Posted by: seanmalstrom | February 23, 2010

Why Miyamoto is awesome

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In the 16-bit Era and earlier, Miyamoto wasn’t who he was today. Most gamers then didn’t know where Mario came from. The more informed ones did. But even back then, there was none of this Miyamoto-As-Game-God stuff at that time. At least, nothing to the extent that it became.

I first heard about Miyamoto when reading that splendid interview of him in the “Making of Super Mario Brothers 3” that appeared in Nintendo Power. At the time, I thought, “That is cool,” and then proceeded to ignore the Miyamoto interview to focus more on whatever they were saying about Super Mario Brothers 3.

Returning to gaming, one very clear difference from then and now is the presence of ‘Game Gods’. These ‘Game Gods’ are portrayed as if they are ‘masterpiece artists’ and they, alone, come down from a mountain holding digital tablets that is their ‘vision’ that becomes the game. The ‘Game God’ has been very good for marketing purposes of hype and ‘special interviews’. But the ‘Game God’ has created too many problems.

The biggest problem with the ‘Game God’ is that it is causing so many young people to enter the “Game Industry” with the mission to become a ‘Game God’ as they are convinced they are the next Shigeru Miyamoto. Why is this a problem? It gets the young budding developer away from focusing on customer reactions to the games. The ‘vision’ of the game developer doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the consumer experience. You could even say the true designer of video games is the consumer reaction. Game designers don’t make their games easy to get into because they are benevolent artists, they make their games easy to get into because it has a much better consumer reaction. I’ve noticed the ‘Artist God’ has been prevalent lately in many mediums be it music, books, or movies. It might also explain why more and more people are saying these mediums “are not fun anymore”.

Another problem of the ‘Game God’ is that it leaves out the rest of the team and minimizes them. David Jaffe placed his name on the cover of Twisted Metal “Designed by David Jaffe” and his team complained. In the next printing, Jaffe’s name was taken off of there. Why did the team complain? Basically, if they went to apply to work anywhere else, someone would say, “Oh, that game was all made by Jaffe, you guys just did the labor. You have no creativity whatsoever.” The ‘Miyamoto As Game God’ had reached such absurd levels where people were actually thinking Miyamoto came down from a mountain holding Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, and Zelda which he made entirely by himself.

Games are very difficult to make and requires a diverse range of talents. Programmers do not often make good artists and vice versa. The talk of ‘vision’ is silly because everyone has a vision. I’ve learned in life that people have far more intelligence than could be absorbed into their work (leading to frequent frustration). Everyone, indeed, has ‘visions’.

But another problem with the ‘Game God’ is what happens if the ‘Game God’ leaves or retires? What happened if Shigeru Miyamoto stepped in front of a bus? Nintendo stock would crash. Everyone would declare Nintendo, as a company, is over.People would say Nintendo would be incapable of ever making another ‘magical’ game. So Miyamoto-As-Game-God marketing persona was becoming a greater and greater liability.

Miyamoto has had wealth and fame that the rest of us will never have. It is no disservice to him to stop treating him as a walking demi-god. I also suspect Miyamoto is probably a little tired of it anyhow. Most celebrities get tired of the fame rather quickly.

I prefer to think that there are multiple geniuses at Nintendo, a constellation rather than just one, solitary, and singular star.

So what about Miyamoto-the-Man? From my long distance observations, I think Miyamoto is special in three ways:

First, he is a life quester and puts that into his games. A life quester is someone who looks at life in an exploratory way and does not separate it from his work. The best entertainers are life questers. An example of this would be Miyamoto trying to get fit and weighing himself. This ‘life quest’ ended up turning into the best selling Wii Fit. Most game developers do not ‘life quest’ in the same way. Or, to be more precise, they do not try to put their ‘life quest’ into a video game. The idea of using weight scales for a game is so… insane at first glance.

Second, Miyamoto seems to be extremely, excuse the phrase, ’emotionally intelligent’. The biggest problem I am observing with game makers is they are not emotionally there. Intellectually, they understand gaming. They can quote me various systems. But emotionally, they are very cold. Recently, I was in a shouting argument with a software developer because he insisted he called the new generation games as ‘casual games’ and anyone who plays them as ‘casual gamers’. I had pointed out, “Casual games is just slang by those who don’t know what is going on. Nintendo never says ‘casual games’.” “I don’t care what Nintendo says! What they are doing are ‘casual games’!” “And where did you ever learn that phrase of ‘casual games’? It certainly didn’t come from those who are making this Expanded Market games.” And this argument went on to screaming matches because the software developer refused to change the context of his thinking. Basically, he insisted on the ‘retarded gamers’ lingo. The only way I could get through to him was to remind him of arcade games. “How are these any different than arcade games of your youth?” And then to point out how games have become so much more radically complicated than Pac-Man or Tetris. We need to make sure games like Pac-Man and Tetris keep coming out for new generations so there will always be gamers.

