Shigeru Miyamoto x Toshihiro Nagoshi - 1999 Developer Interview
Before the Yakuza series, Toshihiro Nagoshi was mostly known for his arcade work at Sega, and this hardware-centric discussion originally published in Game Hihyou magazine reflects that history. In addition to the N64 and Dreamcast controller design, Miyamoto and Nagoshi also talk about their favorite arcade games, their management styles, and their thoughts on networking and the future of gaming.
—Today, I'd like to have an open conversation with you both, on the topic of the pleasure principle in gaming... or put more colloquially, the mystery of what precisely makes a game "fun."
Nagoshi: Well it's funny, one-on-one conversations like this are usually between people of equal stature, but I'm nowhere near Miyamoto's level, so I admit I'm a little embarassed today.
Miyamoto: Oh no, it's not like that at all. Your name is very well-known.
—Where should we start then?
Nagoshi: For me, the first time I realized the importance of interaction was after I joined Sega. That was in 1989, and there was a department at Sega called AM2 headed up by Yu Suzuki. That was right around the time Sega was developing the R360, and for the next 6 years I worked there under Suzuki. It was around that time that 3D games started to become mainstream, and Sega was chasing after Atari and Namco and developing thier own 3D boards.
Miyamoto: That was a time of massive upheaval.
Nagoshi: Yeah. In so many ways. During that time, I also started playing and paying attention to console games, not just arcade games. There were a lot of boring games though. Why were they boring…? It was the first time I'd thought about that from the perspective of a developer. Then I was playing the Super Famicom, and I realized how much care had been put into the interactive aspect. I stole some ideas and inspiration from that (interpreted in my own way), and I tried to infuse that into the arcade games I developed.
Miyamoto: From our perspective at Nintendo, we're just doing what seems plain and obvious to us. But it's true that there are far more games in the world that don't get these things that all seem very obvious to us. I suspect we'll talk a lot about that today.
Nagoshi: In a way, the more obvious something is, the harder it is to do.
Miyamoto: Yeah, take Super Mario, for example. As you know it's a side-scrolling jump-action game, but that word "jump"… what does that really mean, and how is it specifically handled in the game? Is there a formula that describes the arc of the jump? Is the animation sequence all pre-ordained? And if so, what happens when you jump down from a tall height vs jumping up from somewhere lower? Also, how many frames does the jump take and how does that correspond with pressing the jump button? You can write all that stuff out in detail such that even a child could understand it, but a child would have no idea how much is going into the simple idea of a jump. Finding a way to express all that in numbers and construct an actual game, that is what game design is.
Nagoshi: I also talk sometimes with the younger developers at our company about game design, and one topic that's come up is the question of whether games that sell a lot are actually good or not. Mario and Zelda are often offered up as examples.
Miyamoto: Oh no, if we talk about our games this will turn into a bragging session. (laughs) Another example would be Dragon Quest… the media talked a lot about how good the story and scenario were in Dragon Quest, and ever since then, I think there's been a tendency to equate "good story" with "good game." It's not really Yuji Horii's fault. Dragon Quest took all these numbers and expressed them via language. What I really like about it is the rhythm and how the story is paced. It's extremely well-done. No matter how good your story is, if the rhythm of the game feels bad, no one will play it. But this is an aspect that the media never writes about.
—We'll try harder. (laughs)
Miyamoto: Arcade games, though, they begin from the premise that you're trying to get someone to insert a 100-yen coin. I'm envious of that, actually—that very clear declaration of intent they have, "here we go, the game is about to start!"
Nagoshi: I know what you mean. And it's not just the game—there's the size of the steering wheel, and the feeling you get when you sit down in the driver's seat. When you sit down it puts you into that "here we go!" mindset.
Miyamoto: And games like Yu Suzuki's F355 Challenge use a three-monitor setup. For us at Nintendo, who are chained to the TV console format, that's something we're very jealous of. Tell me, did that development start out as a way to re-use older three-monitor cabinets that you had in stock, or was it newly designed from the ground-up as a game that would require three monitors?
Nagoshi: The latter. Strictly speaking, in the very beginning it was a one-screen game, but in the course of the development we realized we would need three screens. However, since we shifted course in the middle like that, in the future I think there's even more we could do with the 3-monitor format.
