This “Success Story” feature originally ran in the 3/89 issue of BEEP magazine, and as the name suggests, offered interview profiles of twelve different game designers. It’s light fare overall, but their candid and sometimes critical advice for aspiring game developers makes for some interesting reading now.

In addition to big names like Shigeru Miyamoto, there are lesser known designers and composers, such as three early Nihon Falcom luminaries and Nobuyuki Ohnogi (whose recent passing in August was actually the impetus for translating this small time capsule). Today I’ve included six of these profiles and will probably translate the remainder at another time.

Success Stories – 1989 Developer Interviews

originally featured in the 3/89 issue of BEEP magazine

Shigeru Miyamoto – Designer

—When is your birthday?

Miyamoto: November 16, 1952.

—Where were you born, and what was the highest level of education you achieved?

Miyamoto: I was born in Kyoto, and I graduated from Kanazawa College of Art with a degree in industrial design.

—What did you want to be when you were young?

Miyamoto: In elementary school, I used to love watching shows like Chirorin-mura to kurumi no ki (“Chirorin Village and the Walnut Tree”) and Hyokkori Hyoutan-jima (“Accidental Gourd Island”) that were aired on NHK in the evenings. I wanted to make the marionette puppets that appeared in those shows. In middle school I wanted to be a manga artist. I remember sending letters to artists like Shotaro Ishinomori.

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Shigeru Miyamoto, 1989.

—How did you get involved in the game industry?

Miyamoto: I got majored in industrial design, but I found myself really wanting to create toys—soft, plush things—so I figured I’d try to work in a place where I could have some involvement in product design. With that goal in mind, I applied to Nintendo, which was based in my hometown.

—What has been the most important “turning point” for your career?

Miyamoto: When I was hired, Nintendo was in the middle of creating the “Color TV-Game 15” system, so I was assigned to work in video games. As far as turning points goes, I think all the things I’ve worked on up to now have been important to my development.

In terms of specific games, I’d say Donkey Kong, Devil World, and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link were especially important periods.

—What do you consider your most representative work?

Miyamoto: I don’t know if “representative” is the right word, but one of the most memorable was Donkey Kong. It was the first game I directed under the guidance of producer Gunpei Yokoi, who created the Game and Watch. Every game I made up to Mario Bros. was done in the same way (with me directing, and Yokoi guiding and producing).

—What’s the secret to success in the game industry?

Miyamoto: Well, what’s worked for me so far is finding something I want to make that matches up with what the market currently needs.

If you believe in your idea, and that it’s something people will want, then all that remains is for you to polish and raise it to a sufficient level of quality. So no matter how talented of a staff you’ve been blessed with, if you don’t have a clear direction for your idea, I don’t think a good game will come out of it. The goal is for each staff member, individually, to contribute to the overall “finish” of the work, so it’s just a matter of having each person fulfill their role. And as the lead creator, even if the rest of the staff sometimes loses sight of the whole picture, it’s your job to hold the course and make sure you keep to that initial vision.

Unfortunately I’ve seen it happen many times where the developers get carried away with themselves, and they’re having a really good time, but it ends up harming the playability of the finished game.

—Who is your current rival?

Miyamoto: There’s no one in particular. But teams that make really good games, those scare me.

—Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Miyamoto: I’ll probably still be creating things—things not too different from what I’m doing now, I bet!

—What advice do you have for aspiring game designers?

Miyamoto: No matter what your creative field, you should try to find a job that offers you many chances to realize own potential.

Before that, though, I think it’s important to refine your own sensibilities. 10 years from now, games will have changed. It won’t just be the same style of games you see today. If all you do is mimic what exists now, it will be difficult for you to create anything in the future.

I know it’s a cliche, but I think aspiring designers should follow where their curiosity leads, and try to accumulate as many different experiences as possible.

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Shigeru Miyamoto in front of the Nintendo HQ, 1989.

Nobuyuki Ohnogi – Composer

—What did you want to be when you were young?

Ohnogi: In middle school, I wanted to be an NHK news announcer. I guess I just wanted to be on TV or something…

—How did you get involved in the game industry?

Ohnogi: I saw Namco’s Cutie Q, and thought “I want to make games like that!”, so I approached Namco directly. At that time games didn’t have background music, so I joined up as a program designer, not as music staff. In the beginning I was told I could do whatever I wanted for the sounds, and I had fun messing around on synthesizer. The first song I made got used for New Rally X, for the final high score match. After that I moved towards doing music full-time.

