GDC 07: Miyamoto speaks

The day after getting a lifetime achievement award, legendary Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto talks about his changing vision.

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SAN FRANCISCO--On Wednesday, the big news at the 2007 Game Developers Conference was Sony's debut of its PlayStation Home avatar-based service. On Thursday, Nintendo had the opportunity to claim some of the buzz with Shigeru Miyamoto's keynote address at the Moscone Center's cavernous South Hall esplanade.

The line of eager developers waiting to get into the hall surrounded an entire city block 20 minutes before the keynote address was intended to tip off. It snaked back around on itself as GDC staffers did their best to keep the crowd from spilling over into the streets.

The enthusiasm was understandable, though. The previous evening, Miyamoto took home a lifetime achievement award at the Game Developers Choice Awards for his three decades of work. After receiving a standing ovation, he promised those in attendance that he would have much to say at his keynote address the following morning, amping up expectations to stratospheric heights.

10:40: Inside the hall, attendees are greeted by the obligatory gaming press conference thumping techno music. Five massive video screens dominate the space as a host of gaming journalists huddle over softly glowing laptops. Almost 10 minutes after the scheduled start time, people are still finding their seats as an announcement is made asking for cell phones to be turned off.

10:47: People are still finding seats. A certain game-blog staffer is running around with a video helmet haranguing anyone in range.

10:48: Staffers are still trying to find seats for attendees, squeezing as many people into the auditorium as possible. Mutterings in the crowd range from discussion of Sony's keynote address to assessments of the week's various parties, with free beer, swag, and embargoed news being freely disseminated.

10:52: People continue to jostle for seating. Hopefully there aren't any fire marshals about...

10:55: The DS pictochats are almost as full as the auditorium as attendees are again asked to take their seats. The keynote address is scheduled to end at 11:30 a.m., but that seems unlikely at this rate.

10:59: Still nothing happening. You can almost feel an epidemic of gluteal cramps begin to break out among the constantly shifting crowd. Still, perhaps surprisingly, the crowd seems to be tolerating the delay in good spirits. Conversations about Mega Man, Mario, and other familiar franchises rise above the din.

11:00: Now the show starts.

11:01: GDC director Jamil Moledina takes the stage to introduce Shigeru Miyamoto, talking about the creator's "quarter century of disruptively contagious hits."

11:02: Miyamoto takes the stage to a round of applause and cheers. He's wearing a Link pin on his lapel.

There was plenty of time before the keynote started to show off art.
There was plenty of time before the keynote started to show off art.

11:03: Speaking through a translator, Miyamoto says he will use the Wii's photo channel to give his presentation.

11:04: Miyamoto begins talking about his 25 years of designing video games, referencing games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man as the games people talked about.

11:05: He shows a picture of the stereotypical child gamer--eyes glazed, jaw slack--and calls it "disturbing."

11:06: He brings up the top-selling games of 1998, pointing to Nintendo's GoldenEye at the top of the charts and saying that the gamer image was still generally neutral. But by 2004, he said something had changed.

11:07: With Grand Theft Auto and Halo 2 on the top of the charts, Miyamoto said he was getting new questions from reporters, questions about what effects games had on people. Even though sales went up, he said the reputation of the industry went down.

11:08: Miyamoto expressed his concern about games becoming stagnant as everyone tried to do the one type of game that was successful, and he then brings up his creative vision and "The Nintendo Difference."

Miyamoto's Wii had a GDC channel.
Miyamoto's Wii had a GDC channel.

11:09: The three elements of Nintendo's corporate vision are next. Up first is the expanded audience. Miyamoto says he has his own way of gauging a product's potential success with an expanded audience. He calls it "the Wife-o-meter," and shows a graphic of it. It measures one variable: The interest of his own wife.

11:10: He says that we may remember the first time we played Pac-Man or Super Mario Bros. as important moments in our lives. However, they were not important moments for his wife.

11:11: Not even Tetris attracted Miyamoto's wife, but she took some interest in their daughter's experience with Ocarina of Time. Animal Crossing scored even better on the Wife-o-meter, convincing her to actually pick up the controller, but Miyamoto still strived to drive the meter higher.

Getting hotter, Shiggy!
Getting hotter, Shiggy!

11:13: Now he talks about pets. While his wife is a cat person, Miyamoto prefers dogs. He references the Wii Everybody Votes Channel poll on the subject to show that more than 60 percent of the voting population agrees with him.

11:14: After an extended detour and pictures of his dog, Pick, Miyamoto gets back to the point. He talks about showing Nintendogs to his wife, and how she started looking at games from a different perspective.

11:15: For Valentine's Day, Miyamoto said he came home from work expecting her to be asleep, but instead found her playing the Wii. She had stayed up casting votes on the Everybody Votes channel.

