One-On-One With Shigeru Miyamoto: From ‘Wii Music’ To Bowser To… MotionPlus?

Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, once a rare presence, is now a frequent fixture of the marketing push for Nintendo’s big games.

Earlier this year the game designer did the rounds to discuss “Wii Fit.” Then in July he talked up E3. Last week in San Francisco, he took a break from sitting near me at a charity dinner, to talk to reporters about “Wii Music.”

To be honest, I was beginning to feel like Miyamoto interviews were becoming a little too familiar, like you knew what he’d say before you ever read one.

Then I wound up sitting with him for an hour at Nintendo’s Redwood City offices last week. The result was the most interesting conversation he and I have had since I first talked to him in May 2004.

What follows is the first half of a full transcript of the interview, with the latter half running tomorrow. A shortened version of part one is live on This first half of the mammoth interview covers much of the “Wii Music” part of our conversation, which branched far beyond what you may have already heard about that game, covering:

  • Why he wishes the game came out before “Guitar Hero
  • His biggest failure
  • The game’s radical dismissal of things like high scores
  • How the design of “Mario” and “Zelda” influenced the project
  • What he thinks of the game’s graphics
  • How Wii MotionPlus could change the game
  • And much, much more.

The following interview was conducted in person at Nintendo’s Redwood City offices. Miyamoto’s answered were translated by Nintendo’s Bill Trinen. Most of my questions, however, required no translation. Miyamoto responded to most of them without consulting Trinen but replied only in Japanese. I’ve lightly copy-edited it for readability.

Multiplayer: Thanks for talking to us again, this time about “Wii Music.” I had an opportunity to see “Wii Music” at E3. I played it then. And I’ve been following a lot of the discussion about “Wii Music.” I’ve read the interview series that you did with [Nintendo president] Satoru Iwata. And then, a week ago, I got the game. I’ve been playing it a bit at home. So I’m very familiar with it. I find it very interesting.

One of the things that really stood out to me in the interview you did with Mr. Iwata is a phrase in there in which you said “Wii Music” might be your “life’s work.” [Miyamoto laughs.] I think about all the things you’ve done in video games: “Mario” and “Zelda” and “Donkey Kong.” And I don’t know what to make of the fact that you would be calling “Wii Music” your life’s work. I’m wondering why you feel that way.

“When we set out this time around to make ’Wii Music,’ we didn’t really have a vision of what it was going to be.”

Shigeru Miyamoto: Well I think that “Wii Music” is very different from all the other games that I have made in one particular sense. And that [difference is] that, whether I was making the original “Mario Brothers” game or a “Zelda” game, or even more recently, a game like “Wii Fit,” those were all games where, when we set out in development, we had an idea of what we wanted to create and where development was going. “Wii Music” was very different.

For 30 long years I’ve been a musician and I’ve been making games, and that whole time, I’ve always thought, “I want to make a game about music.” But along the way, all I ever really was able to do was look at it and say, “Well that wouldn’t make a good music game, and that wouldn’t be a good music game.” So when we set out this time around to make “Wii Music,” we didn’t really have a vision of what it was going to be. So that’s, I think, one way it’s very different from the other games we’ve built.

So, of course, when we first started work on “Wii Music,” … the core idea was that music is going to be an important element for Wii, which goes back to our goal of having the Wii in the living room and having it relate to everybody — and the role that music plays in people’s eyes. The original concept was that there needed to be some type of music game for Wii. And, of course, we looked at the Wii remote and thought, originally, “Well, if we’re going to make a music game for Wii, we really need it to be something where you’re using the remote to perform or to conduct an orchestra. Those were the basic starting point and the original ideas.

“That’s why, in one sense, it feels like, perhaps, it could be my life’s work.”

Multiplayer: Some of the things that struck me as I was playing it is that I thought I was seeing connections to previous games that you’ve worked on. I don’t know if I was imagining those things or not. But there are a couple of things I wanted to mention, because I’m curious about what, if anything, has been influential in your work on a “Mario” game or in a “Zelda” game that may have played a role in “Wii Music.”

So two things: While I was using the Wii remote and the nunchuk to control various musical instruments [in “Wii Music,”] I thought back to “The Legend of Zelda; The Ocarina of Time” and how the N64 controller was almost shaped like an ocarina. I put my fingers on the buttons and Link is putting his fingers on the holes, and I thought, “Okay, the controller feels kind of like the instrument.” The other thing I thought was that in the other N64 “Zelda,” “Majora’s Mask,” there’s a side mission where you go into the Milk Bar and you turn into another character. You play one instrument. Then you turn into another character. And you join in that band that you’re already playing as. You’re essentially doing what you wind up doing in “Wii Music,” where you’re overdubbing your own performance. Eventually you have four band members performing one ensemble set. That felt very much like “Wii Music” as well.

