Shigeru Miyamoto: Nintendo video game designer finds real-world inspiration

The gig: Video game designer, Nintendo Co. Since 1979, Miyamoto has created several of the industry’s best-known franchises, including Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda. While kids dream of becoming a video game designer, game designers dream of becoming Miyamoto. Many developers credit him as their inspiration, including Will Wright, creator of the Sims, and Cliff Blezinski, design director for Epic Games, which makes Gears of War and the Unreal series.

This, along with the fact that his games have been played by countless fans worldwide, led 1.8 million readers of Time magazine to vote for him as the most influential person of 2008 — about 800,000 more votes than the runner-up that year, comedian Stephen Colbert.

Early years: Growing up in the small Japanese town of Sonobe during the 1950s, Miyamoto recalled that only 1 in about 10 homes in the village had a television. The Miyamoto household was not one of them. Instead, he found entertainment in a steady stream of comic books and puppet shows.

Sources of inspiration: Miyamoto, 57, finds ideas for his digital imaginary creations in the physical world. A gardening project became the basis of Pikmin, an adventure game for Nintendo’s GameCube. A fascination with the family’s bathroom scale turned into Wii Fit, a fitness game with a wireless device that resembles the prosaic object that inspired it. And a dog training class he took when he got his sheltie puppy prompted his bestselling title Nintendogs.

Student days: Miyamoto attended Kanazawa College of Industrial Arts in Japan. Although he dutifully completed assignments, he didn’t always produce what his instructors expected. “I made a lot of strange things in school,” Miyamoto said through his interpreter, Bill Trinen. “We were given an assignment to create a chair. Most of the other students would examine chairs from a historical perspective and create a chair that was an evolution of that. When I got the assignment, I thought about what it would be like to sit on a rope. So I tied some ropes together and made a chair. I don’t think it was very comfortable.”

First job interview with Nintendo: Most job candidates would bring a resume and a portfolio of drawings or photos. Miyamoto brought clothes hangers. He had designed and made them for children who were too small to reach closet bars and too young for traditional, hooked, metal wire hangers. “I came up with a different solution,” Miyamoto said. “I made a wooden hanger that had a little cross shape which would fit into a notch on the wall. I painted pictures of elephants on them.”

The result: “Nintendo really liked them and decided to hire me,” Miyamoto said.

Advice for aspiring game designers: “It’s really important to find things that are fun and interesting to you personally, and then apply those fun aspects to a game,” Miyamoto said. “When we first got our puppy, I took him to a training class. I found out that it wasn’t a place to train your dog. It was a place to teach people how dogs behave. I thought that was interesting. As a result, I made a lot of friends who were passionate about dogs. I also started going to the pet shop to buy things for my dog. Then I thought it would be nice to make a game people can buy while they’re at the pet store.”