11:16: Miyamoto was shocked, saying it meant she had downloaded the channel herself. He said it would have been less surprising to find Donkey Kong ransacking his house.

11:17: Now he shows a picture of the second installment of Brain Age, and how she's embraced the game completely. Miyamoto says she's turned into a hardcore gamer and shows off her Mii, which she uses to play Wii Sports. Apparently she's made Miis for the whole family, extended relatives, and everyone in the neighborhood. He calls it her first step in game design, filling the Wife-o-meter completely.

11:18: The second key element of the Nintendo vision is balance.

11:19: At Nintendo, Miyamoto says teams working together work in the same building to emphasize teamwork. He talks about his collegiate education in industrial design and how he's used that knowledge to help design every Nintendo controller from the NES to the Wii Remote.

11:20: But he doesn't want people to think that he created the controllers solo. "It doesn't work that way at Nintendo," he says, "It's a group collaboration."

The original Nintendog, Pick.
The original Nintendog, Pick.

11:21: As for the Wii, he described it as the most intense creation process ever. One team was dedicated to developing new games. A second team wanted to preserve the company's classic franchises. A third team was dedicated to helping third parties work with the new controller.

11:22: In the process of designing the controllers, they designed numerous prototypes. Miyamoto shows images of a few of them, some showing the roots of older gaming controllers, some looking more like standard TV remotes. One prototype appeared to simply be a giant button with a Mario star shape on it.

11:23: Miyamoto says the final version of the Wii controller is the result of a true collaboration between different teams.

11:24: As a controller, Miyamoto says the Wii remote does a lot of what he's dreamed of for years.

11:25: He stresses the importance of providing game creators with the chance to make new kinds of entertainment that couldn't be realized with the way things were.

11:26: Miyamoto says Nintendo's viewpoint of progress goes beyond game hardware. He shows a picture of a museum in Kyoto for a Japanese game that blends playing cards and poetry. Nintendo is one company that makes said cards, and Miyamoto says he was asked to design the exhibits for the museum.

11:28: He said the project was enjoyable to work on because it wasn't technically a game, so they didn't have to worry about details like how it would end. But he said it was important because it bridged the gap between generations. Typically, the poems are only of interest to the elderly, but the interactive elements have helped draw younger people into the traditional art.

11:30: Now he brings up the last element of Nintendo's corporate vision: risk. He says Nintendo employees are encouraged to do things differently from everyone else. He brings up the DS and Touch Generations titles, saying some may be good for the soul, and some may be good for the brain, but the ultimate goal is fun.

11:32: He says none of the company's past risks hold a candle to the Wii, however. He calls the GameCube a step toward the Wii with the emphasis on the big green A button on the controller, but he said it was ultimately still too complex an interface for nongamers. To really break through, he said they had to do more, but they were still challenged in developing the Wii Remote.

11:33: Miyamoto talks about meeting with his producers and telling them to not think about what functionalities would be lost by the Wii Remote's design but what would be gained. He says he didn't know the risk was going to pay off until last spring at the Electronic Entertainment Expo when he saw the long lines of people waiting to play the Wii and then their happy faces as they left.

11:34: He moves from the corporate vision to his own personal vision.

11:35: In interviews, Miyamoto says he's often asked about where he got ideas from, or why he designed a certain level in a certain way. But he says that the harder people look at the particulars of his games, the further they get from the actual answer.

11:36: "When I'm creating a game, what I always try to envision is the core element of fun within a game," he tells the crowd. "And to do that, I imagine one thing, and that's the face of the player as they play the game."

11:37: He talks about watching people play the DS for the first time and shows clips of Japanese consumers' first reactions to the system.

11:38: Miyamoto points out that it wasn't just the person playing each game that was happy, but the people watching (including the attendees in the auditorium) were happy and smiling as well.

11:39: Miyamoto talks about all the emotions that can be triggered by gameplay, and while he always wants them to walk away happy, he says all that's important is what "you" (the developers in the crowd) want the players to feel. However, Miyamoto again mentions that his personal taste is to always make that experience a positive one.

11:40: He says that developers sometimes get tunnel vision when creating a game, and says that they have to force themselves to create from the consumer's viewpoint.

11:41: That's why Miyamoto says he's willing to take a risk, delay a game, or change a key spec late in development. "In any case, I believe that my vision of a happy player's face--the one I try to imagine in every project--is also a good match for Nintendo."

11:42: He says that positive focus is what will appeal to expanded markets, and he then brings up Wii Play. Even though Wii Play isn't a core gamer's game, Miyamoto says traditional gamers are enjoying it because it's something they can play with nongaming friends.

11:43: Miyamoto says he often makes games so that players themselves are encouraged to become more creative. At the core of that is communication.

Ehhh...not so user friendly.
Ehhh...not so user friendly.

