Feature: Shigeru Miyamoto - The Father of Modern Video Games
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
An era unlike any other
Today is Shigeru Miyamoto's 60th birthday, a key personal landmark but also one that should be celebrated in broader terms by the gaming industry. Miyamoto's well-known description as the "father of modern video games" isn't just casually applied praise, it's a title that's deserved and has genuine significance. Nintendo's most famous developer is also now at an age where he's been adjusting his role to a more hands-off position, allowing younger developers to flourish; eventually his mind will shift to retirement. It says much that when rumours of retirement swirled last year, Nintendo's share-price dropped and a hasty clarification was issued by the famous gaming company. Life without Miyamoto seemed inconceivable.
What's perhaps most remarkable about Shigeru Miyamoto is that his entire career, since graduating from Art College, has been spent at Nintendo. When he joined in 1976 as an apprentice in the Planning department, Nintendo was a toy company interested in dabbling with arcade units, rather than a games industry behemoth that works as a product manufacturer, developer and publisher. Yet as an artist Miyamoto was given the opportunity to design a game to salvage a failing arcade unit in North America, Radar Scope. Of course, Donkey Kong was born, a game that pushed boundaries and showed a different design approach. That may seem like a peculiar statement, but in 1981 it was somewhat unique for a game to actively portray characters, humour and a story, even if that story was remarkably simple. Miyamoto's titles often appear to follow the same design principle: a game needs to be fun but also charm and engage the player, with characterisation and motive contributing their part to the experience.
Referring to story and motive may seem like unlikely areas for praise, as Miyamoto's also been quoted to say that core concepts come first and story can be added later, and so many subsequent Mario games — since the industry-defining Super Mario Bros. — revolve around the "rescue Princess Peach" storyline. Yet motivating gamers with an easily defined core objective is one part of what Shigeru Miyamoto often targets with his franchises. One of the other major series for which he's famous, apart from Mario, is The Legend of Zelda, which does go into a deeper narrative. Despite all of the characters and nuances, however, the goal with games in this series is often just as simple: save the world from evil. There's little room for grey areas or moral doubt — you're the Hero, and your destiny is to defeat malevolent forces.
This simplicity in outlook perhaps helps to explain Miyamoto's success, and why he's continually leading his field. In an extensive article written by Nick Paumgarten for The New Yorker, it's highlighted that a 2009 poll of video game developers made Miyamoto the runaway winner as the "ultimate development hero". Will Wright, creator of The Sims and one of very few games developers that Shigeru Miyamoto has named as industry figures he admires, explained why Miyamoto is held in such esteem.
At the end of the day, most of the designers out there now grew up playing his games. He approaches the games playfully, which seems kind of obvious, but most people don’t. And he approaches things from the players’ point of view, which is part of his magic.
It's the playful side of Miyamoto that's also on view to the public, as he'll still happily bound onto the E3 stage and pretend to be Link, or introduce Pikmin 3 while accompanied by a plush toy. Plenty of gamer's favourite memories of Miyamoto will be related to these light-hearted public appearances, such as dressing up in a tuxedo to conduct an orchestra of Mii characters. Games are supposed to be an enjoyable pastime, above all else, and Miyamoto is a strong advocate for that argument.
An important philosophy for Miyamoto, whether for a new Mario, Zelda, Pikmin or concept game such as Wii Sports, is balancing the new with the familiar, while offering challenge that motivates without demoralising the player. These are rather obvious qualities for games to have, but are perhaps amongst the hardest to master. In his current role as the senior development figure in Nintendo, and supervisor over so many of its biggest games, it's a message that he reinforces.
A lot of the so-called ‘action games’ are not made that way. All the time, players are forced to do their utmost. If they are challenged to the limit, is it really fun for them? You are constantly providing the players with a new challenge, but at the same time providing them with some stages or some occasions where they can simply, repeatedly, do something again and again. And that itself can be a joy.
...I always remind myself, when it comes to a game I’m developing, that I am the perfect, skilful player. I can manipulate all this controller stuff. So sometimes I ask the younger game creators to try playing the games they are making by switching their left and right hands. In that way, they can understand how inexperienced the first-timer is.
So much of his latest work, either games directly attributed to him or hardware development projects such as Wii, where he was a senior figure working on the concept, show that Miyamoto continually strives to provide experiences that can be enjoyed by gamers of all levels. It's a sign that his thinking has evolved from the era of NES to GameCube, as Wii and, potentially, Wii U, serve a role to introduce new people to gaming and ultimately draw them into the hobby; that doesn't even account for Nintendo's innovations in the handheld space. Balance is everything.
We always use the term ‘difficulty’ when we talk about gameplay. If a game is too difficult, people may not want to play it again. With the appropriate level of difficulty, people may feel like challenging it again and again. As they repeat it, the amount of information they can acquire naturally increases. I always try to be conscious about that kind of gradual improvement.
...To what extent are you going to hide the secrets? In order for a mystery or a joke to work, we have to provide the necessary amount of information. Not too much, not too little, but the perfect balance, so that in the end people can feel, how come I didn’t realize that? The difficulty with video games, unlike movies or novels, where the authors themselves can lead the audience to the end, is that in games it’s the players who have to find their own road to the end.
Perhaps Miyamoto's finest qualities, beyond his exhaustive list of game credits, are his humility and work ethic. It's easy to forget that he's not only evolved with the gaming industry over an exceptionally long period, but he's also stayed in its upper echelons throughout that time. Many other big-name developers have moved companies, or relied on games a decade or more old to give them weight with gamers and the gaming press, but Miyamoto is an embodiment of continued excellence and prolific output. He's been a Nintendo man for his whole professional career, and can legitimately claim to be one of an elite group that has successfully driven trends not only in Nintendo's development as a company, but within gaming as a whole.
Yet he seemingly does it all without an inflated ego, or a desire to chase attention and get his name on everyone's lips. He'll be a spokesman when required, but he equally spends a lot of time diligently working in Nintendo HQ in Kyoto. Beyond iconic tales such as cave exploration in childhood that inspired the Zelda series, shrine arches that influenced environments in Star Fox or origin tales of the Mario name, Miyamoto's private life is his own. While the world sees Miyamoto showcasing the fun side of video games, he's also undoubtedly achieved his career-goals not exclusively by maintaining a perspective of the player's perspective and enjoying every minute of the day, but through determination and immense hard-work. Dylan Cuthbert said the following about the Miyamoto that's found in the workplace.
(Miyamoto's) private face is different to his public face, and his style of chasing ideas and cutting through bull**** is brilliant – internally he’s kind of like a slightly more friendly Steve Jobs, but just as cutting.
He's also likely to be someone that would rather Nintendo gamers didn't make a fuss of his Birthday, and that writers wouldn't blather on about his influence and importance to the video game industry. Very much a proponent of a company-wide culture of humility, Miyamoto's recent acceptance speech for the Spanish cultural Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities eloquently summarises his outlook on his role.
Creating video games is very much a team effort, which is why I feel so humbled to be chosen for this honourable award. I would therefore like to receive the award on behalf of all of my friends and colleagues with whom I have been creating video games over the years.
I will continue my efforts so that video games will continuously be able to offer fun and joy to people of all generations all around the world.
And yet, such is his level of achievement that it'd require days of research and thousands upon thousands of words to even touch upon his achievements and level of influence. While he wouldn't be where he is without wonderful people to work with, it can be said with confidence that he elevates the abilities of those around him with his basic understanding of what gaming is supposed to represent. The modern video game industry will always owe a great deal to Shigeru Miyamoto, and will do well to heed the philosophies that have made him its foremost figure.