to dating?

Shigeru Miyamoto: [laughs] I've been married for a very long time, and, no, my wife never seemed to have a problem with what I do for a living. I guess you should probably ask her that question?

Crispy Gamer: When you first told your dad that you were going to work for Nintendo, did he say, "Son, you really need to get a more respectable job"?

Miyamoto: Nintendo wasn't a videogame company back then. It was focused more on playing cards. Though, yes, it's true, it was still an entertainment company. My father was always great. He always said, "You should be able to do what you want to do." He was very supportive.

Crispy Gamer: Have you actually ever met an Italian plumber?

Miyamoto: No. But, as you know, Mario was originally known as Jumpman, and the landlord of a Nintendo warehouse in New York City was named Mario. So we started calling him Mario, and the name stuck.

Crispy Gamer: Have you seen the documentary "The King of Kong"?

Miyamoto: I haven't.

Crispy Gamer: It's worth watching. One of the facts the documentary taught me is that the average game of Donkey Kong lasts less than two minutes. Why is that?

Miyamoto: Well, obviously, if we'd made the game too easy, and everyone played for 20 minutes on one quarter, arcade owners would not have been happy. [laughs] And I felt that [Donkey Kong] needed to be more challenging than other games because visually, it didn't really change much from screen to screen. You were basically doing the same thing over and over. So, if it was going to keep players playing, it was the challenge that was going to do it.

Crispy Gamer: Is that the essence of your job: keeping players playing?

Miyamoto: I think my job has always been to think about what types of play systems will actually be fun for people. So, if we are talking about the arcades, looking at how the arcades operate, I think it would be my job to figure out, if a player fails at a videogame, what they need to understand about why they failed in order to feel like they want to play that game again. Or for example, if an arcade game is designed in such a way that [the player] does not understand what the goal is, then of course, they're not going to come back to that game. So trying to understand the reaction the game inspires in the player, I think, that was my job. And that's still my job.

Crispy Gamer: How has that changed with the advent of home consoles?

Miyamoto: With home consoles, you don't have the time constraints that you'd have in an arcade. The question then became, with a limitless time frame, what can you do within that structure to try to keep people entertained and engaged?

Crispy Gamer: Describe your level of techiness.

Miyamoto: It boils down to this: Any kind of computer or program is always going to suffer from some kind of limitation on the technology side. What I learned is that, in order to design my games, I need to understand, more than anything else, what those limitations are.

So, I studied programming not in the sense of learning how to program, but in the sense of learning how a program works, and how a programmer thinks, and how a program thinks. Then I was able to take my ideas for what I wanted a game to be and make a flow chart that would help the programmer understand what I wanted to create, how I wanted it to work, and how they might be able to represent that in a programming sense.

Of course, the other aspect of this that I learned to take into account is that your game program is going to be running on a specific piece of hardware. The Donkey Kong arcade game is running on a specific circuit board, a specific processor, and those pieces of hardware have certain limitations. For example, you have limitations on the number of colors that can be shown on-screen at one time, you have a limitation on the number of dots or pixels that the program can draw at one time, and you have a limitation on how fast the CPU or the computer processor runs while it is calculating all of this. I learned how to take those limitations into account as well, to try to maximize what I was able to do on-screen within those limitations.

Of course, technology has advanced since those days to the point where it feels like the hardware has almost limitless capabilities. So I'm finding these days that part of my job as a game designer includes choosing from this near-limitless palette of functions and capabilities and deciding which ones we should use with our hardware systems.

Crispy Gamer: The Wii is obviously the least powerful of the next-gen consoles, and yet it's the most successful. Explain.

Miyamoto: Well, while it's technically true that the Wii, in comparison to the other consoles that are of this generation, has less power than the other consoles, but I would say that in comparison to the other computer and processing devices that are out there in the world, the Wii has a great deal of power under the hood. So in that sense, I don't want people to be confused and think that the Wii is a low-tech device.

As a device that is focused solely on interactive experiences, it's a very powerful device. As for why it succeeds, you have to look back to the time of Donkey Kong. At the time of Donkey Kong, videogames were something fresh and new to everybody, and everybody saw them as something that was fun and interesting. And then with the Nintendo Entertainment System, you could take that fresh and exciting experience, and you could have that experience in your home. So that itself was very unique, and people were very excited about that.

So when we began designing the Wii, what we really wanted to do was bring that uniqueness and freshness back to a point where everybody could relate to it. And so our thinking behind it was that we wanted a device that people will play together in the living room; a device that will kind of give rise to new interactions and new conversations within the family; a device about which people will think, This is a machine that is fun and entertaining that I want to have in my house.

Crispy Gamer: How many tea tables were upended while developing Wii Fit?

Miyamoto: Making Wii Fit actually went pretty well. We took our time, and we didn't really have to upend the tea table. Why? Because we took our time setting the table properly.

I think where we had the greatest challenge was in designing the balance board. Originally, we started off with just one sensor in the balance board. Gradually, over development, we finally moved to a total of four sensors. Also originally, the balance board was designed to be plugged into the Wii remote, and we decided that having the Wii remote plugged into the balance board and on the floor would just get in the way and be too complicated. So we decided to include all of the wireless technology inside the balance board itself.

I think from that side, in developing the balance board, that's where our greatest struggles were. In other words, instead of upending the tea table for the software team, I ended up upending the tea table for the hardware team.

Crispy Gamer: You've been in this business as long as anybody. You've seen lots of changes, lots of things come and go. What else do you see down the line? What will we see next? Can you look into your crystal ball and tell us: What's the next evolution, or revolution?

Miyamoto: Well, my plan isn't, now that I've created Wii Fit, to create a bunch of fitness applications. But I've come to realize that the interactive technologies and interfaces behind videogames are something that can be applied in a lot of different ways and in a lot of different areas.

Obviously there are a lot of different technologies out there. To my mind, there are still a lot of ways out there, given the intuitive ease of the interactive interfaces that game designers are so talented at creating, to combine these technologies to help improve people's lifestyles and to bring new benefits to them. So, all I can really say is that I can see myself looking at different ways that we can do that in the future.

Crispy Gamer: Finally: Are you using Wii Fit yourself? You're looking quite trim these days.

Miyamoto: I go to the gym and I play Wii Fit. I weigh myself with Wii Fit, and with my other scale as well, so I'm doing what I can to take care of myself. I've probably lost about two kilograms since we started working on Wii Fit, which is about four and a half pounds. Not bad, right?