Are those things — or are there other specifics that you could point to — where you may have dabbled in earlier games that you’ve worked on that you feel may have paved the way for getting to “Wii Music”?

“You would be experiencing the joy of creating music that normally people won’t experience, unless they’re able to understand music and are able to play an instrument.”

Miyamoto: That’s actually where I have that mysterious feeling that I have about this game comes from. Taking the example of “Majora’s Mask,” and “Ocarina of Time,” in those games we were looking at creating video games, and within the story, the adventure, and the world that character explores, we felt “Is there a way that we can have music be a part of this experience?” And so, in that sense, we were looking at creating a musical experience within the context of that game that made sense.

Whereas, with “Wii Music,” really, we had a starting point, but we didn’t know what we wanted to create and. What we ended up with was this idea that you would be performing, and through that performance you would be experiencing the joy of creating music that normally people won’t experience unless they’re able to understand music and are able to play an instrument.

So rather than necessarily relying on what we did in the past, we instead tried to take a complete break and look at it from a fresh perspective, trying to create something without knowing where we were going. In my mind, I think that’s why we were able to make this big leap from what we have seen in music games up until now to “Wii Music,” which gives you a great deal more freedom.

I think I’m the kind of person who feels that nothing in life goes to waste. And what I mean by that is that no matter how much I might try something, and no matter how much I might fail at it, there’s always something I’m able to learn from that and find a way to take that experience and apply it to something else that I’m doing. The one area of my life where I felt like for a long time I had failed to do that was in playing an instrument. I had practiced and played instruments for many, many years, but despite all of my years of practice, I was never any good at playing instruments. For a long time it puzzled me, and I worried, “Why have I spent so much time on this? And in fact I still am not a good banjo player. But then we finished “Wii Music ” and I look at it and I feel like, finally, all of those years of practice are really what allowed me to create “Wii Music.”

“I was never any good at playing instruments. For a long time it puzzled me, and I worried, ’Why have I spent so much time on this?'”

Multiplayer: You described it in the interview with Mr. Iwata as if you felt you could almost say that with “Wii Music” you’ve created a new musical instrument, right?

Miyamoto: Yeah, when our sales teams and our [public relations] people are asking, “How do we promote ’Wii Music?'” I told them, “Think of it as a new instrument you buy and bring home to play.” Now, if you think of the standard musical instrument, if you were to buy that and bring it into a house, there would probably be interest in it at first, and people would probably touch it and try to play it. Ultimately they would be able to get it to make sound. But they wouldn’t be able to create music with it unless they are already musically trained or already know how to play that instrument.

Whereas, with “Wii Music,” you can take “Wii Music” and bring it into a house. Not only can everybody pick up the Wii remote and nunchuck and play “Wii Music” — play the instrument — but it’s been designed in a way so that they can immediately make music. So in that sense, I think it’s like this new instrument that doesn’t have the hurdle, really, of learning the instrument so much as it immediately gives you the ability to be musically creative with it.

Multiplayer: In the process of making “Wii Music,” did you try “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band” or any of the other popular music games? And, if so, what influence did they have on you?

Miyamoto: Obviously, Nintendo has made music games in the past. I personally was involved in the “Donkey Konga” project. And, of course, we’ve released games like “Rhythm Heaven” and “Band Brothers,” but I look at those as being more in the same genre as kind of the standard music or rhythm game that we’ve seen in the past. So, in looking at those experiences and games that we’ve created, I was really looking at them from almost a completely different perspective, because my attitude all along was that, if I was going to create a music game, it was going to be something very different from the rhythm games we’ve seen so far.

“I really wish I made this before [’Guitar Hero’ and ’Rock Band’] were popular.”

In fact, what I think was one of my biggest challenges with “Wii Music” is that when we had the product nearly complete and we took it to E3 just this year to show off, and in interviewing with people I had many people ask me, “Did you decide to make a music game because games like ’Guitar Hero’ and ’Rock Band’ are so popular?” And then I felt a little bit disappointed and I felt like, you know, I really wish I made this before those other games were popular because I really want people to be able to look at it from the perspective that I looked at it from.

So, yeah, I think in terms of timing-wise, my feeling is that we created “Wii Music” to be a part of the Wii experience. And the only reason that “Wii Music” is launching at the same time as “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” are very popular is because it just so happens that that is the period of time when Wii has been released into the market.

On the other hand, we have a very large development team at Nintendo. And a lot of the members of our team play a lot of popular and more recent games. When they do that, they have a tendency to look at similar games that are out there and then they start to focus on: What can we do to make sure that our games are as good as those other games in a similar style? Whereas I feel that my job is actually to stop them and say, “That’s not the line of thinking we need to have.” Because, that results in us creating something that is more and more like those other types of games. My role becomes to put the brakes on and say, “We need to change our direction and way of thinking.” That’s the only way we’re going to be able to create something that’s unique and different.

