If you asked a random person on the street to name five novelists, or five movie directors, most people would probably be able to give you an answer. People like Steven King or George Lucas have become household names due to their connections with some of the most beloved fictional works, and rightly so.
If you asked the average person to name five game designers, however, I am willing to bet that a majority of people would not be able to. Games are often better known for the company that developed them, or even the publisher, rather than any of the people involved in making them. In many cases, there is not even a single name to point to – while some indie games can be developed mostly by one person, most video games are very collaborative and difficult to attribute to any individual.
That being said, there are some designers whose influence on their games is so profound that they have been able to stand out from the crown. Chief among these is Shigeru Miyamoto – the designer behind some of the most well known games in the world, and the driving creative force behind Nintendo. Today, I am going to look at the history and design philosophy of one of this titan of game design, and see what lessons we can learn for designing our own games.
Before Shigeru Miyamoto was one of the world’s leading game designers, he was a small child living in Sonobe, Japan. As a child, Shigeru loved to explore the world, both indoors and outdoors. Whether it was running around the maze of sliding walls in his home, or plucking up the courage to explore one of the many caves that dotted the landscape, Shigeru let his imagination run wild.
In addition to his adventuring, Shigeru also began to develop a love of art, especially Manga. It may have been this love that led to him to get a design degree. Not a degree in video game design – that wouldn’t be possible for a few more decades – but an industrial design degree. However, after graduating Shigeru had no job lined up, and still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. It was at this uncertain time in his young life that his father helped him to get an interview with a relatively small Japanese toy company known as Nintendo.
Miyamoto interviewed with Nintendo’s President, Hiroshi Yamauchi, and was hired after showing him some toys that he had created. Miyamoto quickly became Nintendo’s first artist. During this time, Nintendo was just barely beginning to get into the video game business, and Miyamoto was responsible for a lot of early artwork, including pixel art and even helping design the arcade cabinets themselves.
Unfortunately, however, not all of Nintendo’s early video game efforts were successful. One particular flop – a game known as Radar Scope – was not selling as well as expected. In an attempt to offload a number of unsold Radar Scope cabinets, Miyamoto was tasked with converting these cabinets into a brand new game.
Miyamoto, being an artist and not an engineer, decided to start designing the story first. He chose to base the story of the game off of the love triangle found in Popeye – the hero Popeye and brutish Bluto both fighting for the attention of Olive Oyl. However, when Nintendo was unable to get the license for Popeye the characters were changed – Popeye became a generic carpenter, Olive Oyl became the carpenter’s girlfriend, and Bluto was turned into a gorilla, from which the carpenter’s girlfriend would have to be rescued.
While it might not sound like much, this is quite possible the first instance of a story based game design in history. Up until this point games were almost exclusively created by programmers, and the story tended to be tacked on at the end after the game was programmed. Simply by starting from a different perspective, Miyamoto had already begun to change the gaming industry.
While Miyamoto’s outsider perspective helped him see a different side of games, his lack of technical knowledge also got him into trouble while developing this game. He would often come up with a mechanical idea, such as having his character be launched by a see-saw, only to be told by the technical team that such a thing was not possible. However, despite this tension between the creative and technical visions, the game did eventually end up getting finished.
The last thing the game needed before being shipped out was a name. When choosing a name for the game, Miyamoto wanted to convey the idea of a stubborn ape, due to the game’s primary antagonist. He chose the word Donkey because it represented stubbornness, and the word Kong because of it’s connection to the giant gorilla in King Kong. And thus, Donkey Kong was born!
Donkey Kong became a massive hit, and led to more game design opportunities for Miyamoto. He would go on to create another arcade game starring the carpenter from Donkey Kong (now changed to a plumber named Mario) – the original Mario Bros.
However, Nintendo quickly realized that it’s future was not in arcade cabinets, and began to develop it’s first home console – a device known in Japan as the Family Computer (or FamiCom), and in North America as the “Nintendo Entertainment System” – NES for short. Miyamoto would be involved in designing a launch title for this new system – a game known as Super Mario Bros.
This console, and this game in particular, would help catapult Nintendo into becoming one of the giants of the video game industry, and Miyamoto with it. During the NES era Miyamoto helped develop a number of other classic games, including Kid Icarus, Ice Climbers, Excitebike. However, perhaps his greatest achievement on this early console was a game he created based on his experiences running around and exploring the countryside – a game called The Legend of Zelda.
