Interview:Tokyo University Lecture July 3rd 2003

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Shigeru Miyamoto gives a lecture at Tokyo University and tells some history stories about some of his early experiences with the Mario and Zelda series.

Instructor: When I think of Nintendo, I get the impression that they usually don't allow much media exposure to the process of how games get made.

Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo: Well, it's not something we've set out to cover up... I mean, just because a game's fun doesn't mean the story behind it's all that fun. (laughs) The fact that there were lectures being given at Tokyo University about games was something that piqued my interest.

When you go look at someplace where they're developing games, I think you'll find that there's really not much there. It's not something you can see move along with your own eyes. There're some desks, and there are lots of Choco-Egg figures, and there're also some hardcore model kits here and there... That's basically it. We expanded the size of the desks a while back, but the extra space ended up turning into a receptacle for more Choco-Egg figures.

I: Speaking of which, what role do you play in development?

SM: I... am a board member. There was this shareholders' conference a little while back, and I was scared I'd have to go up and say something... but in all seriousness, I don't think there are any strict definitions for "What is a director? What is a project document?" in this business.

I joined Nintendo as a designer and I made a few different games, but I guess it was around 1979 that the Space Invaders boom hit, and when I made a Galaxian-ish game we ended up with lots of unsold games in America. The game I made with all those extra boards was Donkey Kong, and I drew all the dot graphics for it. I talked with a few people from outside the company, but these other technicians--there were only two of us at Nintendo back then, including me--they were, like, "What can whis long-haired student do? Who is this guy?"

At that time, one person could take care of every part of the game and he was called a designer. There weren't any "designers" like there are today, so I had to do all the graphic-design and game-direction work by myself.

(Some technical discussion omitted)

Overall it took six or seven people to make the Donkey Kong game and hardware, and there were about six people on the Famicom too, I think. Once we all got a little bolder and hired on apprentice-type people, around the time of Super Mario Bros., I could just bring out the initial design and leave the rest to the apprentices. That ended up being the best way of all to make games. So by that time I was a director.

After the Famicom's launch, the Disk System was completed in 1985, and I started work on Mario and Zelda sequels at the same time. I was the director on both projects and I really thought I was going to die. At the time, of course, Nintendo wanted to make games that were gentle on young children's eyes (laughs), so all of the backgrounds were always black. However, with things getting prettier all around the industry, we made the background sky-blue on Mario and increased the size of the characters.

You could save games onto the disk, too... before then I had to write down these long Dragon Quest passwords [the first game did not have battery back-up RAM]. I thought that was a pretty decent workaround, but fortunately you could save your game in Zelda instead of having to type this in. Eventually, though, the head office said to me "Just pick one and do it!", so I ended up wrapping up Mario [2] in three months and went straight into Zelda after that.

I: So why did you begin calling yourself a producer?

SM: Once we finished Mario and Zelda, the next thing I wanted to do was sequels. I thought Zelda could turn into a new and different game if the game system was more fun and we could switch between maps and things, so... I had people under me do Mario 3 and The Adventure of Link, so I figured, hey, I'm a producer now.

There's also one more reason. To tell the truth, in Nintendo there aren't any official positions called "director" or "producer". Instead you have the kacho/bucho (section chief/department chief) system. The thing is, though, people overseas don't get that system. So when I started dealing with overseas folks, I wanted to sell myself to them, so I just wrote "producer" on my business card. With that title, people from overseas could recognize what I do, and it worked all right. Later I got yelled at from the head office about assigning myself titles, but... (laughs) Those are the two reasons I started calling myself a producer.

These days, a typical game takes about 20 or 30 main people and then another 20 or so support guys to create. People say that it takes three years to complete the software, but really, if you have 30 people and eight months, you can make the software. Zelda, though, takes more like a year. So what do we do with the other two years? Well, first there're five of us who build the basic concept and project plan. I, along with an employee who serves as the director, get involved at this point, and for the next half year this plan gets solidified... then another half year, and so on, until the full design behind the project is decided upon. After that, eight months and that's it.

