November 16 was Nintendo game designer and producer Shigeru Miyamoto’s birthday, and to celebrate, we figured it was high time to take a look at some of his insights into the creative process.
Shigeru Miyamoto started working at Nintendo back in 1977 and since then, he’s designed now legendary games like Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and countless others. Nowadays, he’s not only a designer, but also one of the main faces of the company, consistently coming out for game announcements and videos. Even though he’s been with Nintendo for nearly 40 years, he’s still one of the main producers and supervisors on nearly all its projects. So, how does he do it? Let’s take a look.
Let Your Employees Challenge You
When you move into a leadership role, it’s easy to let that power go to your head. Combine that with nearly 40 years of experience, and most people become tyrannical in their authority. From the outside looking in, this is obviously a terrible way to do things, but it still happens all the time. Miyamoto’s made a conscious decision to prevent falling in that trap. In an interview with Time, Miyamoto had this to say:
“What I am trying to do is not to create an atmosphere where they feel like, ‘I will do better than Miyamoto does’ or ‘I will make a game just to please Miyamoto,'” he says. “Based on my own experiences, I try to encourage directors to have courage and work toward the goal they set, and pose questions to them about whether the game is actually delivering the experience to the player as envisioned. I try not to get too deeply involved in the content of the games they’re developing.”
Miyamoto is well known for taking more of a mentorship mentality with his leadership role, but it seems like he truly does take that idea to heart. If you try to force your ideas on your employees, creativity won’t flourish. Sometimes, you just have to let them do what they do and guide them along the way.
Countless artists across time have condemned the idea of thinking about profitability in art, but rarely does this idea come from someone so deeply ingrained in both the business and creative side. Nintendo is in the business of making money, but it’s also forced to be creative to stay relevant. Miyamoto knows this. From an interview with IGN:
What is peculiar about this business is that being creative is one thing, but having the mind of a marketer is another. This is the entertainment industry, so game designers have to have a creative mind and also have to be able to stand up against the marketing people at their company — otherwise they cannot be creative. There are not that many people who fit that description. But when we are strictly looking at creative minds, I think there are a lot out there. I think if they can have more freedom in their offices to make the games they want we would make much better games.
Of course, success takes both creativity and marketing, but allowing marketability to overtake creativity is a poor approach to business in the long term. The more freedom you give yourself at the start, the better the results will be, even if you end up tinkering with things later on to make them more appealing to a mass audience.
Be Open to Inspiration from Anywhere
One problem a lot of creative people have early in their careers is a single-mindedness about inspiration. When you’re focused so much on a job, you tend to seek out inspiration from within your medium. That creates a cyclical pattern that never allows you to create a truly new thing. For example, in an interview with NPR, Miyamoto describes the inspirations behind the Legend of Zelda franchise and Mario 64:
When I was younger, I grew up in the countryside of Japan. And what that meant was I spent a lot of my time playing in the rice paddies and exploring the hillsides and having fun outdoors. When I got into the upper elementary school ages — that was when I really got into hiking and mountain climbing. There’s a place near Kobe where there’s a mountain, and you climb the mountain, and there’s a big lake near the top of it. We had gone on this hiking trip and climbed up the mountain, and I was so amazed — it was the first time I had ever experienced hiking up this mountain and seeing this big lake at the top. And I drew on that inspiration when we were working on the Legend of Zelda game and we were creating this grand outdoor adventure where you go through these narrowed confined spaces and come upon this great lake. And so it was around that time that I really began to start drawing on my experiences as a child and bringing that into game development…
…After I turned 40, I took up swimming and became very enthusiastic about swimming as a way of exercise. And right after that was when we made Super Mario 64, and I drew on a lot of my experience swimming in creating the underwater swimming scenes with Mario in that game.
Inspiration comes from everywhere, so be open to it. When you focus too much on one medium, you’re denying yourself a lot of opportunity to see other unique perspectives and worlds.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
Nintendo’s success (and occasional failure) has always been reliant on doing things differently than everyone else. A Nintendo console is completely different than a PlayStation or Xbox, and there’s a reason for that. In an interview with the Guardian, Miyamoto lays it out bluntly:
I think when you talk about competing against others, the problem is that you refer to something that’s been done already and try to beat it. Rather than looking at what other companies are doing, the focus at Nintendo is on uniqueness. Providing new means of entertainment is the important thing.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. If you’re a writer, you tend to compare yourself to other other writers, if you’re a game designer, you look at other games, and so on. This type of competition naturally breeds emulation, because you’re constantly playing off other people’s work. It’s hard to make your art truly unique when you’re doing that.