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Super Mario creator Miyamoto on why Nintendo turned to iPhone

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An interview with legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto

Almost nothing at yesterday’s iPhone event was a major surprise, given that everything about the new iPhone leaked in advance. The most unexpected part of it actually happened within the first few minutes, with the announcement of the first Super Mario game for the iPhone.

Nintendo’s talismanic designer Shigeru Miyamoto, who created the iconic Donkey Kong, Super Mario, and Zelda series among many others, was even on hand to introduce the new game, called Super Mario Run. It’s launching first on the iPhone this December, and will eventually come to Android, Nintendo said in a later interview with The Verge.

But, while Miyamoto’s appearance and the announcement itself were surprises, Nintendo’s new embrace of iPhone is years overdue. The company had stubbornly resisted porting its most important assets — the IP around its beloved franchise characters — to mobile phones, with the hopes that it could still convince consumers to buy Nintendo hardware. And, based on brief demonstrations of the game, Super Mario Run on iPhone underscores that strategy: it looks to be everything a Super Mario game should be, but also, what it shouldn’t be. Miyamoto’s game has been carefully designed so that it’s simple enough to attract a new audience of iPhone lovers, but not satisfying enough to supplant a console experience.

'Super Mario Run' is everything a Super Mario game should be, but also, what it shouldn't be

"Over the years in our own experiments on our own platforms, we had come up with some ideas for how to make Mario simple for people who don’t play Mario games," Miyamoto told The Verge in a sit-down interview after the Apple event, with the help of a translator. "One of the ideas we were working on we felt was too simple for a home console device, and ultimately that was the one we decided to bring to smartphones."

Still, Miyamoto said he hopes people are "going to want to play a much more in-depth and a more challenging Mario experience … it’s going to increase the population of people interested in coming to our platforms, which is of course is our main focus."

Super Mario Run looks like a smartphone game, through and through. You play it in portrait mode. As the name suggests, Mario runs automatically, and your primary interaction is to jump by tapping the screen, just as you might with mobile hits like Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride. The longer you press on the iPhone’s pressure-sensitive display, the higher Mario jumps. Miyamoto said that over the years his design team has learned that some gamers find controlling Mario to be a challenge — trying to make him run and jump at the same time. "So, the idea was, How do we make that component of the gameplay simpler? And so that’s where we’ve been focusing our energy — giving people the ability to just focus on the jumping."

Miyamoto cited the success of Pokémon Go as validation of this smartphone-centric approach. "Pokémon Go is obviously a game that uses your GPS and it’s synced into the camera and Google Maps, so it’s a piece of software that’s really geared towards that mobile play experience," Miyamoto said. "So, similarly with Mario, what we’re looking at is simple game play, one-handed gameplay; shorter play time, playing in shorter bursts; and then really bringing the joy of Mario to that much larger audience."

Super-Mario-Run-iPhone-2016

That "much larger audience" is something that Miyamoto mentioned more than once — specifically in regards to upcoming generations of gamers. If Mario is going to live forever (or at least longer than the rest of us), he’s going to have to be a part of the lives of people born well after the 1980s. Miyamoto noted that there was a point in time when "[Nintendo’s] hardware system was really the first device that kids would interact with, and that’s starting to shift." The first device kids interact with now, he says? Their parent’s smartphone. This notion of the smartphone "being the first place this kids are encountering games, is what helped us to decide to bring this to smartphones," Miyamoto said.

He also said the lack of subscription services or in-app purchases in the game is for the purpose of making it easy for parents to, essentially, hand their Mario-equipped iPhones over to kids. (The game will have a one-time fee when it's first downloaded.)

But if you were hoping for a full-on Mario game that gives you total control over the Italian plumber’s movements, Super Mario Run isn’t it. "When you start to talk about the 3D Mario games particularly, where you’re running around in a space and exploring and things like that, I think something like that is still difficult to achieve on a smart device. So for those types of games we’ll continue to focus our attention on our own platforms," he said.

Kids using their parents' iPhones informed Miyamoto's design decisions. Also: his wife

Nintendo first said that it would move into smartphone games last year, unveiling a partnership with Japanese mobile gaming company DeNA. This was after years of late president Satoru Iwata repeatedly resisting calls to put the company’s games on phones, saying that subpar experiences would devalue Nintendo’s brand and intellectual property in the long run. Instead, Nintendo’s position was that it would use smartphones as promotional tools for its own dedicated gaming hardware. "If we can motivate you to have a little taste of a Nintendo experience and drive you towards the Wii U or 3DS, we’ve won," Nintendo’s US chief Reggie Fils-Aime said in 2013 of the company’s toe-dipping into the smartphone space.

Now, it seems the install base of iOS has become too powerful for Nintendo to ignore. And with Nintendo set to launch its next console, currently codenamed NX, in March of next year, Super Mario Run couldn’t come at a better time. It sounds like a risky strategy until you remember that Super Mario 3D World and New Super Mario Bros. U managed to sell over 5 million copies apiece on the Wii U, a flaming commercial disaster of a system. Or that sales of 3DS Pokémon games skyrocketed following Pokémon Go’s launch. Nintendo has a concrete built-in fanbase and beloved franchises, and now it has a chance to expand the former by exposing the latter to vastly more people.

The widespread adoption of smartphones and the impressionable minds of up-and-coming generations of gamers aren’t the only things that informed decisions around Super Mario Run on iOS. Many Nintendo fans can recite the legends of how Miyamoto used his own life experiences to come up with the ideas for some of the company’s most notable games. The inspiration for Zelda came from exploring caves as a child; Pikmin, from playing in the garden. Wii Fit, from his attempts to quantify his own fitness. Did Super Mario Run come about in a similar fashion?

"It’s a little bit less of my own experience and more of me witnessing other people," Miyamoto said. "A perfect example is my wife. When I give her video games or game systems, she doesn’t play a whole lot. But I watch her on her smartphone, and she does a lot of those types of things on her smartphone."