MIYAMOTO

RE­TURN OF THE KING

EDGE - - FRONT PAGE -

The world’s great­est game de­signer is back at the con­trols

We may have up­set Shigeru Miyamoto. Not that you’d ever know it to look at him – he re­mains as cheery and an­i­mated as ever, spry de­spite his 61 years, chuck­ling through in­ter­view re­sponses and mug­ging for the cam­era. But when we tell him that his new games are dif­fi­cult, he tenses briefly. Af­ter all, when Miyamoto pre­vi­ously made an Edge cover ap­pear­ance, he was mak­ing Wii Mu­sic, more toy than game. It was play­ful, cer­tainly, but it was per­haps the least game-like re­lease on a con­sole that went out of its way to ac­com­mo­date the in­ex­pe­ri­enced. In con­trast, the trio of pro­to­type Wii U games Miyamoto took to E3 this year – Project Guard,

Project Gi­ant Robot and Star Fox – use the GamePad’s swollen fea­ture­set in such un­com­mon ways that even the sea­soned brain takes time to ad­just.

“It’s not as dif­fi­cult as you might think,” Miyamoto tells us af­ter we’ve strug­gled our way through a Star Fox demo and ad­mit­ted to having done the same with Project Guard. “Each mis­sion is sim­ple when you break it down into its com­po­nent parts. To me, what is more im­por­tant is that the more you play, the more you are go­ing to get ac­cus­tomed to it. You can feel, ‘OK, I’m mak­ing progress; I’m get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter.’

“I do not need to ex­plain this kind of thing to you and the read­ers of Edge, be­cause each of you is a gamer. Gamers have ex­pe­ri­enced that. But there are a lot of peo­ple in the world who do not un­der­stand that spe­cial kind of charm that videogames have.”

It was the lat­ter camp, how­ever, that made Nin­tendo the mar­ket leader in both the home con­sole and hand­held mar­kets with Wii and DS. And so it is the lat­ter camp that in­vestors and an­a­lysts have sug­gested Nin­tendo con­tinue to court, be­liev­ing free-to-play smart­phone ver­sions of Mario and Poké­mon to be the key to re­gain­ing the vast ex­panded mar­ket that Nin­tendo cre­ated and then ceded to iOS, Face­book and An­droid. That Miyamoto, one of the long­est-serv­ing cre­atives in the in­dus­try and Nin­tendo’s most revered and recog­nis­able em­ployee, is again mak­ing games for peo­ple who play games says much about where his em­ployer’s pri­or­i­ties now lie.

In short, it’s with you. Miyamoto and his staff are not de­sign­ing games for “the sort of peo­ple who, for ex­am­ple, might want to watch a movie. They might want to go to Dis­ney­land. Their at­ti­tude is, ‘OK, I am the cus­tomer. You are sup­posed to en­ter­tain me.’ It’s kind of a pas­sive at­ti­tude they’re tak­ing, and to me it’s kind of a pa­thetic thing. They do not know how in­ter­est­ing it is if you move one step fur­ther and try to chal­lenge your­self. [If you do that,] you’re go­ing to learn how fun it is.”

As happy as we are to hear it con­firmed, the signs of a shift in Nin­tendo’s ap­proach have been there for a while. From the mo­ment Sa­toru Iwata took to the E3 stage in 2011 and held up Wii U’s GamePad, in fact. Where the Wii Re­mote was a study in sim­plic­ity, the GamePad was built for com­plex­ity. Its twin sticks and sets of trig­gers, its gy­ro­scope and NFC, and, above all, its in-built touch­screen meant that a new Wii Sports was never go­ing to be the game to sell it. It is the most fea­ture-rich in­put de­vice Nin­tendo has ever made, and any game that is go­ing to show off all that it can do is nat­u­rally go­ing to be in­tri­cate. And, yes, dif­fi­cult. It’s the sec­ond screen that of­ten con­trib­utes most to the chal­lenge, re­quir­ing you to shift fo­cus between the TV panel ten feet away and the screen in your lap. You can end up ef­fec­tively try­ing to play two games at once. It’s some­thing Nin­tendo was con­scious of from very early on when Wii U was still in R&D. “Of course we had some con­cerns,” Miyamoto says. “Af­ter all, we’re hu­man be­ings: our eyes can­not see two ob­jects at the same time. But we were sure that, even with that kind of, say, weak point, we would be able to make some­thing un­prece­dented and rev­o­lu­tion­ary.”

