Before we talk, we play.
Set up in a backroom of Nintendo's Midtown Manhattan offices, Shigeru Miyamato sports a green Luigi t-shirt under a blue sports coat, matching pants and, as always, a smile.
We're here loaded up with questions. Questions about Nintendo's E3 plans, the lack of new, exciting original titles from the creative mind behind such endearing classics as Donkey Kong, Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. We want to know about some of Nintendo's undelivered Wii U promises, like games that use near field communication or two GamePads. Most importantly, we want to hear what Miyamoto thinks about the Wii U's lackluster sales and how he and Nintendo plan to re-energize the console.
But before we can ask, Bill Trinen — Miyamoto's long-time, always affable translator — sits us down at a table with Miyamoto and hands out 3DS XLs loaded up with copies of pending release Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon.
"Go ahead and press A," Trinen says, launching four of us into the game's multiplayer mode.
In Dark Moon's "ScareScraper" mode, up to four Luigi take to a haunted mansion racing to capture ghosts, find rubies or an exit or defeat boss ghosts. Miyamoto tells us he is the producer on the game, which is a sequel to 2001's Luigi Mansion for the GameCube.
"In general, in the games where I am the direct producer, I tend to work very closely on the title," he said. "In particular I work in a role where I am playing the game. I'm checking the game regularly and I'm there to support the director and to make sure they do the job they need to do."
In this particular case, he said, he's been working very closely with the game's director to make sure he doesn't "stray off in the wrong direction and that he stays focused on the elements that he needs to."
The key thing Miyamoto wanted the Luigi's Mansion sequel to focus on was the 3DS' glasses-free 3D visuals and use of the handheld's second screen, he said.
"The first was using the 3D visuals to give a real sense, a true sense of realism to the mansion itself, to make it feel like it's a place that exists beyond the screen," he said. "The second is having that second screen down below where you have a map and you can check the map at any time. Those are two very important features of 3DS that we wanted to leverage."
Miyamoto also came to New York to show off the other announced game he is working on.
Pikmin 3, due out later this year, is a Wii U sequel to a series he helped kickoff back in 2001, when Nintendo was looking for a fresh new hit to help invigorate sales.
While some Nintendo fans are hotly anticipating the release of Pikmin 3 and Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, these two games in particular highlight one of the key struggles that Nintendo faces as it attempts to spark more interest in the Wii U and works to stoke the success of the portable 3DS. Both games appeal to an audience that already pays attention to Nintendo. But it's often the new, untested titles that expand that audience.
"We obviously are interested in bringing out new ideas, but at the same time we also have our hands full with trying to bring many of our popular franchises to new systems," he said. "So, the struggle for us then becomes, how do we find the balance in there and try to deliver the content that people want while also surprising them with something new?" Miyamoto said.
It is a constant balancing act, but Miyamoto says that there is no easy approach to striking the balance between creating new derivations of known and beloved games and providing gamers with something they may not yet know they want.
"Looking at, for example, Animal Crossing," he said. "Animal Crossing is a game that we've been making for essentially 10 years now in different iterations. With the latest version [Animal Crossing: New Leaf for the 3DS] ... we really finally feel like we've fleshed out that Animal Crossing idea into sort of the definitive version of that game. So, in game development there are a couple of different approaches you can take, and one is to take the franchises that already exist and continue to develop those and develop deeper content for them and evolve those franchises in new ways."
That's not something specific to Nintendo, Miyamoto said, noting that sports franchises, like Madden, do this as well.
"We do have a small team that's been formed and is working on new ideas"
Miyamoto says that often when people ask what new is coming from Nintendo, they really mean, "What's the next character after Mario or what's the next character after Pikmin?"
"From my perspective," he said, "we approach it not from, ‘What is the next character?' But really, ‘What is there within this structure of video games or this sphere of video games, from which we can create new play structures?' and ‘How can we develop these new types of play structures and new types of games and deliver those to consumers in a way that will be satisfying for them?' In some cases it may be that those new structures will use existing franchises. So we're focused more on the play and the interaction rather than necessarily on a specific character as the IP."