Miyamoto: I see. Really though, that's something I envy about arcade development. Even if the actual graphics rendering speed is kept the same, just having three screens more than doubles your sense of speed. We've actually done tests during our developments where we line up three small TV screens next to each other like that. Plus you can have force feedback on the steering wheel, removable seats, that's all just a given with arcade development. The best we can do is try and make the controls feel "cool" on the control pad. (laughs)
Nagoshi: I've made a number of driving games, and what makes me the most happy is if the player feels like a badass when they're driving. When I see someone reclining fully in the seat, gripping the steering wheel and making these dramatic turns full of attitude, it's like, "wow, they're really feeling it!"
Miyamoto: In terms of interface issues, for console games the design of the control pad is very important. In the past, there was a tendency to try and make control pads as cheaply as possible. Recently that's changed, and there's now some recognition that the control pads are actually critically important, and now designers are being very thoughtful about tactile things like the position of the buttons and how they feel when pressed. How was it with the Dreamcast pad?
Nagoshi: Hmm, well, the Dreamcast controller has that bulge in the bottom, and you have to grip it from the sides… personally, I found it a little lacking. I'd like something closer to the Super Famicom controller, where the grip is a bit wider and you can hold it more firmly. (laughs)
Miyamoto: It's tricky, isn't it. We also put a great deal of thought and care into designing our controllers. For the N64, too, we made all manner of different controller prototypes for every little thing: the button edges, the angle of the R button… that's why when I see the Dreamcast controller it brings a lot to mind. (laughs) In the future, I think we're going to see a fusion of console games and computer games, with the ability to connect to the internet, and I imagine Sega, too, must be thinking of how to design more "open" controllers along those lines.
Nagoshi: Well, I wasn't involved with the design of the Dreamcast controller. I'm not bitter about it or anything, but I do think there's room for improvement there. Looking at the number of buttons, too… in the past, I thought that a simple layout with fewer buttons was better. But at some point, games emerged which could only be played with controllers that have ~10 buttons, and I realized then that the important thing with controller design is matching what the game itself requires.
Miyamoto: I think the problem of universality comes up too, with controller design. When fighting games were popular, those companies would tell us "our game can only be played with 6 buttons", which was basically a non-starter for us. (laughs) And people would often tell me that the N64 controller felt like it had been specifically made for Super Mario 64, but I think that's a problem. The controller needs to be usable for other games, so I can't exactly call it a "success" when I hear comments like that. On the other hand, if Super Mario 64 wasn't comfortable to play on the controller that would be a problem in and of itself. It's really quite the dilemma.
Nagoshi: Yeah, it is.
Miyamoto: That's why I feel that the thing about the N64 controller that was lacking was the 3D stick being the middle. At the time, I thought puzzle games and the like would use the directional pad anyway, or that games could just use both as needed. But if the world moves over to analog controls, then I think our next console needs to have an analog stick that's properly situated on the left—that will provide a more user-friendly experience. At the present moment, though, putting the analog stick on the left would have been a waste.
Nagoshi: I see.
Miyamoto: To be honest, I think it would be better if the control stick were on the right side, because I think right-handed people would enjoy being able to make more precise movements with their dominant right hand. I bet that if you showed a [right-handed] child who had zero knowledge of video games a controller, they would naturally try to use their right hand to control the analog stick.
Nagoshi: Sort of like using a mouse.
Miyamoto: Yeah. The reason the Super Famicom controller was so well-done is because they paid close attention to how people like to hold controllers. And I think it was a very friendly design. I originally came from an industrial design background, and in school our professors would talk all the time about the principles of industrial design.
One of the examples they gave often was Japanese-style kitchen knives. There's a common understanding that Japan is an "undeveloped" country, or backwards, when it comes to industrial design... though there are certainly examples of uniquely Japanese designs like koushido [slatted doors often employing shoji screens]. Japanese kitchen knives are another example, where the grip handle is made of wood with a simple, straight shape that belies their ease of use and versatility. That was taught to us as an example of Japanese industrial design.
Nagoshi: Nowadays grip-style control pads are becoming the predominant type of controller. It's funny, in a way, the gaming industry is still quite immature—when something trends even a little bit, everyone jumps on that bandwagon and gets caught up in the craze.
Miyamoto: Controller design and the physical comfort of that interface really are important. For the A and B buttons on the N64, it's laid out so you can press the B button with the flat of your thumb and still reach the A button with the tip. But the original Game Boy, on the other hand, has the buttons laid out horizontally, making that impossible. So I can't say that we've had any company-wide, unified design principles at Nintendo either, it's been kind of haphazard. (laughs)
—With arcade games, there's also the whole maintenance aspect of the cabinets and hardware, so even today the traditional "8-way digital joystick and button" setup is still the mainstay.
