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The Engadget & Joystiq Interview: Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto

If there's one sure way to a reduce me to the ten-year-old Nintendo fanboy I once was, that's to offer me a chance to kick it with Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who created Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and Legend of Zelda and in the process (nearly) single-handedly transformed the video game industry forever. We recently sat down with master himself and tried to stay cool, calm, and collected just long enough to ask him some questions about Nintendogs, the new Revolution controller, the future of wireless gaming, what makes Nintendo different from its competitors, whether Mario is in too many games, and of course, that notorious Nintendo ON video that was floating around the interweb a few months back.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me this morning. The first thing I wanted to ask you about was Nintendogs, which has been a big hit for Nintendo-specifically about the inspiration for the game and what inspiration you might have found in earlier games.

Well with development, you spend usually one to two years on a game. But in actuality, you kind of have ideas that are floating around in your head for three, four, even five years before that. In my case, oftentimes I'll just have an object sitting my desk that'll be sitting there for a long time, and I'll kind of interact with it and it will spur ideas. In this case, about four years ago, my family and I bought a dog and started taking care of it and that became the impetus for this project.

One of the more popular aspects of the game is when two Nintendogs players have their dogs wirelessly interact with each other. Where do you think wireless gaming might go from here? What else do you think wireless gaming can do that hasn't been done yet?

Nintendo is a company that isn't just about wireless, we're a company that's focused very heavily on linking players and bringing them together. And it's something that's been a challenge for us. We've put a lot of effort into it and we feel we've got a very rich experience in that area. We've had ideas about coincidental linking with other players, and obviously, with the Game Boy Advance sometimes even up to eight.

Nintendogs Labrador Retriever

But with the DS what we wanted was to have a system that had that linking capability inherent in the system and built into it, so that you didn't have to have use cables. And as we began working on the DS, we also wanted to add in these ideas of coincidental linking, so that while you have the DS or while you're playing, it will link up with other DSes, perhaps without you knowing. And so we've been building on those ideas since then.

With the DS we'd really like the idea of this linking coincidentally to be something that's unintentional, that happens when you don't even realize it. We thought that there would be a lot of fun inherent in that process. There's another aspect to owning a dog, and so we wanted to include into the game the fact that when you have a dog and you take your dog out for a walk, people that normally would just pass by on the street if you didn't have a dog will suddenly talk to you because the dog becomes a kind of gateway between you and that other person. And so just by owning a dog and taking a dog for a walk, it expands your communication possibilities. We wanted to implement that in Nintendogs, and obviously we have the idea of people taking their dogs for a walk as part of the game play, anyway, and we wanted to use that and again combine that with a way in the future to kind of create this communication aspect to the game, where it essentially allows you to interact with other people. In Japan we've had ideas about using the DS to exchange business cards and those types of things, and we felt that this was a similar type idea that was very easily implemented.

Then, of course, we have the Nintendo WiFi connection that we'll be launching this fall with the DS. And so I think combined between the local wireless and the Nintendo WiFi connection, we're going to see a lot of different types of game play emerging and evolving from what we've seen in the past.

Nintendogs seems to be part of a relatively new genre of gaming. Obviously, there are some antecedents like Tamagotchi and other virtual pet games, but where do you see the this new genre going? What kinds of new ideas might we see building off of Nintendogs?

Are you asking about the Nintendogs franchise specifically?

No, in general.

Actually, the one thing that we took great care in when creating Nintendogs is that we wanted to make it a game that gamers would find fun and enjoyable. But at the same time, we needed to make sure that it would be the type of game that people who don't play games—who see the type of strategy, the level of detail and the difficulty in games and get turned off by that—we needed to make sure that those people would not be turned off by Nintendogs. We didn't want it to be the type of game where it has different levels and maps, and you have to and work your way through that.