Multiplayer: Right. Innovate rather than imitate. In playing the game, it felt so different to me than playing any other game that I’ve played that you’ve been involved in. I tried to put my finger on what felt different. And what I think is so different about it, in my mind, is that in any other game that I’ve played that you’ve been involved in — or really any other game that I’ve played — I have one of three goals: I’m trying to get a higher score, or I’m trying to get to the end — I want to see what’s next; I want to save the princess or whatever — or I’m in a multiplayer game and I’m competing and I want to beat somebody. And none of those are goals in “Wii Music,” not in the main mode. There are no points, right? No real storyline progression. And not really even competition against other people, nothing where I feel like “I won and you lost.”

Instead, it struck me, that it fees like the drive to continue to play “Wii Music” — why you would play it a second time and a third time — is for aesthetics. It’s to make it sound better. “Oh, I want my ’Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ rendition to sound better than my previous one. That seems like a radically different drive that you’re looking for in your players of this game than what you’ve expected is driving them in any other game that you’ve made.

Do you agree with that? And does it feel that different to you in what you’re asking of players than everything else that you worked on?

Miyamoto: I think that’s a good way of looking at it. The one thing that I’ve noticed recently is that there seem to be almost two groups of people out there. One is the people for whom, [when] their goal is not defined, they find it very difficult to understand what to do. But the other group of people are people who are able to create their own goal. And for those people in particular, I think they’re finding tremendous satisfaction in “Wii Music.”

“[The freedom for players to] dillydally and do their own thing … [is] an important part of entertainment itself.”

But on the other hand, I feel like even in the games likes “Super Mario Brothers,” and all of the other games that I’ve made, while we have given kind of a superficial goal within those games, the one thing that we’ve always tried to focus on is to give the player the freedom, within the structure of the game, to find their own objectives, or really their own type of gameplay that they want to pursue. So if you take, for example, “Super Mario Brothers,” obviously at the end of each of the eight worlds, you see Bowser there, and you have this idea that you need to progress through the levels and clear the levels and get to Bowser and beat Bowser. All throughout those levels, we’ve created many different hidden areas where you can go and play around and are free to kind of have fun there. And I think that’s something we’ve tried to nurture throughout our teams over the years as we continue to develop games, is to encourage them to give the player the freedom within the context of the theme we’re providing the player, for the player to then evaluate that theme and decide whether or not they want to pursue the particular objective we’ve given them or whether or not they want to go off and maybe dillydally and do their own thing. And I think that’s an important part of entertainment itself.

Multiplayer: Do you think that going as far as you’ve gone with “Wii Music” in taking away, say a scoring system can embolden you, when you work on more traditional genres, to do away with some of those expected goals and allow the goals to be more things the players create for themselves? In other words, does the design of “Wii Music” show you potential for different ways you could be designing different games in other genres, since you’ve done away with some of the rules that had been followed for so long?

Miyamoto: I think that, not necessarily in other franchises, it is a possibility for other potential forms of entertainment. To be honest, I think “Mario Paint” was another example of the kind of game that doesn’t present you with a defined objective but does give you a great degree of freedom to go around and allows you to define your own goal within that. And that was a game that I think we did a very good job of taking that idea and presenting it to people in a way that they understood. And “Wii Music” is another one that, maybe just by chance, we’ve managed to take that idea and kind of do the same kind of thing within the music genre.

There’s actually one more coming out, that we’ve talked about briefly, it’s coming out in Japan in November or December, a little bit later this year. It’s an application for DSi. It’s tentatively called the “Moving Memo Pad.” But what it is, it’s almost like a tool that allows you to create little flipbook animations.

Multiplayer: Oh yes, I’ve seen that.

“I think, of course, that style of user-generated content is something that’s going to continue to be more popular.”

Miyamoto: The thing about that that’s really great is that even people who can’t draw pictures are able to use the DSi camera and use that to create animations themselves. So I think that’s another example of how we take the idea of something that’s more of a creation tool but present it in a way that instead of feeling like [the program they’re using is] a tool and more like entertainment, they’re able to do things they’ve never done before.

I think, of course, that style of user-generated content is something that’s going to continue to be more popular. The “Mii Contest Channel,” I think, is kind of another idea of how people can contribute their own creations to kind of a larger pool that collects all their creations of the users. I think that’s going to continue on Wii and on PC and across a variety of different devices.

