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An interview with Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto and his disciples Eiji Aonuma and Ken'ichi Sugino, discussing the art, design, technology, and connectivity of games.

Jamil Moledina, Blogger

July 7, 2004

25 Min Read

Note: this article is an extended editor's cut of an interview feature that originally appeared in the June/July issue of Game Developer magazine.

When people start reading subtexts into the events of your works, such as Frodo inserting his finger into Lord Sauron's ring of power, Lucy spreading apart the professor's wife's furs to discover Narnia, or Mario diving into a magical warp pipe fishing about for her majesty, you know your time has come. The trouble is maintaining that position.

Yet stamina doesn't seem to be an issue for Shigeru Miyamoto. Whether it's a healthy supply of 'shrooms, or little blue pills, he's definitely got access to some good stuff. Since his creation of Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong, through to The Legend of Zelda, cart racing, and Pikmin, punctuated by his introduction and refinement of handheld gaming, analog control, and controller force feedback, Miyamoto has dominated and deeply influenced the videogame industry for decades. Furthermore, he has demonstrated the ability to transfer his surreal development prowess to others such as Eiji Aonuma, whose artistic and commercial success as director of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker earned him the authority to oversee the entire Zelda franchise. Recently, Miyamoto's infectious innovative spirit flourished yet again at E3 with the unveiling of the Nintendo DS, which he co-created with Game Boy Advance SP industrial designer Ken'ichi Sugino.

Given this mentoring trend at Nintendo, we thought it might be possible to have a few batons passed your way. What follows is a Triforce of interviews, with all three of these leading Nintendo developers sharing their insights.

The Zen of Game Development

Jamil Moledina: How do you create that elusive fun factor, and how do you know you're getting it right?


Shigeru Miyamoto

Shigeru Miyamoto: The most important thing is that the game director not lose sight of the point of origin, the reason they're creating the game they're creating. Every game starts off with some core element that you want to create and you want people to experience, but gradually a lot of times when people are creating games, things don't develop the way they expect them to, so to solve that problem, people gradually add new elements to make that game better. In doing that, you can end up going down this path where you've added all these different elements, and the game changes from what it was originally intended to be. Now, of course, if in doing that the game gets better, that's not a problem, but a lot of times it's very important for directors to refer back to that starting point and make sure that they're staying true to that. And obviously, there are exceptions to the rule where you do have to add on new elements, then the problem with that is that the game development never really ends, because you keep adding new things until you decide it finally becomes interesting.

Eiji Aonuma: For us, we're always thinking of new ideas, even during the development of say the previous title, and we'll look at what we're doing, what we want to do with that title, that we weren't able to accomplish for whatever reasons, be they technical or time constraints, and then try to use those core elements and find ways to expand them, find ways to do them better in the next game. And essentially, use these ideas from past games or ideas we had while creating a game and kind of let that evolve into the theme of the next game.

Another thing for us that's very important is that we don't just try to think up ideas, but we actually allow our experiences to spawn ideas, or instigate ideas for us. Even if I'm out with my family and I find something interesting, or experience something that I think is very fun, I might look at that and say, "That's kind of fun. How can I take that and bring it back to Zelda games?" And implement it in a way that people can interact with it and experience the same feeling of fun that I experienced when I first saw it in the real world. With Zelda, we've created this world for the player to go play in, and in this world we put in things that we think the player might want to do-that they might want to play or might want to interact with. And in doing that, what we've done is that we've given the players the opportunity to use their own imagination to come up with their own way of playing. I think that's what makes Zelda fun.

JM: As the game industry has grown, games have been subject to political scapegoating, particularly with relation to violence in society. How do you feel about the way the industry is treated?

SM: Any new media or industry that grows rapidly is going to be criticized. That's just because the older, more established media have been around, and a lot of adults can be very conservative. They may not have an open mind to new things that weren't around when they were growing up, and are replacing the things they grew up with. You know, looking at the games that I've made, fortunately they haven't met with a lot of the same criticism that a lot of the other games have. That's really important to me. I want to create games that don't fall into those strong stereotypes about videogames and instead I want to create games that others will instantly see primarily as a fun entertainment form to be enjoyed. With things like the DS and its touch panel and the new style of control that that's going to offer, and the Donkey Konga drums we've introduced with the Gamecube, I think those are really going to change little by little the image that videogames have. You know, over the years I've seen this standard image of a child playing a videogame in which the child is alone in a darkened room, with his face very close to the TV, with the light of the TV reflecting off his face, holding the controller, and just staring at the TV. I'd really like to be able to change that image of videogames into something that's a little more positive.

