Legendary game maker opens up about being a designer rather than an artist, his love of carpentry and why he’s not retiring any time soon
Shigeru Miyamoto – the man responsible for creating Mario back in 1981 – has been in the US promoting the December 15 release of Super Mario Run for iPhone and iPad all week, keeping a brutal schedule that has included playing guitar with The Roots on The Tonight Show and speaking to a packed crowd at the New York Soho Apple Store. His new game marks a massive change of approach for the pioneering company he’s worked at for more than 30 years, as it sees its crown jewel property appearing on devices not made by Nintendo.
We caught up with Miyamoto at the end of his big publicity tour and spoke to him about his creative process, his feelings about getting older, whether he’s thinking of retiring any time soon, and how he sees himself as a creator. He also reveals that he’s been able to find the time to work on ideas for Nintendo’s theme park partnership with Universal by not leading the charge on the company’s upcoming Switch console.
You mentioned in your presentation at the Apple Store this week that your core team has been together for 30 years. How do you keep that relationship together and keep it working?
It’s interesting, because people often ask me what I’m most proud of and for the longest time it was a question I always really struggled with. A few years ago I realized that the thing that I’m really the most proud of is that I’ve been working with the same core group of people for the last 30 years – and really it’s because you just don’t see that happen very often.
There’s myself, Takeshi Tezuka, Toshihiko Nakago and there’s actually a fourth member of our group too – Koji Kondo. Usually it’s the four of us that work on things together. There are probably a few reasons for it. I think we’re actually somewhat special because we’re all Nintendo employees, and that’s unique compared to what you’ll sometimes see with other creative groups. The other is that in working together over the past 30 years, we’ve all fallen into these very specific roles in the development process and that’s enabled us to work really well.
What are those roles?
Well, I’m the boss. Because I’m the oldest.
What’s key is that all that we do is work very closely together to make sure the thing we’re doing is really fun. That’s what we’re always striving for. One of the things we’ve done to maintain the relationship is that we spend a lot of time together. Japan is a country where people really work a lot, so every day we always eat lunch together and go to dinner together.
When there’s an idea for a game or something that we think is just going to be fun, generally the four of us share a similar opinion. We all kind of agree on the fundamentals. The other thing I’ve noticed is that although we have this strange convergence of opinions, when other people come into the group and see what we’re getting all excited about, people will often question us and say “oh, does that really seem that fun?”
We just really trust each other, and that came into play with Super Mario Run because it was easy for us to drill down and know what we should and shouldn’t do on mobile. We aligned very quickly.
So what did that look like?
This time from the very beginning we decided that we wanted to make the very simplest Mario game that we possibly could. When we first made Super Mario Bros. 30 years ago, obviously a lot of people played it and part of the reason they liked it was that all you did was move to the right and jump. It was pretty simple. Gradually Mario games have become more complex and it’s harder for people to control now. This time we started off with the idea of “what if we made a Mario game where all you do is jump and everything else is handled automatically?” Then we had to think about how we could take that basic structure and make it fun.
You mentioned earlier that you’re the boss because you’re the oldest. Do you ever worry about getting older and whether what you think is fun is really in tune with other people?
Even if I worried about that, it wouldn’t do us any good. For me it’s much more fun to see if the thing that I made is actually going to sell well. Rather than me trying to create something that I think other people will like, I just keep making things that I like and then I just see if other people like them too.
I kinda of look at it as if I’m running a talent agency, and I have all these different people that when there’s new technology and we’re doing something new with it, I always choose Mario to be the one to represent it
What’s your main contribution on the team? Are you the creative guy? What’s your main focus?
I guess if I was using a construction analogy, then I’m always focused on building the structural framework for the game. So, because of that, it’s become easier for me to decide whether changes that we’re making need to affect the overall game or just simple changes to specific small areas.
You’ve lived with Mario as your creation for 30 years. How would you describe your relationship with him? Are you sick of him yet?
I kinda of look at it as if I’m running a talent agency, and I have all these different people that when there’s new technology and we’re doing something new with it, I always choose Mario to be the one to represent it. Then, if we have something else that’s maybe not quite the right fit then we choose one of the other characters. That’s usually how I approach things with him. Also, we’ve always evolved Mario’s look – so we try and keep him fresh.
What inspires and influences you? In the past you’ve said you don’t really look at games for inspiration, but what about movies or TV shows?
Generally I try to not look at anything competitive, but what I will do is watch a lot of television. Especially dramas. I used to read a lot of manga when I was younger, and I was always very interested in which ones sold well and which ones didn’t. Lately I’ve been looking at all the TV dramas to try and see what it is about them that makes them successful. I’m looking at how they’re structured because I think there’s something to the way those TV dramas are entertaining people that can overlap with games in some way.
Beyond that, it’s all about my everyday life experiences and looking at how the things that interest me can really work in a game.
Many years before we made Wii Fit there was this thing in Japan where people would get together in their homes and they would do this silly dance. I remember when I went over to someone’s house in the neighborhood and there was this guy who was a very well-dressed lawyer, and he started doing this dance in his living room. I saw his kids laughing so hard at their dad doing something silly, and he was obviously having a good time too. This was one of the images I had in mind when we started making the games for Wii Fit and the Balance Board.
You’re insanely busy still. How do you make the time for things outside of work?
I do tend to work pretty late during the week, but one thing that I always do is make sure that on the weekend I spend time with my family. My weekend time has generally been very separate for work. I don’t golf or gamble, because those things take up a lot of time. I’ve given up those kinds of things.