I talk to the director during conferences and such, but when I ask "Is this fun?", I don't like people who say "Yes! It's fun!" I prefer guys who look all troubled and say "Mmmm, something's missing..." Even if the director's concerned, though, sometimes the people around him still say "It's fun" when I say "Well?" to them. It's tough, but with a talented director, I can afford to slack off on the project.

I: How does a game get completed?

SM: First you have to decide what to complete the game around. "This is what the game's about!" ...You have to fish out the core, the fun part of the game. However, the director has his own desires; he wants to put this and that into the game. Plus, if everyone in the project is just trying to get along with each other, then it could all fall apart. You fall into the dilemma where the guys up top are like "Are you working, or what?!" and the guys down below are like "See, it's the people up top! What can you do?", and the project begins to go haywire. When it gets to that point, I bust it all out in a conference. People refer to that point as the time where I "knock over the table". I'm not a nice guy; if I was a nice guy I'd just sidle up to people and say "Why don't you do this?", but no, sometimes you have to bite down and show that, like, "I'm stroonng!" (laughs) When I flip out, it's because I'm being sincere in my desire to get something done with the project.

For example, let's say there's something in the game that I think is fun. I bring that over to the programmers but I don't get any response; I say "How is this?" but I don't get any kind of good reaction. Then later, when they show me what they've done... well, it's not what I was thinking of. So what should I do then? Well, if I'm not getting the message across, then it's time to put some light in their eyes.

Right now, I stick really close by four or five Nintendo titles a year. At the 10-title mark, it's down to the level where I help out in the final stages or when the project's getting derailed here and there, or I yell at them if nothing's going anywhere. I don't know if I should say this... if I'm working as a supervisor, then I'm really not involved much at all. (laughs)

With an overseas team like Retro Studios with Metroid Prime, we do a phone conference once a month and exchange employees once every two or three months.

I: So what are the basics if you want to get an "okay" from Mr. Miyamoto?

SM: Well, this is something that struck me at this year's E3... but I've been to Japanese game expos in the past. And it's been the same exact thing for 20 years, but for some reason the game industry always puts out the same stuff it's released before at events like these. It's totally normal for them to put out things that are the same as last time. American companies are definitely getting good at game creation, but to me it's the exact same as last year. I wouldn't let stuff like that pass. U.S. games from an era or two ago weren't so well put together, but they were interesting because there was so much variety in what they made.

To me, I respond to the sincerity of someone who says "I really want to make this!" In other words, I give the okay to things that have a chance of success. By that, I don't mean things I'm confident will sell in the marketplace; I'm talking about things that succeed over what's already out there. "Maybe nobody's noticed this before now, but if we could go this way, then everyone will be all over it!" Games that tackle ideas never stimulated before, games that try to make people say "This is neat..."; those are the things I think have a chance of success. Those are what I give my okay to.

As a result, I tend to give okays to projects which have a lot of personality behind them, or which reflect the color of the project team. Mr. Yamauchi, who retired and serves as an advisor now, told me "Devote the money to the things people aren't doing now." Right now Nintendo's holding something like 800 billion yen in cash. Nintendo was ranked the highest among companies with cash back in the bubble days, but now other companies are getting the other end of the bubble and most of them are in bad trouble. Nintendo is not. That's thanks to Yamauchi. Yamauchi always told us "Take the money you got from entertainment and put it right back into entertainment!" I'm really glad we didn't go for a diversified strategy back then.

Like, for example, I think it's kind of neat to see people playing PC RPGs and talking about their characters, this numerical display on their screen, to other people with this sense of price, like "My party's awesome!" and so on. Or when it's the middle of the night, and you run into some problem in a game and you call up your friend on the phone and find out the answer. Even though you woke him up, that becomes the topic of conversation the following day. That's fun! You could call that the fun of communication.

In other words, project documents that start out with "If you did this and that to this other game, I think it would be really fun" are absolutely no good. Don't tell me about that! Tell the person who made that other game about it! (laughs) That's what I want to say to them.

