UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 856 August 22, 2012

The Legend of Miyamoto: How Nintendo Shaped UX

Ask the question: “What companies have had the biggest influence on experience design and interaction design?” You’ll probably hear the same names over and over: Apple, Microsoft, Xerox, Braun, Disney, etc. But there’s one company that rarely gets mentioned, even though it should be near the top of everyone’s list: Nintendo.

Nintendo and its brilliant game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, have introduced several experience and product design elements that we employ every day, whether we realize it or not.

From introducing narrative structure in game design to launching hardware that revolutionized interface, Miyamoto’s influence is undeniable.

Fun: Now With Substance

Perhaps the greatest innovation Miyamoto brought to the gaming industry—and by extension, the web—was the popularization of a narrative structure. This may seem pretty silly to think about now—not unlike thinking that the mouse or GUI wasn’t a big deal—but it was pretty revolutionary for its time. Before Miyamoto’s developments, game play centered primarily on the idea of the “high score.” Gamers played not for the satisfaction of completion, but for bragging rights. The game itself became almost secondary, or a means to a “booyah"-esque end.

Miyamoto’s first successful narrative game was a love triangle between a carpenter, a girl, and an ape. I am, of course, talking about Donkey Kong. Miyamoto was inspired to create the game after watching King Kong and various episodes of Popeye. Interesting side-note: The carpenter, originally known as Jumpman, would eventually get a game of his own. After slight tweaks to his profession and name, he became a plumber named Mario.

Although Donkey Kong is certainly in the genre of “high score” games (in fact, there’s no way to actually beat Donkey Kong), its success showed Nintendo that Miyamoto and his ideas represented the future of gaming.

Miyamoto pulled the inspiration for what would become his masterpiece from his childhood adventures in Sonobe, Japan. The young Miyamoto would travel into forests, lakes, and caves—all the while imagining he was on a great adventure. These experiences would become The Legend of Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda is the story (and I do mean story) of a young man named Link who must save the Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Gannon (later shortened to Ganon). I’m a Zelda fanatic, and could easily write an entire article on the canon of Zelda, but for now I’ll focus on Zelda’s contributions to the world of user interface and experience design.

First and foremost, the game was about the narrative. There is no score in Zelda—the satisfaction comes from the journey itself, rather than a number on a screen.

Secondly, The Legend of Zelda was the first console game to introduce a save feature. Video game creators no longer needed to worry about the length of their games and players didn’t have to sit in front of a television for hours at a clip—although they still did. The save function didn’t require any additional hardware—game data was saved onto the cartridge itself and powered by an internal battery—so you could take your cartridge over to a friend’s house and show off your progress.

The last feature is the simplest, but also the most brilliant: The Legend of Zelda allowed players to change the main character’s name to whatever they wanted it to be (within a certain character count). Adding initials to a list of high score-holders was nothing new to gaming at the time, but prior to Zelda, you were marking the ashes of your game. It was similar to saying, “I was given Jumpman. I took him this far.” By entering your name in Zelda, you became the hero ... you were saving Princess Zelda. It reminds me of the retail trick of using headless mannequins in clothing stores. This, in theory, allows customers to imagine their own heads on the mannequin–and themselves wearing the clothes.

Now You’re Playing With Power

The success of Miyamoto’s titles allowed Nintendo to be far more experimental with their consoles, and more importantly, their controllers. While several (by which I mean most) of their experimental controllers were commercial failures, they were conceptually ahead of their time.

Not unlike Miyamoto’s narrative gaming, Nintendo’s greatest hardware innovation is the simplest one: the directional pad (or D-Pad). Like everything great that has come out of Nintendo, the D-Pad can be traced back to Miyamoto and a hardware designer named Gunpei Yokoi.

To compete with handheld games put out by the likes of Mattel (Auto Race, 1976), Milton Bradley (Simon, 1978), and Parker Brothers (Merlin, 1978), Nintendo decided to make a handheld version of Donkey Kong (later released in a whole series called Game & Watch, which was the precursor to the Game Boy). To avoid putting a tiny joystick on each console, which would raise production costs and possibly snap off with repeated use, Yokoi implemented a lowercase T-shaped button—improving on similar designs used by Atari and Entex—that controlled the up, down, left, and right directions that the player used to move Jumpman.

Needless to say, the D-Pad was a smashing success and has since been incorporated into the controllers of every major console to date (and is frequently used for menu-navigation on non-gaming devices). Even more interesting is that the D-Pad’s left hand position on controllers has remained untouched since its inception. In his 1987 paper, entitled (deep breath) "The Asymmetric Division of Labor in Human Skilled Bimanual Action," researcher Yves Guiard suggests that the reason this layout works so well is because our less-dominant hand controls relative position, whereas our dominant hand is made for finer movements. Imagine signing a credit card receipt with just your dominant hand. It might be slightly more difficult without your less-dominant hand holding it in position. Considering that roughly 90% of the human population has a dominant right hand, I’d say the left was a good choice—sorry Southpaws.

Untangled

Nintendo was also among the first gaming companies to experiment with wireless controllers—twice. The first iteration was called the NES Satellite, released way back in 1989. It allowed up to four players to plug their controllers into a remote device, separate from the console itself. A separate receiver was attached to the NES console and received the signals generated from the NES Satellite. While this was not truly wireless, nothing like it existed in the market at the time. Nintendo's real wireless control system, 2002's WaveBird, was also revolutionary.