What do you like to do?
I used to go camping with my kids or just stay home. People would sometimes give me a hard time for not really doing anything. Now my kids are grown and out of the house, so I spend a lot of time gardening with my wife. The other thing that I like to do is carpentry. I like to build furniture.
Is that why recent games have had more creative elements, like Mario Maker or the Kingdom Builder in Super Mario Run?
I don’t know if it’s about the carpentry specifically, but whenever I start working on anything I always like to sit down a draw a picture of it first. When I actually start working on a project, then I’m thinking about it all the time. Whether it’s the carpentry or a game or whatever.
I’m a designer. I don’t think of myself as creating works, I really think of myself as creating products for people to enjoy. That’s why I’ve always called my games products rather than works of art
Do you still work in a pretty analog way? Do you like to draw things out by hand before doing work on a computer?
It’s less drawing pictures of what I think the game will be, and more a lot of graphs and flowcharts. Because I’m designing the structure of play, it’s really more of a drafting process where I’m crafting the flow of things and how it’ll work in the game. That’s what I always put on paper first. Even with the carpentry it’s all about drafting first. You need to make sure you have all the measurements, and then in your head you have to understand how you’re going to fit all the pieces together.
So are you an artist or a designer?
I’m a designer. I don’t think of myself as creating works, I really think of myself as creating products for people to enjoy. That’s why I’ve always called my games products rather than works of art. It’s not about coming up with an idea and trying to make that idea, the work of a planner is to work within the constraints of what you’re given and make the best possible thing you can.
It’s not that I ever said I wanted to make video games, but once I started making them I said “OK, now that I’m making them, I’m going to make the best video games I can.” Whatever I was building, video games or not, I’ll always approach it as trying to build the best possible thing I can within the framework I’m given.
A few years ago you talked about maybe stepping away or possibly retiring. Do you think you’ll ever be able to walk away from all this?
There was a misunderstanding around my supposed retirement. Really at the time what we were talking about was giving more opportunity and more leadership opportunity to younger people in the company. So rather than me leading everything we were really expanding that role out to others that had come up within the company. Somehow that got misinterpreted as the fact that I was retiring.
We have these younger people in the company who are taking the lead on Switch development and it’s really been them that have put this forward and designed this system. They’re the ones that have really shepherded it through the process. Because of that, what it’s allowed me to do is focus on other projects like Super Mario Run or the Universal theme park. I’m going to keep looking for these kinds of opportunities where I can do something new and fun.
What’s it been like working with Apple? How did the partnership for Super Mario Run come about? They’re supporting it a lot more than they usually do with individual games.
The timing was really fortunate for both of us. On the Nintendo side we’d been talking a lot about going into the mobile space but we hadn’t decided that we were going to make a Mario game for smartphones. As we were talking about what we were going to create we started asking ourselves about what a Mario game would need to be. So we were experimenting with some things and we came up with the base idea, and that’s what we eventually showed to Apple.
Part of the reason we took it to Apple was that in order for us to have the performance we wanted we needed some development support to ensure that the game would run the way we expected. Because Nintendo is always trying to do something unique we also wanted to try and do something different on the business side too. We really didn’t want to do something in the free to play space, but in order to make sure we had the opportunity to do what we wanted [offer a taste of the game for free, and charge $9.99 to unlock the whole thing], we had to talk to the people who are actually running the shop. Naturally the people on the App Store initially told us that the free-to-play approach is a good one, but I’ve always had this image that Apple and Nintendo have very similar philosophies. As we started working together, I found that to be true and they became very welcoming of trying something new.
It’s always seemed like Nintendo and Apple have some similarities in terms of the way they look at product and audiences. What do you see as that common ground?
Probably the that easiest thing to point to is the fact that Apple, like Nintendo, is a company that thinks about how people will use their products. We design things to be usable by a very broad range of people. They put a lot of effort into the interface and making the product simple to use, and that’s very consistent with Nintendo. I think Apple also likes to do things differently and take a different approach. In the early days when computers were very complicated things, computer companies were purposely presenting them in ways that made them seem very complicated. Then you had Apple who came along with their very simple and colorful logo and it all had more of a fun feel to it.
Actually, this reminds me that with the Super NES controller we put the multicolored buttons on the face of the controller, and then the US office decided not to keep that. I told that story to Apple, and how I liked the use of color in their old logo. That was like a bridge that had been built between us.
Their focus is always on simplicity. Their focus is always on really taking the user into account, making it easy to use and then having an environment that’s safe and secure that people can work and play in. They’re the areas where Nintendo and Apple really see eye to eye.
For Nintendo, we have a lot of kids that play our products. It was important for us to be able to offer Super Mario Run in a way that parents would feel assured that they could buy the game and give it to their kids without having to worry about future transactions. From early on, I thought that Apple would be a good partner so we could work on this new approach.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you play the cat-collecting mobile game Neko Atsume. Are there other games that you really love playing?
Not really. I do like Minecraft, but really more from the perspective of the fact that I really feel like that’s something we should have made. We had actually done a lot of experiments that were similar to that back in the N64 days and we had some designs that were very similar. It’s really impressive to me to see how they’ve been able to take that idea and turn it into a product.
Have you played Final Fantasy XV or The Last Guardian?
I haven’t played those yet, but they do look really impressive graphically. I do hope that people who are looking for a fantasy game in that realm will also keep in mind Breath of the Wild.
This interview has been edited and condensed.