Miyamoto's value to Nintendo is in his ideas, not his role

The Globe and Mail

Shigeru Miyamoto (Vincent Diamante)

An era may be ending in the world of games. Shigeru Miyamoto, likely the world's most famous and influential video game designer, told Wired in an interview that he intends to step down from his position as head game designer at Nintendo.

"Inside our office, I’ve been recently declaring, ‘I’m going to retire, I’m going to retire,’” Mr. Miyamoto told the American tech culture magazine. “I’m not saying that I’m going to retire from game development altogether. What I mean by retiring is, retiring from my current position.”

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Nintendo denied the report Thursday, stating that there was a “misunderstanding.”

Still, many are taking Wired’s quote to mean Mr. Miyamoto intends to no longer lead Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis and Development branch, which looks after most of the Japanese game giant’s most successful series, including the Mario and Zelda games.

According to the interview, a longer version of which will be published next week, Mr. Miyamoto intends to shift his focus to much more intimate projects, games that he can design and build himself and that take significantly less time to develop than the enormous half-decade projects he has led in recent years.

“What I really want to do is be in the forefront of game development once again myself,” Mr. Miyamoto told the magazine. “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.”

It’s difficult to predict the effect Mr. Miyamoto’s new objectives will have on Nintendo’s future. He has been a mentor to the company’s up and coming talent for decades, and has expressed confidence in their ability to manage the gaming icons that have been in his charge for the last 30 years.

However, if he does move to a role of less influence some would certainly see it as yet another setback for the Japanese game maker, which has recently struggled against swiftly sinking revenues and the lacklustre launch of the Nintendo 3DS handheld console.

Nintendo’s few high points in 2011 were its first-party wares, including the recently released The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3D Land. Both were Miyamoto-managed projects that demonstrate the company’s – and perhaps Mr. Miyamoto’s – unique game design sensibilities. Investors may start to worry if they get the sense that Nintendo's future releases might lack the Miyamoto magic that has been a hallmark of the brand since 1981.

It’s possible that Nintendo might convince Mr. Miyamoto to retain his official position for the sake of appearance while allowing him to go off and do the sort of smaller development efforts he told Wired interest him. However, the famed game designer turned 59 this month. He can’t remain in command of Nintendo’s top franchises forever, even as a figurehead.

In the end, it might be best if Nintendo let its resident game design genius freely and openly pursue his smaller scale passion projects. He's a legend in the industry, and people won’t forget about him if he isn’t making games starring Italian plumbers and blonde princesses. It’s a safe bet that any software bearing Mr. Miyamoto’s DNA will prove a success.

Indeed, the smaller games he wants to make could end up becoming Nintendo’s next major properties. As apps like Angry Birds have proven, games don’t require huge development efforts to be huge hits. They just need good ideas. And Mr. Miyamoto has long proven a bountiful source of innovative game concepts.

And that’s his real value. So long as Miyamoto ideas appear in games stamped with that familiar red logo, Nintendo will maintain a unique and enviable advantage over its competitors. That's what Nintendo – and its investors – need to remember.

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