Interview:Edge December 14th 2009
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Do you think that the development of lifestyle-oriented titles like Wii Fit and Wii Music has in any way influenced the way you approach more traditional Nintendo games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii?
Actually, I've never really thought about that. I tend not to approach development from a very fixed perspective. But I can tell you some differences between something like Wii Fit and when we're working on titles like Mario or Zelda. When we're on those more traditional Nintendo titles, our developers can already tell what the end result will feel like from the start, and so we will simply give them a new theme to tackle within the game, and the development just gets going. In the case of a Wii Fit or a Nintendogs, the starting point seems to be different. I myself will have to work on the details a lot at the outset and then assign each task to each developer. Maybe that kind of starting point appears to be very different, but when it comes to the actual process, they might be more similar than you'd think. What we are doing is still asking the teams to create a prototype, and then we look at it to see if we can find something unique: some new kind of attraction. And I'm still going to let others try it and see how they react to the prototype in order to see whether the project's going to be interesting or not. So the process is very similar and, after all, we are still working on digital entertainment, so our approaches aren't so different as the games that emerge might suggest.
That said, perhaps the fact that we've been working on creating such entertaining titles as Mario might be doing something good for us when we're working on more, say, useful titles – software like Wii Fit. The reason I say that is that when the companies who already make real sporting equipment are trying to make something similar to us, maybe the approach has been blending a little. You might think of sporting programs as practical and nothing more, but as an entertainment company that makes Mario, we could be bringing something different to the area, I think.
Your 'useful' titles have brought you a massive audience: how do you make these people feel at home in a game as hectic and complex as New Super Mario Bros Wii.?
Our way is always to try and be as simple as possible. That's the basis of making any videogames for us, and that's why we wanted to incorporate such special features like the Super Guide mode into the New Super Mario Bros. If you fail to conquer one stage eight times in a row, you'll be able to use the Super Guide to help you. It's a way of incorporating a physical guidebook directly into the game: Luigi pops up on the screen and shows you what you've missed, even if it's something really basic, like picking things up and throwing. It can work to help novice players feel at home. But besides that, our way of making games like Super Mario Bros. is always to increase the learning curve little by little over time, so anybody can learn what to do next.
Games like Mario and Zelda bring such complex webs of tradition with them – is part of the appeal of titles like Wii Fit that you can start with a blank page again?
I don't really feel there are too many differences between the games with traditional frameworks and games with entirely new rules and agendas. In the case of something like New Super Mario Bros. Wii or the Legend Of Zelda series, I know there are certain expectations from the players, which means there will be elements we always have to incorporate. But it's also true that we always need to think in terms of newcomers, too, people who have never played any of the games in the past. So already, everything you have to do in any game has to be visible and accessible to anybody. Whenever we're making these traditional titles, it's not enough just to live up to people's expectations, though, and it's not enough just to build upon something that exists before. So even with Mario or Zelda games, we always have to feature something that's unique and different.
That's why I say I don't really see a difference between what some people might call our 'serious' Nintendo titles, like Mario, and our completely new games. Even with a new game type like Pikmin and Wii Music you still need rules, and you still need to be careful to show new rules to the audience. So while I could say that it's easier to work on new titles because we can just create new rules and traditions, on the other hand, when we're working on the established titles, it might actually be interesting to introduce new things, because you're coming up with new themes that might challenge the existing frameworks in interesting ways. With New Super Mario Bros. Wii, we really wanted to realise multiplayer gaming in this world for the first time, but still make sure that a wide range of different players would still find it challenging and enjoyable. What we definitely find is that it's best to narrow down your focus when working on a 'serious' Nintendo game. You still have to know exactly which new things you're trying to do with each game, whatever it's about.
How has your role at Nintendo evolved in recent years?
