Online Extra: Meet Mario's Papa

Legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto talks how he aims to bring the family together around Nintendo's new console

As the brains behind the video games at Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto has shown a knack for inventing games that kids would get hooked on. In 1985, his Super Mario Bros. -- the world's hottest-selling game ever -- was the first with a scrolling screen, which expanded the playing space vertically, not just horizontally. The next year, he came up with the labyrinthine fantasy world called The Legend of Zelda, which could take skilled gamers hours, and sometimes weeks, to complete. And in the 1990s, his Super Mario 64 was the first console title with 3D graphics. It even forced him to tweak the standard joystick to handle more complex commands.

Miyamoto, 52, recently spoke with BusinessWeek Tokyo Correspondent Kenji Hall about video games, how they have changed, and what to expect in the future. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

What do you think was the biggest innovation in video games since the 1980s?

The biggest change was when 3D graphics came to Nintendo 64 and PlayStation. Before that, arcades had the edge in game technology. In the pecking order, game consoles for homes came last. 3D changed that and made home consoles the front-runner.

But I had no idea how quickly technology would change everything. Economies of scale were allowing game hardware makers to spend lots of money to develop new consoles. Suddenly, we were working with consoles that were 10 times faster than anything I had ever imagined, and the disk-storage space was vast.

What's the secret to creating a hit game?

Whether it's a new game or a sequel, we want anyone to be able to play right away. That's why I think Rubik's Cube was so brilliant. I saw it for the first time at a toy convention in Japan in the early 1980s. The moment you see a Rubik's Cube, you know you're supposed to twist the pieces. And it's beautifully designed. Even if you've never handled one, you want to pick it up and try it. And once you do that, it's hard to walk away until you've solved it.

Supercomputing power has improved game graphics to the point where characters can be made to appear almost lifelike. But the characters in your games are mostly cartoons. Why?

Nowadays, software makers want games to be so realistic, but first and foremost games should evoke emotions. When I made Pikmin, I wanted people to feel a mix of sadness and happiness. The Japanese word itoshii is used when you think fondly of someone. You wouldn't normally feel that when playing games, but that's what I was striving for.

Games aren't just about recreation and getting to the next stage. People often tell me nobody would play a game that isn't that way -- it would be too boring. But I don't agree with them (see BW Online, 10/13/05, "Indie Gamers Hit the Right Buttons").

Does Nintendo target a certain age group with its games?

We want our games to be for anyone from 5 to 95 years old (see BW Online, 10/19/05, "Attack of the Gaming Grannies").

We disagree with people who say, "Nintendo is for kids, and Sony (SNE ) is for adults." There are plenty of 60-year-olds who will play the games we make. Women in their 20s haven't been a major target for game makers. But many young women have found our games fun, especially Nintendogs.

What's the most important ingredient in your games?

The most basic element is fun. Games are interactive. They must challenge you, and reward you when you rise to the challenge. In my view, the game begins the moment a person touches a console -- everything builds from that.

When I first started creating games, I mainly wanted to make something that would surprise people. Actually, I never imagined I would be making video games. I thought I would be designing toys, like Dr. Rubik of Rubik's Cube.

Where do you get ideas for your games?

It's hard to remember. Sometimes I rely on childhood experiences. For instance, what did I find scary? Some ideas are spontaneous, some come from notes I've kept. I used write down things I saw or heard on a Post-it, which I would stick in my scheduling book. It could be a game or something funny on TV I saw, or a story I heard someone tell.

Do you remember how you came up with Super Mario Bros.?

It started with a simple idea. I thought: "I wonder what it would be like to have a character that bounces around. And the background should be a clear, blue sky." I took that idea to a programmer, and we started working on it.

Mario ended up being too big, so we shrank him. Then we thought, "What if he can grow and shrink? How would he do that? It would have to be a magic mushroom! Where would a mushroom grow? In a forest." We thought of giving Mario a girlfriend, and then we started talking about Alice in Wonderland.

How will Nintendo's next-generation platform, Revolution, differ from others?

Most people think video games are all about a child staring at a TV with a joystick in his hands. I don't. They should belong to the entire family. I want families to play video games together. That was the concept behind the Revolution (see BW Online, 10/4/05, "Nintendo's Revolutionary Man").

I also redesigned the Revolution's controller to look more like a regular TV remote, so anyone who saw it would know instantly how to use it, and so they wouldn't think they had to always stash it away.

Do you have a favorite video game?

The only time I play is maybe the 20 minutes I spend testing rivals' new machines. I don't play video games in my free time. On the weekends, I fix things around the house, garden, or play the guitar. Or I'll exercise, go swimming, take the dog for a walk, or go for a hike.

In the future, what do you think video games will be like?

It's convenient to make games that are played on TVs. But I always wanted to have a custom-sized screen that wasn't the typical four-cornered cathode-ray-tube TV. I've always thought that games would eventually break free of the confines of a TV screen to fill an entire room. But I would rather not say anything more about that.

You've been called the Steven Spielberg of video games. Recently, some gamers have been making movies using game software. Are games and movies converging?

It's a common comparison, but I don't think it's an appropriate one because movies aren't interactive the way games are. Even so, I've learned a lot from movies. For instance, I pay attention to how movies use music to create a mood, how many camera angles there are, or how the director sets up a scary scene.

Edited by Patricia O’Connell

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