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Shigeru Miyamoto's Working Retirement

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Thursday, Dec 15, 2011
To hear Miyamoto talk about retirement is a good thing.

It seems that reports of Shigeru Miyamoto’s retirement have been greatly exaggerated. Last week, an excerpt from Wired‘s extended interview with Miyamoto set off a brief panic amongst players and stockholders. Thanks to a combination of translation issues, alarmism, and poor reading comprehension, the prospect of Miyamoto’s impending retirement loomed large.  Nintendo quickly put the kibosh on the speculation (as well as the stock dip fueled by such speculation) by reassuring the world that: “He has no intention of stepping down. Please do not be concerned” (Isabel Reynolds, “Nintendo denies report games designer Miyamoto to retire”, Reuters, 8 December 2011).


Everything is fine and nothing will change. Miyamoto’s not going anywhere.  Nintendo would have us think this and dedicated fans want to believe this, but it’s only half true.  Things have already changed.  Miyamoto has been preparing for his late-career period for some time.  Even so, we shouldn’t be concerned.
  
Those paying careful attention already know that Miyamoto has been in a predominantly advisory role for over a decade.  The last time that he was the sole director of a Super Mario game was in 1996 with Super Mario 64.  Since 1998’s Ocarina of Time, he has handed the Zelda series to multiple directors and acted as a producer.  He has provided the seeds for games like Pikmin and Nintendogs, but others work in the trenches on a daily basis to bring those games to life.  While we’re lucky that the folks working on Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Skyward Sword had Miyamoto to consult for guidance, it’s clear that Nintendo has no shortage of extremely talented developers.  Super Mario will continue to leap forward into new experiences, long after we’ve lost Miyamoto.


To hear him tell it, this is precisely what Miyamoto is trying to ensure with his transition.  In a refreshing display of candor and self-awareness, Miyamoto acknowledges his potentially stifling influence at Nintendo:


The fact of the matter is that, inside our office, I’ve been recently declaring, I’m going to retire, I’m going to retire. I’m repeating that message. But the reason why I’m stressing that is that unless I say that I’m retiring, I cannot nurture the young developers. After all, if I’m there in my position as it is, then there’s always kind of a relationship. And the young guys are always in kind of a situation where they have to listen to my ideas. But I need some [people] who are growing up much more than today. (Chris Kohler, “Q&A: Shigeru Miyamoto Looks Into Nintendo’s Future”, Wired, 13 December 2011)


Again, we English-speakers are at the mercy of an ambiguous translation, but it appears that Miyamoto recognizes his potentially authoritarian position within Nintendo.  I can’t imagine the pressure of directing a Mario game, knowing that you’ll have to show it off to the man who created the series itself.  Such a situation could easily turn young apprentices into old yes-men, and it’s reassuring to see Miyamoto recognize this and take steps to prevent it.


Miyamoto further explains his “retirement” as more of a move towards embracing a new role as a mentor (rather than as a manger) and as a game designer (rather than as a producer):


What I mean by retiring is, retiring from my current position and then what I really want to do is be in the forefront of game development once again myself. Probably working on a smaller project with even younger developers. Or I might be interested in making something that I can make myself, by myself. Something really small.  (Chris Kohler, “Q&A: Shigeru Miyamoto Looks Into Nintendo’s Future”, Wired, 13 December 2011)


For those worried about the prospect of losing Miyamoto’s influence on the medium, this is excellent news.  What better way for Miyamoto to display his creativity while also sharing his experience and his wisdom than by making smaller games with younger developers?  Thanks to an ever-expanding audience and numerous distribution methods, the kinds of simple, experimental and arcade style games that launched Miyamoto’s career are back in vogue.  The newest generation of designers with whom he plans on working were raised on Miyamoto’s games, but they also came of age alongside big changes in the medium.  What will happen when the man who was instrumental in creating everything from Donky Kong to Pikmin to Wii Fit gets back in the trenches alongside the generation shaped by the digital revolution?  The results will be interesting, to say the least.


That Miyamoto is starting to throw the “R” word around shouldn’t be surprising.  He’s had a long career and has managed to stay relevant in an extremely fast-moving industry.  The important thing to note is how he is approaching this transitional time.  For years, he’s been grooming developers to take over the franchises that he started.  The continuing quality of Nintendo’s games, despite his diminished role over the years, is a good sign for the future.  And let’s be realistic: it’s probably safe to say that, even after Miyamoto steps down, he’ll be quite willing to offer advice to any developer who needs an opinion on a new Mario power-up.


To hear Miyamoto talk about retirement is a good thing.  It shows that he and Nintendo are planning for an inescapable reality.  On a less morbid note, hearing Miyamoto talk about “retirement” as the beginning of a new creative phase is exciting.  Not only does it offer the promise of new experiences from a great designer, it charts a path for what will become an increasingly common journey.  Time marches on, and soon enough we will be having similar conversations about folks like Warren Spector and Sid Meier. 


It’s good to see that one of the medium’s most influential figures is looking to stay active, to continue exploring artistic challenges, and to offer his experiences to the next generation of designers even as his role changes.  Miyamoto has helped lead the medium for his entire career; it’s only fitting that he continue to do so in his autumn years.


 

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