Really, we wanted it to be the type of game where you could tell just by picking it up and touching it and just getting your hands on it that it is going to be a fun experience in and of itself. And it doesn't need to be the type of game where you are clearing levels or not clearing levels. And I think what that means is that this model that we've seen in gaming so far, where you have a laid-out strategy, you have a map that you go through in a game and you have a clear objective, that this not necessarily the only type of game that's out there. We're going to see new types of games emerging with different types of interfaces. We're not going to have to rely so much on simply taking advantage of new technology to bump up the AI and that sort of thing. We're really going to start to see more unique types of game play that are going to appeal to a very broad audience. You know that Nintendo's model is to attract gamers from ages 5 to 95. So I think that it allows us to kind of break out of the framework that we've seen in gaming so far and explore it with new types of ideas.

That actually leads me into my next question about the Revolution, specifically about the new controller which was unveiled recently. How much of a risk do you think Nintendo is taking with this new controller design? Do you think that the gaming public — as well as the wider public that you might be trying to attract, to branch out to — do you think that they're ready for this new approach to gaming?

Nintendo Revolution controller small

To be honest, I'm just truly confident in our plan. Obviously, we've been talking a lot about the new interface, the new functionality of the Revolution controller and the new types of game play it's going to offer, but although we've mentioned it, we haven't really talked too much about how it does have an expansion slot on the bottom of the controller. And what that expansion slot allows for are controller expansions.

From our perspective the Revolution controller is the new controller, everything else is now the classic controller. And with this expansion, you'll be able to have a classic controller that expands the functionality of the core unit. And to be honest, we've already—

It'll have that more traditional form factor?

Exactly. We've got something that would be very similar in style and form to the Wave Bird already complete. What that allows us to do is that we have all of these new features. We have the new functionality of the Wave Bird controller and we have new ways that players will be able to interact with games. But at the same time, we've retained all the functionality of the classic-style controller, so that people who are familiar with games and familiar with that style of game play are going to be able to have the types of experiences that they're expecting, on top of all of these new experiences that they've never imagined before. And so in that sense, to be honest, I think it's a spectacular plan and we're very confident. Obviously we've doing a lot of experiments with interfaces over the years and we think that that experience has really taken us in a direction that's going to be very successful for us.

All that's left for us is to take a look at the software to support the controller. Personally, I feel that first-person shooters are really well-suited for this controller. I've worked on them in the past in the Metroid Prime Series. And to be honest, I felt that first-person shooter controls on a classic controller were kind of clunky. They didn't feel very—they didn't feel very right. Whereas with this controller, with the nunchuck-style of controller it's extremely natural and extremely intuitive. First-person shooters are a genre that are very popular in the United States, and I think that when gamers get their hands on this controller and start playing first-person shooters with it they're going to find it's probably the best way to play that kind of game.

Do you think that most of the games that will be available on launch will actually take full advantage of the new controller? Or do you think it's something that will have to evolve over time?

Well, as we've seen with the Nintendo DS it's taken us about six months for games like Nintendogs and the Brain Training games we've introduced in Japan to came out, and these are software that can only be achieved on a Nintendo DS. So in that sense, it took us a little while to get full functionality out of the DS. But for the Revolution launch we're trying to have software that takes as much advantage of the Revolution controller as possible. The one advantage we have in this area is that the Revolution development can actually be done on the Game Cube development environment. So the development kits are going to have a very similar structure to the Game Cube development kits, which makes it very easy for people who have started projects on the Game Cube development kits to just switch over the interface and continue working and have those games ready for the Revolution. We're thinking that we're going to be able to have a pretty strong launch.

me and miyamoto

I wanted to ask another question about wireless gaming. Nintendo made a strong push into wireless gaming with the DS, but a lot of people seem to think that the cellphone is going to evolve into a larger platform for mobile gaming. How does the cellphone fit into Nintendo's future? Would you ever collaborate with a cellphone company on a gaming cellphone, sort of like how Motorola and Apple collaborated on an iTunes phone?

Well actually in the past Nintendo did release a cable in Japan that connected the Game Boy color to cell phones. But in terms of actually using cell phones themselves as gaming systems for Nintendo games, I think that number one you have to overcome battery life problems. I think that's a big issue. And number two: there are issues with just plain old difficulty of use. Cellphones really are designed to be used to dial numbers and used as a telephone, and trying to convert that into a gaming system can be very difficult. And so I think on those fronts, it may be some time before Nintendo were ever to go in that direction.