JM: There's a growing sense in the game development community that developers need to make a bigger name for themselves, as the creators and representatives of a burgeoning art form-like film, painting, and other things that are commonly accepted in world culture as art. Do you perceive games as an art form?


Eiji Aonuma

EA: As someone who studied art, it's a very important question to ask: Where do you draw the line? What is art, and what isn't? To me, I don't necessarily feel that games have to be considered as art. If you really think about art, the people that really understand it are those that have studied art, and know art, and are art buffs really. Whereas, if you look at what Nintendo tries to do with games, we want to create games and present them to as many people as possible, young, old, middle-aged, teen-aged, we really want to entertain people, and entertain as many people as we can. I think a good example is the film industry. You have two directions it's going in. You have the mass market films that anybody can go watch, and enjoy, and be entertained by, and say "Wow, this a great movie!" And you have arthouse films, where really the masses don't get to experience or enjoy the art of those films, and instead it's just really people who are film buffs who get to go and experience that. While there's nothing wrong with that, our goal is to just make games that are fun and entertain people, and thus we want to entertain as many people as we can.

On the other hand, I think it's very important that games retain individuality and the individuality of the people creating them. I mean, if you look at art, even if it's not art for the masses, it's very distinct, and each piece of art is very unique. And it's going to have its own flavor. If games go forward and gradually become more and more alike so that there is no more individuality in games, that's not going to be good for the industry. So to me, it's very important to have that uniqueness and those distinct characteristics and try to continue to evoke that in the games that we make.


The DS, the PSP, and Developing New Styles of Play

JM: In developing multiplayer games, Microsoft and Sony have both acquired an expertise in online gameplay. Instead, Nintendo has traditionally focused on in-person multiplayer experiences. The Wi-Fi-enabled DS seems to signal a transition for Nintendo, to integrate a broader range of players who are online. What accounts for this change?

SM: What we're looking at with the DS really stems from what we're doing with connectivity. We introduced connectivity to the Gamecube, so that if you also had a Game Boy Advance and a link cable, the gameplay we offered was very fun. But unfortunately, there were a lot of people who didn't have all these elements. So with the DS, we thought, what if we took all that and the fun elements we innovated with that, and put them all into one system from the get-go? So all you do is buy this one hardware system, and right out of the box you have all these connectivity options. Whether you've got one DS and one game pack, and your friends have their DSes, you'll be able to download the game from the game pack in one DS wirelessly to your friends and you can all play together wirelessly. So it's these kinds of "straight out of the box" and "nothing more to buy" ideas that we're excited about with the DS. It's because we're focusing on that that we can look at other options. It's like a jumping off point, where you can expand from there into the online realm. But for us, the main focus is that we want to provide people with this experience straight out of the box.

JM: Given the fact that DS introduces so many innovations at once, not just the dual screens, combining 2D and 3D elements, but also two wireless systems, both touch and voice as new game interfaces, what advice would you give third party developers for taking full advantage of the DS?


Ken'ichi Sugino

Ken'ichi Sugino: Rather than trying to give them advice of what to do, I'm really looking forward to seeing what they come up with on their own.

SM: There are a lot of people who have been in the industry a long time, that have been making games, and are always thinking up new ideas for games. Part of the problem is that a lot of people who come up with these ideas for games haven't had a hardware system that's been able to bring these ideas to fruition. One really good example of this is a game called Pac-Pix that Namco has created on the DS. Essentially, what you do is, on the touch screen, there are ghosts running around on the screen, and you with the touch stylus draw Pac-Man [draws a simple Pac-Man figure on his notepad] like that, and the Pac-Man you just drew starts animating. Then you draw a line like that [draws a line underneath the Pac-Man figure] and Pac-Man goes down, you draw a line that way [draws a line to the side of the Pac-Man figure] and try to keep Pac-Man on screen until he catches all the ghosts. This was an idea that Namco had had for a long time, and the problem was that they never had a hardware system that would allow them to realize this. So when we took the DS to them and told them that this is the hardware we're making and these are the features it has, immediately they said, "We have a game we want to make." So, we're looking forward to seeing what other ideas people have had that they weren't able to realize before. And this is just one example.

