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Meet the man behind the Wii

In the game industry, there is no one bigger than Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto.
Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto poses with Mario, one of his many contributions to the video game industry.
Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto poses with Mario, one of his many contributions to the video game industry.Nintendo

In the game industry, there is no one bigger than Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto.

He is the creator of some of the best-selling, most long-lived and beloved video game franchises ever, including “Donkey Kong,” the Mario series and “The Legend of Zelda.” More recently, he was heavily involved in the creation of the Wii, the company’s smash hit console, which helped earn him a spot in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential list in 2007. More recently, Miyamoto has lent his talents to the best-selling “Super Mario Galaxy” for the Wii and the exercise game “Wii Fit.”

At this week’s E3 video-game industry summit in Los Angeles, he raised the curtain on his latest creation, “Wii Music,” which simulates playing real musical instruments. A musician himself, Miyamoto told me through a translator that he hopes the game will be something that people will play as a way to experience the joy of making music.

“I feel like we’ve finally created a true music game, rather than, say, a rhythm game,” he said. “For me, as a musician, it brings the fun of creating music to those who aren’t able to experience it.”

Many of Miyamoto’s experiences and hobbies make their way into Nintendo’s product lineup. The DS title “Nintendogs” is based on his experience buying and raising a dog with his family. “Wii Fit” famously came from the game designer’s experience with a new exercise regimen.

Below are excerpts from my conversation with Miyamoto about the company’s success with the Wii, how the move to the mainstream has helped break down the perception that video games were violent games, and whether raising a dog on a DS makes you less likely to raise a dog in real life.

Q. I’m very curious about Nintendo’s decision to go after a casual audience when their competitors were chasing after hardcore gamers and HD. I’ve heard it said that Nintendo looked at the population of Japan and saw it was aging, and for its survival, it needed to diversify its audience. Is that accurate?

A. While it is true that the population in Japan is aging, that wasn’t the impetus for the strategic decisions that we’ve made with Wii. What we were looking at was what we thought was a worldwide issue, which is that video games had gradually become something that were only enjoyed by people who were core gaming fans, and not something that were enjoyed by the wider population.

While other game makers had felt that there was a future in taking the current style of games and making them more complex and more advanced, and that that would be able to provide them with future market for their product, we really came to the belief that video games should be more than just more complex versions of what we’ve seen in the past. We felt that video games should instead include a variety of different elements and a variety of different styles of entertainment that can appeal to a much broader audience. And that that was really where the future lay.

Q. Following on that, it was a risk to come out with a console that deliberately didn’t court hardcore gamers, and with such a different control scheme — particularly after the GameCube (which enjoyed only moderate success). At what point did you know that the risk had paid off?

A. The first that I’d want to clarifyis that the concept that Wii intentionally does not cater to core gamers is probably a misconception, and perhaps one that’s almost a PR tactic used by some of the other companies to paint us as a company that’s not targeting core gamers. But in fact, while we may not be focusing on the high-end graphics and technology that core gamers would typically be drawn to, the types of games we create, and continue to create, are certainly games that people who play games would certainly want to continue playing.

I think that there’s probably one other element to it, and that’s that our view of how we use E3 has changed. For a very long time, E3 was an event where — and certainly Nintendo included — catered specifically to the core gamer. Now we look at more …an opportunity for us to introduce new concepts and new types of play that we intend to bring to the broader audience, particularly because of the media that gathers at E3 now.

So while attending an E3 event like this, they might be given the impression that Nintendo is no longer focusing on the games that appeal to the core gamer, in fact we’re still working on many of those titles, but it’s just not the type of event where we’ll be showcasing that anymore.

Q. Did you expect, when you were designing the Wii, that you would be seeing footage of senior citizens playing “Wii Sports?” Or was that a pleasant surprise?

A. I was of course hoping that that’s what we would see, but the end result was much greater than my expectations.

One of my personal hopes was to see my wife and my parents play video games. So while I was able to get my parents to play some games and I’ve been able to get my wife to play games as well, what surprised me is that there are many more elderly people that have taken a much more positive tone toward video games than even my own parents.

Q. In your Game Developer Conference keynote last year, you said that, at one point, it concerned you that some of the best-selling games were violent, and that they were giving the industry the reputation that all games were violent. Do you feel like Nintendo’s been able to turn that around?

A. The direct answer to the question is yes, I do think that we’ve been able to affect that impression of what video games are.

With games like “Wii Sports” and “Wii Fit,” and by branching out beyond the standard franchises from the past, my feeling is that … we’ve been able to break down the impression that video games are violent to a certain extent. And by branching out to these other areas, we’ve been able to show a much broader audience that video games are something that can be relevant to their lives as well.

Q. I want to switch gears to your career. You started out designing software, notably, “Donkey Kong,” Mario games, “Zelda,” “Pikmin.” I understand that you were also heavily involved in designing the Wii. So, which do you prefer? Designing games or hardware?

A. I really view both of those as being part of one set. Even when I designed “Donkey Kong” I was heavily involved in the design of the interface for the original “Donkey Kong arcade cabinet. Of course, in working on the Nintendo 64 launch software, an important part of that process was helping to develop the analog stick for the Nintendo 64 controller. So to me, because the interface to the software is so important, the development of the hardware and the software are something that must go in hand-in-hand.

Q. How long of a lifespan do you see for the Wii?

A. In looking at video games, and obviously, it’s been a short history, I’ve seen patterns where you have more refinements as you go from one system to the next, followed by big evolutions, or big changes. And example would be going from the NES to the Super NES was more of a refinement, and going from the Super NES to the Nintendo 64 was more of a big advancement.

So, looking at the recent history, I’d say that the DS and Wii together represent some of those very big changes, both on the handheld and the home console side. Based on past history, I would guess that we would see some refinement sometime in the next five to 10 years and then in another five to 10 years, you would see probably the next big evolution.

Q. Is there anything that you wish were a little bit better with the Wii, or different? What sorts of refinements do you see with Wii 2.0?

A. (Laughs.) That’s a very precious topic about which I can say absolutely nothing.

Q. Obviously, you enjoy playing music in real life — you enjoy playing an instrument. I understand that you have a dog, and you like playing with this dog, I assume. All of these things have inspired games that you’ve created. Are you at all concerned that folks are going to stop doing these things in real life? That they won’t experience the pleasure and challenge of learning to use an instrument? It is hard to learn to play an instrument, but that’s part of the joy of it.

A. I don’t think there’s any need to worry about that at all because I think this becomes almost like a starting point for people, where they will play a game like ‘Wii Music” and that may become an inspiration for them to learn a real instrument.

Obviously, there was a time where we didn’t have TV or movies, and yet people who watch TV and movies … don’t just fall into them and forget the real world. And I don’t think the same thing would happen with video games either. Instead I think it would be more of the inspiration to encourage people to go out and try things in real life.