Star Fox doesn’t look like ei­ther of those things yet – quite the op­po­site, in fact, since it reuses as­sets from an aban­doned Wii pro­to­type and game­play from its 17-yearold N64 in­car­na­tion. You have to pick up the GamePad and play to un­der­stand what Miyamoto’s get­ting at. On the TV screen is a tra­di­tional Star Fox game, the cam­era po­si­tioned be­hind Fox McCloud’s Ar­wing, grainy pic­turein-pic­ture shots of Falco, Peppy and Slippy pop­ping up in the bot­tom cor­ner. The left ana­logue stick con­trols the Ar­wing; the right stick is tied to bar­rel rolls, speed boosts and brakes; and the two in con­junc­tion are used for loop-the-loops and U-turns. It’s stan­dard stuff, and then you look down to your hands, where the GamePad shows the view from McCloud’s cock­pit in first­per­son, its aim ad­justed with the gy­ro­scope. For the first time, your Ar­wing’s flight path and line of fire can be con­trolled in­de­pen­dently. We look at the TV screen to track tar­gets and move the GamePad to shoot them down, and we’re do­ing fine un­til we reach the boss. In an Ar­wing-like craft of his own, our as­sailant U-turns away as soon as we have him in our sights, and we need the as­sis­tance of the most fa­mous man in videogames to track him down. One pair of eyes doesn’t feel like enough.

We also need some guid­ance in Project Guard, in which you de­fend a fa­cil­ity from a horde of ad­vanc­ing ro­bots us­ing guns mounted on CCTV cam­eras. At the out­set, you use the touch­screen to place and ro­tate your dozen cam­eras; once the ac­tion starts, you tap icons to switch between them. All 12 feeds are shown around the perime­ter of the TV screen, with a large cen­tral dis­play show­ing the cur­rently ac­tive cam­era. It’s fran­tic stuff, and you can see Miyamoto’s hand in how play­ful it is. Lit­tle skit­tery ro­bots have foot­balls for heads. Me­chan­i­cal par­rots peck cam­eras loose from their mount­ings, fling­ing them into the dis­tance or walk­ing around with them on their heads. Pink tanks can’t be de­stroyed, only dis­abled, their blip stay­ing dis­tract­ingly on the radar. Stealth tanks are in­vis­i­ble to in­stru­ments, how­ever, and it’s in spot­ting them man­u­ally that com­pany proves in­valu­able, with our part­ner fran­ti­cally call­ing out which cam­eras need our ur­gent at­ten­tion.

When we sur­vive, it feels like a shared vic­tory. This, Miyamoto says, is quite deliberate. “What’s im­por­tant is that it’s not only very fun to play, but also very fun to watch on the TV screen; ev­ery­body else in the liv­ing room will be able to en­joy it. That has always been im­por­tant for Wii U.” Star Fox may be the headline act, but Project Guard is the real star, pleas­ingly tac­tile, pacy and fully formed de­spite be­ing so early in devel­op­ment.

Af­ter Project Guard, how­ever, Project Gi­ant Robot is a lit­tle de­flat­ing. There is po­ten­tial here – you build a robot then take it into bat­tle against seem­ingly ran­domly gen­er­ated op­po­nents, us­ing the GamePad’s ana­logue sticks to punch and its gy­ro­scopes to shift mo­men­tum and put some force be­hind your blows – but it’s clearly a game about physics and the physics aren’t quite there yet. It is, of course, just a pro­to­type, and while it may not con­vince as a game in its cur­rent form, its mere ex­is­tence is fur­ther proof of Nin­tendo’s de­sire for change.

So, too, was its pres­ence along­side Project Guard and Star Fox at E3. The no­tion of Nin­tendo, per­haps the most fiercely se­cre­tive com­pany in games, tak­ing pro­to­types to the big­gest show on Earth still feels in­com­pre­hen­si­ble even now. Nin­tendo, like so many Ja­panese stu­dios, keeps its in-devel­op­ment games out of the public eye un­til a ver­ti­cal slice has been pol­ished to a sheen wor­thy of fi­nal re­lease. On the eve of its Space World event in 1995, then-pres­i­dent Hiroshi Ya­mauchi pulled ten N64 demos from dis­play be­cause he didn’t think they were re­fined enough to be able to prop­erly show off what Nin­tendo’s new con­sole was ca­pa­ble of. It speaks vol­umes that the Nin­tendo of 2014 is will­ing to show a Star Fox game with Wii as­sets and N64 mis­sion de­sign.