That focus on play doesn't mean that Nintendo and Miyamoto aren't cognizant of the thirst among gamers to play games with entirely new characters and, he said, his team at Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development are currently working on some new things.
"There are, within the room in which I work, a number of people who are very passionate about wanting to do new things and do different things," he said. "In fact, we do have a small team that's been formed and is working on new ideas. Hopefully we will be able to share those with you at a time when those ideas have taken more concrete form."
In the past, when Nintendo talked about showing off something new and exciting in the future, it often meant it was slated for an E3 reveal. But increasingly Nintendo has been finding other ways to showcase its games and news. Prior to the launch of the Wii U last year, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime held a day-long event in New York to highlight some of the abilities of the console and the games coming to it. The company also spends a lot of time creating Nintendo Direct videos. These videos, which feature everything from developer interviews, to conversations with Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, to game reveals, provide a great way for the company to speak directly to their audience. They also make E3, if not less relevant, than at least a different sort of opportunity for Nintendo.
When, during our conversation, Miyamoto said that the company hopes to show off a new game that will take advantage of the still-untapped near field communication abilities of the Wii U, he also said that may not happen at E3.
"Well it used to be we would save many of our announcements for E3 and announce them at the show, but what we have seen over the recent years is that there are a number of different ways and a number of different times when we have more opportunity to make those types of announcements," Miyamoto said. "So I can't today make any promises that we're going to do at E3, but I do think that this particular is going to be a year where we're seeing more regular announcements from Nintendo about what's coming and that some place within the announcements we will hopefully have something to share about NFC. As I think Mr. Iwata has been saying lately, where we do see tremendous value in E3 is it's a place where people can come and they can actually get their hands on and try the software we have been talking about.
"So I think that's what people have been looking forward to at E3."
While an NFC-enabled game sounds like it's set to be revealed soon, the same can't be said for games that will support two Wii U GamePads. Miyamoto said that Nintendo is developing games that support two of the costly controllers, but that the environment isn't right yet to support dual GamePad gaming. Another thing that Nintendo is experimenting with is the idea of using the 3DS as a second controller for the Wii U. Now that they have a console that already supports second-screen play, and with Nintendo still hesitant to release two GamePad games, why not allow the 3DS to serve as that extra second screen, I asked Miyamoto.
We are looking at different ways to leverage the 3DS connection with the Wii U
"Of course within Nintendo we've been giving a lot of thought to this and connectivity itself is something that we've been working on for many years," Miyamoto said, pointing out that the company played around with this idea using the GameCube and Gameboy Advance.
"The problem then of course [with the GameCube] was that you had some people who might have both systems, but many people didn't," he said. "So the connectivity features were something that couldn't be enjoyed by all players. That was really our drive and focus with creating Wii U and the Gamepad. It was enabling that second screen to be something that was a part of the system itself, so that people were able to have the full experience there. Separate from how the GamePad and Wii U are leveraging some of those connectivity ideas, we're also exploring how Nintendo 3DS can connect to Wii U and different ways that we have data exchanges between those two.
"So while we don't currently have anything that we can talk about officially that's going to leverage cross-play with a single title, we are looking at different ways to leverage the 3DS connection with the Wii U; how we can share that data and how we can allow people to take advantage of those sorts of connectivity features."
One of the big issues all game consoles struggle with today is that they compete against electronics that deliver bite-sized gaming on easy-to-purchase platforms. Buying a game on a smartphone requires tapping the device's screen. Downloads of these micro-games are often almost instantaneous. Sony promises to tackle that issue on their PlayStation 4 with a smart store that looks at a gamer's buying habits and pre-loads software it thinks the gamer might like onto the console ahead of time. I asked Miyamoto if Nintendo was looking at anything similar for the 3DS or Wii U, both consoles that support game downloads, but that are anchored by slow download speeds.
