GDC 09: Mario creator's experimental view key to format-holder's success

Nintendo president details Miyamoto’s approach to development

As part of his speech detailing how third-party developers can and should compete with Nintendo’s first party offerings, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata provided a glimpse into the working life of his colleague Shigeru Miyamoto, and explained how the Mario creator’s views at first shocked him but eventually re-educated him.

He recapped his former career in development as a subcontractor for coding whose company HAL moved into independent development. Soon after the Super NES launched he pitched a game to Miyamoto and was told ‘this is not bad, with a few more months of polishing it would be very good’.

But Iwata was agape at Miyamoto, who created characters like Mario and Zelda.

Explained Iwata: "I was speechless – we did not have a few more months. We had just two more days left.

"We had entered the death spiral – we needed to release in that fiscal year or we would report a lost. Banks would cut financing and demand repayment of our loans.

"We knew that the version we had would not be as popular without polishing, but we had to compromise on polishing. By marketing an inferior product there would not be significant revenues to invest in the next product."

So HAL fell into serious financial trouble, and Iwata moved from development to management of the whole studio: "I restructured the company to avoid bankruptcy. I believed at the time that the reason Nintendo beat HAL was because they had more money – and therefore more time."

But that view is wrong, Iwata added, saying that since going to work for Nintendo directly he has learnt how the firm, and specifically Miyamoto works not by investing money, but creative thinking.

"Miyamoto sees development opportunities where others don’t. In my opinion I would say he is leveraging these development opportunities better than anyone else in world today. So I thought I would share some insight into how Mr Miyamoto works – maybe it can offer a few hints or some ideas."

Iwata added: "Miyamoto watches other people to find out ‘what they enjoy’ and analyse why people are having fun – this is why he can invent games which are popular with veteran gamers and also those who have never played games before. He analyses himself the same way."

So as widely reported before, his personal hobbies have turned into games – Pikmin inspired by gardening; Miyamoto’s buying a dog led to Nintendogs, and his obsession with his weight led to Wii Fit. Of course Miyamoto is now under a strict 24/7 NDA to not tell anyone outside of Nintendo of his interests, but Iwata looked to explain how Nintendo’s chief creative marries his interests with game design.

He said: "I think Miyamoto-san’s constant thinking like this is key to his popularity. He is an upward spiral. He thinks ideas are everywhere and believes personal communication."

Prototyping is key too for Miyamoto’s approach – "He makes sure the team makes many experiences for each game" – as is using small teams, and running multiple projects at once for "trial and error".

"Sometimes the prototype phases lasts more than two years – sometimes we have to set aside those projects, but we have not wasted time and money. For Miyamoto prototype making is the methodology that allows for the most trial and error possible."

And some prototypes do succeed – and these progress to mass production stage, Iwata explained, saying that it was only at this point does he get involved "to discuss the timing of those releases". Iwata added that he disliked meddling early or even asking how the projects are progressing until close to their release.

In short, he made it clear the commercial and creative aspects of games development should be kept separate.

He said: "It’s a strange twist of fate that Miyamoto, who began as my mentor, now reports to me. This is most of the time a pleasant situation – but not always! I have the advantage of knowing Nintendo’s trade secrets, but I make it a point not to ask him how he is doing, I fear this will make the team cut corners or settle for something less than the best outcome. But this makes it hard for me to predict when a game might make revenue. This is a bit bad for my mental health!"

Miyamoto’s willingness to experiment leads to lessons whether the ideas are successful or not, said Iwata, and fosters good relations with his team.

"But Mr Miyamoto is not a nasty or angry man. He never really says goodbye to those products which are set aside. And this is why Mr Miyamoto has built such a solid relationship with his team."

At the same time, Miyamoto is also guilty of ‘Random Employee Kidnapping’ at Nintendo – a joke about his attempts to use company staff for ‘over the shoulder’ focus testing. He makes colleagues play his games and watches them.

Explains Iwata: "There are no marketers present, no list of questions, no discussion, no reason for the player to talk about their reactions. Mr Miyamoto will never allow these people to talk." Instead he watches to see ‘Where did a player really get hooked and where did she get bored?’.

"When the kidnap victim is happy the team is happy, when she is frustrated, they are not happy."

That rule must be applied to all games, added Iwata: "If a consumer is frustrated the fault is not the consumer’s – it belongs to us. So in order for consumers to be surprised we have to first surprise ourselves."

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