—What has been the most important “turning point” for your career?

Ohnogi: I think it was in 1984, when Haruomi Hosono of YMO produced the VIDEO GAME MUSIC and SUPER XEVIOUS cds. Hosono was the first person to introduce the world to “game music” as its own genre and thing. That was important, because people have tended to see game music as something insubstantial and lacking when heard outside of the context of the game and its graphics. It also depends on people’s familiarity with games, but that narrow image of video game music continues to be something I want to change.

—What’s the secret to success in the game industry?

Ohnogi: I hope this doesn’t come off wrong, but I don’t really remember trying super hard. One day I looked up and noticed things were going pretty well. Of course, I’ve been very blessed to have talented people and teachers around me. So I would probably have to say I didn’t really try super hard to get where I am… it just happened naturally.

I do see how things are going to more difficult, though, for future game music composers. In my era we typically only had 3 sounds to work with. You’d get a bassline in there, a melody, then something extra, and you were good to go… but today we’re living in an 8, or even 10 voice world. So it helps to have some prior experience as a programmer.1 And of course, since you’re writing music, you have to be a composer too, and past that, you’ll also need the skills to edit and arrange your music. In today’s world, people who do a half-assed job will be left behind.

—Who is your current rival?

Ohnogi: I don’t have one. At the end of the day it’s my own world that I’m creating, you see. I’m not above occasionally cribbing from or imitating others (laughs)…. but basically the only person I’m competing with is myself.

—Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Ohnogi: I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know this: I don’t want the songs I make today to be ones that I’ll regret when I’m older!

—What advice do you have for aspiring game designers?

Ohnogi: At present there are two in-roads to working in game music. The first is to join a game development company. For that it’s helpful to go to a 4-year college, and all the better if it’s a music school. The other way would be to gain some notoriety as a composer first, perhaps in a rock band or something, but basically if you can build a reputation in the music industry as a player, composer, or arranger, you might end up getting commissioned for this sort of work. Whichever path you choose, having that can-do spirit of “I want to write music no matter what!!” is important. If you can carry that passion with you wherever you go, and sustain it, I think nothing will serve you better.

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Nobuyuki Ohnogi, hard at work in 1989. The influential Namco composer sadly passed away earlier this year; his work on Mappy opened Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama’s eyes to the possibilities of video game music, as described below.

Koichi Sugiyama – Composer

—What did you want to be when you were young?

Sugiyama: A rakugo performer, at first. After that I wanted to be an orchestra conductor.

—How did you get involved in the game industry?

Sugiyama: I sent in a feedback postcard to Enix for Morita’s Shogi, and Yukinobu Chida from Enix replied to me, inviting me to write music for their games.

—What was your debut work then?

Sugiyama: Wingman II (for the FM7).

—What has been the most important “turning point” for your career?

Sugiyama: My encounter with Mappy would probably be the first. It was the first time I heard game music with a proper melody. I felt the possibilities of game music in that. After that, of course, my work for Dragon Quest.

—What do you consider your most representative work?

Sugiyama: The Dragon Quest games, I imagine. Each one holds a special place in my heart, but the main map theme from Dragon Quest I, and the music when you’re flying on Ramia from Dragon Quest III are especially memorable for me.

—What’s the secret to success in the game industry?

Sugiyama: I was involved in the music world before the game industry, so my advice—and this is easier said than done, of course—is simply to become very good at music. You should thoroughly learn the foundations of music. Other than that, try and hone your sensibilities for games.

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Koichi Sugiyama in 1989 (age 57).

—Are there any game music creators currently on your radar?

Sugiyama: The team at Nintendo immediately comes to mind. The music for Super Mario Bros was so great. Nobuo Uematsu’s work on Final Fantasy, too. Yoko Kanno’s work on Nobunaga’s Ambition II. Also, Kentaro Haneda’s music for Wizardry.

—Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Sugiyama: My dream would be for there to be recognizable “classics” in game music, in the same way we immediately recognize certain themes from movie soundtracks. I’d love to write music like that! For now, I want to try and write game music with catchy tunes you can easily hum along to.

—What advice do you have for aspiring game designers?

Sugiyama: Even today, there are still people out there who think that, as long as you have a computer and can use a sequencer, anyone can make game music. And there are a lot of aspiring game music creators with that mentality too.