I don't feel that my style of making videogames has changed so much. Over the years, I've tended to work on a project more deeply as the development phase gets closer to completion. The only difference is that when we're working on something really new like Nintendogs or Wii Music, I tend to be very deeply involved a lot earlier. For the so-called 'serious titles' my involvement tends to be much greater towards the latter stage. It might surprise you, but if I can think of any really significant change in my role over time, I'd probably say it's my involvement with hardware design. A long time ago, my role in designing the actual hardware was really limited – mostly it was down to designing the controller, or the controlling interface, or some of those special features that you want the hardware to include on the software side, to make design and development more efficient. It was all about simply making better software. But I think, probably from around the time of the DS, my involvement in hardware has significantly changed. With that project and onwards, I've been able to significantly oversee the overall development of the hardware as well as keeping an eye on the software side of things.
You, alongside a lot of Nintendo's key creative people, were hired by Mr Yamauchi on the strength of potential rather than experience: do you still think Nintendo's looking for something other developers might not be?
I think it's still very hard to accurately judge the potential in individuals from an early stage. Instead, I believe what we can do is create the right kind of environment on which everybody can develop their unique characteristics for the sake of Nintendo. The fact of the matter is, when there are some people who really stand out amongst the crowd at the time of recruiting, we find that, most often, they end up becoming the kind of lone wolf type, and the truth is that, nowadays, to work in videogame development, you really have to be able to work in a team. That's the key, really. You have to have the spirit to cherish teamwork. So, realistically, we want to create circumstances for individuals to grow together within our organisation. I really think that's the most practical approach for our particular company to take with new people.
Many years ago, when people like myself were first employed, I know that Mr Yamauchi was always trying to see how things would develop. He was very calm, and he was very objective, but he believes in luck – he believed that each person has luck at certain times. He would say: "We don't have the luck now, they've got the luck. This guy here? He just didn't have the luck". That was really the way he would look at people, and we do try to keep that instinctive approach to people and situations in our own way.
Especially recently, Nintendo has become one of those companies that graduates from colleges and good universities really want to work for. Because of that, the competition's really become so fierce for positions. And that means that a lot of the recent recruits for Nintendo have tended to have the higher degree from the prestigious colleges and universities and whatnot. I often say to Mr Iwata: "If I was applying for a job here today, I, with my actual college degree, would probably not have been employed by Nintendo!" That's seriously what we talk about. That's why I occasionally do the interviews with university students myself, and sometimes I do a very unusual thing. We have several steps to our recruiting tests, and, sometimes, even if someone fails to pass one of the steps, I might pick up on them, and try to find out something really different within them which you can't judge just by a college degree. That's one of the special little jobs I set myself.
On the subject of jobs, a long time ago you said that the hardest thing about work was getting in on time every morning: what's a typical day at the office like for you nowadays?
It's interesting – I can probably roughly divide things into three equal sections. About one third of my working year on average is spent in meetings [laughs]. Meetings of the board of directors, say, or meetings for development. And then I spend probably roughly a third of my time working with people outside of our Kyoto office. We have teams working in Tokyo, for example, and there are also people outside of the company who are still involved in development. Besides that, the final third is spent working more closely on direct game development: I'm talking about internal game and software development. That's working on things like testing prototypes, and looking at the experiments teams might have been working on: I'm particularly interested in seeing how people might react to these things we've been doing, and discussing how we can improve things. And if nothing appears to be working, if there's nothing we can do to get real progress with a project, I have to step in to write down the development sheets and get involved in the planning myself. But I have to make a point for other things. Because I'm often in the office from nine in the morning until ten or even midnight, I make sure that Tuesday evening is free for swimming. I'm busy, you could say, but not as busy as magazine writers [laughs].
What sort of innovation do you think Nintendo is bringing to gaming now?
Our basic principle is very clear: we're always trying to be different from everybody else. Many other companies might try to do the same things as someone else who's already been successful in a certain area: they think in terms of the competition, and they think in terms of how they can be better than their predecessor in any established arena. But Nintendo always tries to be unique instead. We always try to be different all the time. Even when we're working on those so-called 'serious' titles, when we're hard at work on a Zelda or Super Mario Bros., amongst ourselves in the same development team, the way we discuss the game is to ask: "What's new? What's fresh about this title?" That kind of focus on trying to be new, to be unique every time, of trying to create something different every time, will be carried on and on and on, so that even when we are working on several other titles, our spirit of trying to be different is always there in the background somewhere.