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GDC Shigeru Miyamoto Keynote: “A Creative Vision” (aka “Miyamoto and Me”)

At the risk of provoking the ire of Miyamoto worshipers everywhere, before GDC I had only a vague idea who the guy was. My ignorance may surprise you considering that everyone who plays games (and I play many games. In fact I play so many, sometimes I play two at a time—one with each hand) knows of the Father of Modern Video Gaming. I have no good explanation for my philistinism unless it’s that I’d had no time to read the news because I was busy playing games. So it was that I went to GDC Thursday morning serenely naïve, with no idea that something, call it Fate, call it Destiny, had determined to bring Miyamoto and me together.

When I was a kid in the early 80’s my parents got into the arcade game business. They bought arcade game machines and situated them in ice cream shops and bowling alleys, collecting the quarters from them on a weekly basis. Of course I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Until the REALLY coolest thing ever happened; they lost one of their locations and so for a couple of months during the summer, we had a Donkey Kong machine in our garage. As you might imagine, I quickly became the most popular kid on the block. Even though it was August in New Mexico and anyone entering our 140 degree garage risked heatstroke, day after day all the neighborhood kids crowded gleeful and sweating around the Donkey Kong machine, eagerly awaiting their turn to play.

At that age, I had no idea I had a Japanese game designer to thank for my sudden meteoric rise to pre-pubescent prominence—I just knew Donkey Kong was the shit. As an adult decades later, I learned to associate “Donkey Kong” with “Miyamoto” but only remotely, like a haunting melody heard in the distance through thick, spectral fog… Ok, what REALLY happened is something called the “Internet” came along and it provided the general public with all sorts of “information” and this is where I learned of Miyamoto and others of his ilk.

Even so, going to hear him speak at GDC was a casual decision on my part. Then I laid eyes on the bigass line wrapping around Moscone South and being impressionable, my ambition to get in went immediately from yellow to red alert. I would hear this Miyamoto speak or die in the attempt!

This dramatic assertion was deflated by one of the many yellow-shirted GDC volunteers who told me the big, ugly bloated line wrapping around the block was for general attendees while the cute, bitsy, sylphlike line was for journalists (like me). Hearing that, I put my riot gear away knowing I could wedge myself in line behind the dude in the home-made Mario costume and relax.

Having been to the Phil Harrison Sony keynote the day before, I half guessed that Miyamoto’s talk would be just another sales pitch with perhaps the added annoyance of bad translation. I had plenty of time to consider the possibilities since I’d arrived an hour early and the keynote started half an hour late. When Nintendo’s rockstar finally hit the stage, it was after 11 and I was more concerned with my rumbling stomach than his creative vision.

It turned out to be worth the wait though. Like Sony’s Phil Harrison, Miyamoto gave his presentation on his company’s console, the Wii. The Wii lived up to its marketing and proved to be more reliable and easy to use during the presentation than the PS3 was. Wii-one, PS3-zero. The user-friendliness of the presenters echoed that of their respective consoles too because if Harrison and Miyamoto were to go head to head in a congeniality contest, Miyamoto, like the Wii, would win hands-down. He’s just so damn folksy and cuddly, you want to plant a kiss on his forehead and give him a warm cookie. He smiled a lot, his presentation sounded off the cuff and sincere, and his visual aids were funny and often used to poke fun at himself.

His main concern aside from making great games, is to broaden the gaming market. He said the game industry’s rep has tanked in recent years, seeming increasingly like a threat to our kids rather than a viable pastime for them, and mentioned how that reputation could and should be redeemed in the interest of creating more gamers. Redeeming the game industry’s reputation is dependent on gaining the interest of the general public and teaching them to see gaming as a worthwhile entertainment option. Of course, the question on his and everyone else’s minds these days is, “How is that done?”

Well Miyamoto told us one of his key tools in determining the viability of a mass market game idea is the “Wife-o-Meter”. Apparently in the 2 hours a day he’s home, he bounces ideas off his non-gamer wife and if she seems interested, he knows the idea has legs.

In between the warm and fuzzy anecdotes about his wife and his dog, Miyamoto managed to fit in some corporate patter. It could very well be that his vision and Nintendo’s are one and the same but there were obvious plugs for Nintendo, including one about Nintendo’s agenda being solely entertainment, and that they weren’t interested in scattering their energies among a host of other products (an obvious slap at Microsoft and Sony). In spite of the mild propaganda, the talk was still interesting, especially the bit about Nintendo going outside the usual game forums to expose a broader audience to video game concepts.

This agenda is most obviously demonstrated through the construction of a Nintendo-funded poetry museum in Kyoto created largely by Nintendo designers called Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, (One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets). The first exhibit tells the story of an ancient Japanese card game and features a floor paved with LCD screens displaying pictures of Kyoto as well as content-related, interactive games on the Nintendo DS. Visitors take quizzes, learn through interactivity and effortlessly bridge the gap between Japan’s aesthetic past and its technological future in an exhibit that crosses the line from popular culture to installation art. Awesome.

Aside from Nintendo's social and cultural aspirations, Miyamoto talked extensively about his own main goal when making games, the one thing he keeps in mind when designing; the player's smiling face. A simple concept but one I can appreciate. So often games are made by designers who not only don't seem to care about the player's enjoyment, they seem to want to punish him or her. Tedious puzzles, repetitive action, endless cutscenes, impossible bosses all point to designers having forgotten that ultimately their goal should be to entertain. And as much as I like realism and complex graphics in games, Miyamoto made a convincing argument for what he termed "iconic" graphics. We've all played at least one amazing looking game with Hollywood production values that was dull as dirt. It goes to show that in games as in life, looks can only carry you so far.

Nintendo's graphics have never been about emulating reality or creating deeply moving, cathartic experiences and who's ever cared? Their goal has been to make fun, colorful, addictive entertainment and they've succeeded in doing so for over 20 years. As Miyamoto sees it, the Wii is merely the realization of many long-held ideas of his and the company's for creating easy-to-learn games with mass appeal. With the Wii they've succeeded not only in making Miyamoto's wife a gamer with Wii Sports, they've drawn in a whole new group of non-gamers by making Wii games as much fun to watch as they are to play.

Miyamoto wrapped things up by introducing the latest in the Mario franchise--Super Mario Galaxy--a wacky romp through outer space where levels rotate in every possible direction as Mario jumps from planet to planet doing what Mario does best--fighting enemies and collecting stuff. After a brief but diverting hour, the demos, slides and silly videos were done and Miyamoto bid us all a smiley adieu. Even though in many ways what he said echoed the Sony talk, I enjoyed it more the second time around. I can comprehend the financial need for the game industry to broaden its appeal and even absorb a considerable amount of corporate hype without turning blue but like most people, I prefer to be inspired by ideas.

Other, more jaded conference-goers might've left the auditorium grumbling but I couldn't help but be upbeat. After waiting twenty years to "meet" Miyamoto I wasn't disappointed. And I admit, it makes me go all gooey inside knowing that next time he's making a game, he'll be thinking of my smiling face.