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Miyamoto Wife-o-Meter rating at all-time high

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In his keynote speech at the Game Developers Conference today, game designer Shigeru Miyamoto addressed Nintendo's goal of winning a more expansive audience. "It is not enough to just please those of us who already love videogames," said Miyamoto. "We must reach out to those who aren’t really interested in games." His wife, who has shown little concern for videogames, has been converted by Brain Age and Wii Sports. Miyamoto claims the victory earns Nintendo a high "Wife-o-Meter rating."


Shigeru Miyamoto's presentation at this year's Game Developers Conference, entitled "A Creative Vision," began on the overhead screen rather than the show floow. Shortly after the lights dimmed, the blue Nintendo logo was replaced by a Miyamoto Mii, soon introduced into a virtual replica of the Moscone Center auditorium. The renowned game designer appeared on the darkened stage to rousing applause. With a translator standing by at the illuminated podium, Miyamoto took center stage, presenting the keynote with Wiimote in hand. The most famous name in game design began by discussing how the image of interactive entertainment has changed since the inception of console gaming in the early 1980s. To characterize the 8-bit era, Miyamoto brought up two slides. One was of pre-teenage children mesmerized by the luminous glow of their television screen. The other showed Miyamoto at his desk, in a shirt and tie. "Guys in neckties were playing videogames back then," Miyamoto said, "but this slide gives me a sad vision of the future, so why don’t we move ahead."

Miyamoto described how in the early days of the medium, gamers were seen merely as people enjoying the latest form of popular entertainment. "But, within a few years, something changed," he said. "I noticed something different almost every time I was interviewed by reporters in America. Instead of asking questions about the games themselves, they always wanted to ask me about their perceived effect on people." This was around the time Goldeneye for the N64 became a bestseller. The industry appeared to be shifting toward more aggressive first-person shooters, and the popular media were critical of this development. "They somehow thought that we were changing gamers into some kind of zombies, and this troubled me." As sales increased, Miyamoto said, the overall reputation of the industry suffered.



Miyamoto was concerned whether his own style of games would have a future. "The players seemed to want more of the same kind of thing," he said. Titles like Grand Theft Auto and Halo were topping the charts in North America, while Nintendo sales faltered. It was at this point that Nintendo decided to take a risk, and instead of appealing to what hardcore gamers seemed to demand, the company decided to focus on broadening the appeal of games, involving new participants. This was the first of five points Miyamoto brought up as the focus of Nintendo's vision: the expanded audience. Games for people from five to 95.

"I actually have my own personal way of finding out just how successful a product can be with an expanded audience," Miyamoto explained. He brought up a series of clips from classic NES titles like Super Mario Bros, Donkey Kong and Zelda. "Maybe you think that these were very important moments in your lives," said the prolific designer. "They were not important moments for my wife." At this point, a gauge appeared on the auditorium monitor, labeled "The Wife-o-Meter." "The Wife-o-Meter measures only one variable," Miyamoto said. "The interest level of my own wife."



Wife-o-Meter
Nintendo's Wife-o-Meter ratings started to change, said the game designer, when his daughter began playing Zelda: The Ocarina of Time at home. "See my wife had gone from complete disinterest to a background observer," he said. "She watched my daughter playing from behind. So, then I thought, maybe there is hope." The Wife-o-Meter moved up a notch from non-existent to somewhat perceivable. Later, with the introduction of Animal Crossing, Miyamoto assured his wife there were no enemies to fight in this game. "So she agreed to actually touch the controller. She became very happy exchanging letters with our children. So I thought, I’m going to get that Wife-o-Meter higher!"

Miyamoto then took the opportunity to introduce the audience to a picture of his 6-years old tri-color Sheltie, named "Pick," after his guitar pick-shaped head. "He sleeps on a better mattress than I do," said Miyamoto. Pick became instrumental in raising the Wife-o-Meter a notch further when the software creator started considering how a close connection was formed not only between people and their dogs, but between fellow dog-lovers, based on their shared interest. If Nintendo could express the same sense of bonding with a game, they might be able to interest new people in the gaming experience.



By way of example, Miyamoto explained to the audience how on Valentines Day in Japan, women give chocolates to men. "It’s very nice," he said. When last Valentine’s Day Miyamoto came home late from work, he expected his wife to be asleep. But as he approached the house, he heard the Wii playing, and thought his wife had waited up just to give him chocolates. He was touched. But, as it turns out, she was up late casting votes on the Everybody Votes Channel. "What this meant is that she used the Wii and downloaded the Everybody Votes Channel all by herself," Miyamoto said. "This is an incredible occurrence in my household. It would be more normal for me to walk home and find Donkey Kong eating at my dinner table."