Throughout the years, Miyamoto has continued to innovate and shape not only Nintendo but video games as a whole. He has been involved in classic games from every era, and has helped launch games from every era. During the Super Nintendo era he helped create the Star Fox and F-Zero series of games, and helped design the Super Nintendo controller with it’s innovative left and right bumper controls.
During the Nintendo 64 era, Miyamoto was instrumental in helping Nintendo make the switch from 2D to 3D. He supervised the creation of Super Mario 64, with it’s innovative camera controls and open 3D environments. He also led the creation of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which helped pioneer such features as the ability to lock onto enemies and context-sensitive controls.
Miyamoto has helped guide Nintendo for over 30 years, and he still hasn’t stopped innovating. He is still helping produce some of the biggest franchise games in the world, such as last year’s Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey, as well as creating new franchises including Splatoon and Arms. His contributions are innumerable, and it is very possible that without him, Nintendo would not be the industry titan that it is today.
Miyamoto is pretty unique among game designers for the wide variety of games that he has been involved with. From puzzles to platformers, shooters to sports, Shigeru Miyamoto has helped design almost any kind of game I can think of. Yet, despite the vast differences between these games, they are all bound together by Miyamoto’s unique philosophy of game design.
Firstly, Miyamoto does not believe in following the industry. He doesn’t design games simply to follow trends, or make design decisions based on focus groups. Instead, he tries to make the types of games that he himself would like to play. He believes that if he himself finds the game to be fun, others will as well.
Because of this, many of Miyamoto’s games can be seen as autobiographical. The Legend of Zelda, for example, was designed as one of the very first open-world games to mimic the sense of exploration that Miyamoto felt while exploring the great outdoors. He also created the Pikmin series to mimic his experiences with gardening, Nintendogs was inspired by his experiences with dogs and dog owners, and Wii Fit was inspired by his attempts to get healthy and exercise.
Another common trait in his games is trying to make them playable by anybody, of any skill level. To achieve this, Miyamoto believes that the controls should be intuitive and easy to pick up. This design philosophy has not only guided the development of his games, but the Nintendo hardware itself. This principle of intuitive controls has guided the design of Nintendo’s controllers since the Super Nintendo, and led to innovations such as the N64’s thumb stick and the Wii’s motion controls.
Easy to learn controls does not necessarily translate into easy games, however. Miyamoto has stated that one of the most important parts of a game is a sense of accomplishment and achievement, and a game can only truly generate this feeling if the player is forced to overcome a real challenge.
The key, as with most things in life, is to find the right balance. Games need to be easy enough that anybody can learn them, but challenging enough that players need to work hard to complete them. Games need to provide a balance between constantly introducing new challenges for the player, as well as providing moments of ease and repetition so the player can relax and breathe.
Another area where games require balance is in the amount of information that is provided to the players. If players are given too much information, this removes the opportunity for them to experiment, explore, and figure things out for themselves. However, if they are not given enough information they may get stuck and not have a clue what to do.
Miyamoto has also said that he tries to create a feeling of immersion in his games, and one of the most important ways to create this feeling is through responsive controls. When controlling a character, it is important that your actions translate immediately to the screen, to help create a feeling of connection with the character. It has been said that when designing Super Mario 64, Miyamoto would spend hours just having Mario run around an empty world to make sure that controlling him would feel natural to the players.
Another important aspect of controlling the character is making them feel real. To Miyamoto, characters need to feel like they actually exist – like they have weight and momentum. This is why Mario slides a little after landing a jump, and when you quickly change direction you can feel the momentum shift.
Finally, Miyamoto has said that the key to design is to put yourself in the player’s shoes and try to see the game from a new player’s perspective. When a game designer plays a game that they made they are experts by default, and that can make it difficult to determine how a new player would actually handle the game. To counteract this, Miyamoto has suggest developers switch their right and left hands while player, to simulate the difficulty of being a new player.
This philosophy doesn’t just apply to controls, but also to how players collect information about the game. “Sometimes the test players complain that there are too many enemies in one stage. And when I approach the designer of that scene with that kind of complaint sometimes he or she says, ‘Oh, maybe they couldn’t find the stars at the beginning. As soon as they find out that the star makes you invincible, it’s more joy.’ And the developer insists that hiding the star in the beginning is going to be great. But if game players don’t understand this, and they can’t find the star, then the game doesn’t make sense at all.”
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week! I hope you enjoyed this game designer spotlight! If you did, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. Also, if you have suggestions for future game designers that you believe deserve their own spotlight in a future entry, please let me know! And join me next week, where I take a look at the importance of perspective!
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