Interview: Shigeru Miyamoto
You don’t need to read another introduction to Shigeru Miyamoto. His career highlights are etched in the mind of every player, but here goes, nonetheless. From the days of Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros to the industry-usurping Wii, it’s a career with two constants: originality and quality. The general manager of Nintendo’s EAD division tells us about his road thus far – and what’s next.
Let’s go back to the beginning, when you were working under Hiroshi Yamauchi. His game selection process is the stuff of legend – did you have any ideas rejected?
I do not have any recollection of any of my proposals being turned down by Mr Yamauchi. And I think I was allowed a great deal of autonomy when it came to the next game we would make – except sometimes Mr Yamauchi approached me and said: “Isn’t this the time when we need to have the next Mario game?” [Laughs] The way he selected games was just like this: we had some new ideas, I approach him and share them with him and say: “I think people might be entertained in a new way”. And when Mr Yamauchi could really relate to that and agree, immediately it became the company’s shared project. So we could immediately begin development.
Sometimes he couldn’t give me an immediate ‘yes’. In such situations, I secretly proceeded ahead with a project and at the time when it was forming into a more concrete thing, I tentatively approached Mr Yamauchi again, giving him the opportunity to pass everything. [Laughs] Well, after all, Mr Yamauchi is the same age as my parents, so I guess that he was maybe looking at me as a son or grandson doing something for him. I think he had a little of that kind of approach. But, having said that, of course the end result is sometimes very upsetting because there are business realities, too. My game could sell lower than Nintendo or Mr Yamauchi expected – then he became really, really upset. Furious, in fact.
During his time as president he had a great gut feeling about what kind of ventures would work, and what kind would not sell. If Mr Yamauchi said, “This could turn out OK,” thinking it was a prototype when in reality it was nearly complete, he’d then say, “OK, this is going to be a good title in the marketplace.” This is not common. There are often times when other managers in the industry could not have had that kind of clear foresight. Even within Nintendo, other managers often tended to disagree about my prospects whenever I was showing the same piece of software to them. But, out of everyone, Mr Yamauchi tended to have the most precise forecasts as to how much a certain piece of software could sell.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. With Donkey Kong, I demonstrated how the game would basically work and he liked it, and he immediately demanded that I should stop any other work right now, and concentrate upon finishing this particular project. And when I first showed him the demo of Super Mario Bros, he really, really liked it. I still recall him saying: “This is great – you can travel on land and in the sky and even in the water. This is going to be amazing.”
This might surprise you, but I have never provided Mr Yamauchi with any presentation sheets at all. Often, at the first stage I simply provided him with some short memos, or a picture showing how the game idea would be constructed, or with a presentation. And then, once Mr Yamauchi understands that main image, I’d try to expand and explain the idea with him in more detail. And that was the point at which he could use his own instincts to tell if it was going to be great.
Your first supervisor as a game designer was Gumpei Yokoi. What did you learn from him?
According to Nintendo’s own system, our internal organisation, I have never directly reported to Mr Yokoi! It’s rather that I was always trying to seek out how he made games, perhaps indirectly. I was able to take his advice when I was working on Donkey Kong and, with other projects, I was able to have the opportunity to stay close to him, even though we were working on different things. I was able to see how he tackled certain other areas of software. For example, I still recall that whenever we were together in the same meeting, he used to share certain opinions that came from different perspectives that I could never imagine at the time. He would also just gaze at games in development at Nintendo and then would suddenly pinpoint certain areas – the ones he believed were the most important areas to be worked on in that particular project. I then saw how he would try to persuade his subordinates of the importance of that particular area. I think that I learned a great many lessons from how I observed Mr Yokoi training his subordinates, and I think in my position I use some of them.