But so much of Nin­tendo’s E3 was non­tra­di­tional this year. It aban­doned its Tues­day morn­ing me­dia briefing, in­stead mak­ing its an­nounce­ments in a pre­re­corded Nin­tendo Di­rect broad­cast. At E3s past, an all-too-brief trailer would be all you’d see of a game; here the day-long Tree­house livestreams showed new ti­tles be­ing played for 40 min­utes at a time, of­ten with de­vel­oper com­men­tary as well. While Nin­tendo’s lineup of games still con­tained plenty of old faces, many were be­ing used in un­ex­pected ways. Mario pow­ers not a plat­form game, but a plat­form game cre­ation tool. Link fronts two games, one that seeks to cast off the con­ven­tions of an al­most 30-year legacy and an­other that’s a cheery hack-and-slash ti­tle be­ing made out­side of the com­pany’s walls.

And then there’s Splatoon, a rau­cous, play­ful and ri­otously colour­ful mul­ti­player shooter in which you fire globs of paint to cover more of the arena than the op­po­si­tion, and reload by turn­ing into a squid. It’s per­haps the finest ex­am­ple of Nin­tendo’s new mis­sion to of­fer fresh takes on well-es­tab­lished tem­plates. And yet it was so nearly very dif­fer­ent.

“There were heated de­bates over who the main player char­ac­ter should be,” Miyamoto says. “Whether it should be Mario, or a squid. When we talked about the pos­si­bil­ity of it be­ing Mario, of course we could think

of the ad­van­tages: any­body would be will­ing to touch it as soon as we an­nounced that we had the new Mario game. But at the same time, we had some wor­ries. If it were Mario, we wouldn’t be able to cre­ate any new IP.”

That de­sire, com­bined with the game­play po­ten­tial of a new char­ac­ter – some­how, we can’t see Mario dip­ping be­low a painted floor and flank­ing un­seen round be­hind the en­emy at high speed be­fore lob­bing a grenade at the back of an op­po­nent’s head – meant the squid won out.

Yet this is a risky project for more rea­sons than just who gets to ap­pear in pride of place on the boxart. This may be an en­dear­ingly un­con­ven­tional spin on the most over­sub­scribed genre in con­sole videogam­ing, but it is still a step into well-trod­den ter­ri­tory in which Nin­tendo has lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence. And in which, to be blunt, it has never seemed ter­ri­bly in­ter­ested be­fore now. “I’ve always liked the con­trol mech­a­nism of the shooter, per­son­ally,” Miyamoto says, pos­si­bly tens­ing up again. “And, you know, I’ve always been rather good at mak­ing ac­tion games. I was also a pro­ducer on Metroid Prime, so I would never say that I don’t like shoot­ers.

“I’ve always been in­ter­ested in their con­trols. In­stead of think­ing of [en­ter­ing] the al­ready-fierce ri­valry in the shooter arena, I thought we’d be able to come up with an un­prece­dented, but still ap­pro­pri­ate, con­trol sys­tem [us­ing the GamePad].” And the look of the game? “Shoot­ers have tended to be­come more pho­to­re­al­is­tic, but it’s not Nin­tendo’s way to do that. It’s [got] to be dif­fer­ent from what other folks are do­ing.”

Splatoon and the three pro­to­types are the first games to emerge from Garage, a new Nin­tendo devel­op­ment pro­gramme set up last year in which de­vel­op­ers break off into small teams and work on new ideas. “There are in­creas­ing num­bers of young staff at Nin­tendo’s devel­op­ment stu­dios th­ese days,” Miyamoto says, “and th­ese young guys re­ally want to ex­press them­selves.” Work is done dur­ing of­fice hours, but he com­pares Garage to an af­ter-school club, in spirit if not in sched­ule. “Class time’s over; they gather to­gether and think about new pro­jects com­pletely apart from their ev­ery­day busi­ness as­sign­ments. When all of th­ese pro­jects have ad­vanced to a cer­tain stage, we gather to­gether and ex­change opin­ions on the out­come of each of them, and to­gether we de­cide which ones should con­tinue. We may have shown sev­eral soft­ware ti­tles at E3 [that came from Garage], but there are many oth­ers in devel­op­ment, too.”

The first fruits of the Garage ini­tia­tive were com­bined with more tra­di­tional fare such as Yoshi’s Woolly World, a new Zelda game and third­party exclusive Bay­o­netta 2 to give what many con­sid­ered the best E3 lineup of any of the plat­form hold­ers. Miyamoto cer­tainly wasn’t all that im­pressed by what he saw as he looked around E3 2014’s sprawl­ing show floor, telling Nin­tendo in­vestors there was too much “bloody shooter soft­ware”, and that it re­flected a cer­tain “cre­ative im­ma­tu­rity” among the de­vel­op­ers work­ing to­day. A se­nior Nin­tendo ex­ec­u­tive crit­i­cis­ing the work of oth­ers? Things have changed.

