How Shigeru Miyamoto Inspires Architecture and Leadership in Me

📅 Posted 2021-01-13

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I was reading this article in The New Yorker the other day and I suddenly felt inspired to write my own reflection.

The article of course pulls strongly on the nostalgia strings.

But it’s also a story of leadership, too, and I’m in that era of my career/life where suddenly that’s actually really interesting.

It’s 11pm. The room I’m in is a toasty 25’C. I’ve got some beats playing on headphones by Mitch Murder and I’m sipping ground black sesame and honey in hot milk. Let’s go.

I, like a huge generation of people born last millenium, became quickly obsessed with the creations of Shigeru Miyamoto. Donkey Kong, Mario and Zelda filled my imagination alongside PC treats like Commander Keen, Prince of Persia and Jill of the Jungle. I’ve got a book with custom levels drawn in pencil from 1994, but that’s a story for another blog.

Reading about Miyamoto, the creative legend behind Nintendo, is really interesting.

The stories of building a theme park (they seem really odd right now in these pandemic times) around Nintendo characters is super Disney (and I know Miyamoto is compared to old mate Walt). I’m not a Disney fan. And yet somehow I really want to go to the Nintendo take on what a theme park could look like, Japanese video game style.

Let’s get into some quotes from the man, the mystery, the Miyamoto-san.

I liken working at the ABC to working at a very creative place. And some of the themes about how Nintendo offices are full of plainess and lack of “kapow it’s a creative place” sound a bit ABC, in a way.

I think, if a child were to visit and look at the space, it might seem a bit boring? The unique creative work takes place within each person.

There are definitely dressed up pockets of the ABC - well from at least what I remember the offices looked like pre-pandemic - but there’s creative activity in every corner even if it doesn’t look like it.

Of course, right now, we’re all at home plastered with wall-to-wall Zoom meetings. So it’s a very different environment. On that topic, I’m super looking forward to getting back to the office, at least part of the week. I miss the interactions and being in the ‘magic’.

Obviously, we have all the equipment to do our work: motion-capture studios, sound studios.

Check and check. The ABC has some interesting areas and of course purpose-built studios which fascinate me no end.

And we have a well-lit cafeteria, too, with good food.

Ha. This is definitely where ABC and Nintendo differ. There’s an internal cafe, which you could use in a pinch. But competition is tough in the ‘fun’ end of town, with Chinatown, Broadway and unis all nearby.

To that end, I sometimes send e-mails over the weekend, which people don’t appreciate.

Definitely not one of my techniques. I would much rather zone out over the weekend than sit writing emails!

Walt Disney didn’t create everything that Disney put out, but the idea that a company could make these long-lasting symbols—that’s something I’ve admired.

Although I also admire this, there is something deeply manufactured about Disney these days, which started a few decades ago, that seems to have lost that magic charm. I’ve just never been a Disney person, I guess.

However. Creating lasting symbols and inspiring your company are certainly traits of great leaders.

At home, I’m a normal dad. I don’t think that they have felt any undue burden because of who their father is.

I like how humble he is. I like how he can be a ‘normal’ person, not some super-human creative game designing machine. I like how he can live a normal life.

Kids feeling like they can’t stop playing because the game is so fun—that’s something that I can understand and sympathize with.

I wonder how he deals with the dilemma of making a game so good, you never want to stop playing… yet also balance other things in life at the same time? How you do ride the fine line between responsible enjoyment and addiction; how does the design of the game play a role in ensuring people (and kids!) don’t go crazy? I wonder about these things beyond games too. I’m involved in a fair amount of web and mobile app work (and increasingly other platforms like smart TVs, conversational bots, and so forth) and I’ve seen first hand what can happen when people become addicted not only to the device (like a slave to technology) but also to specific apps and products.

There must be a moral judgement call in the design to ride the balance.

Perhaps food companies are similar. Sell tonnes of products loaded with highly addictive sugar, make everyone fat and their teeth fall out. But profit comes first! Dangerous territory. I’m so fortunate to work in a social profit space.

Human beings are driven by curiosity and interest.

So, then, how might we embue this in the products that we create? At the ABC, content plays a role. A big role. 80%? Possibly more. Good games will also create things which are curious. I was playing Grim Fandango the other day (possibly one of the best games of all time) and saw mention of an “Automat”. Just what is that? Oh right, it’s a vending machine with slots for food. Then I noticed the first image on a Google Image search looks practically like the one in the Grim Fandango scene at Rubacava, only with less Aztec styling. Even down to the signs which tell you where the pies are. This is definitely scratching that curiously itch. Automats seem super Japanese as well, given the popularity of very sophisticated vending machines in the land of the rising sun.

Oh and I just learnt that the world’s first automat was named Quisisana and it opened in Berlin in 1895. Wow!

The interesting thing about interactive media is that it allows the players to engage with a problem, conjure a solution, try out that solution, and then experience the results. This process of trial and error builds the interactive world in their minds. This is the true canvas on which we design—not the screen. That’s something I always keep in mind when designing games.

I find this particularly intriguing. Not designing using a screen, but treating the mind as a canvas. Thinking this through, I wonder why older games are far more interesting for me than newer games. I’m totally into all of the early 2D Super Mario games for example. Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2 (yes, that one which was reskinned from another game to make it easier for US markets), Super Mario Bros. 3 (perfection!), Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island, and yes, even Paper Mario. But newer games? I have Super Mario Galaxy on Wii. OK, it’s definitely not that new by today’s standards, and I’ve played it a bit. But I just can’t get into it as much as the older games. Maybe it’s just nostalgia talking. It’s strong. But I can see what Miyamoto says about building that world in your mind. The progression from a small and simple world up to the end of the game (and becoming increasingly complex) matches the building of the interactive world in your mind.