"There's nothing I could really say from a Nintendo standpoint," he said. "We do have features like SpotPass that does allow for data to be delivered overnight while you're sleeping and things like that and again this isn't necessarily what Nintendo's doing, but technologically speaking the technology exists. For example, if somebody were to be able to access a shop from a cell phone and make a purchase from a cell phone and then maybe have that content be downloaded to your system, that type of a technological structure already exists. So there's certainly the possibility that we could look to explore that area further, but it's not anything that we're prepared to announce or really talk about at this point."
The company is also revisiting the notion of episodic games, something Miyamoto said he is interested in. Miyamoto pointed out, when I asked him about his thoughts on The Walking Dead delivered to gamers one episode at a time, that Nintendo experimented with episodic gaming back in 2001 with The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages.
"When we first released The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of the Ages and Oracle of Seasons on GameBoy Color many years ago, the original idea for those games was for them to be more episodic in content and the development actually started with the notion of potentially trying to sell dungeons individually," he said. "At the time that we were working on the Oracle games, we felt that it just wasn't right to deliver the game in that fashion. But when we look at, for example, what we've done with the eShop and the possibilities that lie there and particularly with the fact that we're able to patch now existing games that have already been released, that then opens up the possibility for downloadable content or adding new levels to a game that's already been released."
The best example of that, he added, is the pending release of New Super Luigi U, downloadable content for New Super Mario Bros. U that will change the more than 80 courses in the game into entirely new levels.
"So certainly we're seeing the way that this is already changing things and it's definitely an area that we're still looking at and we'll continue to look at," he said. "From where the technology is and the eShop has developed to at this point, we do have the ability to sell as a package game or only as a digital game, we have the ability to sell in increments or different installments so we can explore those different functions."
Miyamoto's Luigi shirt wasn't the only thing Luigi in the room when we spoke. Miyamoto also had two Luigi hats sitting nearby on the table. All of this Luigi wasn't purely circumstance. Earlier this year Nintendo declared 2013 the year of Luigi, pinned to the release of Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon and the New Super Luigi U add-on content. But why Luigi? With so many characters to choose from, what made Miyamoto and the others at Nintendo decide Mario's brother needed a year?
"Well, Luigi has been one of our characters for many, many years, but we've never really had much in the way of games that have Luigi in the starring role," Miyamoto said. "He's had sort of a more prominent role in the Mario and Luigi series and there is one of those games coming out this year, but with that game and then with Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon coming, we felt it was really the time to make this the year of Luigi."
Nintendo also hopes that this will become the year of the Wii U. While the console's launch wasn't bad, sales have since stalled. It's a problem that everyone in the company is aware of and, it seems, actively thinking about.
When I asked Miyamoto how he thinks Nintendo can increase the number of people playing Wii U games, he told me that the Wii U is the console that is "most convenient for people to have connected to their living room television."
But, he seemed to acknowledge, the console doesn't always take advantage of that.
"I think there is a lot more that we can do from a systems standpoint and so we're continuing to look at improvements that we can make to the system itself," he said. "New features that we can add and, of course, more important than that is really delivering a strong software line for Wii U and software that takes advantage of the uniqueness of the system itself and in particular the GamePad."
The GamePad is one of the Wii U's strongest features, but it seems that this cornerstone to Nintendo's new console still isn't fully utilized by game developer.
"We're really focused on delivering content that takes advantage of that GamePad interaction and makes that second screen something that's very meaningful and so that's where we need to put our focus," he said. "So we're going to continue in the coming months to enhance the system, develop the system, and then also put our primary focus on developing strong content to make the Wii U a very appealing piece of hardware that I think when we get a couple years down the road it's going to seem very natural for people that Wii U is the system that they would have connected to their living room television."
Miyamoto added that, specifically, the company anticipates some improvements to the console by this summer.
The company is also still learning how people are using this new sort of gaming system that so closely marries a television console to a handheld tablet.
"That's a very important element for us," he said. "For me and also for the staff, it's bringing that system home and watching how people who don't usually play games interact with it.
"There are a lot of different ways people use it."