This approach to game music, however, is like all of a sudden trying to build a house without having drawn up any blueprints. At best you’d be able to come up with some simple, crude, barracks-like structure. And there is still a lot of slipshod “barracks” style game music today, I’m afraid. Unfortunately, taking the easy way out and relying on computer hardware, while never learning to read music or practice an instrument—songs made like this are still all-too-readily accepted as game music today.

Undoubtedly, while this method may still occasionally produce a great song, you can’t expect it to sustain you in the long run, as a professional.

I also don’t think that attitude behooves a composer who is trying to create classics, or standards, out of game music.

Therefore, although it’s a lot of work, if you want to be a serious creator of game music, I recommend listening to good music, both old and new. You should learn the proper fundamentals of music as well, including how to read music.

It might sound harsh, but there’s no other way! We shouldn’t think of game music as something cheap and easy to make—that’s a big mistake.

Nasir Gebelli – Programmer

—How did you get involved in the game industry?

Gebelli: I purchased an Apple in 1979, and the first graphics tool I made for it, E-ZDRAW, got noticed by the owner of ComputerLand in Sacramento. He helped me turn it into a commercial product. After that, in 1980, while working for Sirius Software, I pumped out a new game every 5 weeks—a pace even I find hard to believe now.

In 1981 I started my own company, Gebelli Software, and worked there for roughly two years. Since then I’ve continued to work in software development, including IBM-PC software.

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Nasir Gebelli, 1989. He conducted this interview by mail, which accounts for the shorter responses.

—What has been the most important “turning point” for your career?

Gebelli: Just getting into this industry in and of itself has been the biggest turning point for my life, I think.

—What do you consider your most representative work?

Gebelli: Everything I’ve worked on.

—What’s the secret to success in the game industry?

Gebelli: Luck, timing, and your own talent.

—Who is your current rival?

Gebelli: No one in particlar. If I had to name someone, I’d say myself.

—Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Gebelli: Probably nothing too different from what I’m doing now.

The Nihon Falcom Three

Mieko Ishikawa – Composer
Tetsuya Igarashi – Designer
Tomoyoshi Miyazaki – Scenario Writer/Designer

—What did you want to be when you were young?

Ishikawa: I wanted to become a Japanese language teacher.

Igarashi: Nothing in particular, but once I entered high school I found I liked creating things, and I wanted to become a writer.

Miyazaki: In elementary school, I wanted to be an astronaut. (laughs)

—How did you get involved in the game industry?

Miyazaki: I’ve always loved video games. I’ve been going to game centers since I was in middle school.

Igarashi: Same here. In my case, I saw one of Nihon Falcom’s hiring ads in a magazine, and joined the company that way.

Ishikawa: I’ve spent my whole life focusing on music, so I was always pretty bad at video games and didn’t like them. But one day, I was listening to a traffic report on the radio and they had the Super Mario music playing. That really left an impression on me. I remember thinking, “wow, now this would be interesting work…”

—What has been the most important “turning point” for your career?

Everyone: We’re still pretty new, so joining Nihon Falcom would be our biggest turning point so far.

—What do you consider your most representative work?

Igarashi: Sorcerian for me. I worked on it for over a year, so I have an emotional attachment to it. The expansion scenario “Amazon no Tsurugi” (Sword of the Amazon) came out especially well.

Miyazaki: The third game in the Ys series, which is coming out soon. I’m very proud of it.2

Ishikawa: The first town song I made for Ys. I remember the first time I played it for everyone, they all stood up from their seats and went, “Whoa! This is awesome!”

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L-R: Mieko Ishikawa, Tetsuya Igarashi, Tomoyoshi Miyazaki. Seen her at the very beginning of her career, Ishikawa went on to compose much of iconic music for Ys and other Nihon Falcom works; she now still works (in management) at Falcom today. Tetsuya Igarashi isn’t credited in Falcom games past Ys II, and it’s unknown if he stayed in the game industry. Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, of course, went on to found the famous studio Quintet.

—What’s the secret to success in the game industry?

Ishikawa: Writing good songs. Someone who’s played a lot of different games and has developed their own preferences for what kind of music they’d like to hear in a game—I think that’s someone who can write good game music. That love of video games is probably the most important thing.

Igarashi: Ideally, you want to make something that you and others find fun to play. What I mean is, you should try and put yourself in the player’s shoes when you’re designing a game.