Another thing to look at is this whole idea of multiplatform games. It's gotten to the point now where people are fighting so hard for exclusivity on a particular game for their platform and it's just gotten into this big weird battle. Mr. Yamauchi, the former president of Nintendo, was very averse to the idea of multiplatform games. From the standpoint of a developer, it's very easy for them to create one game and port it to other systems, but from our perspective, we want to provide people with new forms of gameplay and really fresh ideas. And so rather than have the same game on every system, we like the idea of having people bring their games to a Nintendo platform and then add in new elements that will make it very unique to the Nintendo platform. The idea with the DS, with having these new features like wireless, the touch panel, the built-in mic, is that people who created a game for one hardware system might bring it to the DS and say, "Well, look at all the things I can do on the DS, I can add all these new features." We think there are a lot of ideas floating around like that, in addition to those that people want to make strictly for the DS, because of all the things we can do with it. And so I think that's going to bring a lot of creativity and freshness to the games that we'll see.

JM: What are your impressions of the PSP?

SM: I actually haven't seen it yet. I'm sure it's probably got a big screen on there, and I'm sure they've tried to pack as many technical specs in there as they can, but I wonder how long their battery life is going to be. I haven't heard anything about that yet.

For us, we didn't make the DS because we wanted to make our console games portable, or because we wanted to make our Game Boy Advance games more gorgeous. We really wanted to create the DS so that people could create completely new styles of games that no one has ever experienced before. And so in that sense, looking at what they're doing with the PSP, I don't really see it being a competitor with the DS, because it's really similar to all the systems we've seen before; it's just more specs.


Paper Mario

JM: How did the DS come together?

KS: Rather than being one idea that started in one spot and was brought somewhere else, we kind of always had a two-way street between me the hardware developer, and Mr. Miyamoto, the software developer, with an exchange of ideas. Rather than him saying, "Hey I want this," and us saying, "Okay, we'll do that," we brought our ideas to the table at the same time. It had only been six months since we introduced the touch panel and in just those six short months, we've seen all kinds of ideas that have come up since then. So it was really an ongoing communication of going back and forth between each other, exchanging ideas, and coming up with it.

SM: So the DS is a result of a two-year process, and it's only been six months since we've had a working version of the touch panel, and that's where all the ideas have come from. We have different research tracks going on at Nintendo, one that was researching the touch panel, one that was researching the wireless, and one that was researching the high-tech graphics chips, and so it was really a question of how do we combine these elements together in a way that we can create this hardware. So it was really an amalgamation of these research tracks that resulted in the DS.

JM: Speaking of new styles of gameplay, Nintendo has a habit of innovating in this area, with Super Mario Bros., Super Mario 64, and more recently taking the complex adult genre of strategy games and making it fun for all ages with Pikmin. What ideas do you have for refining future gameplay?

SM: A good way to look at it is too at the way we launched the NES. At that point, there were only computer games in the market. The PC games back then were set up with so many buttons on the keyboard that you didn't know which button to press to do anything. If you just turned the power off on the computer, you could do funny things to the computer software that probably wasn't very good for it. With the NES we said we're just going to have this button that says "Start," and you press that button and start the game. And you've got two buttons to control with. No matter what, you've got those two buttons to control with, and it's very simple, very easy gameplay, you're going to learn to control it right away. And with the DS, we have the buttons on the face of it, but you also have the touch panel. With the touch panel, you're going to see people take ideas from the past and take games in new directions and see things we've never seen before. And if you go and play the games, and even just stand back and watch people play, it's very funny to see people just tapping away at the screen and try to do whatever it is they're trying to do in the game, but it's very to play and very fun to watch, and I think that's going to lead us to a lot of innovation and lot of new ways to expand existing franchises and genres.

Cooperative Links and the Reinvention of 2D Gaming


Paper Bowser

JM: Let's take a look at a specific recent game. Aonuma-san, the gameplay of Four Swords resides on both a console and a handheld. What were some of the design challenges that you faced in creating the game?

EA: The big challenge was the connectivity. Our question was, "How do we use the Game Boy Advance screen, and how do we use the GameCube screen, and find a way to make that fun?" The best example I have of making it fun is actually a very simple one. Basically, a giant bomb will fall onscreen on the GameCube, and there'll be this giant bomb sitting out there, and a timer starts counting down. And essentially, anyone who's still on the GameCube screen when that bomb goes off, it's game over for them. And so at that point, what those characters have to do is they have to find a hidden hole or passageway that will lead them down to the Game Boy Advance screen where they can take shelter from this giant bomb. So essentially it becomes almost like a hide and seek game. So that's a very simple example, but yet it's something that couldn't be done without the two screens connected, without connectivity. So for us, the hard part is not simply forcing the gameplay onto two separate screens and saying, "We have two screens, so at this point let's make them go down here, and at this point let's make them go up to the GameCube screen, and oh, over here they can go back down to the Game Boy Advance, and over here, let's just make them go over to the GameCube." It's about taking that connection and finding a way to take advantage of the fact that you have those two screens, and turn into something that's fun to experience. And so that's what I think is the big challenge, which is to come up with those ideas that make the connectivity mechanism fun.