Many game developers appear to ‘drift’ a certain direction. An example of this would be Nintendo game developers trying to cram stories and operas into games like Mario. Miyamoto instinctively rejects this. He understands that a game should… well… be a game. I think Miyamoto as head of the software team at Nintendo is keeping these ’emotional eccentricities’ of game developers in check at Nintendo. Games like Mario and Zelda have not completely burned to the ground because Miyamoto is making sure they don’t go off on bizarre tangents (like Metroid is about to do *cough* *cough*).

It became clear to me that there was some sort of emotional deficiency with game developers when I began hearing reports of game developers rage quitting if they had to make a game for an untraditional audience (such as working on the Wii). Why on Earth would someone get upset having to make a game that your wife or children would want to play? And for all the talk I heard from game developers about being ‘console agnostic’ at the start of this generation, many were certainly pissed off about the Wii selling so well.

In the future, game developers may end up having to make games mostly for people in China and India (since most of the world’s population is located there). I could imagine them being upset about that, but why get angry about making a game for your neighbors?

Miyamoto has a level head. When Super Mario 64 came out, Miyamoto publicly said he thought the game was a failure compared to Tomagotchi. Where one game used 3d graphics, the other triumphed using dot matrix pixels as graphics. I can’t think of many game developers who would say anything remotely like that. Many would get in an emotional knot and say, “Tomagotchi is not a real game. It does not have 3d graphics.” Remember my shouting match with that software developer? So even back when Super Mario 64 came out, there were “casual games” but Miyamoto recognized them as equals. Today, most game developers cannot bring themselves to do this.

It must take a level head to steer through the ebbs and flows of the market. There are good surprises such as the success of Wii Sports and Wii Fit. And there are surprises that had to hurt such as Windwaker being controversial in Western markets or User Generated Content not taking off or more recently consumers preferring 2d Mario over 3d Mario. Even for Nintendo, the market never moves as they expect. This could be why they find making video games to be so interesting.

And the third thing is that Miyamoto loves children. This is perhaps the reason what Yamauchi saw that caused him to hire Miyamoto in the first place. Consider this from “Game Over”:

He asked his father to contact an old friend, Hiroshi Yamauchi, who ran Nintendo. The elder Miyamoto asked Yamauchi to meet with his son, a recent graduate with a degree in industrial design, who was looking for a job. “We need engineers, not painters,” Yamauchi said, but he agreed to a meeting as a favor to his friend.

Miyamoto was twenty-four in 1977, when he entered the office of the Nintendo chairman. He had shaggy hair, boyish freckles, and a cat-who-swallowed-the-canary smile. He dressed nicely, and he behaved in accordance with traditional etiquette, yet there was mischief and wonder in his eyes. Yamauchi liked the young man and asked him to return for another meeting, this time with some ideas for toys.

Miyamoto returned with a portfolio and a large sack from which he produced a recent invention. It was a clothes hanger designed for children. Nursery schools could have a row of them along the wall, he explained. Or parents could put them in children’s rooms. Regular metal hangers, he told Yamauchi, were dangerous for children; the pointed hook could hurt them, even poke out an eye. His hanger, carved out of soft wood and covered with cheerful acrylic paint, was in the shape of an elephant’s head. Clothes were hung on the ears and turned-up trunk. The elephant’s neck fit snugly like a puzzle piece onto a knob that attached to a wall.

Miyamoto had other hangers as well: a bird and a chicken. Then he showed Yamauchi some drawings for more elaborate toys- a whimsical clock for an amusement park; a swing within a seesaw on which three children could play at once.

Yamauchi saw ingenuity and resourcefulness in the work, and he hired Miyamoto to be the company’s first staff artist, even though the company had no specific need for one at the time. Miyamoto was assigned to be an apprentice in the planning department.

-Source: “Game Over”, David Sheff. Page 46.

And to this day, children still look to Nintendo for their video games. Over twenty years, no one has come close to selling to children. The HD consoles are all wrapped around ‘adult gaming’ which is about killing things and shooting things. The NES was a success not because it had the ‘best games’ at the time but because the NES nailed an audience that computer games were not hitting: children. And it does appear that with games like ‘Radarscope’ and even non-Miyamoto games such as ‘Metroid’, that it does appear that Miyamoto brought in the idea of love for making games that include children. To this day, many game developers spit on the idea of making games that include children. Poor children.

And the real reason why Miyamoto was so praised as a ‘Game God’ had nothing to do with the typical reasons of ‘vision’ and ‘art’. No. The reason why there is so much gushing praise for him is because Miyamoto defined their childhood. Grown up, the NES generation and SNES generation are pointing to games like Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda and are saying, “That was my childhood.”

Despite how many awards are thrown at Miyamoto and despite how much money Nintendo investors gift him, there is no truly greater reward than to cause wonder and joy in the imagination of children.


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