“Oh, I’ve made quite the grand state­ment, haven’t I?” he laughs. “My com­ment was based upon the fact that I have not been fully sat­is­fied with the in­spi­ra­tions that I have or that other peo­ple in the in­dus­try have in gen­eral. I feel that in­dus­try trends, rather than the cre­ator’s in­di­vid­u­al­ity and unique­ness, tend to be pri­ori­tised. When the peo­ple who man­age the devel­op­ment bud­get take the lead in mak­ing a game, cre­ators tend to make games that are al­ready pop­u­lar in the mar­ket­place. Even when there is op­por­tu­nity for young de­vel­op­ers to make some­thing freely, they tend to make sim­i­lar pro­pos­als. I can’t help but feel that the in­dus­try has a long way to go. I hope Nin­tendo will always be a com­pany that ag­gres­sively in­vests in some­thing new – some­thing born from each cre­ator’s in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics.”

Nin­tendo doesn’t just need to make new kinds of videogame; it needs to make them quickly. Miyamoto has al­ready ad­mit­ted that Nin­tendo some­how did not an­tic­i­pate the ex­tra work required when mak­ing games in HD, and while team sizes have since been duly scaled up and staff prop­erly trained, Wii U’s first 18 months on shelves have been ham­pered by a sparse re­lease sched­ule, which only now seems to be pick­ing up speed. With third­party sup­port once again elu­sive, Nin­tendo has taken to buy­ing up trou­bled pro­jects that are far along in devel­op­ment (Sega can­celled Plat­inum’s Bay­o­netta 2; THQ, pub­lisher of Tomonobu Ita­gaki’s Devil’s Third, went bust). And while Hyrule War­riors might be a land­mark game for Nin­tendo’s li­cens­ing depart­ment, it is merely the lat­est in a se­ries that has pro­duced some 30 games in the past five years alone; when it is re­leased, Koei Tecmo will go back to mak­ing War­riors games on its own. The next thing on Plat­inum’s to-do list is Scale­bound for Xbox One. Both Bay­o­netta 2 and Devil’s Third will be on shelves be­fore the end of the year, and Nin­tendo can only scour other peo­ple’s cut­ting-room floors for so long.

Garage is one so­lu­tion to that. “With the in­creas­ing num­ber of de­vel­op­ers in­volved in one project, we need to spend longer sim­ply com­mu­ni­cat­ing,” Miyamoto says. “So we can feel the same plea­sure [as the old days], I have

been ex­per­i­ment­ing with new ideas in small teams. Only later do we or­gan­ise a larger team to make the fi­nal prod­uct. Well, this is my ideal, at least; things have not gone quite as I has ex­pected. But I be­lieve this way of mak­ing games is re­ally im­por­tant when we need a lot of time in or­der to make a game such as the ones for Wii U.”

Nin­tendo re­mains keen to work with third­par­ties, so long as they’re pre­pared to use the GamePad prop­erly, but that won’t hap­pen much un­til hard­ware sales pick up. With an­other fis­cal quar­ter of dis­ap­point­ing sales be­hind it – just half a mil­lion sales world­wide, even de­spite the launch of Mario Kart 8 – Nin­tendo once again faced calls from in­vestors to change its ways. In fact, it al­ready has, build­ing the new Ky­oto R&D fa­cil­ity where we meet Miyamoto. Opened in June, the build­ing sits 300 me­tres away from Nin­tendo’s head of­fice and houses some 1,500 de­vel­op­ers work­ing in se­cret. The com­pany has in­te­grated its hand­held and home con­sole hard­ware teams, too, which should avoid a re­peat of its cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of having two sys­tems on shelves that are so ar­chi­tec­turally dif­fer­ent. You sense it’s not just about work­flow, but that Nin­tendo is also mak­ing a state­ment: its hard­ware busi­ness isn’t dis­ap­pear­ing any time soon.

“As I said be­fore, there are always peo­ple who re­ally want to get deeply into a game,” Miyamoto says. “We want to cre­ate, and they want to ex­pe­ri­ence, some­thing un­prece­dented all the time. For us to meet th­ese goals, we need ded­i­cated hard­ware that is de­signed to cater to the needs of th­ese avid gamers. Peo­ple might say that soft­ware is soft­ware. No. A unique soft­ware ex­pe­ri­ence can always be re­alised with unique hard­ware that has a unique in­ter­face. That’s why I be­lieve that Nin­tendo is, and will be, stick­ing to th­ese ded­i­cated game ma­chines.”