When someone's making a game, he develops a sort of complex toward that game. I used to draw comics, and I always felt like something wasn't quite good enough in what I did. Shigesato Itoi has a special feature called "The Language of Adults" on his web page, but I'd love to make a "Language of Games" document sometime. Sometimes I get project documents and they're so pompous, like "Enemies will be encounted at random intervals..." If you want to show something, then you have to show your feelings about it in the writing.

Of course, if someone just says "Write whatever you want!", then it's still difficult. Even if you try to write something good, you end up imitating something else. Whenever someone asks me for an autograph, what I really want to do is draw up a caricature of the guy asking me, but then I get worked up about what'll happen if it comes out weird, or if they decide to display it in public somewhere, so I end up drawing Mario instead. I'm used to Mario. (laughs) But, really, being able to write what you want is important. You have to deliberately try to make something that only your team, and nobody else, can create.

When some popular game sells well, while I don't like admitting it, it's not because the director was good; it's the content of the game. For example, in a cutscene, a single instant can move a player's emotions. You can make movie scenes with a graphic designer, a sound guy, and a programmer... and so that becomes the game's core. Now, this seems like a wonderful idea at first glance, but no matter who makes this, no matter what system it's on, it'll always end up being the same thing. The PS2, Xbox and GameCube really aren't that far apart in capability. If you keep this up, then the competition becomes one to up the graphics, to up the sound, and that costs money. You might already all know this, but game sales in general are going down. So is music. MP3s might be part of that, but I'll leave that problem alone.

For one minute of an opening movie in a game, it costs around 20 to 30 million yen to make. You can reuse some of the programming and camerawork, but this is the hugeness of the scale we're talking about. And then the demands everywhere else become greater--you have to have some kind of special effects when an action takes place, and you can't have lame sound effects, so you end up requiring several people just for sound effects. And then, the more people you tack on, the harder it gets to shape the whole thing together. It becomes this unfinished game, and then the users start complaining.

Personally, I think it's best to work on what you think are stupid ideas, but this is a business, so you do have to work on some sellable products, too. Because, really, to be brutally honest, there's no difference between the PS2, Xbox and GC. So where do we try to make a difference? In the software. That, and Nintendo has the GBA, so we have to keep on building up the GC/GBA link.

I: Because it has a chance of succeeding, like you said before?

SM: Mmmm... Who knows? ...I don't. (laughs) But still... um... There are some things I'm sure will work out there. (smiles)

When you're making a game, the first thing you have to do is make sure there's a goal you want to attain. Throw out everything else and concentrate on that goal. If the testers say it's not fun, then give up on it. Giving up is important. I'm bad at it, but...

I: That's what you have the Super Mario Club for.

SM: Well, the Mario Club is mainly for debugging. They say things are fun by comparing them to other games. They'll never say something is fun when it isn't, or vice versa, but... They'll also talk the peaks and valleys, how hard the game is and how much time it takes.

But for the real test, I invite employees and their kids, and I look at their reaction. I let women or kids play and I watch them from behind. I don't say anything; I just gauge their reactions. I may say to myself "Don't do that!" or "Yeah, that'll help you out later", but I don't open my mouth. That's important because you can see whether children can deal with the controls, or whether they're actually reading all the text as they play.

Whenever I'm in a conference, I get assorted ideas, but most of them are the sort of opinions that anybody can toss around. But, as we go on, sometimes we get an idea that wouldn't come out normally. They might be bad ideas, or just stupid, but they can be a breakthrough because they help you let go. I've been partnering with [Takashi] Tezuka for a while, but it's like we're at the same wavelength; most of the ideas we choose end up being the same. We both say "This is cool!" to each other afterwards.

I: Do you get inspiration from movies?

SM: No, I never see a film and then say "I'll make this now". But... whenever I'm stuck on something, sometimes I just suck a movie in like a sponge. (laughs) I'm not saying that imitating something is a bad thing. If you're just ingesting it like a sponge, then you still have the ability to think it over for yourself. It becomes part of you. If you stand in the same spot as everyone else, then you'll lose out.