The WaveBird was made for Nintendo’s GameCube console and was the first high-functioning wireless game controller. The WaveBird’s connectivity was based on radio wave–frequency, rather than infrared signals like the NES Satellite. Other gaming companies followed suit with their own wireless controllers the following year. Seemingly overnight, the Wavebird created a new standard for all peripherals: be wireless or don’t exist at all. Today, not a single new console is sold with wired controllers.

Becoming the Controller and Beyond

Nintendo’s current console, the Wii, was released with much fanfare in 2006, thanks to the new controllers that accompanied it. These wireless controllers, while still taking the standard push-button input, now accepted motion as a primary input. The Wii was code-named “The Revolution” for a good reason. Now, for the first time, a player’s movements were mirrored by an on-screen character.

Of course, all of the ‘other guys’ have followed suit and released their own motion-input devices, including Sony’s Move controller and Microsoft’s Kinect. The Kinect is admittedly far superior to Nintendo’s current set of devices and is frequently used by hackers for all kinds of projects. A couple of my favorites are the puppet bird and Minority Report–esque finger tracking.

Conclusion

Whether you’re a fan, a fanatic, or neither, I’m pretty sure you can recognize and appreciate Miyamoto’s contributions to both experience and product design: narrative game play, wireless peripherals, and motion input devices. If not, I suggest you spend a little quality time with Zelda and work on getting a thumb blister from the ubiquitous D-pad.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Nick Snyder is a designer and developer living in Boston, MA. He believes in creating lasting experiences through the marriage of great design and the latest technology. Nick is currently a front-end designer & developer at Mad*Pow

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Comments

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Jesus, what utter garbage. Reads like an embarrassingly badly researched piece of fanboy idolotry.

"narrative game play, wireless peripherals, and motion input devices. If not, I suggest you spend a little quality time with Zelda"

No thanks, for narrative I'll stick with Zork from 1980, for wireless peripherals I'll stick with the Atari 2600's GameMate II from 1982, and for motion controllers I'll stick with Sony's EyeToy from 2003.

Miyamoto has done some great things, but defining UX is not among them, certainly not in the way you are trying to portray.

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It's sad to see how people can't let a man's actual accomplishments stand on their own anymore. Now they have to invent things that they their hero did, and ascribe credit to him that he isn't due. Don't you understand how that tarnishes a person's legacy more than it adds to it?

--Most of the inventions or creations you shower Miyamoto with credit for were invented on home systems years before Nintendo (read: Not Miyamoto) brought them to a different market. At the time, the console/PC market was near indistinguishable from one another. The Commodore-64 used cartridges. The VIC-20 used cartridges. The TI-99/4A used cartridges. The Atari 400 and 800 used cartridges. All of these hooked up to your television, all of them came out before the NES, and all of them would have been systems that Miyamoto had easy and frequent exposure.

--The reason this fact is important is that Miyamoto would have seen features from these other systems and incorporated them into his own works. He didn't "invent" or "introduce" any of the stuff up there that you're giving him credit for, he simply borrowed it from another commonplace source. Miyamoto didn't invent game narrative, Adventure on the Atari predates Donkey Kong. Ultima, a full RPG with character classes, character creation and stats predates Donkey Kong. Tunnels of Doom on the TI-99/4A had the ability to enter a character name, save, and had 2 full RPG quests in one game with randomly generated dungeons, a first-person view, and a 4-character party, all this before Zelda.

--This isn't stuff I'm just pulling out of an electronic eccentricities warehouse on the internet, I played Tunnels of Doom until my TI bit the dust. Tunnels of Doom is listed as one of the greatest games on the TI-99/4A, a system that sold 2.8 million units. Ultima was on its 4th iteration 6 months before Zelda came out. The Bard's Tale was already getting a sequel. Hell, the groundbreaking adventure game Below the Root, a game known for being the first video game to be an extension of narrative from a BOOK had come out 2 years prior to Zelda.

--In trying to credit Miyamoto with all these things he didn't do, you build a false legacy for him built upon a house of cards. It becomes easy to tear down the man, because of all the lies that you've spun into his false history. Miyamoto may have developed the most enduring forms of these narratives, the ones that had the most staying power, but that's ALL he did. It's nothing to be ashamed of. To try and give him credit for being the originator goes beyond the pale.

--Yet, your title, your opening, and the conclusion all speak of the legacy and legend of Miyamoto, despite you only mentioning one thing that you credit him for inventing. (which is patently false.) This isn't an article about the UX legend of Miyamoto. It's about the UX legend of NINTENDO. How you shoehorned Miyamoto into the title is beyond me.

--I know people want their heroes to be larger than life, but it sickens me when they try and steal credit from others to give it to the undeserving.

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Miyamoto should also be credited for introducing the non- linear narrative; with Mario 64, Nintendo gave us the first fully interactive 3d gaming experience (on home consoles anyway). The player could choose what tasks or adventures they wanted to carry out and often unlocked new stages before completing all of them- so u could come back and get stars later. Heck you could spend all day jumping onto trees if you wanted to. This added an entirely new dimension to gameplay and narrative. I think it was extremely profound.