Miyazaki: There are glimmers of good ideas all around if you’re paying attention, so I think you should always be taking mental notes and storing those away for safekeeping. You never know if something that seems completely irrelevant today will become the germ of a new game idea in the future.

—Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Miyazaki: Games are in the process of being recognized around the world today. That’s something I’d like to see happen—games being established as another valid medium.

Igarashi: I don’t think my love of video games will have changed much in 10 years. I hope I’ll still be kicking around here at Falcom.

Ishikawa: I don’t know. If Falcom still exists, I’ll probably still be here writing music.

—Who is your current rival?

Ishikawa: I don’t have anything like that.

Igarashi: No one I can say in particular.

Miyazaki: The game industry itself is still in its infancy, so the very notion of a “rival” seems premature.

—What advice do you have for aspiring game designers?

Miyazaki: This is more for people who already working in game developent, but always try to find the value in other people’s opinions. By doing that, your own ideas will mature and grow.

Igarashi: Play lots of different games, and if find them lacking in any ways, try and figure out how you could improve that. If you can do that, you’ll be successful in game development, I think.

Ishikawa: For those who want to write video game music, I think knowing a bit of computer programming is a big advantage. There’s lots of people out there who can write songs, but if that’s your only talent, I think it will be rough-going in this industry.

Yoji Ishii – Designer

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Yoji Ishii, 1989.

—What did you want to be when you were young?

Ishii: When I was a kid I loved playing in nature, collecting bugs, things like that. I thought I’d end up working in zoology, entomology, or a similar field. In college I even considered joining the Department of Agriculture at one point.

—How did you get involved in the game industry?

Ishii: When I was in college I had so many different interests. Tennis, skiing, marine sports, and also video games and pinball. I think being surrounded by games and leisure like that all the time is what got me first seriously thinking about a career as a game maker. But to tell the truth, the reason I got hired by Sega is because my senior colleague in college had a connection there. (laughs)

—What has been the most important “turning point” for your career?

Ishii: I don’t know whether this is a turning point or not, but when I first joined Sega, I was placed in the Product Manufacturing division, and after that I transferred to the Research and Development department where I worked as a hardware engineer. It was during my time there that I started wanting to work on game design and planning, and I submitted some of my own game plans too. Eventually a chance came to switch over to the planning group. At that time “planning” itself was still something of an unknown, so I was very anxious about it too.

—Where did the idea for “taikan games” (big arcade games that engaged the whole body like Outrun) come from?

Ishii: At the time in 1985, table-style arcade games dominated the market, and little by little, game centers were becoming a boring, cookie-cutter experience. The Famicom was also making some inroads, so we thought we should try and create a new kind of game for arcades, something never seen before. There had been a lot of calls for games like this from users, too, I should add. Our answer to all that was the motorcycle game Hang On. It led to a “series” of other Sega taikan games. It happened organically though—we didn’t have a plan from the outset to make all these taikan games.

—What’s the secret to success in the game industry?

Ishii: I think it’s being lucky enough to be surrounded by other talented staff. Sega’s human resources are very impressive; compared with other companies, we have a wide pool of talented people to draw from. It’s a very high standard. Game development today is a team effort, you see. It’s vital to have not just one single expert, but a whole group of them working together.

The other important thing, I think, is to not become self-satisfied. Your game can’t only be fun to you—it needs to be fun to other people, too. We try to think about the player’s perspective and experience.

—Who is your current rival?

Ishii: As the number one company in this industry at present, every company is our rival. Personally, Atari’s games have really caught my eye recently.

—Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Ishii: Ah, that’s a difficult one to answer… this industry moves so quickly. What are things going to look like in 10 years? More likely than not, I’ll still be here working in arcade/amusement development.

—What advice do you have for aspiring game designers?

Ishii: It’s important to acquire an underlying base of knowledge first. For me that was an education in the science and technology, but other fields, like design, are equally worthy of study. In addition, before you get hired (while you’re still a student), I think it helps to cultivate a spirit of playfulness. It can be sports, video games, whatever—just get out there and play a lot. If you try and acquire that mindset after you’re hired, it’ll probably be too late.

Finally, I think it’s also necessary to make a lot of friends and connections, including in other companies. You never know who is going to help you out or play a critical role in your future.

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Ishii poses in front of one of Sega’s taikan games.