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Iwata and Miyamoto: Business Ascetics - An Excerpt from Nintendo Magic
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Iwata and Miyamoto: Business Ascetics - An Excerpt from Nintendo Magic


May 14, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4
 

Breaking the Rules: Shigeru Miyamoto

He's nominated every year for Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" list. In 2007 he and then-Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe were the only two Japanese people on it. In 2008 he was selected in a reader poll on Time's website as the most influential person, pulling in almost two million votes in the process. He is world-famous.

He is Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's senior executive.

Miyamoto's fame, surprisingly, started in America, and is more widespread abroad than it is in Japan.

It started with the arcade game craze, when the kids were all playing a game called Donkey Kong, and continued with a character by the name of Mario, whose history now spans more than 20 years. Miyamoto's work has since garnered him worldwide fame and recognition; he has received countless awards.

For example, in 2006 he was awarded the distinction of chevalier in the French Légion d' honneur, an order originally established by Napoleon Bonaparte. In 2007 British magazine The Economist gave him their Innovation Award in the category of consumer products. The list goes on and on.

Iwata held Miyamoto in the highest regard, and as a fellow game creator, set his sights on catching up to the master and learning his secrets. While Iwata is now technically Miyamoto's superior within the company, he is still (by his own admission) "the biggest Miyamoto fan in the world," respecting him as the man who "set down the basic grammar for video games."


Iwata (right) and Miyamoto fielding questions at the
Japan Foreign Correspondents Club in December 2006. As a fellow creator of games, Iwata was always in pursuit of Miyamoto. [Photo © AFP/Jiji]

Yet as Iwata says, "It's as though the man who wrote the rules went and broke them." Indeed, as Miyamoto continues to work on such un-game-like games such as Wii Fit, his reputation as an innovator only grows.

Worldwide, his name is introduced with words like "legendary" and "genius," yet his roots lie in a suburb of Kyoto, among the same backyard hills you can find anywhere in Japan.

As Miyamoto, a native of the town of Sonobe (now part of Nantan City) wrote in the opening sentences for a 2001 column entitled "To All of You Who Hail From Tanba" that ran in the Kyoto Shinbun:

The setting for games like Super Mario Brothers and Pikmin comes directly from mountains like Komugiyama and Tenjinyama. I scrambled around the shrines at their peaks and down their slopes, detective badge pinned to my shirt as I searched for cave...

He spent his early years covered in mud from scampering about the mountains, fishing, and poking around in caves. It was there that he formed the memories that would come to inform his games.

A small town of ten thousand-odd people just shy of an hour outside of Kyoto on the San'in rail line; it was there that Miyamoto was raised, attending the town's public schools.

While he was by turns mischievous and innocent as he ran about the town, his drawings also received praise from his first grade teacher, and he grew to love drawing. By the time he entered middle school he was deeply enamored with comics and founded a "Comics Research Society" with his friends. In high school, he joined the mountaineering club and hiked Komugiyama with a backpack full of sand for training.

Miyamoto enrolled in Kanazawa Municipal Art College to pursue a career in industrial design, which he felt would mesh well with his fondness for plastic models, crafting, and toys as well as drawing and sculpting.

It was around this time that he learned music. He practiced guitar on his own, forming a band with some friends. Experiencing the joy of creating music with other people -- no matter how clumsy -- ultimately found expression in Wii Music, a game that let even the rankest amateur join a jam session with a wave of the Wii Remote.

Thanks to his free-spirited upbringing, when Miyamoto approached graduation he decided it would be a lot of fun to work at this toy company based in Kyoto and went for an interview.

At the time, Nintendo was moving beyond card games. To break into the video game market, Nintendo needed people with expertise in art and industrial design.

So it was that Miyamoto came to work for Nintendo in 1977, at the age of 24. He was the first designer the company ever hired, though his work began with nothing but poster and package design. Four years later came a turning point -- and the beginning of a legend.

It wasn't as though Miyamoto had originally come to work for Nintendo to do videogames; he was not a programmer like Iwata. What first distinguished him as a game creator was a 1981 arcade game meant for export to the US.

At the time, video game arcades were sweeping Japan, spurred on by the success of Taito's Space Invaders game. Nintendo wanted a share of this business and was well into the development of their own arcade game. Their Game & Watch series of portable electronic games, introduced in 1980, was meeting with success, and Nintendo devoted its business resources to developing two arcade machines.

Nintendo of America (NOA) was incorporated in 1980 to facilitate expansion abroad. However, a major part of this push, a game called Radar Scope, went largely unsold.

In response to the request from NOA to develop a new game that could run on the existing Radar Scope cabinet and hardware, the home office decided to create a game based on one of their Game & Watch titles.

With Game & Watch's ongoing success, there was no way they could form a new development team just to make up for an overstock situation in America. In searching for their salvation, what came up was a game already in development as a new title for the Game & Watch series: Popeye.

Popeye -- based on the American cartoon -- would have name recognition. If they could load it onto the excess Radar Scope cabinets, they would have no trouble selling them, the logic went. It was onto this project that Miyamoto's boss invited him.

However, licensing problems froze the project in its tracks -- Nintendo was not allowed to use the likeness of Popeye or any of the related characters in the game, even though development of the gameplay and levels was proceeding well. They would have to create alternate characters. Miyamoto-the-artist's day had finally come.

Instead of Popeye, Miyamoto created "Mario." In Olive Oyl's place was "Pauline," and instead of Bluto, there would be "Donkey Kong." He proposed new ideas like "Donkey Kong throws barrels" and "Mario jumps to evade them," which were added. It was his debut as a game creator.

Miyamoto designed the Mario character with an outfit that would fit with the game's setting, which was a construction site, and added a mustache, which would be discernible even with the coarse graphics. Originally he just called the character "the ol' man," but when the game was shown to a Nintendo of America employee, he claimed the character looked just like a colleague named "Mario." The rest is history.

Unlike its predecessor, Donkey Kong did not go unsold. Far from it -- orders poured in. It was a huge hit, ultimately selling over 60,000 units. Miyamoto had discovered the joy of game design. It was the beginning of a flood of popular games from the designer, and his ascent to worldwide recognition.


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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