Renowned videogame designer Shigeru Miyamoto -- also creator of ''Donkey Kong'' and ''Zelda,'' and one of ''Time'''s 100 most influential people -- talks about social issues in gaming, risk-taking in design, and watching players' play
Game designer Shigeru Miyamoto — the genial visionary who gave us Mario, Donkey Kong, and The Legend of Zelda — has often been called the Steven Spielberg of the game industry. (In fact, some might argue that it is Spielberg who is the Miyamoto of the movie business.) His latest game, Super Paper Mario for the Wii, was released to great reviews just a few weeks ago, but it’s an upcoming Wii title, Super Mario Galaxy, that has fans excited in ways that are almost unseemly. We recently caught up with the 54-year-old Miyamoto — listed recently as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people — and (through a translator) he gave us an unexpectedly candid interview in which he discusses what social issues he might one day address in a videogame, admits his disappointment with the sales of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and reveals whether or not his son will follow in his footsteps.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You obviously know a lot about videogames. But do you watch any other forms of entertainment? How about movies?
SHIGERU MIYAMOTO: I just saw both Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers. They were very good and thought-provoking films. Although I wanted them to superimpose a little picture-in-picture on the screen so you could see what was happening in the other movie at the same time!
Those films deal with some serious themes: war, sacrifice, and the notion of heroism. Your games are mostly upbeat and sunny. Do you ever think about challenging yourself to design a game that addresses a real-world topic or carries a deeper social message?
Maybe if I were to come across a problem in my life that affected me I would think about that. A game like that would be very interesting to make. At the Independent Games Festival at the last GDC [the Game Developer’s Conference] I saw a game, Defcon, which is about thermonuclear war — the whole world is destroyed. That’s a very powerful message to put in a game.
What are some real-world issues that would you consider putting into a game?
I have some ideas. One is that in Japan, there are a lot of trains that have sections reserved for the elderly or pregnant women. Young people in Japan sometimes sit in them, but if people come up and need them, you are supposed to get up. But most of the kids don’t! It really upsets me. If I could build a game that somehow made the young people respect their elders… And there is another issue bugging me. In Japan there are a lot of people who freelance or work under the table — people who don’t pay any taxes. I look at places in the world where people understand that paying taxes to the government helps society. In Japan there’s not that understanding. So [social responsibility] is yet another issue I might address in a game. But I probably sound like an old man when I bring these things up.
Do you feel like an old man?
Well, I’m getting older and I have to pay more attention to my weight now. [Rubs his tummy] So that’s sort of a hobby of mine. I try to swim at least twice a week. People say I should play the Wii to work out, but whenever I do that it feels like I’m at work!
You mentioned social issues in Japan. But games are a global business — and the youth of America have a host of unique issues in front of them. The reason I mention this is that one criticism of Nintendo’s games is that they are very Japanese-centric. American gamers have bought more copies of Halo than they did of Metroid, for instance. Do you ever worry that you’re losing touch with what young American players might want to play?
I could make Halo. It’s not that I couldn’t design that game. It’s just that I choose not to. One thing about my game design is that I never try to look for what people want and then try to make that game design. I always try to create new experiences that are fun to play.
Some game companies in America don’t think like that. They are mostly risk- averse, producing sequels and franchise extensions, rather than exploring new ideas. There is a lot of emphasis on market research and focus groups. Does that hurt the games business?
With rising budgets, I understand why game companies have a great deal of concern if they don’t design games in this way. But you need to create what you want to create! In that sense, I would really like to see people develop games like I do. When I show a game to people I don’t ask their opinion or give them a survey. I just watch their eyes and their face while they play. Do they smile? Do they look frustrated? So I guess I do test my games — but it isn’t very scientific.
You’ve had great success in your ability to predict what players will find fun to play. Have there been games that you thought would be fun but didn’t turn out that way?
Yes, that has definitely happened. In the past we’ve worked with some outside development houses on titles like F-Zero and Starfox — and let me just say that we were disappointed with the results. Consumers got very excited about the idea of those games, but the games themselves did not deliver. And, well, to be honest with you, Zelda: Twilight Princess is not doing very well at all in Japan. It is very disappointing. But it is doing okay here in America.
Why do you think Zelda isn’t doing well in Japan?
Well, I think a lot of people who bought the Wii are not necessarily the types of people who are interested in playing that kind of game. And a lot of the people who would want to play it [due to chronic shortages of the console] can’t find a Wii! But mostly, I think it’s that there are fewer and fewer people who are interested in playing a big role-playing game like Zelda.
I know your son is graduating from college this summer. Has he expressed any interest in following in your footsteps and designing a game?
He wants to get into event planning. It makes me kind of happy because it’s somewhat similar to the task I do, which is coordinating things between members of a team and coming up with a vision. But no, he hasn’t expressed any interest in doing a videogame. He is quite creative though. The other day, for instance, he had to put together a promotional video for one of his college clubs about skiing. So over the weekend we drove around town and captured footage of a bunch of skiing advertisements. Then we went back home to edit the footage. It was fun to work on a creative project with him.