The game that turned Miyamoto's wife into a true gamer, and raised the Wife-o-Meter to all time highs, was Brain Age. "She’s finally begun to understand the unique interactive experience to be found in videogames." The second version of Brain Age has a Dr. Mario minigame, which Miyamoto's wife has mastered. "Now, my wife comes to me and says, 'I can beat you at this game. Anytime!'" Miyamoto said. "She’s bragging. To me! And looking at her scores, she’s right. She turned into a hardcore gamer much faster than I expected." Miyamoto then displayed before the audience a picture of his wife's Mii. Now that she is playing Wii Sports, he said, she feels compelled when they have friends over to invite them to join in. Eventually, says the game designer, his wife will come up with a unique game idea. "When she does work up that game idea, I can retire."



The second key element of Nintendo’s vision, Miyamoto described as the devotion to entertainment. "Engineers and software creators both have a deep understanding about entertainment," he explained. "These creators are not separated by acres or miles. They work in the very same building." He talked about how his background in engineering allowed him to be involved in designing of all Nintendo’s controllers, from the NES on. But he stressed that no one person builds a controller. It is a group collaboration.

For the Wii, Miyamoto explained, what Nintendo wanted most was a controller that was simple. The software designers were enthused about providing new styles of gameplay, but they were also very concerned. They came up with dozens of innovative prototypes for the Wii controller, such as the round, orange "cheddar cheese" gamepad, and a black remote whose side could be rotated. The Nintendo team created test software for these prototypes to discover what design would create the most enjoyment for the most diverse cross-section of people. In the end, they decided to emulate the familiar shape of the TV remote. "As a controller, the Wii remote does many things that I have dreamed of for many long years," Miyamoto explained. "We are going to continue to use all of our experience to try and create a new and better type of entertainment for everyone. This is Nintendo’s mission."



Miyamoto then took some time to describe another phenomenon that has demonstrated the potential of bringing together disparate groups of people to have fun in one activity. The gaming engineer described how he had the opportunity to work with a team from his company in producing an attraction for a poetry museum in Kyoto. Miyamoto designed an installation where classic poems are displayed on seventy 45-inch LCD television screens located on the floor of the museum's exhibition hall. Visitors are given a modified DS that they can freely take around the building. Each DS is connected to a central computer, which can track the visitor's location, allowing them to press buttons on the DS to change the card that is being displayed on the floor.

"Creating something like this and working with the engineers was very fun for our team," said Miyamoto. "I think the most rewarding part of the experience was seeing how these designs bridged the gap between generations. These kinds of poems are generally of interest only to the elderly. Grandchildren and even great-grandchildren are more than happy to come along to this museum with their older family members. So our priority with this project was really to provide young people and people with other interests the opportunity to touch and learn about these classic poems, while providing more detailed information to those already knowledgeable about them. And so far it appears that things are going quite well."



It was then that Miyamoto introduced the third element of the Nintendo vision. Risk. "Since the days when Mr. Yamaguchi was our president, we’ve always encouraged our employees to do things differently from everyone else," Miyamoto said. "Now, when you take on a challenge, you also take on risk. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the risk." The risk following Nintendo's decision to buck the gaming industry trends favoring first-person shooters and seek a different breed of gamer was in creating a new definition for what a videogame is.

In Miyamoto's experience none of Nintendo's risks has rivaled the design of the Wii. "The Gamecube was really just a half-step in working toward an expanded audience. It wasn’t enough. It was technically advanced, but I also wanted it to appeal to a wider audience.” This was Nintendo's reasoning behind providing a really big A button for the N64 controller, so that people picking up a game controller for the first time would know what to press. "But in the end I still think this interface was too complicated for people who aren’t gamers. So with the Wii, we had to decide, do we continue to take these risks in trying to attract a wider audience, or do we give up? But of course, we dared to take the greater risk."



“But, with all honesty, there were concerns," Miyamoto told the audience. "Even from me. After all, for twenty years we had been using a controller with two hands. Now we were going to take them apart? Honestly, it wasn’t until last spring, at the E3, when we saw the long lines and the happy faces of the people coming out of our booth, when we knew that this risk was worth taking." Miyamoto then used the Wiimote in his hand to add pixel blur to the joyous faces of the American gamers on the monitor, mimicking the popular image of gamers as offered by television as apprehended criminals. "Are any of you in these photos?" he asked.

Miyamoto then moved from the vision of Nintendo to the vision he employed personally in his career as a game developer. "In interviews, I’m often asked, ‘Where did you get the idea for that character, or that armor?'" he said. "'Why did you design that level in that way?' And sometimes I can tell that the people asking these questions have spent a lot of time thinking about these things. My primary focus throughout development is not these individual elements of the game. What I always think about is the core element of fun within the game. And to do that, I imagine one thing—the face of the player while he or she is experiencing the game. Not any individual part of the game itself. I want them to be entertained."