I want to help people who play games become more creative. Games are something you play spontaneously; in games, you can cause things to happen spontaneously. Maybe this isn't the hot thing right now, but... Movie cutscenes, for example, are passive. Passive things, where you don't have to do anything, are comfortable for the viewer; I understand that. That's becoming a big part of games lately. However, I think that unless you're actively doing something, it's not a game.

The capability of the hardware has gone up, the technology's advanced, and the chance to do something has really expanded. But lately I've started to think that media art is more interesting than recent game expos.

...All right; how about I show you some video? This was on display at E3, but everyone's eyes were focused squarely on realistic stuff, so we didn't get much of a response, but...

[Promotional movie starts here. First off, Zelda: The Four Swords GC]

SM: This will come out this year or early next year. The response at E3 was just okay; people were like "It's not real!" and "I want to shoot guns!" and so on. That's the way America's pointing right now, I guess.

[Eventually he moves on to a demonstration of Pac-Man GC; three students sitting in the front row are handed WaveBirds.]

SM: This, as you know, is Pac-Man. Recent games aren't really the type you can pick up and play right off, so we made a game where you could do that. I'll be Pac-Man, all of you ghosts have to chase after me.

[Miyamoto is eaten several seconds after the game starts. The audience laughs.]

SM: All right, now you're Pac-Man. ...Hey, everybody, Pac-Man's in the lower left corner!

[All the ghosts swarm to the bottom left-hand corner. However, just when he's surrounded, Pac-Man eats a power capsule.]

SM: Aahhh! Get away!

[Audience laughs]

SM: ...Well, it's that sort of game. We made this in a month, though I'm sure it probably cost 20 or 30 million yen anyway. (laughs) Finally, this is Stage Debut, a sort of utility we've been working on since the Disk System days. If you use the e-Reader, you can have the characters in your cards bop around inside the game. We showed this in America, so I don't know why we have this Japan-style classroom in the game, but... (laughs)

[A character that looks exactly like the instructor appears. Everyone laughs.]

SM: Looks pretty, doesn't he? When I was talking with Mr. Kojima, the maker of Metal Gear, I took a picture of him and made a card out of it yesterday. Oh--I told the press not to take pictures of this at E3, but this... is the strongest card there is.

[He flashes a Yamauchi card. Audience laughs]

I: Well, our time is limited, so I'd like to see everyone throw their questions over.

Student: Do you think games are something for children to play?

SM: No; I think games are something for all ages. From five to ninety-five, is what I say. Of course, if you pass 95, then you can still play if you want, but... (laughs)

I: With that in mind, the fact that Mario can sell across all ages and all countries is fairly important, I think.

SM: I just want to make games that make high-school girls happy. And high-school boys, too.

I: Pikmin did pretty well, didn't it?

SM: Yeah, it did, but it kind of went down like this. Pikmin 2 will come out this year, though, and I think interest will shoot back up. I've already got the basic idea for Pikmin 3 in my mind.

Student: You mentioned earlier that you were more interested in media art than game expos, but do you have any artists that you like in particular?

SM: Hmm... Well, I've always thought that Toshio Iwai is kind of interesting. I think I'd like to work with him someday.

Student: Ah, um, um... What do you think of girl games?

SM: Sorry, what?

I: Umm... What do you think of "bishoujo" games.

SM: Oh. As I mentioned earlier, I try to appeal to all ages, so I try not to pare down my target audience.

Student: I wanted to ask about Giftpia from Skip. It kind of seemed like you were ambivalent towards the final product, but how do you evaluate the game in your mind?

SM: Well, you know, I didn't say that the final product was bad as a game or anything. [Kenichi] Nishi's with Skip, but I think that he makes really fun stuff. That's why Nintendo invested in him. However, while the game was being made, this thought that the game had to sell entered his mind, and I think there were some parts that weren't really himself as much as something put in to make the game sell better. I can't help but think that, if I were Nishi, I might've done more and made something great, something even more bizarre.

I: Our time is through, so I'd like to the end the lecture at this point. Thank you very much for spending the time to join us today.