Nin­tendo’s an­nual re­port for 2013 opens with a close-up photo of a young boy. Mario’s head is re­flected in his eyes. The im­age bears a tell­tale cap­tion: “I grew up with Nin­tendo’s games.” This is Nin­tendo’s new tar­get au­di­ence: you, not your mum. “In the days of DS and Wii, Nin­tendo tried its best to ex­pand the gam­ing pop­u­la­tion,” Miyamoto says. “For­tu­nately, be­cause of the spread of smart de­vices, peo­ple take games for granted now. It’s a good thing for us, be­cause we do not have to worry about mak­ing games some­thing that are rel­e­vant to gen­eral peo­ple’s daily lives.” In­vestors want an­other Brain

Train­ing, an­other Wii Sports, but who would those games be for now that ev­ery­one plays games?

While Nin­tendo can be crit­i­cised for be­ing too stuck in its ways, much of its ret­i­cence to hitch it­self to the lat­est mon­eti­sa­tion band­wagon can be in­ter­preted as re­spect­ing the player. It stood by as the in­dus­try dab­bled in sea­son passes; its DLC is the ex­cep­tion rather than the rule. It has shown no in­ter­est in try­ing to have its cake and eat it by adding mi­cro­trans­ac­tions to paid re­leases.

Miyamoto still plays games, but most of his time is spent putting Nin­tendo’s pro­jects through their paces. When a big new game gets ev­ery­one talk­ing, he asks staff to play it and re­port back. How­ever, he has found the rise of free-to-play im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore. He’s played An­gry

Birds, Candy Crush Saga and Puzzle & Dragons, and while there’s re­spect for their cre­ators, he’s in no mood to fol­low their lead. “There are free-to-play videogames all around us, but what we’re do­ing is ask­ing game play­ers for de­cent money,” he says. “If we think about how we can do that – about the kinds of games that play­ers feel like spend­ing their money on – then from that nat­u­rally comes the games we are mak­ing right now.”

In­vestors and an­a­lysts strug­gle to see be­yond the next fis­cal quar­ter, but Miyamoto and Nin­tendo are play­ing a longer game. It has been a rough few years, but what’s that to a com­pany that’s been in busi­ness for over a cen­tury, that has sold over 600 mil­lion sys­tems and four bil­lion games? Miyamoto has been with Nin­tendo since 1977. He has seen trends come and go. “My only point of com­par­i­son, all the time, is my past work,” he tells us. “I’ve been try­ing to in­ves­ti­gate what’s hap­pen­ing out­side of the com­pany, but I’m not do­ing that for the sake of com­pe­ti­tion or ri­valry. I re­ally always want to make some­thing unique, some­thing new.”

In western game devel­op­ment, you’re called a vet­eran if you’ve been around for 20 years. Miyamoto has been in games for al­most 40, and has spent his en­tire ca­reer in the em­ploy of a sin­gle com­pany. “I’ve always thought of Nin­tendo as my spon­sor,” he says. “As the com­pany grew and was able to gen­er­ate more profit, my im­pres­sion was, ‘OK, the com­pany has be­come a bet­ter spon­sor. I will be able to do even more’. Of course, I help to man­age the com­pany right now, in­stead of sim­ply feel­ing that the com­pany is my spon­sor. I just can­not say any­thing that might up­set our share­hold­ers at all! But, to me, what is im­por­tant is be­ing in a po­si­tion to make some­thing unique. Af­ter all, I like mak­ing games.”

That’s why Nin­tendo won’t make free-to-play games. It’s why it has in­te­grated its R&D teams, over­hauled its pro­cesses, and as­sem­bled its best E3 lineup in years. There will be no iOS Mario, no trips to Dis­ney­land, no bloody shooter soft­ware. Shigeru Miyamoto is mak­ing games again, and he’s mak­ing them for you.

Miyamoto in­tends to have the new Star Fox on shelves next year, and has spo­ken of work­ing with an ex­ter­nal stu­dio to hurry things along

The three pro­to­types (from top): Project Guard, Star Fox and Project Gi­ant Robot. The only way to see Star Fox at E3 was via a be­hind-closed­doors demo from Miyamoto him­self

Bay­o­netta2 dev Plat­inumGames has quickly be­come one of Nin­tendo’s most valu­able third­par­ties: it also de­vel­oped Wii U ac­tion game TheWon­der­ful101

Mar­i­oKart8 sold 2.8 mil­lion copies in its first month, but it failed to drive the surge in Wii U sales Nin­tendo hoped for

Nin­tendo’s an­nual re­port may make glum read­ing for in­vestors, but it says much about where its pri­or­i­ties now lie

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