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