Nagoshi: Hmm, yeah. But games like the newer Mario or Zelda are no longer possible in arcades. (laughs)
Miyamoto: But there's so many different things you can do in arcades. Like that game where you pedal a bike through the sky.
Nagoshi: That's Namco's Prop Cycle, yeah.
Miyamoto: This is something I learned while making simulation-style games like Pilotwings, but games like that have a timeless, unmatchable appeal. Even standing back and just watching someone play Prop Cycle is very fun. I was thinking about why that is, and I think it's because what you do with your feet really matches what you see on-screen.
Nagoshi: Or jumping by kicking off the ground.
Miyamoto: Yeah. Or climbing a ladder. That's why I think the winning point of that game is the tight connection between the physical bike and the game. I often use the word "virtual", but what I mean is the way you can translate a real-life action into game form and how your brain then makes that feel real.
Miyamoto: Or look at handheld games and jumping. It just so happened that the Game Boy, with its vertical form factor, had the buttons beneath the screen which worked out well, but with horizontal form-factor handhelds, where the buttons are on top or above the screen, something feels wrong about the jump buttons. It doesn't feel like you're jumping up—it feels more like you're "lifting" up the character when you press those buttons above. In my opinion, those kinds of subtle physical things are largely responsible for popularizing video games with the masses. In contrast, I'm not into computer games. I feel they are very exciting for a segment of the population, but can't break out to a wider audience.
Nagoshi: But that visceral, physical quality you describe, have you ever had trouble communicating that to your younger developers? Around me, the developers who recognize its importance are in their late 20s and early 30s, but I'm very uncertain as to how many of the early 20s devs really get it. I get the feeling more people got it in the past.
Miyamoto: Well, that's my job at Nintendo, to go around and tell everyone this stuff. (laughs) Of course, the younger employees I know feel compelled to say "yes sir!", but that doesn't necessarily mean they really agree. In their hearts they might be thinking "this guy's old-fashioned."
Nagoshi: I do wonder about what their preoccupations are. I was an older student during the Famicom Boom, so console games were not a part of my formative experiences. But now we have a generation entering the game industry who grew up with and alongside the Famicom. I'm both excited, and a little anxious, to see what they can do.
Miyamoto: The game industry was still a cottage industry when we were young, which is precisely what gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted. Now game production happens on a much larger scale, with lots of specialization. That mentality we had may be less common today.
By the way, Nagoshi, what's your role in the developments these days?
Nagoshi: Right now, I'm the producer for one game, director for another, and producer/director for a third. Also, since my job title is section manager, I do other administrative stuff like managing the budget and progress of our projects.
Miyamoto: With all that going on, what's your actual day-to-day like?
Nagoshi: It's not any different than your average developer on the team. I draw textures, for instance, and sometimes create background graphics all on my own.
Miyamoto: Do you create planning docs on your own as well, then? Getting involved with technical details like memory allocation and the like.
Nagoshi: I do, yeah. I might be an unusual case in that sense.
Miyamoto: It seems like a lot of people don't do that anymore. It seems like they call someone who just puts out ideas a "game designer". In reality, I think a game designer is someone who takes those ideas and translates them into numerical form to construct a game. Originally that's what design meant, too.
Nagoshi: Yeah. I'm always meeting with the programmers to go over and review things.
Miyamoto: At Nintendo, it's mandatory that all of our team members have a certain level of knowledge about the hardware. In the beginning of any development we gather the main staff together, and looking at flowcharts, discuss things like whether there's enough data for this section here and so on. It's like a ritual of sorts. If you don't do that stuff at the start, having to make corrections at the end is a nightmare. I'm always afraid of weird things getting added or changed at the last minute, you see.
Nagoshi: Ah, I know what you mean. As a producer, though, it's very hard to be involved in more than two games like that.
Miyamoto: Yeah. If you really want to do things right, overseeing three games is the limit. When I'm the director it's like I become a lightning rod for everyone's complaints. (laughs)
Nagoshi: I also handle the screen layout, size and position of fonts and things, by myself. If there's someone on the team who really gets how important those elements are, I'm happy to let them design it, but that's not always the case, and then it's just faster to do it myself.
Miyamoto: I also make the decisions on the screen layout and sizes. But I ask someone who can draw to do the actual mock-ups. (laughs) Deciding what you'll show on-screen, and how to display it—and what you won't show, for that matter—are incredibly important things. You know, recently there's been a lot of people just uncritically copying what games in the past did, with regard to screen layout and information. Just having score, lives in stock, and so forth.