Neat.

I try to reduce as much routine work in the office as possible and increase the number of new experiences that we have while creating.

I like this. Automation creates more space for new experiences and more time spent in the creative zone. I have daily and weekly tasks, which don’t seem that difficult at the time, but they all add up. I could certainly think a bit more about what could be automated so I get back into doing things I enjoy more in my role: the creative side. But there can be other ways to harness this as well, such as ways to architect a solution that means a greater focus is placed on automation to unlock others to also have more time to be creative. Hmm.

I like to work on action, movement. Within that experience, there needs to be a mix between what is real and what is not. There has to be a connection to our real-world experience, so that when you make a move in the game it feels familiar but also, somehow, different. To achieve that harmony, you need a dash of truth and a big lie to go along with it.

I love this! I love the familiarity and then the “lie” to extend the world. I often think about design elements in this way. I like buttons and scrollbars and design affordances that mimic real life. They share a connection with the real world. The 90s was really the pinnacle here, in some respects. A button looks like it can be pressed. It has a shadow. It’s chiselled. But it’s also amazingly smooth and even, very much unlike the real world. You can also press it many times. It won’t wear out. It could move around. It could change colour. It could morph totally into something else. And then come back again. There are many “out of this world” things a button could do, but it’s still a button. We know what it looks like and what it does and most importantly, how to use it. But! People have forgotten these things. We have many things we can click or tap on which don’t look anything like a button. But we can find them, eventually, by mashing on everything on the screen.

What I’m saying is: let’s bring back buttons that look like buttons.

I wish I could make it so that people were more thoughtful and kind toward each other. It’s something that I think about a lot as I move through life.

Life is too short to be nasty.

When asked about violence in video games, he has some interesting perspectives.

When it comes to video games, I have some resistance to focussing on this single source of pleasure.

I played a fair amount of first-person shooters like Quake and Counter-Strike back in the day. Don’t have much time for it these days! But it was always the most fun when working as a team (such as Team Fortress, capture the flag modes, etc) and less about the actual violence element. So I can definitely understand where he is coming from. Mario is pretty lacking in violence, but you do dispense on an awful lot of turtles and creatures along the way. But a lot of the achievement is really about getting from one platform to the next, perfectly executed, without falling down the hole and losing a life. Man, those early games were brutal in their difficulty.

In this job, we have to create a product, which requires a certain amount of planning. But it’s also important to talk about those plans in a different register, not just as a product, but as if it were a dream, or vision. I think my strength is that I’m able to paint a compelling picture of what a project can be, while also being concerned with the details of actually realizing that dream. As such, I get the somewhat confused experience of people seeing me as a negative person when I’m dealing with the details, and as a very positive person when I’m talking in terms of broader vision.

This sounds so much like architecture and technical leadership to me! I’m super interested in the overall vision (I probably wouldn’t use the word ‘dream’ unless I was quoting Martin Luther King, Jr) and I get what he means about this is the positive aspect. It’s all about where we are going and all the bits we need to do to get there. But not bad bits. Fun bits.

The details is often where the debates and discussions get most heated in architecture land. But that’s OK, it’s a sign of passion and it means people are willing to put their opinions together to get to a better place. Temper this with making sure you don’t end up with endless chatfests of course! I had some pretty challenging detailed conversations with some operators in the past and I look back and think that it was actually a really respectful discussion because we took on board ideas from all parties and we really did design a much better Content Management System as a result. The time I’m thinking of was a couple of years ago now. Gee, I just managed to compare designing a CMS to designing Mario!

I’m going to keep a watchful eye on the “negative person” vibe - not that I’ve ever heard someone refer to me about that, but at least that it’s a potential pitfall best avoided.

I’m aware of the vulnerability involved when someone brings me an idea or a concept. I take great care not to shut the person down, and try to take their suggestion on its own terms… I hope it also contributes to my being considered a good boss.

Wise words here. I think there can be the notion of a “brilliant jerk” in the technology world and I hope I never fall into that category. I hope that I can always have time to listen to people’s ideas and build upon them. Saying “no” feels so alien to me, anyway. “Yes and how about…”? Much more positive.

This next quote is from the author of the article in the New Yorker and not Miyamoto, but it’s something which I definitely hold close to my heart:

As I grow older, I feel that games are one of the things that keep me young. They nurture my sense of play and keep me interested in the world.

We recently learnt some concepts in leadership training about “laughter leads to learning” and the importance of having fun. The most effective and happy teams are the ones which have the most fun. The best teams. And it’s not forced fun, it has to be created from within the team themselves. Some people are natural at it, others could do with some prompting if they don’t think having “fun” at “work” is a thing. But it very much is.

So there we have it. I think this was a bit longer than I expected, but I really felt inspired by reading that article in the New Yorker so I felt I should write about it. I was taken back by the combination of themes that were starting to conjure in my mind as I read it. Product theory, creativity, addiction, leadership and… architecture actually.

Maybe we could all learn a thing or two from video games?

Excuse me, I’m going to go and play some classic Super Mario Bros. whilst I invent a new personalised content recommendation architecture.


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