Miyamoto showed two clips of people in Japan playing the Nintendo DS. His feeling was that they emphasized the communal aspect that Nintendo is attempting to reach. The first clip showed a young woman with her boyfriend enjoying her DS. She shouted "Cute!" while touching the stylus to the pad. Miyamoto pointed out that her boyfriend is made happy by her enjoyment. In the following clip, a grandfather was playing with his granddaughter. "Because of the touch pen, he is able to use it too," Miyamoto said. "So, as you can see, not only is the person who is playing the game being entertained, but the people standing around watching are, too."

Miyamoto explained that his personal view as an artist was that he always wished for the reaction from the player to be positive. "Surprise, a sense of happiness, a sense of satisfaction. We use a variety of emotions in games. We use suspense, competition, and frustration. But we insert these elements because they are all in service to produce a new kind of sensation that they may never have experienced before." Miyamoto said he was accepting of the fact that other developers prefer to elicit other emotions—"sometimes fear, or horror, or revenge, or violence, and that’s fine. All I am saying is that in my personal case, what I always strive for is the positive."



Nor are hardcore gamers necessary alienated by these new modes of user interface. Initially, said Miyamoto, the Wii Play service in Japan seemed to be too elementary for core gamers. But it turned out that many of them enjoyed discovering new value in these innovative yet simpler gaming concepts. It also gave them an opportunity to invite others to experience the same thing. "They can invite their friends into the form of entertainment that they enjoy so much," Miyamoto said. "So maybe all you gamers out there should add a new category to how you score games—how fun it is for people who don’t play them.” This suggestion was met by a round of applause.

For Miyamoto's personal vision as a developer, the foundation, he said, is communication. There are many popular games have nothing to do with communication, he noted, like solitaire and Tetris. But gaming interaction has evolved over the years. "I thought that Zelda would offer a new form of communication to videogames," Miyamoto said. "But when it first came out, it did not do well in Japan. Players didn’t know their objective. A lot of people said, look, why don’t you just make one way through the dungeon. No branching paths... But, of course I ignored them." At this, the audience laughed. "Rather than making it easier for players to understand," Miyamoto explained, "I decided to take their sword away from the start of the game. You see, I did this because I wanted to challenge them to find that sword." People would then think about these problems before they went to sleep at night, or while commuting to work. "What happened was that people started talking to each other about the game, how to progress through the puzzles, and this communication was not a competition, but rather a collaboration which helped make the game more enjoyable."



Another element of Miyamoto's personal vision, he described as tenacity. Over time there have been many ideas that occurred to him that simply could not be implemented, due to the lack of an existing technological application. However, the designer has repeatedly held on to these dreams in hopes of one day making them a reality. As early as the 8-bit era, Miyamoto explained, he had the concept of designing software that could animate a face. At this point, he displayed before the audience a twenty year-old software demo designed for the NES disc drive in Japan that allowed the user to choose facial features like the size of eyes, the shape of the jawline, and style of haircut. The project had no applications as a game, but it stuck in Miyamoto's mind. Now, Miyamoto said, at long last, the idea has found a purpose with the Wii: Creating Miis didn't need to be a game itself. It could be a utility, something for players to share. "My tenacity finally paid off, only after I took the risk of looking at the problem from another perspective."

The success of the Wii, Miyamoto revealed, has led him to design a Mii channel. Currently in the works, this service will allow players to submit Miis for popularity contests, where Wii owners around the world are using the same software parameters to design their game avatars. Another development underway at Nintendo, he explained, concerns the compan's famous mascot. "People still ask what happened to Mario 128," Miyamoto said. "Actually, most of you already played it, but it was called Pikmin. You can operate independently and as a group through sophisticated AI. But, of course, if I told you all that this was what happened with Mario 128, I think you’d all be pretty angry."



In other words, Super Mario Galaxy will address the need for the next truly canonical Mario title. "In Super Mario Galaxy," he explained, "you will be playing on numerous spherical stages. And this was one of the experiments that we were conducting at the time of Mario 128. The power of the Wii has allowed us to bring this experience to reality." Miyamoto then showed a trailer of the Wii game in action. Mario was shown fleeing ravenous piranha plants on small spherical planets and blasting through space on a jet pack. The game designer said the title would be available in 2007.







"My main message to you today," Miyamoto said, after the trailer had played, "is the very essence of game design. And your vision does not have to be my vision. I’m only one person. The future of our industry hangs on how successful you will be in applying your vision. After seeing all the independent games nominated at the awards show last night, I don’t think I need to tell you any of this. You’ve given me a lot of faith about the future of our industry. It is not enough to just please those of us who already love videogames, we must reach out to those who aren’t really interested in games. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring them into the world of videogames, too? With our tools, with our creative vision, I know that we can do it." Miyamoto concluded, this time in English, "If I can convert my wife, I believe we can convert anyone."




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