Miyamoto: I think a lot of people feel that without that stuff, it doesn't feel like a proper game.
Nagoshi: Miyamoto, do you still go to the arcades?
Miyamoto: Yeah, I like to go often. The game I've spent the most money on is probably… Outrun, I think. That was a very healthy era of arcade gaming, in terms of the balance of technology, costs, and the quality of the games. Then I think it was around the time when Namco came out with Final Lap, that you started having games where 5 or 6 people could compete at once. That too was a very healthy, good evolution for gaming I think, but at the same time I feel like it's had an alienating effect on single-player games. But the Outrun era was really the era of awesome standalone games, you know? Games you could play alone... and I feel like that's what players were looking for then, too.
Nagoshi: All things have their time in the sun. It's one of the good things about games, you know, that the players ultimately dictate these kinds of trends. Networking has become a big theme for us to explore on the development side. And not just networking between arcade games, but also finding ways to link up console and arcade games… that research into networking, in the larger sense, is proceeding apace.
Miyamoto: There's a lot to think about there. Some games are much more fun when played with other people, like versus fighting, of course. On the other hand, I don't want to solely rely on the versus/multiplayer experience—I still want to pursue interesting game design that accommodates single players, too.
Nagoshi: A lot of analysts and commentators have declared that arcade games are pointless nowadays. They think game centers will turn into "theme parks" with just prize machines and giant cabinet games only. And it is true that, as console hardware has become increasingly powerful, it's become harder to see the value in arcade games. With fighting games, sometimes you'll play a match against a stranger, take a loss, and then you peek over at the other player and, feeling indignant you kick the cabinet. And while I think that's a valid form of communication, I'd also like to see more games where you team up cooperatively with strangers and have fun together.
—When I go to events like game shows and visit the kids corner, and I see the children crowded around a machine having fun, seeing their happy expressions gives me a warm, positive feeling.
Miyamoto: I know, right? I'm the same way. That was a big part of the reason we made the N64 a 4-player console. When four people play together, it leads to a very natural division of roles and actually encourages socializing. For example, when kids are at home playing a video game, and the four of them are all playing together, it's common for someone to eventually say "hey, games are good and all, but playing outside is fun too!" But when you're alone and binging on games for hours, it's a parent who will have to finally intervene and say "Go outside and play!" (laughs)
Nagoshi: Ah, I know you what you mean. It's very easy to understand when you explain it that way.
Miyamoto: Nagoshi, outside of the main projects you're in charge of, do you also sometimes help out with other game developments at Sega?
Nagoshi: Very often, yeah. For console games too, not just arcade stuff. I helped out with a lot of games in the Saturn era, especially. Though for some of those I just gave my comments and feedback at the end of the development.
Miyamoto: It's fun though, right?
Nagoshi: Yeah, it is.
Miyamoto: Right on. Isn't it amazing how the final adjustments can really change how a game turns out? So that final last phase, for me it has a special appeal that you can't find anywhere else in the development cycle. I know people have this impression that I make all the games at Nintendo, but that's not the case at all. In fact, lately it's more common to see me listed in the credits as "supervisor". When that's my role, one of the things I make sure to be "hands-off" on are the controls. Ultimately one person needs to handle the controls, or it quickly becomes a mess.
Nagoshi: "Supervisor" is the perfect word for that role, isn't it. Ultimately games are these things where you press buttons and something changes on screen. But I've seen it happen many times where the people making the game don't understand that, and everything comes out kind of half-baked and the development eventually grinds to a halt.
Miyamoto: And in those situations, tell me if you've ever had the experience where, as a supervisor, you proceed to go through each problem area one-by-one, carefully and logically explain the issues, touch-up things that need it… and in the end, the game is so vastly improved it's practically unrecognizable from its early form.
Nagoshi: I have experienced that, yeah. When the person you're talking to understands what you're trying to convey, and then the game really does turn out better, that's a very happy moment.
If you'll forgive me talking about my own game, awhile back we were making a fighting game called SpikeOut. I had this idea for button combos, where players would tap the buttons 6 times in a row to create a fun rhythmic feeling for the controls. So we ran through a huge number of variations on that idea, different 6-button combos, going one-by-one and picking out the ones that felt best. Throughout that process, some of the younger employees were saying, "Nagoshi, I don't understand what you're trying to do here"… but I persisted. And at the end, when we'd finally whittled it down and found the combos that felt good, those same employees told me, "I understand now." And I was very happy to hear that.