11:44: Great games don't necessarily need to include communication (Solitaire, Pac-Man), Miyamoto says. He brings up Zelda, saying his first prototype of the game didn't go over well in Japan. People were confused--they couldn't solve the puzzles and asked for simple routes through the dungeons. "I ignored them," Miyamoto said.

11:45: Instead, he dropped gamers into the world without even a sword, so that they would be forced to think about what they had to do. Other puzzles also inspired gamers to ask their friends for help and compare notes on the game.

11:46: He said in that sense, Zelda laid the groundwork for Animal Crossing.

11:47: The next aspect of game design he talks about is prioritization. He says all developers have the same complaint: "not enough." There's not enough people, not enough budget, or not enough time. As a developer, he shares those complaints but has to cope with them anyway.

Miyamoto's inspiration.
Miyamoto's inspiration.

11:49: He talks about Wii Sports and how it has only one stadium, no fielding, no ability to lay a bunt, and three-inning games. Not even the characters are realistic, Miyamoto says. They were based on traditional Japanese wooden dolls.

11:50: Despite all the unrealistic elements, Miyamoto said they prioritized pitching and hitting to make the game seem realistic regardless.

11:51: At one point in development, they tried to use Mario characters in place of the wooden-doll-styled characters but found that people liked the non-Mario style better.

11:52: Miyamoto says he's a baseball fan himself and hopes to play a more realistic baseball game on the Wii eventually, but he says people are already enjoying Wii Sports baseball in its own form of realism.

11:53: Now Miyamoto is talking about tenacity. Referring to Wii Sports baseball again, he talks about how the idea for it had been something he wanted for a long time, and it was just a matter of waiting.

The Legend of Zelda had people talking.
The Legend of Zelda had people talking.

11:54: He brings up the Famicom disk drive and a simple face-creation utility Nintendo developed for it.

11:55: He changes the character's eye, hair style, and face shape in a way fairly reminiscent of the Mii. The utility was intended to come with an animation program. Miyamoto liked it, but the internal feedback was confusion over how it could be a game, and the product was shelved.

11:57: He revisited the idea in another form with the Nintendo 64 disk drive and showed a 3D character editor made for the system with a wide variety of clothing options for characters. Miyamoto thought nobody at Nintendo could resist that idea, but again the project never reached fruition.

11:59: He tried to bring the idea back yet again with Stage Debut, a GameCube game that was intended to use the Game Boy e-Reader and a camera attachment. He demonstrates the title, which shows a digital Miyamoto dancing with Pikmin characters--and gets much laughter from the crowd. However, Nintendo once again balked at the idea, saying there wasn't really a game to make out of it.

12:00: However, when the Wii was in development, Miyamoto was told of a team within Nintendo that was working on a face creation utility for the DS.

A Mii-anderthal?
A Mii-anderthal?

12:01: Miyamoto said he went back to his team and called them useless before jumping to work on the new team's project for several months. He wasn't angry at his own team, he said, but frustrated that they had been working on it for 20 years without succeeding.

12:02: Miyamoto brings it back to the company's vision of an expanded audience, saying he'd had it backward for years. By making things complicated, he was alienating potential audiences. By keeping the choices limited and making things simple, they got it to work.

12:03: He said tenacity paid off, but only when he was willing to take the risk.

12:04: Miyamoto says he's now working on a new Wii channel as a result of how successful the Mii concept has been. He's going to create a popularity contest for Miis that will feature contributions from gamers around the world.

Mii-yamoto.
Mii-yamoto.

12:05: His final example of tenacity is Mario. Miyamoto says the plumber came from humble beginnings to be in countless games. He event suggests there may be too many Mario games, a heretical concept to many Nintendo faithful.

12:06: But he's always asked what happened to Mario 128. He said the original Mario 128 demo at Spaceworld was intended to show off the GameCube's horsepower. Not only that, he said most of the developers had already played it, because it eventually became Pikmin.

12:07: A Super Mairo Galaxy graphic appears on the screen, and Miyamoto says the spherical stages of the game are another element of Mario 128 revived for the game, which will come out later this year.

12:08: He then shows a short demo of Mario catapulting between various objects and islands in space, dealing with changing gravity, collecting coins (natch), and fighting monsters.

12:09: Miyamoto's main message is that creative vision isn't one element of game design--it is the very essence of it. He stresses that the developers in attendance don't need to share his vision, saying their success will depend on how well they can realize their own visions.

Its-a him, Mario!
Its-a him, Mario!

12:10: Miyamoto talks about measuring the success of a game by how well it breaks outside of the sphere of gaming to attract those who don't play games, or are even afraid of them.

12:11: He again shows a picture of the stereotypical gamer sitting in a dark room staring at the glow of a TV with a controller in hand and contrasts that with pictures of people playing the Wii.

12:12: Miyamoto closes saying if we can make a gamer of his wife, we can make a gamer of anyone. He receives a standing ovation as the lights come up.

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