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Miyamoto: Game success takes 'balance' and 'risk'

Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, developer of games like Donkey Kong, offers conference-goers a vision for reaching broad audiences. Video: Mario master reveals secrets to success Photos: A packed hall for famed Nintendo developer

SAN FRANCISCO--If one thing was clear Thursday morning at the Game Developers Conference here, it's that video game developers love Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto.

And for good reason. Miyamoto, Nintendo's senior managing director, was the designer of such video game classics as Donkey Kong, the "Mario" series and the Legend of Zelda series.

So it was with a lot of anticipation that thousands of Game Developers Conference attendees flocked to hear Miyamoto's keynote address Thursday, his first such speech at GDC in eight years.

He did not deliver any news, but he spent more than an hour talking about the many facets of his vision for designing video games that resonate with players around the world.

And while Miyamoto may well be one of the best-known game designers in the world, he took pains to make sure that no matter how influential he is at Nintendo, he is just part of the larger company.

"It's important to understand that no matter how clear your own personal vision," Miyamoto said through an interpreter, "it must somehow resonate with the vision of your company."

He then went on, over the course of about 45 minutes and a series of case study examples from his career, to explain his, and Nintendo's vision.

Nintendo exec Shigeru Miyamoto speaks to the 5,300 exuberant attendees at the 2007 Game Developers Conference.

It begins, he said, with searching for ways to expand audiences.

He explained that over the years, he tried to get his wife interested in video games. At first, she couldn't be bothered, but as Nintendo's games strived for broader appeal, and included less and less fighting and more to attract children, his wife began to get on board.

He measured his progress with his wife on his "wife-o-meter."

Nintendo's hit game, Brain Age, for example, which tasks Nintendo DS players with quickly answering sets of brain puzzles, scores very high on the wife-o-meter.

"Now, she comes to me and brags that she can beat me at this game," Miyamoto said. "To me, what's worse, she's right."

The point, however personal, was that Nintendo's games have progressively been designed to have broader appeal and, it seems, the strategy is working. With its Wii console, it is taking it even further, and has found a lot of success with its very simple Wii Sports title, in which players can play baseball, tennis, boxing and the like using very rudimentary characters, but which takes full advantage of the Wii remote's motion sensitivity.

The next element of his vision was "balance."

Miyamoto said that means ensuring that different teams within Nintendo are on the same page, that as a company it strives for moving forward and creating new innovations, but that it also doesn't abandon its history.

The Wii remote became the key example of balance in that, he said, it demonstrates that it is possible to meet the needs of both hardware and software innovation.

Another major element of his vision is "risk."

He explained that Nintendo has traditionally tried to push the envelope when it comes to new systems, and its Nintendo DS, with dual screens and touch-sensitive input, was an example.

So, too, is the Wii.

"None of our risks has ever (been greater) than the Wii," said Miyamoto. "For 20 years, we've been playing with and even creating controllers that require you to hold it with two hands. We're just going to abandon that?"

But the Wii remote does allow players to use a single hand, though it has an accessory, the Nunchuck Controller, which requires using a second hand and which some Wii games require.

Another core element of his vision is communication, he said.

And part of that is being able to tell what emotion players are communicating when they're using a game.

For Miyamoto, the most important thing to see a player expressing is how much fun he or she is having. That's particularly important as Nintendo reaches for new audiences.

"Maybe you designers need to add a new category for games," he said. "How fun is it for people who don't play them."

He also talked about "prioritization" and "tenacity" as two final pieces of his game design vision.

He said when designing a baseball game for Wii Sports, Nintendo had to give up on the idea of creating complex characters and obscure baseball elements. Instead, it focused on pitching and hitting in order to convey basic baseball mechanics that would be fun for new players.

Ultimately, he said, designing successful games that reach new audiences is about keeping an open mind.

"My main message today," Miyamoto said, "is that creative vision is not one element of game design. It's the essence of game design."