Miyamoto: Oh yeah? It seems like the younger generation is somewhat resistant to the idea of covering other people's work though.
Nagoshi: I've seen that, yeah. They're very particular about originality, you could say. They approach it like they're auteurs.
Miyamoto: I don't have that kind of mentality at all, personally. There's this idea some people have, that you have to make a completely unique game unlike anything that's ever come before… but I've never thought that. I've helped out on plenty of ports in the past, and it's fun too because it's a pure test of your abilities as a developer. It's true that there is an authorial aspect of making games, but in reality, I think what makes a game developer the most happy is seeing the game they've helped create being enjoyed by people out there in the world. Having your name out there is of secondary importance.
Nagoshi: Yeah. Maybe it would be more accurate to call game developers "builders" in that sense.
Miyamoto: There was something else I wanted to ask about controllers—do you feel the future lies with larger controllers with more buttons and features?
Nagoshi: …I do, yeah. And cell phones are proliferating like crazy now too. The iMode LCD… if you made it a little bigger, I bet you could do some interesting things with it. That's actually one of the things I'm wanting to do now. I'd like to make something soon for the new Dreamcast console too.
Miyamoto: Maybe you should talk to our President? (laughs) Nintendo is also keeping a close eye on the direction of the mobile industry,1 and we will probably be throwing our weight behind that.
Nagoshi: I would be genuinely thrilled if we had the chance to work together on something.
—Recently we've seen Nintendo link up with other companies, like with the Oracle Zelda games on the Game Boy, with Yoshiki Okamoto and Capcom.
Miyamoto: Yeah. With regard to the Oracle development and how it got started, that had more to do with a personal relationship of trust we had with Yoshiki Okamoto himself than Capcom as a company. I suppose when it comes to the trust between companies, ultimately those relationships come down to money and money alone, right? But I'd like to forge more bonds of trust, in a creative way, between Nintendo and other companies.
Nagoshi: Seriously though, if there ever were a chance to collaborate with you on something, no matter how small, I'd relish the opportunity.
Miyamoto: Watch out, you might come to dislike me then. (laughs)
Nagoshi: No way! (laughs)
Miyamoto: Have you been enjoying game development lately?
Nagoshi: If I'm being honest, it's not all fun and games. The tough struggles outweigh the fun times.
Miyamoto: But it's still interesting, I bet.
Nagoshi: It is. It's always interesting.
Miyamoto: As I was saying, it's amazing how much a game can change after the final tweaks and adjustments. Movies probably don't change so dramatically in the final editing phase, right? And all the more so with revisions of a novel.
Nagoshi: Yeah, games might be unique in that regard.
Miyamoto: I often say, game development isn't like sculpture or carving—it's more like molding with clay. And sometimes it happens that you take that clay piece you've finished molding, and after smashing it against the wall, it can take on an amazing shape that you hadn't imagined or foreseen. (laughs) While I'm working on my own projects, I also like to go over to the other teams when they're about 90% done, check out what they've made, and give them some pointers: "oh if you change this or that, it'll be better"… and if they see what I'm saying I tell them to go for it.
—Do either of you have boundary lines, or draw distinctions between what you consider is and is not a game?
Miyamoto: No, I don't. I always say that the Rubik's Cube is my eternal rival. I'm someone whose notion of games started out with 100-yen arcade games, and they already had medal and crane games then.
Nagoshi: Yeah. Anything where you pay some money and have an interesting experience is a game to me. There's no distinction between arcade and console for me there.
Miyamoto: Something I've realized recently is that my basic sense of timing and tempo for games, in terms of directing, it largely comes from Yoshimoto Shinkigeki. And the rest is rakugo and manzai. That interplay between boke (funny man) and tsukkomi (straight man), it's somehow connected to the way I like to present action and other dramatic scenes in games.
Nagoshi: Hmm, I'm not sure what the equivalent would be for me. But I did get married last year, and that's caused some changes in my life.
Miyamoto: Is that reflected in your games?
Nagoshi: No, it's more of a change in my thinking about how I spend my time. I can't really afford to be away from the house for 2 or 3 days at a time anymore.
Miyamoto: Yeah, that happens at Nintendo too. If you make game development the ultimate focal point of your life, your family life will fall apart. (laughs)
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For clarity, he says "mobile" generally here, without qualifiers, so it could be mobile gaming, mobile phones, or both.↩