Multiplayer: I wanted to talk to you about motion control. I can’t imagine “Wii Music” without the Wii controllers. The Wii’s been out for two years. When it was first introduced, it was very much about the controller. I think people were assuming that the Wii software would be defined by motion control. And “Wii Sports” was defined by motion control. I was surprised, actually, that some of the games afterward, be they “Super Mario Galaxy,” “Mario Kart Wii,” “Super Smash Brothers Brawl,” either had a little bit of motion control or — as in the case with “Smash Brothers” — didn’t have any. And then you had a game like “Wii Fit” that wasn’t about motion control in the way we think about it, and I began to wonder if I was wrong and if motion control really was not as integral to the Wii as I and other people had thought it was. Then I see a game like “Wii Music” and I can’t imagine it without those controllers.

And so I’m wondering, two years in, how meaningful is motion control to the design of the games on the Wii? How meaningful is it to your thought process in terms of creating software that is engaging to the Wii audience?

“[Developers have] gotten to a point where it’s hard for them to think outside the context for [the traditional] controller and to come up with ideas and designs that broke away from that.”

Miyamoto: What I think was more important to Wii itself was a simple and intuitive interface, and that’s where I think the Wii remote was very important.

And, of course, with “Wii Music” I think we have done, in my estimation a very good job of implementing motion controls. We looked at it from two perspectives. First of all, the very first time people play, they have to be able to — just by moving, just by shaking the Wii remote and nunchuk — be able to play the game and create music. But then we also said, beyond that, there needs to be depth to the control. It can’t just be the shaking. And that’s where we added in the additional functionality you can get by pressing buttons while playing with different instruments to adjust the sound and get better depth out of the sound of the instruments. And so that was a very key focus for us.

The other side of it is, of course, you have a very large number of developers who have been developing games with the typical controller that we’ve had for many generations now in mind. And I think they’ve gotten to a point where it’s hard for them to think outside the context for that controller and to come up with ideas and designs that broke away from that.

And so one thing that Nintendo tries to do, when we introduce a new console, is we try to give developers new tools that they can use that will allow them to bring, perhaps, ideas that they’ve had that they haven’t been able to realize until now to life. And, in that sense, we’re trying to support them by providing them the motion control of the Wii remote and nunchuck and [showing] how that could be the impetus for them to come up with ideas we haven’t seen before.

I think “Wii Music” is a good example of how that new controller can allow something like “Wii Music” to be made, because as you point out, it is a game that without motion control would be very difficult to do. And I think if we were still working within the confines of a typical game controller I don’t think we would have ever created something like “Wii Music.” Because, really, the idea started with [us] looking at the Wii remote and we said, “Oh, you could conduct an orchestra.” And then after we created that experiment, we thought, “You can conduct an orchestra, but you can also use this to play different instruments.” Whereas if what we were stuck with was the standard controller, I don’t think we ever would have had either one of those ideas.

Multiplayer: Has this game been programmed to take advantage of the MotionPlus attachment that’s coming next year?

Miyamoto: One of the key ideas behind “Wii Music” this time was that we wanted it to be a game that you essentially perform with, with three other people. So you would have bands of four people playing together. So because of that, for this particular installment of “Wii Music,” we didn’t want to have a requirement that would, say, prevent people from playing together if they didn’t have enough peripheral devices.

But I would think, going forward, once we have an installed base for Wii Motion Plus that’s large enough, then we would look at potentially doing a version of “Wii Music” that includes other instruments where, if you do have one or maybe two Wii Motion Plus devices, then you would have much greater ability to — it would be an instrument that would take great advantage of what Wii Motion Plus could do to allow you to perform music.

“In an instance like that … we might perhaps be looking at what we can do with Wii MotionPlus to create those instruments that are a lot more difficult and challenging to play.”

One example is that the instruments in “Wii Music,” of course, are, in terms of the sound they produce, the sound is very well-defined. You don’t see anything like a slide guitar in “Wii Music.” The reason for that is that the feeling is we had to create a game where the instruments are very easy to pick up and play and immediately grasp and understand how to perform.

Whereas, something where the musical output of the instrument is less clearly defined on a note-by-note basis and instead you have greater control over the scale and the sliding nature of the sound — as you would with a slide guitar — that’s something that you would be able to do after you have developed a certain level of skill.

So for example, if “Wii Music” were out in the market for awhile and people had gotten good at “Wii Music” [might say], “Okay, I’ve played ’Wii Music’ and now what I’m looking for is the next level of challenge in using the Wii remote and nunchuk to perform music and to do it in a way in which I have greater control of the sound I’m creating.” In an instance like that then we might, perhaps, be looking at what we can do with Wii Motion Plus to create those instruments that are a lot more difficult and challenging to play, but give the player perhaps greater satisfaction because they have more direct control of the sounds they are creating. We could even perhaps start experimenting with that relatively soon.


Tomorrow: In the second half of the interview, Miyamoto and I dicuss possible “Wii Music” DLC, one negative review of the game, and in a twist, he starts asking me questions. And we wind up talking about “Portal.” Check back Tuesday!