JM: Lately, there's been a renaissance of cooperative play, as opposed to competitive play. What were your feelings about creating a game driven by cooperation?

EA: The thing that I think is interesting is that cooperation is actually a different style of gameplay, and gives a different response than competition. The thing about Four Swords that's funny is that although it's a game that four players have to cooperate to solve puzzles, when you play it four-player with three of your friends, you actually end up competing a lot more in that game than you do cooperating. Because they're all cooperating to solve the puzzles, but then they're all racing to be the first one to get treasure, and items. So they end up fighting each other a lot. The thing that I think is really fun about that game is the shift between cooperation and competition, and how it can just turn suddenly, where you're cooperating, and then competing, and cooperating. It really makes for a really different interactive vibe between the players, and a very different environment. I think a lot of people are going to sit down to play, maybe not expecting that, and realize, "This is really fun!" [Laughter].

JM: There's a mix of traditional 2D Zelda gaming and the 3D cel-shaded animation and explosions of your Wind Waker title. Was there any added complexity in integrating these two styles into the new game?

EA: Actually we're using a 3D engine on the GameCube, and with that engine creating 2D graphics on the GameCube. And we found that it's easier to display 2D on a 3D engine on the GameCube than it was to display 2D on the 2D engines of the Super NES. It's very interesting, because creating 2D in a three-dimensional space allows us the freedom to do things we couldn't do in a 2D game, and it's really freed up the designers and programmers to really do some things that were to them really fun, that they didn't have the opportunity to do before back then, and really make the game look and feel different. And so they're feeling a lot more freedom and surprisingly doing it this way has made the game much more easy to develop.

We're calling this 2.5D [laughter], but I'd be very happy if we could get other developers to take a look at this and see what we've done, and then go back and start making more of these 2.5D games.

JM: The industry took a headlong plunge into the world of 3D graphics, almost at the expense of fun 2D gameplay. There have been a couple of instances of great games that have come out in the 2.5D space like Viewtiful Joe. Do you feel that there is still room to develop more great 2D-style games, or are we at the end of that curve?

EA: With the technological advances of the hardware increasing and the computer graphics increasing, it was both natural and almost necessary to take franchises like Mario and Zelda and push them into the 3D realm, but that doesn't necessarily mean we've abandoned 2D gaming at all. I think with those technological capabilities, you want to go from one dimension to the next, and at the same time we've continued our development in both dimensions. You can look at the GBA and you can see Zelda development going on there, and more developments to come, particularly with the DS. We don't think it's the end of 2D gaming, we're actually looking at how we can push it onto other platforms, we've got Four Swords out now, which is going back to 2.5D, and so I think we're going to continue to look at these options and decide what best suits the gameplay and go forward from there.


The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures

Who's on First

JM: What games are you playing now?

SM: Right now I'm mostly playing the DS games I'm working on, and I'm having a lot of fun with those. I don't have a lot of time to play other products beyond what falls under my sphere of influence. I've been playing The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, and Mario vs. Donkey Kong for the Game Boy Advance, which I think is really fun.

KS: I'm not just saying this because I'm in an interview, and I'm supposed to behave for the PR guy, but I'm actually playing a lot of Super Mario Bros. from the NES classics series. That was from the era of gaming that I grew up in, so I really like that.

EA: Before attending the Game Developers Conference, I saw the list of nominations for the Developers Choice Awards, and in there I saw Prince of Persia listed. I had heard from various people that this game was supposed to be very fun, and so I managed to get my hands on a U.S. copy of the game, and played it. I thought the game was indeed very well done and very fun.

Note: Special thanks to Bill Trinen, Yasuhiro Minagawa, and Chris Olmstead for their translation and facilitation services.


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About the Author(s)

Jamil Moledina


Jamil Moledina is the Conference Director of Game Developers Conference, and former Editor-in-Chief of Game Developer magazine.

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