But having said that, I would like to show you the Game Boy Micro, which is a cell phone-size game machine. [Miyamoto pulls a Game Boy Micro out of his pocket.] This is the Play-Yan device that they released in Japan which plays music and movies.

A lot of people have been importing these over here.

This could actually be, I think, the smallest and best looking movie player that you can buy. I think that we're going to gradually see more and more of this idea of convergence, where multi-functionality is incorporated into a simple device. But at the same time, as an entertainment company, you still need to have a device that is very simple and easy to use, so that you can reach as many people as possible. But kind of like how Windows has gradually become an easier to use system with more and more features, I think we may see a similar trend.

Do you think that the Revolution will go on sale before the PlayStation 3?

Nintendo PR representative: We're really not disclosing all the Revolution details right now. I know everybody's anxious to hear about it.

Fair enough, but speaking of your competition, what do you think is Nintendo's specific advantage over Microsoft and Sony? What makes Nintendo different from those companies? You have a longer history in gaming, but besides franchises like Mario and Zelda and things like that, what else makes the company really different from those two?

Well, I think that Sony and Microsoft have studied Nintendo's business model. They've looked at the current genres of games and the types of games that have been launched in the past, and they've found a way to take advantage of technology and push those games further, using technology. And I think that both of those companies are very strong in that role. I think the difference is that Nintendo, itself, is an entertainment company. And for many years, we've been looking for ways to take ideas that can entertain people and turning those ideas into entertainment products. I think we're very strong in that area and I think we'll continue to be strong in that area. And I also think that because we're a company that is selling not only the hardware, but also the software, that we're putting those two pieces together as a product. That's another strength of ours, the fact that we have software development teams that work in conjunction with hardware development teams. And it's a tremendous strength that we have, one that I don't think some of the other companies have.

Some long-time Nintendo fans complain that Mario is turning up in too many different games and too many different genres. Do you think that there's a risk that he's being relied on too much or that maybe his impact is being diluted by being in so many different types of games?


At this point in time my team is still the team that's solely responsible for all Mario platform games. We created Mario platform games and we're going to be the team that continues to do that. For the true Mario games, that is, the true Mario platform games, we're still at a point where you can expect a high-quality true Mario platform game once every few years; we're not just going to continue to turn those out.

As far as the Mario character games go, I really feel that Mario is a brand for Nintendo. And what Mario is, is a character that allows both gamers and non-gamers to relate to video games. He brings people in. He makes them feel comfortable. And in that sense, I think he's very good. He can introduce a lot of people to video games because he's a character that people know. And when they see him in a game, they may be more willing to pick up that game and maybe experience a new genre. And in that sense, I think that it's not weakening the brand whatsoever.

Another challenge was, of course, with the shift to 3-D. And in the original shift to 3-D, there was obviously challenges in trying to create quality a 3-D Mario and quality 3-D Mario games, and quality models, as well. And so what we've done now is we've put together these baseline models that are used across all the games. And so that also has become a strength is that, we have a standard character group with the Nintendo that is responsible for managing the use of the Mario models, and so they're able to provide the models to different developers who are using Mario in their game. And so there's actually, I think, a strength, because you've got a consistent model that's apparent in the game consistent character appearance. And I think that's been a good strength for us, too.

Nintendo ON

I know we're running out of time, but I've been dying to ask you about this. Around the time of E3 there was a fan-made video circulating of what was supposedly an unannounced new helmet-based Nintendo virtual reality video game system called Nintendo ON. What did you think of it, if you've seen it?

I guess I'll have to take a look at that video!

You've never seen it?


There are plenty of people who insist that the video is actually a real Nintendo product and we, along with a lot of other people, have had to spend a lot of time debunking it. Why do you think that so many Nintendo fans might be so willing to believe that it was real? It seems like it really struck a chord with a lot of people.

Obviously, Nintendo's has done research on that type of thing in the past, so who knows. Maybe it's possible that something like that may come out of Nintendo one day.